The first time I was introduced to the talents of Barry Harris was in October of 2009, when he performed at a private reception, where where Barry Manilow - prior to his show at the Hollywood Bowl, the proceeds of which benefited the Manilow Music Project and the GRAMMY Foundation - presented the Los Angeles Unified School District with much needed funds to purchase instruments to children whose music programs are being compromised due to budget cuts.
I was blown away by this young man, who at the time, was still in his teens. Much like the iconic musician he’s named for - Mr. Harris’s parents are die-hard Barry Manilow fans who met while members of his fan club - this guy has a natural gift.
Music and performing has been part of his life for as long as he can remember. When Barry was just twelve, he performed “Mandy” - the song that launched Manilow’s career - on “America’s Most Talented Kids”, with a powerful presence that rivals performers triple his age. Through his hard work and dedication; studying “Popular Music Performance at the University of Southern California, Barry’s (Harris) dream of performing has come to fruition. Recently his band, Barry Harris & The Euphoria, released their debut EP. He tells me its “rock-influenced” but quickly cites “Barry Manilow is still the ultimate influence”.
I’m delighted to share my interview with Mr. Harris.
**Helen Holdun**: Barry, you truly are an inspiration to young people with a dream of performing and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to share your story, thank you for joining us.
Barry Harris Thank you, Helen. It’s my pleasure!
Of course my deep admiration for Barry Manilow and his music, and the impact its had on my life, makes me want to address first the influence his music has had on your life. And if you don’t mind sharing, we’d love to know your parent’s “Manilow” story as well?
My parents were Barry Manilow fans, and they met through a local fan club. Obviously, they named me Barry. I grew up hearing the music all around me. For a while, I thought Barry Manilow’s music was a utility that came out of the radio just like water coming out of the faucet. I was 3 ½ years old when they took me to my first concert. It was there that I finally realized that the music wasn’t a utility; it was the creation of a guy who was on the stage having a ball. I decided that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Please tell us about your life in music prior to America’s Most Talented Kids and what led you to perform on the show?
I started piano lessons when I was 4, learning classical music. I quickly developed a hunger for arranging and improvisation, so I drifted more towards the pop route. The desire to write original material came naturally. But there was a problem: I couldn’t sing! I paired myself with other singers for a while and created a few acts. I finally decided that my career would reach the next level only if I called the shots, so I woke up one day and said, “To heck with it, I’m just going to sing and see what happens!” I sang in public for the first time almost 10 years ago to the day at a local show. The reaction was adverse if I recall correctly. I sang “Jump Shout Boogie”. A woman came up to my dad and asked, “Oh wow! Was his first time singing? He probably should just stick to the piano…” I have a way of never taking ‘no’ for an answer.
I kept singing not because I loved to sing, but because I wanted to get my songs out there and start a career. My dad and I trekked up to open calls in New York. We sent demos and VHS tapes (back in the day!!) everywhere, and got nothing but rejection letters. Finally, we sent a video into America’s Most Talented Kids. Based solely on the application, they called us up and booked us on the show. They wanted “Mandy” because they researched my background and thought it’d be cool to talk about the connection. When I stepped onto the stage, I found out there was a twist to the show: we’d be rated and critiqued by celebrity kid judges. I don’t think the kid judges quite understood my performance, but I was really pleased with it and I’m glad the audiences really enjoyed it.
Is your family musical?
Not really, but they’ve definitely got good taste. My dad played piano a little bit when I was little.
I’ve heard your bands song; ‘Just A Mile Away’ and love it. You’ve told me the “biggest influences for its creation were “Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen” and as I mentioned earlier, you cited Barry Manilow for being “the ultimate influence”. Please tell us how these varied sounds blended and evolved into something new?
When I moved out to LA, the first thing I wanted to do was to shake things up and try something different; I was starting with a blank slate. Here at USC, everybody was forming bands. I wanted to do that too, but I didn’t know the first thing about bands, so I sat back and watched for a bit. One band in particular stood out for me, it was the Luke Walton Band. He creates many YouTube videos, several of which have gone viral. After freshman year, he produced his band’s first album. I identified Luke as my model for success. Artistically, I wanted to throw everyone for a loop who was expecting me to be the king of adult contemporary at USC.
