Atwood Magazine has partnered with LiveSyphon to showcase live music from across the country. The latest in our series features Boston/Washington, D.C. band Harry Jay Smith & The Bling.
Harrison Smith’s solo project quickly transitioned into a full time band when he arrived for his first semester at Berklee College of Music. After meeting many other talented musicians that shared his interests and influences, Harrison Smith officially became Harry Jay Smith & The Bling. They are made up of vocalist/guitarist Harrison Smith, guitarist Aidan Brody, bassist Cole Mergier, trumpeters Khalil and Kyrell Long, drummer Scott Sawicki, and keyboardist Brian Claeys.
A product of their prestigious school, Harry Jay Smith & The Bling combine classic influences and youthful energy. The result is music that is complex, while seeming effortlessly cool. They describe their sound as “contemporary Funk/R&B,” which allows them to put a fresh spin on the genres that they love. It is remarkable, the way that this band has already found and fine-tuned such a specific sound after only a year. With the abundant opportunities that they have at Berklee and the prospect of growing together with time, the future of this young band is extremely bright.
In partnership with LiveSyphon, Atwood Magazine is proud to showcase Harry Jay Smith & The Bling’s song “Black Cloud,” from their performance at Jammin Java in Washington, DC. Watch their live performance here and then read what the band had to say about their journey together over the past year.
Meet HARRY JAY SMITH & THE BLINGHow did you all come together to start Harry Jay Smith & The Bling?
Harrison: Initially, the project started as a solo endeavor for me to record a few RnB tunes that I had written in the summer upon my arrival/my first semester at Berklee. I was looking for horn players, specifically trumpets, to try to bulk up my sound and add to the genuine RnB feel. I met Khalil and Kyrell during the second week of school; they randomly knocked on my dorm room door and introduced themselves. From there, we played with a bunch of other Berklee musicians throughout first semester, adding to the arrangements of the initial songs I had written. By the time second semester rolled around, we had met Aidan Brody, Cole Mergler (who will be joining us at Berklee starting in the Spring of 2017), and Brian Claeys, and I reached out to Scott Sawicki who I was friends with in high school and had played with before. We played our first show with this lineup together in March of 2016, and it’s been full throttle since.
How did your youths shape the music you now create?
Aiden: The music of my youth was heavy on classic rock, blues and funk. This band was a bit of a departure from that for me – I try to incorporate as much as I can from all genres and styles that I play.
Harrison: I was always very interested in music that could make me dance as a kid, which certainly contributed to my love of RnB and Funk music. I also got into artists or bands that made lyrics the focal point, whether they were stories, personal anecdotes, or communications about social justice. Some of the artists who’ve inspired me lyrically come from all blocks of the music world: Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens, Marvin Gaye, Tupac, and everything in between. Ultimately, I fell in love with music when I was a baby, my mom used to play Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to put me to sleep. I started piano at 5, guitar at 12, and singing in front of people at around 14, and have had very little doubt since that this is what I was meant to do. All of those aspects have combined to give me the influence to create the music I’ve made so far.
R&B and Funk are both genres that came to be in the early 60’s. Were these styles of music something each of you had always been interested in? Being such young guys, what do you hope to bring to these genres with your music?
Harrison: I started on guys like Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Stevie, Al Green, Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, and John Legend at a super young age. Some of the first records I started singing over frequently were Evolver by John Legend, as well as What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, but it was my love and passion for Steely Dan that really got me into RnB. We’ve also drawn influence from some of the newer funk artists and groups like Vulfpeck, Lettuce, and Anderson .Paak, all of whom embody the elements of RnB and funk, but present them in a very unique and different way, which is our ultimate goal as well.
Aiden: R&B and Funk are genres that have existed for such a long time – I think what Harry Jay & the Bling is hoping to do is both “pay tribute” to classic artists and sounds of the genre and also put a new spin on this same sound.
What does “contemporary funk/R&B,” the description on your Facebook page, mean to you?
Brian: I would say it means we’re experimenting with a bunch of different ideas, but we keep groove at the heart of what we play. We can try different time signatures and try to be groundbreaking, but having people feel the beat and soul in our music is what’s most important.
Did you all want to make music when you ‘grew up’?
Harrison: Absolutely. I’ve dreamed of creating and writing music for a very long time, since as far back as middle school. I performed in a talent show in 7th grade for the first time and I haven’t looked back since.
Aiden: I have been playing guitar for almost my entire life – at some point I realized that I would most likely never stop and that I didn’t have to wait until I “grew up” to be a professional musician. But I’m still always learning!
How did you decide on the band name?
Harrison: The band name was an extension of what I originally called myself, Harry Jay Smith, or Harry Jay. I chose to go with the Jay because when I started promoting my music online in my first semester at Berklee, there was a Harry J Smith Auto Dealership that pretty much had a monopoly on the J; every time someone would google Harry J Smith, the auto company would pop up first and take up the whole first page, so I went with Jay. The Bling was added on in November of 2015; we were trying to come up with something catchy to follow my name. One of us (honestly can’t remember who) was listening to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” the night before, and proposed we go with “Bling.” It works pretty well for us, considering the amount of swag we have.
“Black Cloud” is a little bit of everything - reminds one a bit of Stevie Wonder's “Superstition,” as well as something else I can't quite place. Can you tell us a bit more about the story behind the song?
