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Alex Harris Puts The Soul in Soul Music

Alex Harris Puts The Soul in Soul Music

Born in Manchester, Georgia, Harris grew up among seven other siblings and a pastor father. Music for Alex began in the church, leading him to discover gospel and soul music and eventually becoming an artist himself. We spoke with Alex Harris about his early experience with gospel and soul music, his latest EP Frequency, and the arts organization he founded for teenagers, ACT.  

One of your producers is actually the founder of The Orchard, Richard Gottehrer! How did you first connect with Richard? What has it been like working with him? 

I actually first connected with Richard when I was in New York working with my brother Swagg R Harris, who’s a producer that works with H.E.R and so many other great artists. He and Richard were working together on this idea to form a company or label, and that is now known as Cross the Line Music. They were interested in recording soul music and really exploring that space and learning what that would look like in a commercial space today.

So I was writing, recording in the booth, and Richard happened to come to the studio that day while he was at the office working. And as he always pops in, he said “Who was that?” So when I came out of the booth he said “You got a minute? You wanna come down?” So I was like “Sure!” He wanted to know what I wanted to do. He said, “Well if you don’t mind working with your brother…” I was like, “I’m already working with him!” [laughs] And that’s how our relationship started.

Having the chance to get to know him better, and work with both Richard and Swagg in this capacity as a collective, it has been an absolutely amazing experience. [We’re all] creative minds, [with] different ideas and philosophy around music and how it should be conveyed, in a way that never loses its authenticity. However, how do we take that to market? 

I think with the Frequency EP we have been able to create something special. In Richard’s words, “let’s create great music, not just good music but great music.” That statement alone resonates with me because I consider myself a perfectionist. But even more so, I think that we as creatives have been entrusted with a gift: the gift of music. One of the most powerful elements of the universe. I believe that music, fire, and water are three of the most powerful elements of the universe. And music, because that’s how human life begins, with the beat of the heart.

With that in mind, we are so easily impacted and influenced by what we are created. We are created of music, we are created of melody, of sound, rhythm. I believe that creating great music is an appropriate approach to this gift. To not just do or create music just for the sake of doing it – but do it because it is important to do our best when producing and performing it. Working with Richard and Swagg is awesome because we all share that same philosophy and this gift of music. 

You often say you’re influenced by classic soul singers like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Al Green. Tell us about when you were first introduced to soul music. Do you remember some of the specific records or songs that you were drawn to? 

My introduction to soul music began in the gospel genre. My father is a pastor of a small congregation and he and my mother taught me the three basic elements: faith, education, and music. For my siblings and me, those are the basic elements of our development. Soul music for me began in church. In a gospel church – hand-clapping, foot-stomping! And later, artists. And those artists in gospel were mostly quartet gospel groups, such as The Violinaires, The Gospel Keynotes, Willie Neal Johnson & The Gospel Keynotes, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Williams Brothers – the list goes on. Other artists such as Pastor Shirley Caesar and later Al Green with his gospel records. We were introduced to soul music and soulful expression through that experience. And later, listening and learning about artists such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ray Charles. 

Some of the first songs I remember, Ray Charles in particular, was “Georgia on My Mind.” On the Public Broadcasting Television Network, at 11:59 – or somewhere near the end of the day hour – they would play “Georgia On My Mind” and sometimes we would sit up and stay awake to listen to that song on the weekends because we weren’t really allowed to listen to the TV during the week unless it was Sesame Street or something like that. 

The interesting thing is, I learned about Sam Cooke later. Of course I knew “A Change is Gonna Come,” that was like a national anthem for change. But as far as really studying his work, that came later. But I found the connectedness that we all shared. We all had the roots of gospel. That southern soul connection of blues and jazz and gospel, which are the ingredients for soul music. When I was a little kid, I would hear folks say “You remind me of James Brown.” I would be dancing across the stage, and they’d say “That’s a little James Brown!” Honestly, I heard my parents mention his name, but we weren’t allowed to listen to anything other than gospel. 

It’s very interesting to me because soul music is much more than a genre. It’s more innate to the human experience. The artists that I mention, we shared many similar experiences. They grew up in a church, or they had some sort of gospel church or religious connection. The Black experience in America. To me, it speaks volumes to how one’s experience, and expression of their experience, can be so similar. You never really have to know about the other person, or be related, or come from the same geographic location. As long as the similarity of the experiences are very closely related… It amazes me. As I reflect more on my personal life, our soul journey, I really look and think more about that idea. 