As I said, I didn’t know the first thing about forming a band or being in a band, so I sought out people to be in my band who did. Luke was one of those people I brought on board. This project is more guitar-heavy, and it makes sense to have Luke around since he is a guitar hero in the making. I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty live in the concert, and I began thinking, “Why isn’t anyone else doing this right now?” I would describe their music as very communal. Springsteen made “Born to Run” his encore when I saw him on the Magic Tour. When the song started, he turned all the house lights on. That’s what I mean by communal. It felt like a revival. I began to write songs utilizing their stylistic elements. But the real essence of my music is a great lyric and a great melody. From my judgment of Barry Manilow’s music over the years, that’s his essence as well. Putting that into a rock n roll context doesn’t obscure that essence.
The Euphoria tracked our EP in May 2011 with Luke producing. 3 weeks afterward, Barry Manilow’s new “15 Minutes” album dropped. The “15 Minutes” album was more guitar-heavy than anything else in his discography. I thought it was quite interesting that we both had a similar idea at the same time!
Last month you played at a GRAMMY Foundation benefit with Esperanza Spalding. How exciting was that?
It was totally exhilarating! The back-story behind this reveals a lesson in being open to any and all possibilities. I got the call regarding a GRAMMY Foundation education programs alumni super-group set slated to go before Espersez Spalding. What made the call interesting was that they weren’t just asking me to perform; they were asking me to put the whole thing together!! I signed on as musical director. I went down my Rolodex like crazy to get the right people. 12 people were on the stage at once! Schedules were tight, so I could only have two brief rehearsals. In between, I was on and off the phone non-stop coordinating logistics.
I called up three artists for this: Lara Johnston, Rozzi Crane, and Segun. They’re all very busy people. Lara has been doing well touring as a solo artist, and Rozzi is appearing on the “Hunger Games” soundtrack that is due out next week. I was overjoyed when I called them up and asked them to do this, and they all said “Absolutely!” Segun did a Janelle Monae cover, and Billboard published a great action shot of him mid-performance and wrote a glowing review of our set.
Tell us about your studies at USC?
USC was the greatest thing to ever happen to me in my life. While living in Philly, I felt like my only hope was to create something that would get me on reality television or go viral on the Internet. There was no community of musicians around me; I was completely on my own.
Here’s some background: I’m majoring in popular music performance at the Thornton School of Music. To actually have an undergraduate performance degree in popular music as opposed to jazz or classical music is quite a progressive idea. In fact, I was a part of the first class to be accepted into the program; it’s the first of its kind.
Interpersonal relationships, I come to find, is the secret to succeeding in the music industry. The pop music program has created a microcosm of the music industry, and I’ve used that to my advantage. To execute your vision, you must have an effective team who believe in your vision. Put yourself in their position and think: what are they experiencing? What would they want from you as a leader?
Another important thing USC taught me: you have to be able to have fun. For musicians, it’s not just about the 30 minutes on stage; it’s also about the 6 hours off stage on the way to the venue, in between sound-check, etc. My bass player Nick Petrou and I got called for a gig to be in the rhythm section of a 60-piece orchestra. When we had 5 hours to kill after sound-check, we decided to go ice-skating. Seriously, we did! I wiped out a few times in my very nice dress pants. Nick has a very good attitude about everything, and it’s very infectious. I learned a great life lesson and professional lesson that day. We could have moped around in agony waiting for the show to start, but we made the best of it! Being at USC has given me the ability to learn the sort of things that you can’t necessarily write down in a lecture class.
You’ve shared that incredibly talented musician; Melissa Manchester is a professor at USC. Of course you know she has a musical history with Barry Manilow, having been a “Harlette” back when Barry was with Bette Midler and most recently doing a duet of “You’ve Got A friend” with him on his “Greatest Songs of the Seventies” album.
Now that you’ve had the honor of working with Ms. Manchester at USC, please tell us about the experience and what you’ve garnered from the experience?
