I recently had the honor of interviewing Bill Harley, a Grammy award-winning singer and storyteller. My sons loved reviewing his latest CD/DVD, Yes to Running which was just nominated for a Grammy Award, and helping come up with the interview questions. Bill’s music and stories have been a part of our household for years, so it was a treat to get to know him a little better and learn more about his creative process.
After all this talk about music and stories, listen to some of his music and stories here.
Anisa: Where do you live?
Bill Harley: I live in Seekonk, Massachusetts, which you know is really part of Rhode Island.
Anisa: How long have you lived there?
Bill Harley: I think we’ve lived here since 1985. Debbie and I moved to Providence in 1980, lived there for five years, and then moved out here.
Anisa: Who is in your family?
Bill Harley: Debbie, my wife. I’ve got two boys, who are men I guess. They’re 24 and 21. Noah graduated from college last year and is traveling in Europe playing music with a couple of friends of his. And Dylan is a senior in college. He goes to Earlham in Indiana.
Anisa: Did you start performing when they were little?
Bill Harley: Before we had kids I was already doing stuff with kids and families. When we lived in Rhode Island, Debbie and I and some friends started a day camp when we were in college, and that’s when I really started doing stuff with kids. So my kids certainly were an influence on me, but I was doing it before they came along and I’m doing it after they left.
Anisa: Where is your favorite place to hang out in the area?
Bill Harley: It’s hard to say. My friend Richard Walton has a place right on Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick, where I usually keep my sailboat. So, although I didn’t get it in the water this summer (which speaks volumes about how my life is full), I like going there. I also like my backyard. I spend a lot of time on bikes when I’m not doing anything.
Anisa: What’s your most treasured possession?
Bill Harley: You know, I can’t really tell you. I have a favorite guitar, but I break everything I have. I’m just not that attached to many things. Like if that guitar was destroyed, I’d probably just go get another one. As long as I’ve got a guitar that works, that would be fine–they’re interchangeable.
Anisa: When you come up with an idea for a story, how do you decide if it will be more of a song or a story?
Bill Harley: That is a good question because sometimes when I come up with something, it’s not immediately clear to me what it is. Songs tend to be a lot more tightly structured and a lot of times a song will come out of one line or a situation. Stories tend to come more out of one little incident that I blew into a whole thing. Sometimes I’ll find a line, especially if I’m working on a story for younger kids, that’s going to have a lot of repetition. There’s really a great relationship between song and story, and a lot of my songs tend to be narrative. If I find a line that’s really repeated, that works as a chorus line, that will really push it towards being a song.
Anisa: Like “Come out and Play”? This is a favorite of my kids.
Bill Harley: Yes. “Come Out and Play” is interesting. There is a traditional structure called a cante fable, which is a story that involves song. And there’s a number of stories in different cultures in which that happens. In “Sitting Down to Eat,” I intentionally set out to make that a cante fable–I said I’m going to find a song that runs through the entire story. I’m actually working on doing that right now with a traditional story about a kid that’s waiting for his father to take him fishing, and he hides inside a peanut and the peanut is swallowed by a chicken, and the chicken is swallowed by a fox, and the fox is swallowed by a wolf, and the wolf is swallowed by a fish, and then the father catches the fish and reaches in and pulls everything out.
Anisa: Now that I have children, I can see how this type of storytelling in a song works so well with them.
Bill Harley: I think songs and story are so closely related. My interest in one has influenced my interest in the other. I really think it’s the commercialization of music that has divided music from story. They used to always go together, like when people hung out with each other, they would tell a story, sing a song, tell a story and sing a song. Music is divided up now because over the years people have figured out how to make money out of it.
Anisa: It seems people want to find a way classify it in order to put it on a shelf.
Bill Harley: True. It’s one of the issues I’ve always faced in my career. I like to entertain everybody. I’m interested in adults. I’m interested in kids. And people say I’m a kids’ musician, and I say okay, but that’s not quite what I’m working on here. Because I really do like working with kids, and I do it a lot. But I’m also interested in working with everybody.
Anisa: My children and I were first introduced to your music when they received your CD “Town Around the Bend“. They were three years old, and we were not used to listening to a lot of story telling. Every night for an hour, my boys listened to the CD as they were falling asleep. They were mesmerized. When they were dropping their naps, they would sit up in their rooms and listen to it. This CD is still one of my favorites.
Bill Harley: You know, it’s mine, too. That’s the strongest concept album I’ve ever done. People have said, “A lot of people who work with kids do a lullaby album,” and they ask, “When are you going to do that?” I just don’t want to do an album with ten lullabies. When our kids were young, the joke around our house when we’d go out was that Debbie would say to the babysitter, “You can put these CDs on for the kids to listen to, but don’t give them Bill; it will just get them all wound up.” So I said okay I’m going to make an album that’s a bit mellower. I wanted it to have a different tone, a different feel. I’ve gotten e-mails from kids saying, “Can I come to your town?” There’s this notion that I live there, that it’s a real place. And it’s the kind of place they want to be in. That feels pretty good.
Anisa: Well it’s a great balance of engaging the kids when they go to sleep–keep them interested as they are falling asleep and not getting them all riled up. It’s a wonderful collection.
