Harrison Whitford is an LA-based singer-songwriter and guitarist. His album Afraid of Nothing is out November 2021 via Screwdriver Records.
(Photo Credit: Zach Whitford)
Harrison Whitford is an LA-based guitarist, who plays in Phoebe Bridgers’s band and who writes and performs his own music; Noah Gundersen is a Seattle-based singer-songwriter, who has also collaborated with Bridgers. To celebrate the release of Whitford’s new album, Afraid of Nothing — out tomorrow via Screwdriver Records — the two friends got on the phone for a good old fashioned interview.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Harrison Whitford: Is that you?
Noah Gundersen: It’s been so long! It’s been a whole, like, 24 hours.
Harrison: Too many hours for me.
Noah: I’m going to pretend like I’m interviewing you, and I’m going to ask all the most basic, worst questions.
Harrison: “So tell me how you got into music?”
Noah: [Laughs.] “So what does songwriting mean to you?
Harrison: “What is it you just love about tour? Tell us a great tour story.”
Noah: Do you ever find that what you think is a good tour story, or a tour event — like, “I got a full night’s sleep.”
Harrison: “I didn’t drink too much, I was hydrated. It was incredible.”
Noah: “I woke up fully rested.” Those are the events though.
Harrison: Right. Well, I can just never remember any stories. I know there probably are, but really, it’s just like, “Yeah, I went to a bar.”
Noah: Or if you see, like, a photo of a show you played, and you just have that experience of like, I have absolutely no recollection of this happening.
Harrison: And it’s like when you show up to a venue and you’re like, I know I’ve been here before, but I don’t remember.
Noah: Yeah. Anyway, back to the interview — you have some music coming out in the near future. Is that correct?
Harrison: I have a music album on the way.
Noah: Could you tell us a little bit about this music album, and what inspired your writing process on this upcoming album?
Harrison: Oh, you know, just a lot of boredom and alone time. It was sort of like, you know, that dystopian snow day that we’ve all been in, except the snow was a deadly virus. But yeah, it’s an album with about 10 tracks.
Noah: Sounds great. It’s a good amount of songs — the number of completion, as they say.
Harrison: I heard Bob Dylan say that once.
Noah: The number of completion?
Harrison: I swear, there’s an interview where he’s like, “The number 10’s the number of completion.” What does that mean?
Noah: I was just rewatching No Direction Home the other day, and — not to make this interview about me, [laughs] — but this last year has just been such a weird time that, like, I’m coming out from underneath the blanket a little bit and feeling able to really enjoy some things that I just wasn’t able to for a long time.
Noah: Because I’ve been in survival mode or whatever. So like, I was just going back and being like, Man, this guy, for all his craziness, was so important to me. The things I idolized about him, and the things I tried to kind of emulate, were really just, like, perspectives that you just kind of gain with time — once you cross that certain threshold in the music industry where you’re like, Oh, it’s all kind of bullshit and anyone who says otherwise is probably selling you something, or trying to sell you. But the thing that matters is the creativity and just the freedom of expression at the heart of all of it.
And watching that early shit with him — his creative doors were just swung wide open all the time.
Harrison: And I feel like the cool thing with Dylan is that, that’s true, and then there are so many Bob Dylans. So you also get to see his own sort of perspective shifts throughout every record. I feel the same way too, where it’s like, no matter how far away you get from someone like him, any time you revisit it, you remember all at once like, Oh, this guy’s like a north star for me, you know?
Noah: Yeah. You know what’s the biggest trip for Bob Dylan? I was thinking about it the other day — he’s Bob Dylan. He has to be Bob Dylan.
Harrison: But the crazy thing is, he’s dealt with that since day one. He just seemed to have — I mean, whether it was calculated or not — I’m beginning to think it’s not calculated — but he just had the clarity of vision from the very start.
Noah: Yeah, he’s like, “I consider myself more of a song and dance man.”
Harrison: He’s definitely a scoundrel.
Noah: Oh, for sure.
Harrison: He definitely enjoys, like, mismanaging the general people’s expectations.
Noah: Yeah. I think it’s a combination of both. I think he just is that — he likes fucking with people, but he also seems to know… I don’t know. I mean, I can’t imagine being asked those questions like, “Do you consider yourself the voice of your generation?” And he’s like, “Uh, what? What does that mean?”