In addition to Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester was another artist I really looked up to growing up. I heard their duet “No One In This World” off Barry Manilow’s box set. I grabbed a copy of her greatest hits out of my dad’s record collection. She is a compelling songwriter and a captivating performer. In fact, one of my professors told me the other day that while he’s seen Jimi Hendrix, Tower of Power, and Miles Davis perform, among many others, Melissa Manchester stands out as the most emotional and powerful show he’s ever seen.
So that being said, Melissa is the real deal!! I absolutely love her! We’ve worked intensively on my approach to the music, and it has been the most rewarding experience of my career. Our focus is not so much as the notes on the page, but the intention and the emotion behind every word. I grew up thinking of myself as a musician, and I’ve come to realize that putting on the artist hat doesn’t involve just a simple shift in gears. The time I’ve spent with Melissa has totally changed my approach to what I do. Every time the Euphoria goes on stage, I have to stop and check myself to make sure I’m in the right mindset. In rehearsal and sound-check, I think about the band, the set-list, and all the technical details. But during the show, it’s only about the song and me.
Aside from those we’ve spoken about, tell us what other genres of music and musicians influence you?
I mentioned classic rock. My friends’ taste has been rubbing off on me. My more eclectic tastes are alternative and prog rock bands. Luke got me turned onto a band called ‘Cake’. The next day, I ran into Euphoria’s rehearsal with a new chart and announced, “We’re doing a Cake cover!!” The song “Sick of You” from their newest album has become a live staple for us. As for prog rock, I’ve really gotten into Gino Vannelli. “One Night with You” and “People Gotta Move” are two of my favorite tracks.
What are your feelings about music and performers that perhaps are currently being listened to by your peers?
As I’ve come to learn, there are so many niches and music scenes. It’s all so fragmented to say that there’s one specific trend. There are top 40 charts, but that only represents a slice of what people are actually listening to. I have a lot of friends who listen to so-called “indie” music, which is ironic because the music is not so underground anymore. Some bands have developed a following because the music is famous for being complex and layered. As for my opinion, I’ll just say that everybody is clearly doing something that works for them. The two things I gravitate towards are compelling honesty and a great melody. It doesn’t matter the genre for me.
Two of my friends’ bands are going to come out with something in the near future, and they are totally winners in my book. Both of them create songs that are so compelling that I would get in a van and follow them around on tour even if I didn’t know them! My friend Brett Fromson just started a backing band for his material. Songwriters like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and James Taylor have been hailed as American treasures; we are overdue for a writer like Brett, and I think that is the best way I can describe his music. His band’s new song was just featured on John Lennon Bus YouTube channel. The track is called “Marjorie” if you want to Google it. The second band is called House Fire. They just released their first single on Reverb Nation, and they are one of the hottest acts on campus. The four guys in the band have a great vibe together, and it’s a matter of time before they start getting placements on television shows. Mark my words!
Do you think there are current artists who will have the staying power of someone like Barry Manilow? Do you think their music will have the longevity to remain relevant for decades to come? And will they still be performing to sold-out audiences four decades from now?
I think having a career like Barry Manilow’s is extremely rare. As you said, his career has gone on for 40 years without any interruption. Despite the changing musical landscape, the audiences have never left him at any point in his career. His hits are the foundation for his current live shows, but it doesn’t feel in any way like a nostalgia act. He has an incredible ability to evolve as an artist and present the music in a fresh new way night after night. Every two years or so, it’s so admirable that he’ll go and retool the show. He held 3 weeks of rehearsals prior to hitting the road this time around, and I’ve been hearing great things about the new shows.
I think Lady GaGa, Adele, and Taylor Swift have the staying power. While all 3 dominate the industry right now, I think what they do is very real, and they will be playing music to another generation or two. Adele especially personifies exactly what I mean by honesty and sincerity. I hear the honesty, and that’s it. No production. No top line writing. People responded to “Someone Like You” in such a special way.
I’d like to take a moment to talk about Grammy Camp and the documentary “Happy On The Ground: 8 Days at GRAMMY Camp” which you were featured in and involved with. I’ve had the joy of meeting with the films producer, Angela Lee, president of Media Meld Studio and the honor of attending the films screening in LA. You were all mentored by some amazing talents. Tell us about that experience and the people you worked with. Are you active with the camp as a mentor yourself.?
