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Harrison: Practice Makes Perfect

The celebrated producer plunks himself down in front of the piano for a fresh new sound.

by Adriel Smiley

Photo by Luis Mora

Towering over most of the room when he enters, Toronto-based producer and composer Harrison is hard to miss walking into his local Aroma Espresso Bar. The sun illuminates the large windows of the coffee shop as he makes his way to a booth along the wall to greet me. 

Despite it being one of the warmest days of the year, he’s wearing a tweed blazer accompanied by matching pants, both relics from his grandfather who passed recently. He rocks a black beanie held tight to his head by his over-the-ear headphones. Silver rings and a chain accentuate the fit, topped off by pink Chuck Taylors.

After ordering a coffee we spend some time catching up, reminiscing about life before the pandemic. “I was working with Sean Leon,” he says. An in-demand Juno-nominated beatmaker, his SoundCloud collections of J Dilla-style instrumental hip-hop with a jazzy experimental twist have sparked collaborations with other notable artists including Daniela Andrade, DijahSB and TOBi.

Harrison’s last album, Apricity, was released in 2018 to critical acclaim. It was more of a dance/electronic project, a clear deviation from where he is now. His latest instrument of choice — the piano — has spun him in an unexpected direction. During the lockdown, Harrison inadvertently grew his online presence hovering over the keys of his piano, a process that started years before a sizable audience grew out of his social media-ready clips that find him demonstrating his skills or mashing up viral videos with musical accompaniment. 

When asked what he’s been up to, “Practicing” is the first word out of his mouth. Over the past few years, he’s been making it an intentional daily practice. “There’s just so much to learn,” he says. “So I thought ‘I better get my hours in,’ and it became a bit of an obsession.”

Harrison’s new album titled Birds, Bees, The Clouds & The Trees is his first offering in five years and highlights his newfound dedication to the piano. To him, this project feels like a personal victory. One of his early goals was credibility, and the more he practiced the better he got. “I never could get that technical, but as I grew as a pianist, as a musician, it started to seem more attainable as somewhat of a jazz album,” he says.

Alongside his personal journey working toward what Harrison felt could be termed a feasible jazz album was a string of external validation. He admits that these were the moments where he felt some of the most confidence in the project. Known for their collaborations with the late J Dilla, rappers M.E.D. and Guilty Simpson gave him a huge boost when they came on board. The two appear on “Bump,” one of the album’s first singles and one of the few that feature vocals. “M.E.D. and Guilty Simpson are heroes of mine,” says Harrison. “It meant a lot to me to have them on the record.”

His friends validated him too. His eyes light up when he talks about their response. They call his new music ‘Diet Jazz,’ a moniker he seems to enjoy. Clearly, all the hours of practice have paid off.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Harrison’s biggest inspiration for his newest project is actually the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, the iconic collection from the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It’s an album that he characterizes as “accessible jazz,” something that played a huge part in his approach. “I don’t want to say accessible, that almost sounds like I’m knocking it,” he says. “But it brought that type of jazz to millions of people and also didn’t focus so much on technicalities. It’s just a really lovely album to listen to…I listen to that shit all year round.” 

During the pandemic, Harrison had a lot of time to look inward and turning a heavy focus towards the piano has had more of a lasting positive impact than Harrison ever expected. “Realistically, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” he says.

His outlook, just like the album, is refreshing. Harrison has a sense of calm. The usual pressure from scrambling to release an album is absent. He is proud of his work, seemingly regardless of how it is received commercially. “I’ve slowly grown into myself as a person, just more confident. More confident in my abilities. And understanding no one needs to like anything. It’s a blessing to be able to even do it.”