Harrison: Or in that same press conference when the guy’s like, “What’s the symbolism of the motorcycle on your shirt, on the cover of the record?” And he’s like, “Uh, some people like motorcycles.” I just love the idea of people reading that far into anything. And almost the joke of it, too, is those lyrics are so kind of insane and nonsensical, those early Dylan lyrics — and so poetic at the same time. But I just love that people couldn’t just enjoy it. It has to come back to some need to find this hidden meaning that proves some, like, intellectual standing.
Noah: Yeah, and he was funny.
Harrison: Yeah, he’s hilarious.
Noah: There’s that line where he’s talking about the commander-in-chief dropping a barbell, he points to the sky and says, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”
Harrison: Yeah, exactly. Or our mutual favorite, “I drive fast cars, I eat fast food, I contain multitudes.” Try beating that lyric.
Noah: I don’t know if like this is, like, top secret information, because I know it gets pretty secretive over there. But there’s a verse in that song “Murder Most Foul” — the JFK song — that didn’t make the cut, but I heard a take of it. And he literally goes, “Play Slim Harpo, play Slim Shady.”
Harrison: [Laughs.] Oh, my god.
Noah: He references Eminem in the song.
Harrison: But you’re right, it is weird — coming back to your point about Dylan knowing that he’s Dylan — I cannot imagine….
Noah: What happens to your psyche?
Harrison: Yeah. I mean, there’s so much ego already just built into the whole framework of the music industry and most of it’s false ego. But if anyone’s ego is justifiable, it’s Bob Dylan.
Noah: Right. Well, probably just with the psychology of that kind of thing, it becomes more of a task than anything to suppress the ego.
Harrison: That would be a terrifying existence, in my opinion.
Noah: Yeah. And the weirdness of it — I mean, and you can probably relate to this, but the truest elements of songwriting, you can only take so much credit for yourself.
Noah: Granted, if you do anything long enough, you’ll be decent at it, and some people have a pretty natural proclivity to be good at something. If you just do it a lot, you’ll figure something out. But also with songwriting, the real trick is just staying open. That’s the muscle that we’ve learned to exercise.
Harrison: I feel like that could go with almost any medium. Sometimes on the internet, people will message me like, “What’s the way to get better at guitar?” And there really isn’t another answer other than to say, you just gotta love to play and practice more than you want to.
Noah: And that’s something I’ve always admired about you — you know, to get back to the interview.
Harrison: To get back to me! [Laughs.]
Noah: To get back to you — you are one of those people that, if you’re in the van or in the green room or on the bus, you just have a guitar. And I have never been able to be that guy. I like playing guitar, but it’s always really just been a vehicle for songwriting.
I think you’re totally right — all the people I know who are really fucking good at an instrument, it’s not because they’re like, Ugh, alright, I’ve gotta get up and practice today. You have to like playing your thing and just do it all the time. That’s, for me, like songwriting — I genuinely love the process and I feel better when I get up and I do it. At least now, it’s more like, OK, this is just the thing I do every day, and sometimes something happens, sometimes nothing happens. And the process of it is enjoyable.
Harrison: Do you have that experience when you finish a record, and you just are sad?
Harrison: Like, whatever stress was involved in getting even a take or something, or one song to be whatever it was, once the record’s actually finished, you’re like, Oh, this whole part is over, and now everything that follows the post-it-being-done part is significantly less fun.
Noah: For me, I’m in such a place now where it’s like, we’re already making the next record.
Harrison: Well, OK, that’s the antidote. You just keep going. You gotta jump in.
Noah: Yeah. And I think for me, that’s like — again, I love the process, and I probably would. A sense of sadness if it was like, OK, the record’s done, and now I’m just going to do a cycle. But for me, it’s become such a state of flow where, it’s all one big record.
Harrison: Totally. Yes, absolutely. Or it’s one big anything.
But that’s also something like I really respect, like thinking about you or Phoebe [Bridgers]. Like, for me, I pay rent with guitar. I’m a guitar player first, and I love to make records, I love to write songs. I love to kind of just do whatever creatively, but I’m a guitar player. But just the idea of — I guess it makes sense when you’re like, “Oh, we’re already starting this record,” because your livelihood is songs. Whereas for me, songs I love as much as anything, but I place no pressure in my mind on making that how I survive.
Noah: Which is probably kind of awesome.