Harrison: Black Cloud is a really special song to me. I wrote and recorded it in my senior year of high school; it was only the second song I’d ever recorded. I remember being in a pretty dark place at that point, not for any particular reason, but I had anxiety through the roof and had just been feeling like there wasn’t a lot to look forward to. It was one pretty significantly shitty day I was having when I decided to skip the second half of classes and go home. I remember losing myself in my guitar that day, just chunking away at whatever I could think of for hours, until I started vamping the E blues progression that would become Black Cloud. I started singing over the progression about whatever popped into my mind, about how the days felt grim and how everything I was doing seemed so monotonous. The lyrics just poured out of me until I had the song complete. Every time I sing that song, I think of how far I’ve come from those days, and how much this beautiful life has to offer.
Your music sounds honest. What do you hope listeners can get out of your music?
Aiden: I think the main thing that we hope to get out of our listeners is to make them feel something – a lot of the time with funk/r&b or jazz, the thing the listener often feels is the groove. If we can make our audience dance or even just tap their feet I think we’ve done what we set out to do.
Harrison: From the lyrical perspective, I write a lot of the songs to allow people relate to each other through everyday occurrences that most people feel, but may not have a vehicle to express. For example, our song “Let it all Go” is about sleep deprivation and the frustrations/ anxieties that it embodies, which is something that I know a lot of people go through and don’t know what to do much about. I truly subscribe to the belief that music is the best medicine, so giving people a dose of music to listen to and release through is the main thing I hope for when putting new tunes into the world.
Your website says you all go to Berklee College of Music. What are the advantages of being a student there, and how has your education helped you become the people and band you are today?
Khalil and Kyrell: One advantage of being a student at Berklee College of Music is that we get to study what we love everyday. It also helps that we’re taking classes that directly affect how we write our music and how we perform it in our own unique way.
Aiden: One of the biggest advantages I’ve found about playing with all Berklee musicians is that we all are learning to speak the same language – sometimes different schools have different vocabulary for musical terms, but being able to communicate has been especially advantageous to this band – especially when things get complicated. Also, we’ve had access to great facilities and performance opportunities through the school which has been awesome.
Harrison: We wouldn’t have been able to coalesce were it not for the school; even though we’re all from NOVA, Berklee was where we all came together for the first time. We’ve also been able to learn so much about composition and arranging, which has helped augment our pieces immensely. It’s also great to be able to be surrounded be top tier musicians in every class, hallway, and block of Mass Avenue. Being able to write, work, or even jam with as many talented people as we can has majorly contributed to our improvement as musicians.
The band started barely a year ago — in this first year as a group and as Berklee students what was the biggest change you’ve seen in terms of your music?
Harrison: In our first year together, our music has definitely seen a major improvement from when we started. The biggest change is our increase in attention to our arrangement. We spend a lot more time in rehearsals specifying and sorting out individual parts for each song, as well as addressing the groove and feel of our tunes. We try to give every player a chance to shine, but also get everyone to play the right amount to let the songs breathe enough. For me, I’ve seen a major improvement in my lyrics as well; focusing on songwriting full time has really opened up the way I think about and approach each day. I see every ordinary occurrence as an opportunity to compose and write now, which I never used to do before.
Brian: I think our music has become more varied and diverse, both by choice and naturally.
Aiden: The biggest struggle any beginning band runs into is determining their artistic identity and finding a sound. While you never really finish this process, it has become much clearer over the course of the past year. We’re still learning how to play with each other but we’re constantly getting tighter.
Do you find it hard to balance school work and band practice despite attending a college of music?
Harrison: It has been very difficult to balance schoolwork and rehearsal. We typically rehearse 2-3 times a week, which can make some of our schedules pretty packed throughout the week. We’ve all certainly seen increased periods of stress from the accumulation of band and schoolwork, but that’s what we signed up for! I’m certainly enjoying every minute of it, even when times get stressful.
What is your songwriting process like?
Khalil and Kyrell: Our songwriting process is a special one indeed! Usually someone will come in with a new chord progression and then we’d listen to it and see what instrumentation works for the piece and go from there. Sometimes we even just improvise over a progression and pick and choose from the ideas that we liked.
Harrison: For the initial process of my writing the song, I typically start with a chord progression and a melody line, which I’ll put lyrics over later. After I’ve developed a mood and feel for the progression, I’ll go out and just try to be observant of the world and the people around me; I think the best inspiration comes from everyday life, or things that may be overlooked by the typical person. Lately I’ve been writing a lot about the concept of moving away from home and growing up, something that’s been on my mind a lot these days, for example. After I’ve found my inspiration, I get the pen to paper and try to write out some poetry to fit the progression, it typically takes awhile to get everything just right. This is definitely not the process for every song, though. I’ve had days where the whole song, music and lyrics, pour out of me in an hour flat. I’ve had times where the poem or lyrics come first, followed by the progression. Ultimately it all depends on my inspiration level, or the mood I’m trying to portray.
What are you looking forward to as we head into 2017?
Harrison: I think the biggest thing we have to look forward to is our homecoming show at Jammin’ Java on December 27th, as well as our single release of Brother Be Wise, which is tentatively set to be released on December 7th. I’m super excited to release the tune, as it has been awhile since we’ve put any new music out. I’m also always stoked to be heading back to the DC area to play Jammin Java. We’ve already had two incredible shows there this past year, and always relish in the prospect of being able to play for our hometown fans.
Brian: I’m looking forward to recording more music for sure. I love the recording process, it’s a cool combination of chilling in a laid back environment and playing under pressure 100 times worse than any gig. But after you listen to playback of everyone’s parts, nothing can beat that feeling.
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