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Interview: Nat Harvie on the rewards of creative collaboration

Nat Harvie
Nat HarvieZoe Prinds-Flash
  Play Now [24:49]

by Diane

June 06, 2024

Nat Harvie’s new album, New Virginity, centers on rebirth as a motif. Countering society’s traditional stance, a younger, more innocent self serves as the guide for an adult. The Minneapolis-based singer, songwriter, and producer says youthful guidance is their way of “reminding the self how to experience catharsis, how to be wild, how to experience things as new.” 

Out Friday, New Virginity is also the first album Harvie did not produce themself. An adept engineer, in addition to their own music, they’ve recorded dozens of local and regional musicians, including Alan Sparhawk, Bathtub Cig, Laamar. While Nat’s new record was initially a DIY project, they later turned to a team of exalted indie artists to create something bolder. Accompanying their beautifully poetic voice is an experimental pop symphony of atmospheric and booming undertones. It’s music that, when performed live, will especially make way for impressionistic expression and intake. 

This Saturday, June 15, they will perform with an “all-star band” at the Turf Club, celebrating the music of New Virginity. The Current caught up with Nat to learn more about their background and process — as well as a short glimpse of what to expect at their show.

I'm pulling this from the press release I got, and I was like, wow, this is really profound. "The new record longs for love but not reaching so much for the lover or, or the friend as though myself says the Minneapolis-based singer, songwriter, producer and engineer. Each of the album's eight songs is a story, dreaming of an imagined future as the last person alive on earth to a mirror version of childhood, the possibilities of gender in a ruined Eden. And the inevitable loss that comes from loving, all happening together at once." I read that and I'm like, wow — you strike me as someone who thinks deeply about the world and philosophically … Tell me your thoughts on how you approach this record (with that in mind).

Nat Harvie: Yeah, the idea of rebirth. I think birth is something that happens to you. And in the context of this record, rebirth is something that you do. With this whole idea of “new virginity,” I was thinking a lot about this idea of resetting one's relationship broadly to the sensual. And in the same way that, virginity is this arbitrary idea that we've created in the same way that we've invented the idea of being able to lose one's virginity. I wanted to play with the idea of — if you can lose your virginity, maybe you can get it back too. So yeah, I was thinking about this resetting … not just on a sort of sexual level, but in terms of meeting all experience — choosing a point and saying, OK, everything is new again. What do I do with that?

Musically, this record is ... musical. It's such a musical record.

Pop music! 

Yeah! Art-pop, very much so. But it's so lyrical, it's so musical. And it's wonderful melodies in the form of your voice and in the form of instrumentation and the patterning, while also very artistic sonic concepts, which I find really amazing. Especially in comparison to some of your previous recordings, it's become more of this production. And I'm curious to hear you talk a little bit more about that. And I know you've worked with some pretty amazing artists on this one.

It was a very different process for me …  I made this record twice. I made this record once in the summer of 2020. I was living in Duluth for a second. My friend Candace [LaCosse] makes shoes. She has a business called Hemlocks Leatherworks. And she had a spare room behind her studio in Duluth and I would go there every day. The summers. So unemployed. And I was playing with some different sounds and using more synthesizers. I was trying different things with my voice. I was meeting the drum machine in good faith in a way that I hadn't before. I built it out and fully mixed it as this sort of solo, pop, kind of sparse album at the time. 

I was working with my friend and collaborator Eric Littmann, who's out of Chicago. We would send stuff back and forth. He passed away a couple years ago, and I sort of stalled out on this record and was also in the process of getting my last release out. And I stopped working on this album because I had this sense of like, well, as long as I don't finish this, I'm still active collaborators, I suppose, with this friend who I've lost. And then I had a sense that I needed to finish it. And I reached out to my friend, Andrew Broder, who lives here in the Cities. He's a very experienced and marvelous producer who [I] could list many, many beautiful records that he's worked on. But we went back to the drawing board on it and brought in a lot of different people. There's a lot of new features on it. [We] messed with the instrumentation. Brought in strings, saxophone from my friend Cole Pulice. Alan Sparhawk plays guitar on some of the songs. Lily West from Lala Lala sings. My friend Merce Lemon contributed some vocals. So there's this whole new layer, and he really helped me just get outside of my head and find what felt like very true and ecstatic arrangements for it. But yeah, definitely playing around with a palette that I hadn't really played with before. 

I self produce, and engineer most of my own records. That's what I do for a living, I work on other people's records. And I think when you're a producer, it's easy to not work with a producer. If you were a very good home cook, and you go to a restaurant, you think, oh, I could cook this at home. But this, actually, it turns out, I could not cook at home. And working with him was invaluable. And I hope to continue doing that for a long, long time.

How do you approach being a producer and then also being a songwriter? Tell me about the juxtaposition of the two.