Bill Harley: I’m glad to hear that because as I said, it’s not a huge seller of mine because we don’t really have a way to promote it, in a way. I don’t know how you explain it to people. And they’re not stories I perform a lot, they’re not high-energy stories.
Anisa: My son Dylan wants to know, “What is your favorite song or story?”
Bill Harley: I avoid that question. My favorite one right now is a new song called “Everybody’s a Baby about Something.” But it’s really hard for me to say.
Anisa: How did you pick which songs and stories to include on your new release, Yes to Running?
Bill Harley: I was approached about doing that recording by the producer for Montana Public Television, who saw me perform several times. He said, “I just want to try and capture what you do.” He wanted to show some of the longer stories. A lot of times I don’t get to do those when I’m in a family audience, and there’s a lot of two- and four-year-olds running around. I looked at stories that I feel that are the best representation of my work, and also the ones that people ask for a lot. We put together a set of what we felt represented the way I best relate to the family audience, stories that we feel both adults and kids can get something out of. The reviews we’re getting now are like, “Oh my god, I’ve never seen anything like this.” Because there really aren’t a lot of people that are trying to figure out how to do that and really entertain that broad age range. I’m really happy with it.
Anisa: What else would you have included if you had the space, just out of curiosity?
Bill Harley: Hmmm . . . I probably would have included “There’s a Pea on my Plate,” and there’s a few more sing-alongs that I would have put on. You know there’s this Tom Waits song “I’m Big in Japan.” Well, I’m big in Montana. There’s a public radio station out there that plays me and they play one of my stories, “Zanzibar,” all the time. It’s a twenty-five-minute story. And they really wanted me to use that one, but I wasn’t quite convinced, so that’s another one that would have made sense. I’ve also got a new monologue about putting up with my kids as teenagers that’s pretty fun. Even the eight-year-olds think it’s hilarious because many of them have a teenager in the house, so they understand.
Anisa: Here’s another question from my sons: “Do you act serious when you’re not performing, or are you always so funny?”
Bill Harley: I am not always so funny. I have a pretty serious side, but you know, humor is my response to the world. It seems like an appropriate response sometimes. Sometimes when Dylan and Noah were growing up, kids would be like, “Oh, it must be so cool to have him as a father.” And they’d say, “He’s just a dad. That’s all he is.”
Anisa: So what kind of music do you listen to when you’re not performing or making songs?
Bill Harley: I listen to all different kinds of things. One of the things that I love about making kids’ and family music is that I’m allowed to explore all different kinds of genres in a recording. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music, and I think, I’d like to do a samba here. I listen to a lot of singer/songwriter stuff. I love Springsteen. I love jazz. I listen to a lot of world music too. I grew up in a house that listened to classical music all the time, so I’m pretty familiar with that too. I’m all over the place. The latest CD I’ve gotten is by Justin Townes Earle, Steve Earle’s son, and it’s pretty good for a twenty-five-year-old. I’ve been listening to that a lot lately, and I also enjoy John Prine.
Anisa: I usually see you perform with your guitar, but what other instruments do you play?
Bill Harley: I play piano. I play a bunch of different string instruments. I played keyboard in a band in college and I studied jazz piano and composition stuff for a while. I haven’t kept up with it lately, but I’ll probably get back to it. I play banjo. I’ve got a ukulele and a mandolin and a bouzouki. I played trumpet in a high-school band but haven’t played that since I stopped band.
Anisa: Which one is your favorite?
Bill Harley: Probably the guitar because it’s so portable. And the piano is very versatile, but on the guitar you can play a lot of different styles.
Anisa: My son Ethan is enamored with music and loves the guitar. He wants to know how many guitars you actually have.
Bill: I think I have ten. Two electric guitars. One . . . two . . . three . . . maybe nine.
Anisa: He also wants to know if you use a pick. He noticed at your last show you put something on your finger, like a finger pick.
Bill Harley: Yes, I use a couple different things. I use a flat pick a lot and sometimes I will use a thumb pick when I’m finger picking. Sometimes I don’t because I lose them.
Anisa: You alluded to some things you’re working on, which leads to my next question: Are you working on any new songs or stories?
Bill Harley: I am. I’m finishing a recording of adult songs. It sounds so horrible when you say it like that, but there’s really no other way to say it. Every fall, I try to come up with a couple new things. I have to have a couple of things I’m working on, or else I get bored of the things I’m doing over and over again. I’ve got a couple new short stories for kids. I’m working on a longer story for a festival. It’s about my first job when I was sixteen, working at a restaurant. I just did a rewrite of a book that would be the first of a series about a fourth-grade boy called, “Night of the Spadefoot Toads” (now on sale). I’m excited about this because I think it’s a really good story. It also has an underlying theme about home and habitat and whether there’s space for nature in people’s lives. I started writing books because I know I can’t do 250 shows every year for the rest of my life.
Anisa: The last question, which is one we ask all our interviewees, is what super power would you most like to have?
Bill Harley: That’s such a great question. I think I’d have to say flying because that would be fun. I’m not seeing strength being that much fun . . . X-ray vision? Nah. Seeing the future? Nah. I have dreams about flying and it’s very cool every time I do it.