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Scratching the itch

Robert Harley- born in London and raised between San Francisco and Cork- told David Hennessy about recording his own album after a career as a gigging musician.

Robert Harley’s album Big Tree has been in the works for a long time.

The project began in 2019 and an awful lot has happened in the world since then, which gave time to ruminate and process it. He also had a daughter in that time changing his perspective.

Now Robert is ready to release it into the world, alongside the release of the title track, out now.

Recorded with Christian Best- well known as Mick Flannery’s drummer and as an in demand producer- in his Cork studio, you could say Big Tree is Robert’s second album but he really sees this as his first and his earlier offering as ‘more of a demo’.

He has been earning comparisons to names such as Elliot Smith and Jeff Buckley but the Jeff Buckley, although flattering, is not one he can understand himself.

Rob Harley was born in London to Irish parents before the family moved to San Francisco when he was five years old.

This was where Rob began to notice the live sounds of street buskers and blues music around the Haight-Ashbury district,  his family then moved back to Cork where he grew up from the age of 12.

Rob would then buy his first guitar and began to try and emulate the songs of The Beatles moving on to the blues of John Lee Hooker and Rory Gallagher.

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You have lived all over- here in London, the States and in Ireland- what do you identify as when asked? “Yeah, a mixed bag of stuff. Really was all over the place.

“At this stage, it would be a Cork man. I’ve been there for so long.

“It’s been decades.

“My accent sort of slips between the different dialects, so it’s a strange one.”

You say the accent slips between them but have the different places also informed your musical inspirations? “Definitely, America was a huge influence.

“I remember going down to the Haight Ashbury, and that’s where I first got my first listen to blues, because there was this guy who used to busk daily.

“He was on a harmonica and was backed up with a guy on an acoustic guitar.

“They were just playing the early blues stuff.

“Obviously, I didn’t know what it was at the time but it really resonated with me.

“That was my first kind of the listen to blues.

“And then years later, I kind of clued into what it was, listening to John Lee Hooker and the likes.

“But I mean the Beatles really was the first thing for me musically to want to pick up the guitar.”

Describing Robert’s music comparisons like John Lee Hooker and Rory Gallagher often come up.

Another one is Jeff Buckley although it is not one the songwriter is sure he can agree with.

“The Jeff Buckley, I’m not sure.

“I’m not hearing that, but I will take that any day.

“I used to listen to Jeff Buckley quite a lot. He was a big influence of me but it was kind of in my older years so I don’t know if that was an influence at that stage.

“But I definitely listened to a lot of Jeff Buckley, and John Lee Hooker.

“I sat down with Robert Johnson records, trying to get them off pat, and Big Bill Broonzy as well: All these guys that influenced the Beatles and The 60s movement.

“They would always reference these guys. Lonnie Donegan.

“All of these early influences so you obviously kind of go back and step back into the roots and see what influenced them and where they got their ideas.

“But I mean, Jeff Buckley? I’m trying to hear it.

“I can’t but it’s flattering definitely.”

Robert describes the song Big Tree as something to remind us that the ‘best escape from life’s pressures is found in the simplicity of nature’.

He says, “Like a child perched high in a tree, we can forget our troubles and find solace in the beauty of the world around us.

“Big Tree captures the essence of childhood escape and the powerful connection we have with nature.”

Is getting into nature important to you? “Big time.

“I’ve got a big golden retriever and take him out on a lot of walks and that song Big Tree kind of describes the scenery, all of those things that actually existed, the water tower in the distance. There was a train and the bridge and it was all there.”

The song describes the scene around where he grew up in Whitechurch, Co. Cork.

“I could walk down then from the house into the backyard, into the fields and that’s the scene that lay before me.

“There was the mountains off in the distance, you could see the lights from the distant airport.

“That whole scene was there, you know?

“Going out on walks with the dog, it’s something I love to do.

“There’s nothing like it to kind of cleanse the soul.

“It definitely freshens your mind, there’s no doubt about that.”

The album may have been set for release in 2020 but has been in the works for long before that.

“The songs go back quite a bit.

“There’s songs that I’ve been writing over the past 20 years or so and they’re songs I wanted to get into the studio with.

