“City-Country” is how singer-songwriter (and Scenie-winning stage star) Harley Jay describes the songs he’s written and performed on his third and latest album Lifted Me From Lonely. Following a pair of awesome debut CDs (his Broadway album Between 41st and 53rd and his all-original Without Wax), Lifted Me From Lonely may well be Harley’s best yet, ten easily hummable country-rock tunes that evoke memories of the best of ‘70s folk rock. Harley’s crystal clear rock tenor soars in catchy numbers like “Those Hands” (“Where does your bullshit end and where do I begin”), “Rose” (“Beam me up Scotty and beam me up Rose”) and “Watch It Burn” (“We’re fightin’ fire with gasoline”). And as the above quotes make amply clear, Jay’s lyrics are as clever as his melodies are infectious.

StageSceneLA readers have likely read my raves about Harley’s triple-threat gifts in Schoolhouse Rocks Live Too (“a charismatic boy-next-door/rock star”), The Devil And Daisy Jane (“boy-next-door-with-an edge charm and terrific pipes”), and his Best Lead Actor In A Musical Scenie-winning role as Ren in Footloose. (“Lanky, handsome, boy-next-door Jay is the phenomenal dancer the role requires him to be, his body seemingly more flexible than would appear to be humanly possible”).  Now is our chance to get to know boy-next-door Harley Jay up close and personal.

You call your music “city-country.” When and how did you hit upon this term? Which part of your music is the city and which part is the country?

First off thank you so much for taking the time to listen to the record and be such an incredible support not only to me but to live theater and live performance in general! You’re a super saint in the theater community in L.A. and I hope you know how much the performers, theater companies and productions across the board love you. You’re the real deal!

You make me blush! But don’t forget this interview is about you, so getting back to “city-country”…

“City-country” was actually a term my parents came up with and I really dug it. I felt like it really summed up my music’s spot in the Pop Rock/Alternative Country world. I’ve always been a fan of country artists like Keith Urban, Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Arnold but on the same token I’ve always loved artists like Steve Perry, Butch Walker, The Beatles, Jude Cole and Freddy Mercury. When I started writing music, the country chord forms just kind of came naturally. I feel like they just instinctually turn me on. I also love that most of country music is based on storytelling. Who doesn’t love a great story? In my version of country music, I try to write songs that take the loud edgy guitar and high pop vocals in a lot of old school rock music and mix it with storytelling and simple melodies like the stuff most people are familiar with in country music, and just because it’s called “country,” I still try to write about things that people could relate to whether they are in Nashville or New York. Keith Urban has mastered it in my opinion but I think I still have something new to offer.

Absolutely. So Harley, I kind of get the way a songwriting team might come up with a song. Lyricist writes lyrics and composer sets them to music, or composer comes up with a melody and lyricist adds words to it. But for most of your songs, you do both, which prompts me to wonder: Which comes first, and does it vary from song to song? How would you describe your songwriting process to someone as clueless as myself?

Songwriting is an odd little child because there really is no wrong way to raise it. Usually for me it starts with a feeling so I’ll try to come up with a chord progression I feel fits the mood or feeling I’m going for. Something will have happened in my life and I’ll want to write about it so before I do anything, I try to get the “vibe” of the tune out through music first. I’ll play the progression over and over and hum a bunch of random vowel sounds or odd noises and I’ll mentally take little notes like “here I should sing some sort of ah sound” or “this needs to have this ‘fill-in-the-blank’ sound.” That’s usually how I come up with the melody too. Then once I’ve got those few things in place I can finish the lyrics/tell the story in a matter of minutes… most of the time. But I never write just to write. I’m not good at just writing to make a song. I can’t force that sort of stuff. There’ll be months where I’ll write a couple songs a week and other months where I’ll write a line or two. Everything I write is because of a personal experience so if I’m not feeling it, I don’t try to pop something out just to get a new song in the ink.

Well, however your songs come to you, you’ve come up with a terrific ten for the new album, on which by the way you also play guitar and percussion. So I imagine that music must have played an important part of your growing up.

Music was, and still is, a huge deal in my house. My mom is one of the biggest music lovers I’ve ever met. Growing up I listened to everything from Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson and Clapton to Lou Christie, The Four Seasons, Tony Orlando and Dawn to Duran Duran, Journey, Bon Jovi and Tupac. Music is always on at my house. I love going home.

When did you first pick up a guitar and start strumming?

