Two trophies as the artist behind his ’Rare Vision’ EP, plus a third as producer of the Stan Walker/Samantha Jade pop single Start Again, made Vince Harder the biggest winner at this year’s Pacific Music Awards. While his second EP didn’t bother the local charts, Harder is certainly no stranger to such heights of success. When the Stan Walker-sung Aotearoa won the Maori song-based Maioha Award at the 2015 APRA Silver Scroll awards it was Harder, the song’s writer, who collected it. Boy-band Titanium enjoyed unprecedented success on the strength of his pop songs during 2013. Back in 2008 his lyrics and vocals led the exceptional P-Money track Everything to the top of the NZ charts, and before that he had enjoyed major success as a musical actor, dancer – and even as a top-three finalist in Australian television’s X-Factor series. Actually, much of his incredibly diverse and successful career as an entertainer has been played out in Australia, where he currently lives, writes, records and runs his own fast-evolving artist development hub, HMG. Godfrey de Grut provided this insight to Vince Harder’s remarkable story-so-far.
The entertainment industry reserves the term ’triple threat’ for those standout artists who can sing, dance and act. While Vince Harder certainly fits that criteria, it would be more appropriate, though rarer, for the Australasian industry to bestow a term which more accurately describes his diversity; singer, dancer, actor, writer, producer, video director, guitarist, pianist – septuple or octuple threat maybe?
Since school Harder has always been forging his own ahead with a focus and determination most would find exhausting, even when just observing his output.
“It’s not work”, he says on a Skype call from his Sydney home. “I’m looking for opportunities to evolve.”
From those early days at Henderson High in West Auckland Harder seemed compelled to perform. With the validation of being judged both best instrumentalist and vocalist at his school talent quest he felt further study was his best option to improve. A two-year stretch at Auckland’s Excel School of Performing Arts culminated with a national tour in the college’s band, which, he says, honed an appreciation for both teamwork and hard work.
“We learned everything, from setting up the sound rig, the lighting rig, packing in and out of the theatre, promotion – the whole responsibility of putting on a show was given to us.”
Post study he fell into work at a factory though that proved short-lived, the menial repetitiveness soon grating. After a month of only being able to tap out drum beats on the machine floor and singing to himself under his breath he decided, “I gotta start a band and I gotta start gigging.”
This intermediary step back into music led to some small gigs and the opportunity to network, make friends and build a social circle of like-minded individuals.
In 1999 it led to him co-founding Jireh, an urban (faith-based) performing arts group that grew over the years, spawning a plethora of industry names such as Ginny Blackmore, Seth Haapu, Bella Kalolo and Turanga Merito. For three years he performed across Australasia with the group.
With everyone in Jireh singing, dancing and playing instruments it mostly fell to Harder to write material and oversee arrangements. He was just 18 when he started taking on the responsibilities of band leader duties. When Bella Kalolo joined the group she already had a high degree of experience in professional musical theatre, and was far more worldly about the industry, having toured internationally.
“That’s buzzy, that’s really out of it,” Harder recalls thinking at the time. “Most of us in the group were just dreaming of that professional life.”
It was Kalolo who convinced Harder to audition (his first) for an Aussie production of The Lion King musical, early in 2002. It’s amusing to learn that he wasn’t aware of what a huge deal the show was. He’d seen the movie, sure, but the concept of the juggernaut Disney machine possibly providing the launchpad for an international career via their expansive media empire hadn’t dawned on him.
“I didn’t even know The Lion King existed as a show,” he confesses.
That admission helps explain why Harder was rather blasé about the audition – and didn’t follow up the subsequent calls, instead finding casual work at Rebel Sport. Besides, as he notes, he was increasingly kept busy with Jireh. Finally, almost a full year after that first audition, the casting director tracked him down and insisted he fly to Sydney (along with fellow Jireh members Kalolo and Turanga Merito) to audition for the coveted lead role of Simba.
He says he went in determined to be himself. It went well and he was pulled aside as he was leaving the audition venue.
“I remember thinking, ’Ooh, this is serious, no-one else is getting talked to!’”
