What I Play Harrison
Published Sep 23, 2016Three years ago, emerging producer Harrison was walking with a friend when the pair discovered an abandoned backpack near an underpass. Inside was a pair of Sennheiser 280 Pro headphones. The lightly scuffed cans, which Harrison affectionately calls his "old reliables" are what the Toronto beatsmith used to master his new album, Checkpoint Titanium.
"I don't really like having a lot of music gear. There are people with the racks and the… stuff. That stuff just gives me anxiety," explains Harrison, who self-produced his album out of his modest home studio in Toronto's east end. "I just need my laptop and a couple of things."
Like his beloved Sennheisers, nearly all of Harrison's studio gear was scavenged, repaired or given to him second-hand by friends — including an ancient yet sturdy cluster of mismatched chairs. Interestingly, most of his equipment (drum set, Korg SP-250 digital piano, even his monitors) was acquired after he completed his new record.
Titanium, therefore, is an exercise in creating rich, dynamic sound with a scant selection of tools. The dusty, unpolished charm of "Vanilla" (featuring Last Gang labelmate Ryan Hemsworth), or "Vertigo" (featuring the sensuous vocals of Toronto chanteuse a l l i e), which transforms from light and bubbly to thick and fleshy as the song progresses, are strong examples of how this gifted beatmaker can turn trash into treasures.
Most of the items in Harrison's studio are relics, in some cases older than he is by over a decade. But it's the quirks, kinks and dents that excite him the most. "I like sounds that [are] a little more shitty. Not too grimy, but when it purposely has that sort of vintage texture — it's more fun."
On Titanium, Harrison expertly showcases his love for making old things new. Colourful and rich, "Right Hook" is an overt display of '80s opulence that captures the era so astutely, it's hard to imagine the 21-year-old wasn't even a thought in that decade. "Lotus" is just as indulgent, loaded with rich percussion, silky synths and even random birdcalls Harrison lifted from his phone — whatever works. And it all works.
"I use the [Yamaha] DX7 a lot because it's got a bunch of '80s sounds. It's my favourite synth," Harrison says as he sheepishly points out a permanently depressed key and chuckles at the imperfection. "Everything I got here was broken."
Just as he prefers simplicity in his tools, Harrison takes a relaxed and uncluttered approach to conceptualizing his music. Barring the time it took to arrange features, the album took about four months to create. During the process, he sustained himself with simple distractions: lots of long walks and random breaks spent rifling through his phone. Harrison likes that a home studio allows for such moments of calming idleness.
"I don't really like [commercial] studio sessions," he says. "You have to sit there and be so focused and it's gloomy. I feel like everyone's judging what I'm doing."
In addition to a l l i e and Hemsworth, Harrison enlisted Clairmont the Second, Young Guv and mentor Seamus Hamilton to lend their talents. Features were recorded remotely, for the most part, giving each artist the freedom to create in whatever manner suited them best.
For Harrison, having a creative connection with his collaborators is paramount, whether they create together or apart. His laissez-faire attitude toward his colleagues worked largely because a personal connection was already there. "I don't like internet collaborations, but I actually know these people personally, so it was fine," says Harrison. "I was like, 'okay, I don't know how they work, but they're cool people so they'll do great.'"
These risky remote collaborations paid off, especially on Harrison's effort with Hamilton, "Social Stimulus." Its haunting melody, stirring bass and hyper 808s make for a delicious blend that expertly weaves decades together.
"Seamus taught me a lot of stuff," Harrison says of his friend and longtime collaborator. "He still uses Reason, the software that we started off with. I think he really believes when you're limited, you make the best stuff."
With Checkpoint Titanium under his belt, Harrison has his sights set on honing his craft and further refining his sound. He is teaching himself to play the drums, acoustic guitar and plans to take up piano lessons again in September — he took them as a child, but abandoned them because they felt like a chore.
As for collecting more studio gear, Harrison feels like after four years of scavenging, he's finally curated just the right mix of trinkets. "If you want to make music, all you need is a really good pair of headphones."