The riffs of Harlea’s “Miss Me” are as much a punch in the guts as they are a tender stroke, and with its treacly bass guitars and sultry, echoing vocals that felt descended from a love-in between Shirley Manson and the Jesus & Mary Chain, it’s not hard to see why it garnered hundreds of thousands of plays online when it was released last September. Since her debut, the 24-year-old Birmingham-born, London-based singer-songwriter has kept a remarkably, almost frustratingly low-key presence, but she’s walking a musical path that very few are currently treading, shunning trends for a more old school, leather-jacket-and-whiskey-bottle-strewn road.
Harlea – who moved south at the age of 16, modelled to make ends meet, and bounced between London and LA – has clearly had her fair share of bullshit come her way, if the lyrics to her new track “You Don’t Get It” are anything to go by. “You don’t get it,” she sneers, “so you don’t get it.” As she puts it, the lyrics were inspired by “the overt power of being a woman,” yet her music doesn’t so much contain a message but be the message itself.
She spoke to Dazed about the power of women, fighting categorisation, and losing and rediscovering her true love, music. Read our interview below and check out the brand new music video for “You Don’t Get It”.
You left Birmingham at 16 to move to London, which seems like a pretty frightening move to make at that age. What drove you to leave home?
Harlea: I left because I hated school and I knew whatever it was that I was going to do – and I knew it was creative – did not require me to sit in a classroom. I was done. So I left. So I moved to London and modelled (but) I was always interested in music. I’d loved it from a very young age, but it just sort of fell away from me during my school years. I was having a tough time so I shoved all my music in the back and just focused on school.
You say that music found you. How did that happen? Was it meeting musicians, going to gigs or finally having time for yourself again?
Harlea: It was literally just meeting people and then before I knew, I was meeting people in the music industry, and from there I got into meeting people to write with, other musicians, and going to gigs. When I look back, it’s pretty amazing and my love of music kept blossoming from there.
You’re a songwriter, but are you also a musician?
Harlea: I actually don’t play instruments! (laughs) I’ve tried many times, but I purely sing. I’ve sung from a young age, but I didn’t take singing lessons until I was 17 or 18. Everyone asks me if I play guitar because my music is so guitar-heavy, but I wish I could say yes! I’ve just got the smallest hands. I got told it was an excuse but it’s not – my fingers and thumb just don’t reach around the neck of a guitar.
“I hated school and I knew whatever it was that I was going to do – and I knew it was creative – did not require me to sit in a classroom” – Harlea
Maybe a ukulele?
Harlea: So many people have said that! I might have to try it.
Your sound is fairly removed from what’s happening with guitar music and guitar bands, whether female or male. Was that a very conscious decision for your sound or purely coincidental?
Harlea: This is the kind of music that I’ve always loved. Classic rock’n’roll music. I feel like music shouldn’t be a trend, music should last a lifetime. Obviously I get where the trend is and some of the music I have been working is, I guess you could call it a bit more ‘current’, but my real passion is old school vibe. I know not a lot of people are doing that but I thought of it as an advantage, not a disadvantage.
Where did this come from? Are your parents into blues or rock?
Harlea: My parents have terrible taste in music (laughs). I have an older brother that loves classic rock and my uncle is really into music. But a lot of it I discovered when I was older because I didn’t have the exposure at home so much. You always end up finding the great music.
‘Miss Me’ has a very obvious pop sensibility to it. Is this an important aspect to your writing?
Harlea: Yeah, I mean, if you listen to older (rock) music, lots have pop arrangements and they’re insanely catchy, it’s not always just a guitar riff. When writing it, it just naturally came and there’s nothing better than having a hook you just can’t get out of your head. It’s something that carries through all my music.
‘You Don’t Get It’ has a strong message in it about living life on your own terms. Is the desire to say something powerful an element that runs through all your work?
Harlea: I definitely think a lot of my music is empowering. I’m all about equal rights, and my music is who I am. I’ve always been a confident person, if someone tells me I can’t do it, then I’m probably going to go do it because of that. My goal wasn’t, like, ‘it’s all about women and we’re strong and amazing’ – I think just naturally it comes through because that’s who I am. And I think that’s more powerful than going out with a message. I think already I’ve set a tone by releasing music in a genre that’s very male-heavy and I’ve done it without even focusing on it. I was like, this is the music I want to make, this is where I want to be, I went for it and gotten there. And that in itself is a statement.
Talk to me through your writing process. You came out of, seemingly, nowhere, with these huge songs.
Harlea: I’ve been collaborating. I’ve been writing for about five years, but the songs coming out now, I’ve been working on for about two. I’ve been writing with producers and writers in Santa Monica who really know what I want. It was quite a frustrating process before I met them, trying to make people understand what I wanted to be, rather than be who they wanted me to be.
“My goal wasn’t, like, ‘it’s all about women and we’re strong and amazing’ – I think just naturally it comes through because that’s who I am” – Harlea
Sounds as if you’ve been through some disheartening periods of time to get to this point...
Harlea: I was so frustrated, but I knew what was within me and I knew I wouldn’t feel fulfilled until I found it. There were a few times when I was almost done, it was too painful and I thought, ‘maybe I’m wasting my time’, but I look back now and it was all worth it. When you get the result you’ve been looking for, it’s so rewarding.
You’re also quite the enigma. You have all the relevant social channels but you’re conspicuously absent from them. What’s the thinking behind that in a time when social media is so powerful?
Harlea: As we were saying earlier, I’m not exactly ‘on-trend’ but not just in music; in this day and age... I’m not over-exposed and I feel that’s a positive thing. Everyone and everything is over-exposed and you don’t have to be, you don’t have to give it all away to be successful or popular. It’s about quality not quantity, I’d rather put out a little and have it be amazing rather than (post) what I had for breakfast, because that’s not important. And you can easily distract your listeners and then it’s no longer about the music and I want it to be all about the music.
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