harriet brown makes extraterrestrial r&b

L.A.-based musician Harriet Brown's new record, 'Contact,' is a tribute to Prince and Carl Sagan. He tells i-D what music he'd send into space in a 2017 edition of the Voyager Golden Record.

by Maggie Lange
26 May 2017, 8:55pm

Walking in wholesome sunshine through residential Portland is an unlikely way to spend an interview with the artist known as Harriet Brown. The surreal musician has a sound that's like midnight, all darkness and glittery oddities of space. His new and first LP is named after the classic Carl Sagan novel Contact and it's 11 songs of slinky disco-adjacent R&B and funk. Maybe a gentle stroll by the sweet front porch gardens of the Pacific Northwest is a perfect way to shine light on all this esotericism and mystery. 

Harriet Brown, who doesn't like to share his birth name, emerged in the Oakland scene in the early 2010s, but left for Los Angeles a few years ago. With Contact, the 26-year-old has created a concept album about communication and connection. It starts with a flirtatious pledge that "whatever language you speak I can learn it" and moves on to produce a missive from the dark center of a fated romance. The sound is all spacious synth and reverent strings, the music of simulated spirituality - perfect for a record devoted to all manner of gurus, from Prince to Janet Jackson to Carl Sagan.

In Portland last weekend, Harriet Brown brought his spiritual, funkadelic concert to an old church converted into a music venue called Wonder Ballroom. He was the strong center of a sensational bill from Red Bull Sound Selects, sandwiched between Chanti Darling, a prominent rascally performer from the queer Portland scene, and the sugar-voiced singer NAO.

Wandering around before his show that night, Harriet Brown is without the strong look that distinguishes his performance. No decagonal sunglasses. His bold hairstyle (a shallow bowl cut that seems to be 100% bangs) isn't visible below his beanie. There are no warping microphone modulations. He's focused, soft-spoken, undistracted even by cute baby squirrels. Conversation ranges between abstract topics relating to religion, space, and love. He may sometimes be ambiguous in his meaning, but he's not a bullshitter.

I saw him perform in February, two months before Contact was released, and the question of whether Harriet Brown is "for real" was almost unavoidable at first impression. His body undulates freely and he sings with stank-face concentration, all while exploring oddball aesthetics. His concerts are commanding, strange, and mesmerizing.

He says that he wants his visuals, which his girlfriend often designs, to create "another world, with some sort of aura, some sort of spirituality." In his songs as well, he aims towards the surreal, isolated setting of space. But there's also romance. In "Obsession," an adoring seduction of electronic synths and Koto strings, he repeats: "I want your love all 24 hours of the day." The sound is like that of a talented band of extraterrestrials who are very influenced by Boyz II Men.

Harriet Brown should be seen live. He's a luminous avant-garde beacon. The sounds are plush, the visuals are wavy, it's little goofy, elevating, funny. "I like to keep people loose," he says, "Humor is a good way for people to let their guard down." This can be risky. People have thought he's a novelty act, he says, "but then I was thinking, those people who really don't get it, at least they can enjoy themselves. At the very least they can say, 'That was weird and funny.'"

One of Harriet's most exciting moves is to use microphone effects when he speaks in concerts. Mostly, he modulates his speaking voice to sound like a deep baritone soul singer. At his show, my friend mock-asked, "Is that his real voice?" This inspired surrounding strangers to hold a quick counsel around us. "He sounds like he's hiding something," a person who was a very good dancer said.

"People ask me about the 'persona' and it's not a persona. It's just actually how I feel when I'm in my room by myself," Harriet says, "That's what the name serves as: a mask or room for me to be in when I'm performing in front of all these strangers. Harriet Brown allows me to be the most of myself that I can."

The translation of this self-expression into an album comes across as a much more cerebral experience. He recorded Contact in Koreatown, from songs he'd written as early as 2013. His music is buoyant even when he presents critical ideas. On "Mother," he digs a little knife into the belly of fellow-groovers: "People tryna eat but I'm tryna thrive/People struggling to stay alive/When I'm trippin' on catching my vibe."

Harriet Brown reaches towards large ideas about belief, knowledge, and religion. "I grew up in a Christian household. I don't ascribe to it anymore, but I still believe in a higher being. I don't feel a need to try to explain what it is. Carl Sagan is on that trip," he says, "it blurs together science and supernatural."

I ask him what music he would send to the aliens, if he were Carl Sagan making the Voyager Golden Record. He says Prince first, and mentions Charles Mingus, Harold Budd, Brian Eno, and Parliament, as a gesture, to be "like, 'Hey! We wonder about you guys SO MUCH. To let them know it's a peaceful curiosity, an excited curiosity. I wonder if that would be weird..." Are we exoticizing the alien, by making music about what we assume they're like, without knowing their culture? We shake our heads, but then he counters, "At the same time I imagine they would be ahead of us, so they would be like, 'Oh, that's cute. Look at that! They don't know who we are and that's adorable.'"

We talk about music from the past that we feel was made to be understood in the future. That's the sort of mental exercise that Contact puts you through a lot, with its direct calls to the aliens and its evocation of antique myths, like "Atlantis," a drippy song that he says was inspired by the original Little Mermaid fable. It's an easy leap for this artist between Atlantis and aliens: "myths of the past are same ones of the future."

These neat philosophies are rare from Harriet. Most of the time, he tends to end his answers to my questions with bigger questions. His music offers more new ways of thinking than it does conclusions. He's recounting the original Little Mermaid and its haunting plot, which threatens to turn our main character into foam if her love is unrequited. "Maybe it's better to be foam?" Harriet asks. It's a way of rephrasing the question of whether it's better to have loved and lost, or never have loved at all. It's something to think about. That's the last thing he says to me before we part ways outside Wonder Ballroom, with a solid thought for a sunny day. 


Text Maggie Lange
Photography Aaron Rogosin, courtesy of Red Bull Sound Select

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