I met so many incredible people in 8 short days! Those of us who are in LA remain very close. I always get called up when old GRAMMY Camp friends are passing through LA, and we all get together.
Jesse McCartney, Lamont Dozier, Dave Koz, and Brandi Carlisle are among the few “famous” people I met at GRAMMY Camp. Their insights were absolutely fascinating. But in particular, I met 2 people who changed my life forever, and they didn’t have to be famous!
Justin Klunk did GRAMMY Camp 3 times like I did. Every year, I would always write something for him to play saxophone on. He wound up in the pop music program at USC. For the first Euphoria gig, I invited him to sit in on a song. When he hung around at the rehearsal, he jammed along to the other songs. He joined the band before we even got started! He is the consummate showman, and it’s a thrill for me to write something for him to play. I’ve got it down to science, I know just the right times to use him to create a showstopper, and I love it!
The other person I think of is Brandon Woodward. He played drums on my song from the film (which is the closing track on the EP). When I started at USC, he was a year away from college. He worked incredibly hard because going to USC was his dream too. He was so enthusiastic; he showed up to literally every Euphoria gig in my freshman year. We were both ecstatic when he got accepted to USC. That summer, I needed a substitute drummer, so I called Brandon. He came in knowing every song by heart. I can’t describe it, but that show was more magical that anything the Euphoria had ever done. After that one engagement ended, I never let him leave…
As a personal aside, the documentary is a must see for all young people with an eye for entering the world of show business, be it center stage or behind the scenes. I hope to work with Ms. Lee in having Happy On The Ground showcased in Palm Springs as a fund-raiser to benefit the ‘Arts’ in public schools.
That sounds wonderful! You know, those 8 days went by so fast. In some cases, I was working so hard that it was all a blur. I’m so thankful that literally every moment was preserved in that wonderful documentary. It’s such a monumental task to condense all that into 2 hours. I think it’s relevant to audiences who may have no familiarity with what GRAMMY Camp is or their mission. Everybody’s story was told in such a beautiful way. I am honored to have been part of the film. I am blown away by what the people at Media Meld Studios came out with.
When it’s not about the music, what activities do you enjoy in your free time?
There’s hardly any time these days, but when there is, I love to spend it with the people I love. My best friend Brett lives one door away from me, and it is one of the greatest pleasures in life for me. I can barge right in whenever I want to and vice versa. We sit around and do nothing in particular, and I love it. One night, we sat out on the porch just having a chat. When I looked at iPhone, I realized it was 4:30am, but it was okay with us. You know, it’s the little things…
Before closing, please tell us what’s next for you. What should we all be watching for? Do you have plans to do some touring individually and with your band?
Well, The Euphoria put out its first EP in December. It’s called “Just a Mile Away – EP.” The first single from it is called “California Princess”and you can get that as a free download on my Soundcloud site. I’m planning the second single release with an accompanying music video. We have a concept, and we’re going to try to find a shooting date sometime soon.
I’m having some friendly discussions right now for more Euphoria shows in LA and possibly one in San Diego. At the moment, the current excitement is over the new guy in the band! Nolan Frank debuted as our new piano player at our gig last week. He’s into the great piano-rock music of Billy Joel and Elton John, so we’re kindred spirits in a way. I am a piano player primarily, but I don’t play as much in the Euphoria. Although, I do play synth sounds and keyboards on the keytar during live shows.
Individually, I just booked an acoustic east coast EP release show. I’m going to reach out to some old friends to get some airplay and promotional events. It’ll all be anchored by the east coast release show May 23rd at Milkboy Coffee in Bryn Mawr, PA.
Finally, as a music director, I just signed onto a new project. I’ll be working with a major artist over the coming months on an upcoming show. This show is going to be a really cool one!
Thank you so much Barry for giving us a behind the scenes look at your life and career. I must reiterate you are an extraordinary, positive influence and inspiration to so many young people, and as the mom of three young sons, I’m grateful to people like you.
Thank you! And I’m grateful for people like you who keep good music out there for people to read and hear about.
I wish you much success in all your future endeavors and I have no doubt, we’re going to hear about many great things coming our way from Barry Harris!