“I wanted to work with Christian Best as well.

“He’s an amazing guy, he’s a great producer, and you can really hear his work on this.”

The album also features musicians, including Liam O’Brien on sax, Darragh Keary on piano and keyboards, Chris McCarthy on bass, and Christian himself on drums.

“He got the session musicians in and they’re all great guys.

“He finds the people that kind of suits your style so my music, it kind of flowed from there.

“I first started the concept in the past 10 years.

“I always wanted to get in the studio and just do a solo album off my own back and I just thought these songs kind of deserved to get the right treatment.

“That’s why I called on Christian.

“Actually, the project took quite a while as well because obviously COVID hit in the middle of it.”

If you have had these songs for so long, some of them 20 years, why has the album taken so long? What has held you back? “Just being a gigging musician. I’ve just been busy with a lot of blues bands I was in under my own name, The Rob Harley Blues Band, playing regularly in Cork and the Munster area, and up around Galway as well.

“So just been busy doing that really and I was quite happy doing that, but I just felt that I needed to kind of get these songs recorded.”

In January 2022 Rob released the fist single from Big Tree called Crying For You. This would be followed by These Days and Swinging For Fences.

The Irish World wants to ask about Crying for You as it is not as sad a track as the title suggests.

“It’s kind of a love song but the main thing with Crying for You is the juxtaposition of having that sad song but the music tells a different story, you know?

“If you read the lyrics, they tell a sad story, a sad tale but the actual music kind of pumps it up, it’s just quite the opposite of the meaning behind it.”

Another track we wanted to ask about is Liar, what inspired that one? “I suppose it’s kind of a warning to anybody within the realms of  the predatory type, that foreboding kind of character basically.

“It’s just kind of a warning to let people know to stay clear.

“Just like the leaves falling from the trees, it’s like these people exist.

“There’s nothing that you can do about it, but just be pre-warned and careful where you step.”

You say it’s like a cautionary song, perhaps to someone younger. Is it perhaps for your daughter? “The last song is her namesake. Fiadh, that’s about her.

“Obviously, she has just changed my life in a great way, in so many great ways and so that’s where that song came from basically.

“It’s just kind of a joyful song to her, you know? And delicate song.”

With the album coming out, are there plans to tour it? Perhaps to the UK? “I’d absolutely love to get over to the UK but it’s kind of like baby steps at the moment.

“I’m just trying to get the word (about the album) out there and just kind of get it established, get myself established.

“After all, I’m virtually unknown (but) we’re getting some airplay over here on one of the main stations in Dublin, it’s great.”

Of course being born in Croydon, Robert came very close to being raised in a London- Irish family.

Were your parents settled here? “Oh, definitely. My mother was anyway, she loved it over there.

“I suppose America and new frontiers kind of awaited.

“They had the whole American dream and they went for it.

“But then the 80s- and recessions- kicked in, and my mother had my younger sister as well. I think that was a big influence in them coming back to Ireland, because they wanted her to be brought up in Ireland.

“I think that was a big decision.”

Having spoken about the moving around that Robert has done and at what age, it seems pertinent to ask Rob’s age before we let him go and are surprised to hear he turned 50 in December.

Has reaching that milestone been a big influence on recording the album now, an ‘if not now, when?’ feeling? “I suppose there’s a part of that, but I just love music. I love it.

“And I’m not sorry I didn’t do it earlier.

“I mean, I had an album out in early 2000s but I kind of regard that as more of a demo because it wasn’t polished enough or finished enough.

“That’s why I wanted to get into a studio like Christian’s and work with Christian.

“It’s just something I had to do.

“I had the songs and I just wanted to get them recorded.

“That was basically it, it was like an itch I had to scratch.”

If you say that previous album was more of a demo, was it something you had to do? Do that ‘proper record’ that you’ll always have? “Absolutely and that’s exactly what I got.

“I couldn’t be prouder of this album really.

“I’ll pull it out in 10 years time to the grandkids or something and say, ‘Here, listen to this’.

“But it’s something I’m very, very proud of.”

The single Big Tree is out now.

The album is out in late summer/ early autumn.

For more information, click here.

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