by Kat Parsons

Harper Finn: Gifted & Tied With A Bow

by Kat Parsons

Harper Finn: Gifted & Tied With A Bow

Late in July, stand-out dance pop artist Harper Finn released his debut long player ‘Newcomer’ along with a music video for focus track Euphoria. Finn has been drip-releasing his artful, crafted solo music since 2018, and this eight-song release he terms an EP neatly threads together his past and present work, setting precedence for his future as an artist. Freshly back in NZ after extended working travels abroad, Finn chatted with Kat Parsons about the project. Made with the support of NZ On Air Music.

“It’s been amazing,” says Harper Finn of his recent international excursion. “Just getting out of NZ for a bit of perspective and a bit of a reminder of what’s out there was very needed! From a songwriting perspective, it’s been a very inspiring few months and that’s why I did it. Most of my decisions are based around songwriting, around music, so as long as it helps my songwriting and helps the songs come, I feel like that’s my priority.

“I’m most grateful for the opportunities I’m being given with my music and where my music is taking me,” he expands. “I think that’s the ultimate privilege – to be able to travel for your job. And so to be able to do that with music I just feel very, very, very lucky. I sort of pinch myself every time I get on a plane to go to a city I’ve never been to – and that music’s the thing that’s taking me there! I feel very blessed to be able to do that.”

Hailing from Kiwi music royalty, the son of Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House, ALT and lately a recognised musical score composer), and nephew to Neil, Harper Finn has naturally been surrounded by musical creativity his entire life.

Released when he was just 20, his first single, 2018’s Look Who’s Sorry Now paved the way forward in his solo career, although it hasn’t seemed hurried. Having signed a worldwide deal with Warner Music NZ back in 2019, Dance Away These Days won him the Breakthrough Artist of the Year Tui at the 2021 Aotearoa Music Awards, and warming up to his EP/album release Different Skies hit #1 on the Hot 20 NZ Singles chart. Despite the growing recognition and numerous opportunities here and overseas, one of his fondest memories is very Kiwi-humble.

“I’m not sure if it’s the favourite, but one that definitely stands out was when I was in a band called Lakes & The Magic Band,” says Finn. “We played a show in Dunedin. Leading up to the show the venue fell through, so we were in the van on the way without a venue to play. We had tickets sold, people were excited, but we had no place to play! I think within 24 hours or less, we were able to organise a flat which was a big massive 12-person villa.

“I remember it just being one of the most insane, wild, spontaneous musical experiences that I’ve ever had. We were literally standing on pallets with a PA that we’d rented with 300-400 people in someone’s bedroom. They just moved all the furniture out and crammed all these people in!

“It was probably the best show I’ve ever played. There was an authenticity and a once-in-a-lifetime kind of element to it.”

‘Newcomer’ sets a solid foundation for all future music endeavours from the up-and-coming artist. His unique sound which often incorporates a dark, moody vibe with upbeat, danceable rhythms, stands out even internationally. Delicate and thoughtful lyrical content engages, while exciting instrumentation creates a pulsing energy. The release somehow provides a listening experience for both those who want to quietly contemplate and those keen to get up and dance.

“I wanted to introduce myself with a bit more substance, and in a way that didn’t feel too fractured or stagnated because of the pandemic,” he explains. “Some of the songs have been out for close to three years. Some of them have just come out the other week, so it’s a fairly long timeline for an EP. Now that we’re sort of in a post-pandemic era, or the dust is settling so to speak, I wanted to collect everything I’d put out over the past couple of years into one place. I wanted to sort of tie it all around with a bow and move on from it in my own way.”

While neatly badged to capture attention as a fresh musical force, it’s the themes of the EP, very much about experiencing things for the first time, that led to the chosen title.

“‘Newcomer’, new experiences, unfamiliar experiences. Also making that kind of analogy to the first day at high school, your first day at a job. It feels like there are a lot of those who have similar feelings to me where you’re moving into an established scene or an established circle, and you’re trying to figure out how you fit in. I kind of wanted to wrap all the songs up in that way. Newcomer… when I heard that word it was like seeing a light shine down on that one word, it felt right in an instant.

“A lot of the songs are done with different producers, so the commonality is me, but I sort of explore different sounds and slightly different genres throughout. I think for all of them it’s the quality of the song and the sing-ability of the chorus. It’s an EP that I think you can play start to finish on the piano.”

The opening track to ‘Newcomer’ sets the tone of the project with evident assurance. Dark Side Of Summer is as haunting as it is energetically exciting. Co-written (via Zoom) with LA-based Michelle Buzz (Katy Perry, The Regrettes, Kylie Minogue), thick vocal harmonies fill the space supported by a heavy kick and atmospheric synths.

“Michelle Buzz is a fantastic writer and producer. We wrote that song very quickly, probably within three hours,” he explains.

“It’s one of those things where you sort of say, ‘Hey, nice to meet you, thanks for the song’, hang up, and then we’ve just got this song that you can play on the piano. We didn’t record anything at the time. It’s a really weird, mysterious, almost magical experience when I write with someone like that because I’ve never met them. They weren’t in the room, her voice travelled across the internet, yet we were able to connect and write this song together. So it was a surreal experience!