Um, well, being a songwriter is entirely about my ego. 


And being a producer is the opposite — especially being an engineer is the opposite. I'm very privileged to have come into this work under the tutelage and guidance of some really grounded audio workers, who I think have a really healthy ethos about this work. Specifically, working with my friend Madeleine Campbell, who had a studio in Pittsburgh called Accessible Recording that I helped open. And more than anything, Holly Hansen, who runs a studio in town called Salon, and is a fantastic songwriter. And I think from coming into this work with these kinds of people, I have a pretty strong ethos about producing and specifically engineering as facilitation, where I think your job is to bring a collaborator client into a space of comfort and challenge, where they're able to push something. Your job is to help them get the message across. 

So sometimes production is just sitting with someone — maybe you're workshopping song structure — little bits in a somewhat granular way. But sometimes it's as simple as just helping someone bear witness to themselves. And sometimes I'll work with someone where I play every instrument on the track.  I try not to do that ... Your job is sometimes to connect people, to bring session players in that you think will gel well with people. I think there's a real wealth of folks here in town doing that. I bring Hilary James from Bathtub Cig, who's an incredible cellist, into almost every record that I work on these days. Often I'll pull Geoffrey Laamar Wilson to play some saxophone. But it's so much about caretaking. And the engineering side, it's the same thing, but maybe on a more technical and less emotional level. Your job is to make sure that the thing comes across. You have to have a lot of technical knowledge. How do we use an equalizer? Oh, someone wants this kind of drum sound. How do I get that? How do we use this microphone? But, really, every piece of technical knowledge that you're using is to the end of helping emotion get across. Every fader that you pull is to that end.

When did you really start becoming so attuned — you knew that music was the path you were taking.

Diane, I still don't know if it's the path that I am taking ... I remember my mom had one of those cassette Dictaphones. I remember playing with that and just talking into it, rewinding it, playing it back. And just being so fascinated by just the idea of playback. It's like time travel being able to hear this thing from one second ago. But it's different. You know, when you're a kid —

When you hear something out of your mouth, you interpret it one way; and then when you hear it played back, you interpret differently. 

Yeah, and I think that fascination is still the main thing for me. When I'm working in a fancy studio, I guess the difference now is that I know how to make it sound good. I know what the knobs do or whatever. But the thing that drives me is that same thing still — you get the microphone setup, you record a little test, and then you can listen to it back. And that blows my mind. Every time. It's incredible. It's incredible that we can do that. It's so unnatural.

I know. It's like some form of magic. Tell me anything that we might not have covered about this new record that you'd love to just share with the world and tell them about …maybe even as far as the evolution from Married In Song up to New Virginity.

I feel like, on this record, I really liberated myself from playing in a three-piece indie-rock trio, which has not been so bad. But I came up in the Duluth scene. And when you come up in Duluth, I think it's easy to feel like if you want to be a songwriter and present your writing, you do it on guitar. And because of that, unfortunately, as a teenager, guitar was the instrument that I got OK at, instead of something cooler, like the piano. Now I'm stuck with the damn thing. Just kind of shaking off some of the older ideas that I had about some instrumentation, the sounds that I've been interested in, and leaning further into my voice, asking more of my voice, seeing what it can do. 

It's funny because this was a record that I really, at first, did make completely on my own, more so than anything I had worked on before. And it ended up being, by the time that it was finished, this real nexus of beautiful connection with all these wonderful collaborators and session players. The universe of the record has gotten so much bigger, even in the time since I finished tracking it. I'm really excited to present this material live. And it's a little scary, too, because so many of the things on the record, so much of the production, especially what Andrew Broder brought to it, are just these weird sounds that I don't even know what they are. This is the first record of mine, where there's been this other producer on it. And there's these textures that I just [had] no clue what that is. And so the live presentation of that is going to be somewhat impressionist. But I hope to carry the ecstatic spirit of that as well as I can. 

Yeah, there's gonna be a final run coming out. The LPs are going to be really gorgeous. There's some writing — a short essay that my friend Claire Cruz did. There’s been some music videos that maybe bear some checking out. I made a music video with my mom. 

You did. What inspired that? 

I am. It was for the song "Shovel," which I think sort of hits on some of these themes with the record that we've been talking about earlier ... I saw this photo of my mom where she had a cropped short haircut in the early 90s ... her head is turned in a way that I might turn my head. She looks exactly like me. Or maybe I look exactly like her … I've often written about this theme — a queer trope that many of us have leaned into of this writing to the younger self to say, "Hey, it's gonna be all right kid. There's a way to be. People are going to meet you as you are later. People are gonna love you. You're gonna get to experience a full and real sexuality. You're gonna get to be in community as yourself." That's a beautiful theme. And we've done that already. And I'm probably not gonna sing about that anymore. And so with this, I was thinking about the opposite. Instead of the future self taking care of the younger self, it's the younger self taking care of the older self. Reminding the self how to experience catharsis, how to be wild, how to experience things as new. So I dressed my mom up like me. I drew all my tattoos on her and we slicked our hair back with really cheap hair gel that I couldn't get out. 