Harrison: I mean, it works perfectly well for me. I just think it’s interesting how like, I kind of do believe whatever the thing is somebody does, that’s what they’re going to do. It’s just wired in someone like you to be like, “This is what I am, this is what I do.” But I could never wrap my head around, personally, the psychology that comes with that. Because don’t you find, too, there are moments where it’s like, This is soul crushing, sometimes? I guess my question is, how have you in your life managed the combination of being a full time artist with all the perils of that?
Noah: Well, Harrison, thank you for that great question, and thank you for bringing the interview back to me. [Laughs.] The writing used to be more soul crushing, because I think I put so much stock in it as, like, defining me. And I think as I’ve gotten older, and series of events and different relationships and definitely therapy — a cocktail of things — have helped. I don’t put the same amount of pressure on it as I used to. And like I was saying earlier, it’s kind of more like the guitar thing, where it’s just like, I like doing it. So that process is not as soul crushing.
I think it is interesting — I’m doing these shows where I’m going back and playing old records, and it is funny to play a sequence of songs from a certain period of my life and be like, Damn, these are kind of heavy moments that I don’t think I fully appreciated when I was writing them. And to revisit them — I had to stop during the set the other night and be like, to the audience, “Hey, just FYI, I’m in a really good place now in my life. I have a fiancee, I like my life, I’ve figured a few things out. But like, I’ve also just accepted that I can’t figure out blah blah blah.” That part is interesting to come back and revisit certain places emotionally.
But yeah, I really do just feel like it’s part of the flow. I will say, something I appreciated this last year was honestly picking up another form of income, which is, I’ve been doing construction. I’ve been doing tile specifically, and there’s a creative element to it, but also, I don’t have to wait for the money to come. That is the funny part about doing music for a living is — you can make a good living at it, but it’s really out of your control in a lot of ways.
Harrison: Yeah, it’s really precarious.
Noah: As we’ve all learned this last year, like, what if you can’t do shows? And even if you can do shows, what if people stop coming, or you fucking get canceled, or whatever?
Harrison: And doing something like that, too, there’s so much utility in building. That is a super creative job — you are literally building part of something. The analog can be perfectly drawn to songwriting, in my opinion.
Noah: And it’s humbling too. In the same way that you do the process of building something, and you pay attention and you just keep showing up each day and you try to learn from your mistakes, I feel like having that as a new perspective and framework helps the songwriting feel less precious and weird. Because of that, I feel like I’ve been expressing myself more freely. But it’s also like, I remember years ago when I would get asked what [my] hobbies are, I’m like, “Uh, I just do music.” [Laughs.] And now I do other stuff! When you’re sort of naturally good at something, it’s especially hard to do stuff you’re not good at—
Harrison: Yeah, and my problem is, if I find that quote-unquote “hobby,” it very quickly turns into full-on the thing that I want to be doing in that moment. I’m not really good at having a hobby casually, but I like that. I like that I’m at a point in my life where I’ll just find a new thing that I like to do and just chase that — and having the freedom to, it’s like incredible. That’s something I’ve been thinking about, too, lately — just having the freedom to have any kind of creative expression, I don’t really need anything more than that.
Noah: I think, too, having hobbies that don’t involve creativity are also great. Like, I learned to snowboard as a 31 year old man and, boy, I tell you, that is a humbling experience.
Harrison: Snowboarding is hard as fuck.
Noah: You just spend so much time on your ass, and there’s five year old kids just bombing past you. Either your ego gets hurt, or you just laugh about it and be like, “Yeah, this is hilarious.” But anyone that does it tells you, “Yeah, you’re going to suck at this thing, even if you’re good at it naturally.”
That’s what I was speaking to earlier. I think that practicing anything, like learning an instrument or even writing songs, sometimes people don’t realize that a big part of that is the sucking period of it — that you just have to go through that and that is where it all happens. That’s the most distilled sort of period of growth. And then sort of being like, OK, I don’t suck as much anymore, and things come a little easier.
The other cool thing is, once you get past that it never isn’t challenging. That, to me, is the coolest part about any kind of creative field, that you’re never totally free of challenge if you’re pushing yourself.
So doing things like snowboarding and boxing and some of these physical things — I’m never going to be a fucking pro athlete. I’m never going to be an athlete. But it’s humbling. And it doesn’t even have to be some analogy for songwriting, either. I think it’s just good for you as a person.
Harrison: Yeah, it’s good for your brain.
Noah: Yeah, to try new things and be OK with sucking at it.
(Photo Credit: left, Zach Whitford)