In today’s Artist Feature, we’re talking to Los Angeles based singer-songwriter Harrison Whitford. He released his debut solo album, Afraid of Everything, back in 2018. His latest single is “What’s Happening.”
Harrison is also the guitar player for Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. His moody, jangly guitar playing accompanied Bridgers on her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, and her latest release, the critically-acclaimed Punisher.
Hi, Harrison! We hope you are doing well and staying healthy. What have you been up to musically during the past year or so? Any new projects on the horizon?
Thanks, and likewise!
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time just playing, listening and improvising, which has helped me to reconnect to the instrument in a deeper way.
I’ve had the fortune to work on a few different projects in place of touring, i.e. promo stuff with Phoebe, some other promo stuff with my friend Matt Berninger [of the National] that I made a record with, and as well I spent some time producing music for my partner who goes by Jamie B.
I also finished a new solo record and am almost out of the woods of the mixing phase of that.
I’ve been a fan of your guitar playing since I discovered you playing guitar with Phoebe during a live performance I found on YouTube a few years ago. Both live and on the records, I love the way your electric guitar playing compliments her acoustic parts. I think you have a very unique voice on the instrument, so I’d love to know what are some of your major influences. Any specific guitar players, albums, or ideas that have shaped your guitar playing?
It’s a tough question to answer only because it’s hard to know where exactly to begin. Hendrix remains a significant character to the way I think about music and recording. Jeff Beck was a very early influence and opened me up to what’s possible on the guitar beyond regurgitating antecedents. Bob Dylan remains as my greatest hero, probably.
As far as guitar players go, Ted Greene is probably the person I come back to the most. What he was able to achieve harmonically, technically and expressively speaking is just mind blowing and beautiful to me. His approach was really so pianistic, and the things he did with voice leading I think about every single time I pick up the guitar.
Nina Simone’s voice, a divine being if ever there was one.
Bill Frisell’s artistry is really special and important to me.
Adam Levy, another patient and brilliant guitar player who gets so much impact out of so few notes, yet always leaves the impression that there’s enormous power under the hood.
Emahoy Tsegue Maryam Guebrou’s piano playing is something I listen to at least several times a month.
George Harrison is massively inspiring to me both as a person and a musician.
Since this list could go on for several pages, I’ll just say who/what records have influenced me recently. Blake Mills has been a great influence and probably the best guitar player I’ve ever played with. My friend Dylan Day is the among deepest musicians and someone who inspires me every time I hear them play. My friend Meg Duffy is a force. My friend Mason Stoops is a brilliant player. Anthony Wilson, who has become a friend and also become one of my favorite players.
Thelonious Monk’s record Solo Monk has been in constant rotation of late. I’ve also been rather obsessed with this record by Luiz Bonfa called Introspection, which I think top to bottom is one of the most beautiful records I’ve ever heard, and maybe the finest example of what a solo guitar album can be. As I said, I could really write several pages about the records that have changed my life and mind and so in some ways this question overwhelms me because there’s just so much music to be thankful for.
You’re also a killer acoustic player, which your solo work demonstrates very nicely. As a guitar player, what advice do you have for other guitar players trying to branch off into more singer/songwriter territory? Did you get started more as a guitar player, or songwriter?
Thanks! For me, songwriting and guitar playing are two very different things. I think all of it is an extension of the same thing, a need to express.
However, songwriting is something that I usually need to feel inspired to do, whereas I can pick up a guitar and start playing music at any moment. I started as a guitar player and so songwriting was something I discovered I cared about around the age of 16. I think, like with anything, if you feel compelled to do it then it will happen.
I think at the end of the day writing songs is not something you can force and it’s really not something you can teach. Don’t go and get a degree for songwriting, it really won’t make you write better songs. That, to me, is where musicianship and songwriting diverge. You can go and study with great musicians and learn so much invaluable information, but a lot of what makes great songs great, has so much to do with your life experience and escapes explanation. Daniel Johnston is known for these crudely performed recordings, but married to a song that will just stun you and move you immeasurably.
On a different coin, Paul Simon or Randy Newman are really great musical technicians who also move you, not by way of using their musicianship to impress you, but to better communicate an idea that exists within them. I think if you have the need to express yourself through a song, it will happen, and then you just go from there.
Ok, time to geek out about gear. The first thing that struck me, as a guitarist, when listening to Phoebe’s first album, was the guitar tones. They went from dark and jangly one second, to gritty and fuzzy the next. Any major tone inspirations?
Marc Ribot’s tones on Tom Waits records are among my greatest inspirations. George Harrison’s tones, of which nothing needs to be said that hasn’t been said before. Tony Berg, who produces Phoebe’s records and is a bit of a mentor is also a massive influence on the tones I chase.
For me, small amps that have naturally beautiful breakup, like an old Tweed Princeton, are the things I respond to most. I find myself using a lot of DI tones in the studio too. I tend to like very bone dry guitar sounds contrasted by ethereal, more washed out tones – I think there’s a really interesting textural dialogue that happens there.