“And that song stayed as a piano song for a long time,” Finn continues. “I sort of cut very low-fi versions of it on my computer, just to have something to listen back to. As the year progressed, I was fortunate enough to meet Michelle and spend time with her in Los Angeles to finish the song. For about six months, it was just me on the piano, which gives you a lot of time to marinate with the song. When the time came to meet in person we finished the recording of the song in a day.

“At the end of the song you’re able to hear Michelle sort of echo my voice in the last chorus. She just has such a fantastic voice. Throughout the demoing process, we were sending each other ideas back and forth. I just thought she had such an amazing voice herself that I wanted to have that nice little nod and homage to the work that we’ve done together. It’s the first time you really hear someone other than myself sing on my records.”

Co-produced with Grammy-awarded American musician/producer Cole M.G.N (Beck, Ariel Pink), the closing track Runway opens softly with Finn’s sultry vocals and reverb-saturated keys, expanding with the introduction of intricate bass and pumping drums to deliver a moody, exuberant expression of the mixed feelings of farewell.

“This was quite a difficult song to write because it went through so many different versions,” Finn recounts. “I rewrote it, rewrote it, rewrote it again. Reproduced it, recut it… it was a labour of love. It taught me a lot about myself as a producer and as a songwriter.

“It was a song that, for a long time, was just nonsense lyrics, just some words to carry the melody. So a lot of the song was deciphering what I was saying, almost like a translation. I think the song is always centred around the chorus, that kind of heavy dance beat, with this piano track that was heavily reverbed and side-chained to the kick. So it made a contracting expanding sound, which got me up to my feet. It’s one of those songs that feels very similar to Conversations With the Moon, there’s a darkness and an intensity to it, mixed with something that’s quite upbeat.

“That song was cut with my friend Cole M.G.N, who also did Dance Away These Days and She Said. He’s a fantastic producer and a particularly great drum programmer,” acknowledges Finn. “So he set up the beats for the song and I sort of finished it off with all the bass and the piano work.

At heart the song is really about falling in love with New York city, where he spent five days last year.

“I remember sitting on the runway leaving New York, not wanting to leave. Perhaps we can relate to that feeling when you’re on a plane, you’re still in the city, but there’s no turning back. It kind of felt like that – I’m up here, but I want to be down there with that person. There’s a dramatic quality to both the lyric and the production. Whenever I fly or when I go back to New York city it will be the song I listen to as we descend!”

An expression of pure joy, Euphoria has a captivating, jubilant vibe, driven by a slow pumping rhythm that begs listeners to move their feet.

“Euphoria was the quickest song I’ve ever written in my life – about 30 minutes,” reveals Finn. “I wrote it with a writer and producer named Alex Burnett. It was a really interesting day because he was all about making me uncomfortable (in a good way), putting me in situations where I hadn’t written like it before. So for that song, it was like, ‘Oh, is that it? Have we done it?’ Because usually I write for weeks on my own on piano. I couldn’t even really recognise that we’d written a full song when we finished it!

“It was so spontaneous and fun to do it that way, and I think that the lyric and the centre of the song were similar, it’s very much about not overthinking things. It’s quite a simple sentiment of not getting too caught up and trying to understand what it means, or if it is the right or wrong decision. If it feels right just go with it.

“Of all the darkness that’s on the EP, it is the brightest light, or the most positive moment on it. Vocally, it’s a very different song because it’s more of a rhythmic hook,” he adds.

“It was a breakthrough moment when I figured out how to sing it. The delivery was all about the story, how to make it a bit more understated and keep the delivery short and rhythmic. It kind of sizzles in your ear when you hear it. I had my friend who’s in my band, Jake [Skellern], play that last guitar part at the end of the song which really gives it the euphoric quality.”

With the backdrop of New York and help from NZ On Air, Finn shot a stunning performance-based music video for Euphoria.

James K Lowe and Nicole Miller-Wong directed it. They had done Dance Away These Days and She Said, so this was our third video together. Being able to do it in New York was very surreal. Running down to the subway, blasting the song on our portable speaker and me having to perform on the subway, on the street, or by the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve gained some confidence just from having to perform on the streets of New York City!

“The concept of that video was, as all music videos, sort of an evolution,” describes Finn. “The original idea is never the idea that it’s gonna be at the end, but a version of it. We knew that we wanted to shoot in New York, and we felt it was a love letter to that city. I mean ‘euphoria’ – as much as it’s about a person or feeling someone gives you, it’s also how I feel New York made me feel. A new city to someone like me from NZ, it felt like the most insane, biggest, wildest, craziest, ‘everything could happen at once’ kind of place.”

With ‘Newcomer’ now in his rear mirror, Harper Finn is already looking forward to the next step and excited to focus his sights on creating more music.

“It is like having a weight off your shoulders when you put out something like this because that means you can put 100% of your focus onto a new project or a new batch of songs,” he contemplates.

“It’s such an exciting time, everyone’s got these songs to listen to and digest whilst you’ve got time to work on something completely new without too much pressure. I feel just free creativity for me. As someone who loves writing songs, I feel like the most exciting prospect is just that my best song is yet to be written.”

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