As for my influences now, I continue to study the greats. You never get tired of studying greatness. I do that now and look at all the folks who I consider standing on the shoulders, and are expanding upon the concept or the genre of soul music, but from a different angle or reference that is new-age soul music today. 

When did you first get involved with music and start writing? 

I got involved with music ever since I’ve known myself. I was seven years old when my brothers and I did our first performance at our parents’ church. From there, a missionary was there and she invited us to her church. It was maybe 20-30 minutes from our town in Manchester. From there, my brothers decided to form a group because somebody wanted us to come sing! My dad came up with the name ‘A-Boys.’ We thought first it would be Harris Brothers, then later we ended up ‘A Boys’ because all of us have ‘A’ names. 

Anyway, I wrote my first song at twelve or thirteen years old. The song was “Hold On,” and we pitched it to the local radio. And it got on the radio! We heard it playing and it was like “Oh my God, we’re on the radio!” It just fueled this gift to continue to write and to seek out mentorship on how to write more songs in a better way to express what I hear, see, and feel in a more professional way. I’ve been writing ever since. 

You recently released your latest EP, Frequency. Tell us about this project and what it is about. 

The EP Frequency, in short, is about the human experience. It’s about love, justice, family. I wanted to choose songs that are reflective of that. The title itself is about the frequencies that influence us most. I think that music is one of the most powerful influences to the human experience. If we can use this great gift to influence something positive – love, hope, healing, justice, family – then I think it’s a great thing. Beyond production and lyrics and arrangements and melodies, what makes a great song is the message in it of itself. And the intention as well as the expression or interpretation of the composition. 

I’m really super excited for this EP because it is a labor of love. It was born during the national lockdown. We were sending files, recording, mixing, and sending it all back and forth through email. I’m really super excited that we were able to do this and get it out to the world. 

There’s a soul revival that happens because of the connectedness of who we really are. 

What is one of your favorite lyrics from Frequency and why? 

“We are all human.” And why those lyrics are my favorite is because it’s reflective of the EP as a whole, the entire body of work. The lyrics in that statement said, ‘We are not our skin. We’re not our position, our zip-code, our bank account, or whatever gender that we identify as. We are human.’ All of those labels become a distraction that creates division, that creates hatred. It creates a position or categorizes the status-quo. I think that when we are distracted by that we can’t experience peace. We cannot experience love in its purest form. We cannot experience the joy of living and of togetherness.

What I hope, with those lyrics in the song “Humanity,” is that they resonate and reverberate throughout the universe and that everyone that hears that message in those lyrics is renewed to their core. There’s a soul revival that happens because of the connectedness of who we really are. 

What is your creative process like when you’re writing or producing a new song?

It varies. My creative juices happen when I’m in different environments. I live and breathe the gift of music and whether I am sitting at home watching television, or on the computer, or the phone, or walking down the street jogging, I remain open to receive and allow the gift of music to channel through me. And at any given time, give birth to which I am entrusted with the moment to deliver. Whether it be the melody, the lyrics, the ideas around how the production should be, or assembling musicians, or working with the producer who will be working with me in this particular song. It comes in a variety of ways, but if I had to choose it would be being open and in a space where I could channel that message, that vibration, in this particular piece I’m writing or producing. 

If you could collaborate with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be? 

That’s a great question. There are so many great creators. I think that one’s creation is very special because it comes from a place that no one else can go. It comes from you. But, when it comes to co-creation I think that an opportunity with Beyonce would be amazing. Or if I can go back in time it might be Sam Cook, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Al Green. There’s so many great artists out there and I can go on and on. H.E.R. Drake. Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill. 

There are so many great creators and I say these people’s names because their messages resonate with me in so many different ways. For me, it’s about really being able to connect with the music first, and the artist and I would have to have a great vibe together to co-create. The chemistry that we would have to have together to bring life to the composition. There are so many great artists that I mentioned, it’d be an honor just to have the opportunity to co-create more music in the universe. 

In 2012 you founded the incredible organization A.C.T. (Arts Conservatory for Teens). Tell us about what the program is. When did this idea come to fruition? Where else do you see A.C.T going in the future? 