I first got a guitar my senior year of high school for Christmas. I told student government at my high school that I played guitar and I had written a song I wanted to play at senior graduation. They said absolutely! Problem was, I hadn’t written a song and I was a horrible guitar player. I told my mom that day and she and I wrote a song that consisted of 4 simple chords and I practiced them like crazy every single day. Graduation day came, I played, and I’m sure it was awful but I got a great response from my school so I walked away thinking I was pretty darn cool… But I hadn’t caught the writing bug just yet. That was my first live “acoustic” solo experience. I don’t recommend it. Before that, though, I always sang in church and was in the Cincinnati Boys Choir as a really little guy.


I know you mostly as a musical theater performer, a veritable triple threat as your performance as Ren in Footloose made amply clear. Was your development as a Broadway-bound actor/singer/dancer simultaneous with your development as a rock performer?

Oh gosh you’re nice. I don’t know about triple threat. I think I’m just an okay faker or maybe you had a seat behind a pole and missed the bad stuff.

Everyone should learn to “fake” as well as you! So how did you first discover musical theater?

I didn’t know much about musical theater until my sister saw Rent on tour in Arizona around 1998 or so. She brought the CD home and said “you gotta hear this.” I was disinterested, and then she said “No, trust me, you’ll dig it, they curse! This isn’t South Pacific!” So I popped in the CD and was hooked. I made it a life goal to one day be a part of the show and I looked at it like, “If I were ever going to be on Broadway it would have to be in this show because I couldn’t make it in Fosse or Chicago or… South Pacific.” I am super blessed that my dream actually became a reality.

Actually, you’d be perfect for Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific, but don’t let me interrupt. How about your development as a singer-songwriter?

With writing songs and performing my own music, it was pretty much inspired by a very good friend of mine, Nathan Prath. He had a band in L.A. named Mercury Rose years ago, and though they aren’t together any longer, I loved everything about him and them. He was constantly writing songs and rehearsing with the band and always, always creating. I loved it. It was incredibly inspiring to hang out with him. He would write a song on the piano, pitch it to the band, they’d all learn it. Then, once the weekend rolled around, they’d test it out in front of sixty or seventy people. What a rush! Nate and I became best friends pretty quick so I started to manage the band for a while, find them gigs, set up rehearsals, pitch merchandise, that kind of thing. After awhile, Nate started to roll song ideas off me to see what I liked best and that’s when I caught the bug. Nate lives in Nashville now, I’ve been writing ever since, and he’s still someone I admire, look up to, and keep in contact with to this day.

You’d already moved to L.A. when you got cast in Rent, which took you to New York. How long were you in the show, and how much of that time was spent in the Big Apple?

I was in Rent for close to two years. On tour for about a year and a half and in New York for seven or eight months I think.

What was it like living in New York City?

Life in New York at first was incredibly hard for me. It was lonely and rough and I was the new kid on Broadway. If there is anywhere on the planet where you have to earn peoples respect, it’s there, and it was tough, especially since my Broadway debut in the show was with Adam Pascal playing Roger. Talk about pressure! But I grew up and matured so much from it that I look back and couldn’t be more grateful for how tough it was. After a while, I got much more familiar with the city. I started taking tons of classes, acting classes, singing classes. I was in a Broadway bowling league, a basketball league, I just tried to soak up as much of the city and the people in it as I could and grew to love it. Sometimes even after being away for close to three years now I miss it.

What prompted your return to the West Coast?

I came back to L.A. because once I had put out my first record, touring companies in L.A. were putting me on stage and on tour with huge artists like Grammy winner James Otto, The Lovell Sisters and Aaron Watson so I thought the West Coast was the place to be. I kind of figured, “I did the Broadway thing and it was a blast, what else can I try and be a part of?” I love musicals and I love singing those stories and those ideas but there’s nothing greater than writing your own song and hearing someone like it enough that they sing it back to you. Plus you can’t beat this weather. It was 85 today in the middle of January!

Talk a little about your latest album, Lifted Me From Lonely. How long did you work on it?

Lifted Me From Lonely took a long time to get out there. Over two years. It was a struggle because I had to come up with the cash and have enough songs to make what I feel is a cohesive record. Nowadays you can write and record a song with a laptop, a decent mike and a strat, but I enjoy the process of working with other musicians and hearing their take on a song I’ve written. I like being in the studio. The smells, the energy, the history! I like the on-the-spot collaboration of feelings and talents. I live for it really. So I didn’t want to just record these songs and put them out there with only the cards I have in my bag. I wanted to explore other musicians’ bags as well and see what we could come up with. That costs money though which is why a lot of people don’t do it like that anymore.

How did you assemble your band and production team?

My producer, Otto D’Agnolo, worked with me on Without Wax and I always felt that he understood the direction I was going with my music even as inexperienced as I was at that time. I knew I wanted to work with him again, and there is a guy in Arizona named Ray Herndon who is quite possibly the most creative, mind blowing guitar player/musician I’ve ever met and I had to have him on the record. Once I found dates where I could get those two in the same room it all came together pretty quickly. What an honor it is to have both of those guys on my record.