Instead of the future self taking care of the younger self, it's the younger self taking care of the older self. Reminding the self how to experience catharsis, how to be wild, how to experience things as new. - Nat Harvie

Your mom must be the coolest. 

She is the coolest. And she's not an artist. I think it worked because she's not trying to be perceived in this way. I think it made the sort of mirroring of it all better. But really articulated that theme well. And it taught me something about what I was trying to talk about with all of this. There's a moment when we're both singing lip-synching into microphones, but the microphones aren't plugged into a preamplifier, a sound system. They're plugged into each other, and it's a very short cord. Just thinking about this sort of timeless and directionless reciprocity with the self out of time. It was a beautiful experience to do that. And I got to make that video with my friend, Hollis Sparhawk, who is a wonderful musician and visual artist in Duluth.

[Clip of “Shovel” plays]

And so your show at the Turf Club includes an amazing band. I saw the clip on social media with Nona and Drew (of Poliça) and Broder and more.

All star band. And more! Who knows. 

Yeah! Tell me what to expect at that show at Turf Club.

Yeah, the release show is Saturday, June 15 at the Turf Club. Got an all-star band with my pal Nona [Invie] on the keys of Dark Dark Dark fame. An incredible songwriter, and a wizard on the keys, and such a wonderful person to be around. We got Drew Christopherson of Poliça on the drums, and my boy Andrew Broder playing guitar, maybe even singing a little bit. I knew that I wanted him to play in the show, because he produced the record. I didn't know what form that was gonna take. It's been a lot of fun starting to figure out how to play these songs live. And then my dear friend Brent Penny is going to open — a wonderful former Minneapolis pop star, who has an incredible EP out recently called Growing Deeper, Getting Mutable that I did a little bit of production engineering on. And then Al Sparhawk is going to play a solo set. I think bringing out some new material that he and I have been working on over the last six months, maybe a little preview of things to come.

Exciting. Well, it's great to see you working with so many amazing talents — and some of my favorites.

[Clip of “Shovel” continues]

There's this idea that if you want to work in the music industry, you gotta go to a real city. Gotta go to L.A. or New York. And that's how you pursue world domination as an artist or producer. I'm able to make a living as a recording engineer, as a musician, from not doing that thing — from having a really regional focus, from building a practice that's really centered in community, and really centered in a community where the cost of living is somewhat more reasonable for an artist. And I think, on a financial level, on a material level, that simply makes it possible. But on a spiritual level and a quality of practice level, I think that's so much better — to not be trying to have some constant huge growth or meteoric rise. But to really embed yourself in community and really engage with an ethos of service and to embed yourself in a place and a culture that you believe in, that's what makes this possible for me. And it's what makes me interested in it, as well.

…to really embed yourself in community and really engage with an ethos of service and to embed yourself in a place and a culture that you believe in, that's what makes this possible for me. – Nat Harvie

I think it seems so absurd to me — maybe I'll change my tune if I become hugely successful, who knows. But as musicians, especially in this era, where it's so easy to go on to your Spotify, see how many people are listening to you, or any of these metrics that we can access that we really shouldn't be looking at or shouldn't need to consider as artists. I think it's so destructive to try to quantify your impact or relevance in those terms. As a recordist or a producer, I probably foremost think of myself as an archivist. And some of the recordings that I'm proudest of and have had the most impact on my practice and my ideas of what this work are, are recordings that, in the lifespan of that media, will be heard by less than 50 people. And it comes back to – it's not about the market value of the thing that you work on ... which I'm not saying is unimportant, but for me it's centered on just this fascination with the magic of being able to hear the thing back. And the connection that you get to experience with your collaborators when you meet that idea in good faith and get to listen in that way.

Yeah, I love that you use the term archivist because art does that. It's a marker of history. It's a marker of what the community is doing. How it impacts ... and what you write about, the experiences you have, are a marker of your location, of what's happening in the world. It's a way to look back and present and preserve history. 

Yeah, to preserve and to hold on a collective level — outside an idea of ownership — for a group of people to get to touch a piece of media this memory object. That's so exciting to me. 

Yeah, it's one reason why I love music, too. It’s been so great to chat with you, Nat Harvie. I'm such a fan of your work.

What a treat.

Yeah, and excited to to share it with more people who I know will enjoy on The Local Show and —

God willing.

Absolutely. And anything else regarding the new release, regarding recordings that you're working on that might be worth plugging on the radio?

Check out New Virginity. Listen to The Current. Free Palestine. And come to my release show. 

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.