In 2012 I came to St. Petersburg, Florida and there’s a place called Deuces on 22nd St South where during segregation and before integration in 1965, that’s where it was part of the Chitlin Circuit where African Americans artists like Louis Armstrong, Cap Callaway, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, would come when they would do the Florida locations in the Chitlin Circuit. 

So when I got to St. Pete I was introduced to that area, and there’s a place called Royal Theater and I had been developing this idea of having a conservatory or “camp” where teens would come and have an opportunity to hone their gifts and talents. And why this was such a passion of mine, and why I developed a vision for it, was because of my upbringing with my brothers and sisters in Manchester, Georgia where there was limited opportunity. Thankfully we had parents who recognized our gifts that we were entrusted with, and they helped up to hone our gifts and talents. But the majority of folks don’t have that kind of support system, even students whose parents have the wherewithal to support them but they don’t see any significance. But those who do not have the resources, or are in a whole different category, and certainly just do not have a way to cultivate or nourish that gift due to the lack of accessibility to the opportunities in the world.

I developed this vision that I wanted to be able to provide an environment that helps students to cultivate their gifts and talents after discovering their hidden gifts and talents. But even more than that, how we can utilize the arts as a whole – music, acting, dance, cinematography, DJing, coding painting, sketching – how students can learn to engage their gifts and talents, hone their craft, and also allow that to become a catalyst for other discoveries to opportunities that will allow them to be prepared for life beyond high school. 

Because of the vision that I had, it connected me with a business partner who helped me launch it, Herbert Murphy. I identified other folk in addition to Herbert who became the founding board members. We were able to launch this and to date we are engaging in helping over 2,500 students each year through our various programs and initiatives that we provide the community. We have 100% high school graduation, 90% going onto higher education institutions, the other 10% are going into the workforce prepared and ready to work and are performing well. Students now are having commercial success from signing major record deals to being on Broadway, to working in television or film companies throughout the country, or dance companies. Others are entrepreneurs and launching their own businesses. Others are educators. Some are working in law enforcement, or enlisting into the armed forces. It just shows you the power of the arts and how it can empower the human spirit to go after your fullest potential. And that was the intention of the organization. Our mission is education empowerment and enrichment for teens through arts education, so that’s what we do! 

As far as future visioning for the organization, I envision that this is something that can be licensed all over. I would love to see other artists license this curriculum that has been proven through evaluation we do every 2-3 years. We have an external evaluator in partnership with the head of research at Howard University to oversee the assessment. We have amazing outcomes. We are evaluating emotional intelligence, academic potential, skillset development in the creative space, how behavior has improved. We are also evaluating performance as it relates to their graduating from high school and enrolling in post secondary education institutions. 

I’m really super excited because the arts impact my life. Music impacts my brothers and sisters lives. Among the eight of us – my siblings and I – there are over 25 college degrees. And we are from a small town! The older ones, I’m now the middle but was the youngest at the time, we were born in a trailer that my dad bought when he first started teaching school. He was so excited because it was the first home he had owned. He didn’t know he would get a family and start having children like they did! We later moved, but that just came from hard work. And that’s the American dream – we could start from the bottom and we can work our way and believe in what we do, and go after our dreams and visions. And that’s what I’m providing for the academy, Artists Conservatory for Teens.  

What are you most proud of about A.C.T?  

The two things I’m most proud of about the ACT organization is that we have great students and students who are hungry. They are taking full advantage of that opportunity in their backyard, and they are rising to the top. And at the top, I’m talking singing professionally – they are doing it! Many of the students come from single parent homes, lower-income families, some of the most impoverished neighbors in our city. Again, it just proves what can happen when you believe and provide accessibility. 

The second thing about ACT that makes me proud is our team. The professionals we are able to hire to help with our talented students are committed to the mission. They believe in the mission just as much as I do. That’s very rewarding when you have a mission that your team then carries out that mission. I’m super excited to have a wonderful team and also to see the measurable outcomes that we see every year with our students.  

I know you just released your EP, but can we expect to see anything new from Alex Harris within the next few months? Any new music or videos? 

What the future holds for me is more great music. By that I mean, music that has meaning and music that speaks to the soul of our existence. It’s more than just lyrics or melody or rhythm. Music that really heals, inspires, loves, and hopes for humanity.

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