It’s also a song by song basis too. Whatever feels like it fits within the mold of the music that’s being played, I try to listen for that. On Phoebe’s records, I think the dark and jangly to gritty and fuzzy textures you reference, really provide a contrast between lo-fi and hi-fi. That’s another sonic dialogue that I seem to always return to.
For example, maybe I’ll have my old Gibson 140T with flats DI’d, doing a rhythmic thing or a finger style part, and then maybe I have a lap steel running thru my Benson or Tweed Vibrolux with a healthy amount of Flint reverb playing something way up high, and then maybe another DI that’s fuzzed out really low in the mix, and maybe two of those are panned and one is centered. I like when each tone occupies its own frequency range within a song.
Can you walk us through your pedal board, as well as the guitars and amps you’re using these days? You mentioned you’re a fan of Flint and Deco, so I’d love to know more about how you’re running both pedals. Especially Deco, as that is a pretty versatile piece of gear.
My pedalboard currently consists of a Dunlop mini volume pedal, a TC Electronic Polytune, a JHS Mini Foot Fuzz, an amazing vibrato pedal my friend Morgan Travis (who does sound for Phoebe) built called the Grid Manipulator, The Deco, a Digitech Digiverb, a Flint and a Line 6 Echo Park.
I’ve had the Flint for about six years and it’s never left my pedalboard, and I don’t think I’ve played a gig or session without it since I acquired it The Deco is essentially the very same for me. I was given it as a gift around five years ago and it has just replaced so many pedals for me. It’s replaced having a drive pedal, and having a delay that’s dedicated to slap. I’ve played shows where the Deco is on the entire time, because it just does such a pleasing thing to your tone if you dial it correctly.
I think beyond those pedals obviously being beautifully hi-fi, they’re also a lot of fun to interact with, they feel like pieces of great outboard gear. The Flint is basically a desert island pedal in my mind. I’ve never heard another pedal that really feels like amp reverb and trem the way that one does. And the Deco is also not something I just use for guitar, I use it in the studio too to reamp things through. It works amazingly well on vocals if you’re trying to achieve that John Lennon slap sound.
What guitars are you playing the most these days?
As far as guitars go, the guitar I spend the most time with and have for the past seven or eight years is my green Tele, as it’s just super reliable and versatile. I’ve also recently been playing this guitar built by Mike Baranik that’s amazing. It has a sliding gold foil pickup so you can achieve all these interesting in between tones. I’m constantly playing different guitars because the more they get played, the better they seem to feel.
You released your debut album, Afraid of Everything, back in 2018. I really loved the intimate, minimalist production on the album, and felt that your guitar playing on the record paired very nicely with the themes you sang about. What directions can you feel yourself going sonically and lyrically in the future?
I appreciate that a lot. I actually made another record about a year ago which was supposed to just be an EP but then over the course of 2020 I ended up recording a few more songs at home that felt like they could live with the other songs I had done.
I think on Afraid of Everything, whose songs I wrote from around the ages of 17 to 21, I was coming from a pretty heartbroken, accusatory and angsty place lyrically. Which is to be somewhat expected from someone writing at that age. I was lacking the perspective that outside of my own pain, there were more interesting angles to take, and more responsibilities to assume.
But such is life that one learns these things sometimes too late. All that being said, it was probably the best record I could have made at the time. So on my new record, I think the songs (not necessarily consciously) assume more responsibility for myself and the mistakes I’ve made over the years. I think that one has to grow personally to grow as an artist, of course this opinion may be moot considering some of the greatest artists have also done terrible things, but for myself, the more steps I take towards being a better and more honest person, I find that I write from a place that’s more forgiving and more truthful.
And sonically the record has a lot of songs which either feature these sort of guitar / synth ethereal environments, and then some that are more straight forward band songs. I still tried to put some lo-fi and hi-fi elements in every track. As far as the future goes, I really can’t say.
It’s been really crazy seeing Phoebe go from a local LA indie up-and-comer to a full-blown rock star within the past few years. Along the way, what have been some of your favorite moments? Have you had a chance to knock off any bucket list items on your musical journey so far?
I think getting to work on Phoebe’s records, especially with Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska producing, have been my favorite long form parts of the process, as well as touring those records.
The Phoebe band and crew as well are comprised of some of my favorite people and that makes a tremendous difference when you’re spending so much time on the road together. With Phoebe’s music, the songs on their own are just as good as a song can possibly be, so it’s always an interesting process to see how they end up getting produced, and what parts you end up adding to them, and how those parts change over time in a live setting. It’s kind of a beautiful thing though, where the songs themselves are such a force that you almost can’t get in the way of them.
As far as isolated moments go, there are just so many shows that come to mind, but playing the Roundhouse in London was pretty thrilling. And there was a Halloween show in LA a couple years ago where Blake Mills sat in with us and that was a great experience, because he’s just such a compelling and unique musician.
I’m always so excited to play and work on Phoebe’s music. She, as both a friend and songwriter, really changed my life forever.
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