Out of about 4000 prospective Simbas from across the world they offered him the role, later that night talking him through the explosion of press and media coverage that was about to engulf him.
It was a big break indeed. As he explains, in all things Lion King “…authenticity was important to the show’s creator, Julie Taymor.” The director of the original Broadway show, the big gun in the Disney arsenal, was soon on a plane to Oz to help sculpt the Simba character specifically to him. The goal was to retain the authenticity of the actor behind Simba, and to tell the lion’s story filtered through the actor’s own life experiences.
Harder has fond memories of those times, though the work was hard with eight shows a week, and the pressure relentless.
“The acting was the hardest,” he chuckles. “It definitely didn’t come naturally.”
On one occasion, halfway through his 12-month contract he recalls momentarily blanking during the scene with Pumbaa and Timon discussing the composition of stars, while gazing up at the heavens.
“I must have been thinking about a song I was working on in the studio and I went totally blank. I was actually looking out into the stars and I had nothing for them!”
That was 2003. Thirteen years on Harder laughs hard at the memory, saying he made a decision then and there – he was not going to renew the contract for another season – his true focus had always really been on his own music.
Where to go next? He toured as a dancer with Guy Sebastian for a time before landing in the 2005 Australian X-Factor. It was the first season and there were high hopes for the format. It was high pressure again with the contestants constantly having to turn it on for the TV cameras while on set.
The producers needed mass appeal. Harder says he found being a ’personality’ was tiring and while essentially cast as the “typical Polynesian boy” he couldn’t choose the songs he wanted to sing, and the show started to feel produced to a pre-determined script. He did learn a lot about record labels and the music industry, recalling watching the winning cast members (by now good friends), seemingly undermined then dropped by the label after the initial surge of album sales abated.
Beginning to see the flaws within the system he was determined to figure out how to write his own songs more effectively. In order to ensure longevity in the industry he had to diversify again.
“I had to learn how to write, how to produce.”
MySpace provided a creative outlet for his songs and an A&R rep at Universal Australia became intrigued by his small successes. It was through the rep that in 2008 he was introduced former battle DJ champ turned beatmaker/producer P-Money. They hit it off and Harder began working on a beat that became Everything – their first collaboration.
“It had this robot chorus on it and I wanted to write to it and sing it. It all came really quick.”
Indeed he turned his completed vocal around in a week. A month later P-Money chose it as the lead single (and title) for what was to prove a breakthrough album. Harder also featured in the video shoot. The song was massive here and in Oz, Zane Lowe pushed it in the UK and much touring followed.
“I liked Vince’s tone and his knack for melody and vocal arrangements,” reflects Pete Waddams, aka P-Money. “With the single Everything and the subsequent album tracks I was looking to do more soulful and melodic vocal tracks.
“He was totally the right guy for the job and we made some great records together. That wide range of experience all contributes to Vince’s ability to produce and perform to such a high standard. He knows how a song should be performed and also how it should be constructed. It’s his ear for melody and vocal arrangement that’s his strongest suit I think.”
Harder’s own songs were released via P-Money’s Dirty Records over this period, honing his ever-growing skill set, which now included production. Looking back he says he wasn’t fully understanding of how his stylistic output would affect him as an artist. The machine wanted more dance music and radio hits but what he really wanted to do was RnB.
“To be honest I was a bit confused about where I wanted to go and at the time I was writing a whole bunch of songs. My passion was to do stuff more on the urban side.”
Stepping away from Dirty he began collaborating with old Excel classmate NOX (Inoke Finau) and Illegal Musik. It was full circle and back to urban basics. From close on 100 songs they eventually settled on a dozen for his debut album, 2011’s ’The Space Between Us’. The self-produced album featuring a host of guests/friends including K.One, Pieter T, Ria, Young Sid, PNC, Dei Hamo and David Dallas, included urban radio songs Say This With Me, Summer Dayz and Alone No More, as well as dance track I Want This Forever.
While no local chart crasher itself, the album drew more attention to his work and soon he was writing and producing for others. Warner Music NZ charged him with writing and producing music for an upcoming boy-band act. Only trouble was he had just signed on to an 18 month-long Australasian stint in the musical Jersey Boys.
