Tim Harrison: Prayers watching

By Jan Vanderhorst

August 2001


Songwriters are forever searching for inspiration, be it a headline in a newspaper, an incident on a street corner, an overheard comment, or even an overheard prayer from a young child.
It is sometimes these most innocent moments of life which bring forth the most poignant songs. In other words, a gift from the heavens. It was such a golden moment Tim Harrison stumbled upon one evening while passing his son's bedroom.

"It was one of those beautiful moments for a writer", he relates, "I was listening to Noah say his prayers at night. This was when he was 8 or 9 years old, but he was making certain realizations about the world. He had seen a bunch of newscasts about the conflict in Kosovo and was trying to understand the Serbs and the Muslims and that whole notion of people disliking each other because of cultural differences. It really scared him. So this prayer was not one of those automatic good night prayers, he had a real emotional edge to his voice and real concern about the conflict. Then he started talking about all these other concerns he had about the world, like homeless people.

"In Toronto the homeless problem is just so visible now, with group homes closed and people on the street, and these are things kids notice. Noah had a real adverse emotional reaction to it all and was looking for comfort".

The resulting song, "Prayer Watching," closes Tim's new Second Avenue recording "Sara And The Sea". "It really is quite amazing", Tim adds, "when you hear a vocabulary
coming out of your son's mouth that you never expected."

You ask for homes for the homeless
For their warmth on colder nights
You're thankful for your food
And hope that others eat alright
You mention friends departed
And hope that God has made a place
Where they can all be happy
And our sorrows here replaced

The new CD features Tim's original songs, except for one Phil Ochs composition "When I'm Gone". This old favourite of Tim's had a profound influence on his writing style at the beginning of his career and has now changed his approach to how he records his albums.

"When I was a teenager and playing acoustic music, Phil Ochs' 'When I'm Gone', 'Changes' and some other writers like Gordon Lightfoot, was a real serious inspiration for me in terms of writing style and poetic style. So on each record lately I've included a cover tune of either a traditional song I've liked, or a song by another songwriter that I like. I think I'm going to continue that. In thinking about what I wanted to do for this album, which is a very cut-down, very acoustic album, I just had memories of me playing  'When I'm Gone' early in my life, so that's why I decided to include it on the album."

Tim also steps back to his first record to rework his song 'One Woman'. "When I did a half-retrospective on my last record (entitled 'Tim Harrison')," he says, "for some reason I ignored that tune. Someone brought it up to me as sort of an ancient memory, so I had another look at the song. I realized that as much as this was a song about lost love, it also
has a celebratory feel to it in terms of all of our experiences. So I thought I'd trot this one out and see what happens."

'Sara And The Sea' is a bit of a step back stylistically for Tim Harrison, whose albums have become more "produced" over the years.

"This whole album is actually a bit of a study in reversal," he says, "there's no other guitar player on it, I'm doing all the playing, it's got very simplistic arrangements. That in and of itself took me back to where I started in music.

"I've been doing a lot of performing in the U.S. and really enjoying that phenomenon. So I'm taking my music back to a place where it started, but it's also bringing it around to where it's at now."

The last number of years has seen Tim branching out as a producer for other artists. His sense of what is needed to make a song work on both an artistic and stylistic level has made him much sought after by fellow folkies. "Sara And The Sea" though, is the first time he's produced his own recording, something he found quite daunting.

"It was a little strange in that I didn't have any feedback from even an engineer", Tim says, "because I was engineering the recording as well. That was a really different feeling and a bit edgy as well. Jim Layeux, whose album I had produced first in the studio we had set up, has been coming over once in awhile, but ultimately you're there by yourself.

"When I was mixing Jim's record, I almost knew intuitively where things fit together, what sounded right to me, and I could make those decisions with absolute confidence. When it came to my own music, the line between intuition and what you know intellectually is correct gets very blurred. So it was a bit of a exercise in discipline to get to know what was right and
wrong. What helped a lot was I've had a fair amount of studio experience, so I kind of know when my voice is doing the right thing and when it's not."

Once the basic tracks were recorded Tim brought in 5 musical friends to 'lightly salt and pepper' the tracks with violin, mandolin, bass, harmonica and background vocals.

"Compared to my last production, which had 18 musicians on it, this is a real turnaround!"

To find out more about Tim Harrison, his website address is: timharrison.ca

The address of his record label, Second Avenue Records is: secondavenue.ca.

The e-mail address is: info@secondavenue.ca

Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at jan@hyperpeople.com