How do you decide which song is going to be the first “single?”

Choosing a single honestly … sucks. It’s hard. I wrote the songs, of course I like them all and every time I write a new one I think “Now this is the best one I’ve ever written.” For me the single is just the one that speaks the loudest. Sometimes you hear a song and it just hits you in the face like some kind of emotional slap or something and that’s what I look for when picking singles. What speaks the loudest. On this one, for me, it’s “Go.” That song means a lot to me and always will. I think that one speaks the loudest on the record, at least right now. I’m pumped for the music video!


The music industry has changed a lot in the past decade or so, with the Internet, iTunes, etc. enabling new artists to get their music out their without that illusive Big Record Deal. Is this a plus or a minus for an up-and-coming performer like yourself, or a little of both?

Both, without a doubt. Con, every single person on the planet these days calls themselves a songwriter which is awesome. Create art. I’m totally into it. But because it’s so easy to put it out, there’s a lot of really great music that never gets heard because it’s being trampled on by the not-so -great stuff. Then people become “celebrities” because of how bad they are. That’s really, really weird to me and I don’t think I’ll ever understand it. But on the flip side, anyone can write a song in the morning and have it online for their friends, family and fans to hear by lunch time. That’s fantastic! And if you’re clever enough, you can promote your songs to places only the record labels used to be able to get to. I’ve discovered bands I would have never ever known about had they not been mentioned on Facebook or featured on Yahoo or something. I think if more people took the time to create and experiment with talent, the suicide and murder rates would go way down. It’s cathartic and almost like therapy at times.

What’s the game plan for getting Lifted Me From Lonely heard, played, and on people’s iPods and car stereos?

Right now the plan is practice and play, practice and play. Rinse, lather, repeat. I’m also talking to a few music supervisors for TV shows to get my music played there. Because of the Internet and social networks, word of mouth is one of the most powerful things out there to get your music heard and played. If the music is good, people will hear it. I’m just hoping my stuff is good enough. Patience is a virtue and it’s something I’m slowly, very slowly, learning to understand.

What about live performances?

When I first got back to L.A. from New York, I knew I wanted to play live, but hadn’t played my songs hardly at all, especially acoustically, so they were super super rough. But I wanted to play so bad and was offered a spot at a club on La Brea called Room 5. Tons of people showed up, it was almost sold out. The show was horrible. Hands down the worst show I’ve ever played and it was simply because I wasn’t patient enough to practice and fine tune the performance. It was incredibly embarrassing and I learned the hard way that if you aren’t totally ready, completely prepared, you might never see those people at another show ever again. A humbling experience to say the least.

Do you have any plans to tour?

I’d like to get a music manager and head out on tour. I’d like to play in as many places as I can in 2012 and get as many people willing to hear the music. I’ve already started talking with a director I look up to and respect about doing a music video for “Go.” So that will happen next month.

How would you like to see your career develop over the next few years?

Honestly, in the next few years, I’m just looking to find my “place.” Hopefully it involves singing and writing because I know that’s what I love, but I want to find the spot where my heart says “This is where I belong. It’s cozy here.”

Will you continue to combine theater and singing/songwriting?

I’m lucky that in the last few years theater has been able to pay my bills and put food in my mouth. It’s an absolute blessing, but I’d love if I could just focus on songwriting and performing my own music. If I could play my music for awhile and maybe drift back into a musical at some point that would be great!

Have you considered adding non-singing film and TV roles to your résumé?

I haven’t really put much thought (or effort for that matter) into film and TV. Musical theater requires some acting skill but I don’t really think of myself as an “actor.” I just have never felt totally comfortable with it for some reason so I haven’t really looked much into film and TV, not that I would be against it but I know one reason why I love theater is for the live aspect of it all. “Get it right or pay the price!” No “Take Two” in theater. You really have to be on your game in theater as well as in performing music live because honestly you either get it right now or figure out a way to fix it when you screw it up because kind of like in life, we can’t “fix it in post.”

Whatever you do, I wish you the best of luck, Harley. Even bigger things are surely ahead for you!

HARLEY JAY: Broadway credits: Rent (Mark Cohen, replacement for original cast member Anthony Rapp). National Tour: Miss Saigon (Chris Understudy), Rent (Mark Cohen, 2006-2007 cast). After writing, co-producing, and releasing the solo album Without Wax, Harley toured with Grammy-winning artist James Otto, shared the stage with award-winning bluegrass group The Lovell Sisters and opened for former Wings guitar player and Grammy winner Laurence Juber.





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