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BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness


BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness

One can tell when someone is playing music mechanically and simply reading notes on a page or if what you are hearing is something greater than that; as if something divine is coming through the performer's soul. With guitarist Sean Harkness, it most certainly is the later. Although quite an accomplished professional composer, arranger, and guitarist, Sean's playing has an additional element; the "It" factor that is so hard to describe, but you know it when you see or hear it.

My first introduction to Sean was at one of our very first Music at the Mansion shows. Corinna put out a posting in 2011 on the MAC Facebook page asking if anyone wanted to perform on this new music series that we were producing at a historic mansion in Bloomfield, NJ. Sean was one of the first people to reply and seemed truly excited to play in this type of intimate setting. He mentioned that he had performed at many salon-style house concerts and really loved them.

The room where the series takes place in the historic Oakes Family Mansion is the solarium, filled with windows, glass doors, a high ceiling, and original hardwood flooring. We knew that the room was acoustically ideal for singers, but it turned out to be nothing but magical for an acoustic guitar.

From his first song to our soon-to-be-favorite original Sean composition entitled "Coming Home", you could hear a pin drop in the room. The audience loved him and he loved the audience so much so he has come back 6 times in the almost 10 years of the series.

Besides his mesmerizing playing, Sean has a very friendly demeanor and connected with the audience easily. It's easy to see why Sean is in such high demand. I think she coined the phrase BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness about Sean when Corinna said, "It's nice when people are talented, but it's even nicer when talented people are nice". Very Sean.

If you are not familiar with Sean's playing, I suggest you click HERE to take a listen.

NA: Who is your mentor and what would you like to say to your mentor?

SH: I have been blessed with many mentors in the past 42 years of playing guitar. Some actually had the mantle of Teacher, others inspired me in less direct but equally profound ways. Some, even, as example of how not to be. In fact, when I was 20 and playing on the streets in Europe for a year, I heard a saxophonist with a jazz combo in Piazza Della Signoria in Florence, Italy who gave me goosebumps with his musicianship. I approached him after the set and asked for a lesson. He laughed out loud and said "you come to me to be your teacher when you have your best teacher right HERE?? [tapped me on the chest] You're crazy!" When he saw me slowly understand and smile he gave me a big hug and walked away. To him, I would like to say THANK YOU.

NA: What has this business given you and what has it taken away?

SH: The 'business' is a slice of a much bigger pie for me. Inextricably intertwined, but a slice. Regarding the whole pie, it has given my life purpose, community, even provided me with sensible barriers to excesses. All the people I know are through music. I have traveled the world many times over and had the most extraordinary experiences in places I never imagined with people who constantly become answers to the first question. My relationships and my stories are my riches. And it's a good thing because the second half of that question is: any sense of financial security. Devotion to Music pays back regularly with activity. There's always something to do for/with somebody, each thing leads to another thing, and so on. There is perpetuity, just no security. So long as I am able to do what I do, I will work.

NA: What is the hour like before you go on stage?

BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness SH: It depends who I'm going on stage with. If I am in a supportive or collaborative role, for me it's usually a comfortable hour of energetic focus and eager anticipation. If I'm going on solo, well, let's say it's best to leave me alone. Working with others I've seen everything. Scrambling to the last minute getting charts in order, deciding which tunes to do, etc. Or relaxing at a bar or table and realizing "shit! We're on in 4 minutes and it's a ten-minute walk back to the club!". I've seen many other extremes as well - in fact, the full list of answers to this question might lead to a good book of memoirs. Nice question.

NA: If you could experience one performance over again, which one would it be and why?

SH: I helped my friend Sally Ann Triplett, who is from Great Britain, to find local NYC musicians for a show she was doing at 54 Below. As a big fan, I went to see the show and cheer them on. I sat at the bar watching her hit home run after home run with her songs - she's so good! About two-thirds into the program she says "ladies and gentlemen, I have a surprise for you: my dear friend, the great singer/songwriter Sting is in the audience. Sting, won't you come up and give us a song, love?" The place went berserk, me included. There he is walking up to the stage to great cheers, and she says on the mic - "is Sean Harkness in the room? Sean, won't you come join us, it would be so lovely!" Much smaller cheers now, but some... and I'm in a panic. What will we do?

BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness
Sean with Rachel Bay Jones

As I get closer she whispers "we'll do that James Taylor song You Can Close Your Eyes - know it?" Shit. Only enough to know there are chords flying all over, bars of two, uneven phrases, and it's all very specific. You know, James Taylor. My hero. Sting sees the thoughts careening through my head and on mic says "come on up Sean, you'll be fine", to more applause. I look around to the guys in the band - blank stares. What key is it in? Well, suffice to say there's a new version of that song out there now. Fortunately, they had their duet so strong they could sing right over my clumsy wanderings in the key of E major. If I could do that over again I would know that song inside out, in all keys. Then it just might be me working with Sting now instead of the pit orchestra guitarist he ended up taking on the road with him.

BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness
Sean with wife Taka

NA: What are you most proud of?

SH: Certainly not my Sting story.

What I'm most proud of in my life right now is the fact that after eighteen years together my wife Takako still seems to genuinely enjoy my company.

NA: How did you first start playing the guitar?

SH: I started begging at around age nine, and finally got one on my eleventh birthday. At that time my parents' record collection was mostly pretty vanilla: Tony Orlando & Dawn, Helen Reddy, Ann Murray, John Denver, Neil Diamond, etc. Fortunately, mom was an Elvis fan, so when I was just old enough to explore the glorious vinyl alone, that was my go-to. Then I found one buried in there - an unassuming cover with a black-and-white picture of some young guy with a crew cut that said "The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell". As I looked at the song list there was Puff The Magic Dragon. I knew that song! His way of playing it blew my little mind. Something clicked. GUITAR. Well, that was it. Around that same time, we visited my dad's friend at his bachelor pad on the shore of Lake Erie, and after dinner, he wanted to play a song for us. He must have sensed my fascination because he asked me to go in the other room and get his Guild 12-string and bring it in. For the first time, I got to touch a guitar. Then he played it and mesmerized our whole family. THAT was it.

NA: What brought you to NYC and what keeps you here?

SH: There was always this undercurrent of understanding that serious musicians go to New York. I considered myself a serious musician, yet I was reluctant. The mountains, woods, rivers, fresh air, quality of life - all this was more important to me than any "funky shit goin' down in the city", as the song goes [Jet Airliner by Paul Pena, known from Steve Miller]. I finally moved here in 1994 BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness and made a go of becoming part of The Scene. It didn't work. For a long time. Unlike most successful musicians, you see, I have never had any focus to my career. My entire strategy has always been to be good at what I do and people would hire me. I didn't realize you were supposed to be an entrepreneur, a marketing & sales whiz, and at the very least declare what KIND of musician you are: "I'm a Bluesman." "I'm a Jazz musician". "I'm a Rocker". "I'm a Folkie". "I play Show Tunes", etc... Me? I just like to play! So it took a while for the general music business community to figure out what to do with me. Now? Now I barely have time to fulfill obligations to my clients. Maybe I should raise my prices? That keeps me here. It's all about people. Every day, even online while in lockdown, I meet new people here that I just wouldn't meet living anywhere else. When I'm done, though, and someday I will be done, it's either my favorite little island in the southern Caribbean or Kobe, Japan. I'd love to teach at Koyo Conservatory there.

Another HUGE influence for coming to New York City - my uncle was actually an icon here in Town, the renowned architect Hugh Hardy. We've all been in his theatres and public spaces. Look him up. My earliest travel memories are coming here to visit him. He made it very clear that nepotism was not his thing and offered zero help when I did move here, yet he always checked in to see how I was doing. We would visit regularly the whole time I was here. He loved Taka too, of course. He was larger than life. I miss him intensely.

NA: Who have you worked with that you never thought you'd have the chance to play with?

SH: That's too long a list. Seriously. I feel such a massive, humble gratitude for every playing opportunity I get. So often I find out after the fact that the person I just played with is a star. There BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness are some people I dream of working with, though, and am pretty sure it'll never happen. Oh - I was teaching Jon Bongiovi [Bon Jovi] guitar lessons for a while. That came as a surprise. Getting to know him was a wonderful experience, and he is now one of the people in Question #1. I learned way more from him than he did from me, for sure. And he gifted me one of his guitars. Treasure!

BWW Interview: SO NOW YOU KNOW With Sean Harkness
Sean with Mark Nadler

NA: What is your favorite song to sing and play together?

SH: The Billy Strayhorn song "Pretty Girl". It's perfect.

NA: One of your original songs, "Coming Home" is a favorite in our home. What is the story behind that song and where was it created?

SH: You know those first years when you come home for the Holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc - from college, military, peace corps, whatever, and it's just good to be home. The smell of mom's cooking in the air, see all your friends; charge the batteries, so to speak. You know, those first couple days - before you remember why you left. There's always a guitar in my hands at home, and it was during one of those times that the song first appeared. It's been developing ever since. It was a favorite in the Windham Hill offices and they used it on a number of compilations. I always play it when I go on the Winter Solstice tours. There are tens and tens of fans out there who recognize it and I always love talking with them in the lobby after the show.

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