“Ha ha ha, theatre came back,” he laughs.
2012 found Harder stuck in Oz performing shows five nights a week and furiously writing pop songs during the day in his hotel room – while his compatriots at Illegal were sorting and auditioning the singers in NZ. Jersey Boys proved an inspiring show to work on in terms of developing a catalogue of vastly different songs, and there were obvious parallels between the show’s narrative of writing music for a boy band (The Four Seasons) and his own predicament as principal writer for what was to become Titanium.
Come On Home was chosen as Titanium’s first single, it debuted at #1 on the NZ singles chart and they started touring to much fanfare and hype.
“It was buzzy, and I was watching from Brisbane, checking it out on Facebook. They were singing my songs, and then… wow, they got five songs in the Top 40!”
His musical theatre friends would be congratulating him backstage.
“They were like, ’Uhh, that’s cool,’ but they didn’t even understand it, I was in two different worlds,” he recalls laughing.
2013 saw new musical long-term friendships blossom including writing with Stan Walker on his hit single Bulletproof, a partnership that has continued with multiple successes. Harder won the 2015 APRA Maioha Award for Aotearoa, sung by Walker along with Maisey Rika, Troy Kingi and Ria Hall. The pair co-wrote Start Again for the soundtrack of Born To Dance, the NZ hip hop dance movie starring Walker and choreographed by Parris Goebel.
It was in 2013 that his own songwriting and production company, Harder Music Group began taking shape. Based in Parramatta, Sydney, the pan-Australasian venture aims to creating a unique and fresh sound and culture in pop music.
“We started helping artists find a deal and became an artist development hub, bottom to the top. The long term plan is to develop more artists on this side of the world. Help them as a production house and then find a home for them as well, whether with HMG or not. Basically just creating a platform for other artists for us to be able to develop and nurture them.
“I’m still interested in being an artist myself and still want to be able to do that whenever I can, but I wanted to be able to produce under something different. That’s why I started HMG. It started off just as a music production company, but some of the clients wanted videos, so I offered that as part of the service – and started directing the videos too!”
As a business entity, Harder had long been gravitating toward acquiring more control with his creative energy and output. He is himself signed as an artist to HMG and these days managed by his wife, Abby Lee-Harder. Continuing with the ’close to home’ approach, his publishing, previously signed to Standard Music Publishing (through EMI back in the day), is now under Control (ie. self-). HMG has a marketing and distribution deal with Warner.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he says. “We’re more in control with what we want to do with our publishing, where we want to take the music.
“It’s not easier,” he quips before laughing.
Dropping here in July 2015, his double Pacific Music Award-winning EP was the first release of his own music for which he really flew solo, writing, recording and producing, though throughout the eight-month recording endeavour he did regularly play snippets to friends and colleagues to get feedback on where he was heading.
“’Rare Vision’ was I guess the first I was able to do on my own. I didn’t have the support of any label and that was a special thing for me – to solidify that whole aspect of me being a producer as well as an artist. It made for a really special project. It was basically just me.”
Being comfortable asking for advice, or indeed collaborating with other artists, can be intimidating for some, but Harder relishes the opportunity to talk and create with others. It’s gratifying to hear from him that even among the top echelons of the industry people are positive and encouraging. He recalls how, when arriving at Sheila E’s doorstep in LA, after a month of Skype calls, she instantly made him feel at home by hugging him and saying, “Yo Vince! We’re like family already.”
Friendships and building rapport with people is a recurring theme. He now has an important role to play in a big extended family of positive like-minded individuals that has been expanding since his college days. I was lucky to work with him myself on the 2015 Coca Cola Christmas in the Park shows. The man is truly inspiring.
Harder’s most recent collaboration is the Deluxe Project EP – with another high school friend, Anthony McCarthy. It’s back to acoustic reggae and RnB, with both artists singing in Te Reo a feature. The two friends capture the narrative arc of a fictional relationship over the course of the six tracks. Its conceptual nature contrasts strongly against his previous output and further illustrates that Vince Harder is constantly focused on evolving his sound further.