Published Jan 01, 2006Before stepping into the spotlight as a solo acoustic guitarist, Harris Newman was a sideman for much of Montreal's avant-rock elite, playing on albums by Hrsta, Esmerine, Hanged Up, Angela Desveaux, and spent many years in the late '90s "damaged roots" band Sackville. Lately he's been recording a new duo with Godspeed percussionist Bruce Cawdron called Triple Burner, which expands on the guitar/drum duets that make up part of his 2005 solo album, Accidents With Nature and Each Other.
If none of that rings a bell, anyone who's bought Montreal indie music in the last seven years will notice Newman as the city's mastering engineer of choice. Newman's skills have provided the finishing touch on albums by Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Bionic, AIDS Wolf, the Dears, We Are Wolves, and almost everything on Constellation and Alien8 Records. What started out as a hobby for friends turned into a full time gig two years ago when he realised he was mastering records up to 40 hours a week on top of his day job and developing tendonitis from working on a mouse all day.
Newman operates entirely out of a bedroom in his modest apartment in Montreal's Little Italy, where he's slowly acquired gear to meet his needs. The room looks more like a storage room than a designed sonic space. "I'm the first to admit that the room here is the weakest link in what I'm doing," he says. "Every room has character and anomalies, and even in the better-designed spaces it's still something you have to negotiate. I'm very familiar with the characteristics of this room, and I do a lot of work in my living room with a totally different set of speakers. I can triangulate between that space, this space, and headphones and take them to a place where I'm happy."
Working with available means also applies to his choice of acoustic guitar, a Harmony Sovereign that was the first and only guitar he's ever owned (actually, it's been on extended loan from his uncle since Newman was 14 years old). "Periodically I think I should buy a nice guitar; this one is basically a Sears catalogue model from the '60s," he explains. "I just haven't found a guitar I like more and I've tried. Whenever I do go looking, I'm always disappointed. I'll find something for $2,000 that's almost as good as the $200 guitar I already own. I'm a bit of a gear nut, but all the instruments I play are the first things I ever owned. My lap steel is a 1955 Gibson that I bought off the bass player in my first band when I was 15."
Keeping things close to home relates directly to his decision to start playing solo acoustic, which stemmed from his disillusion with band dynamics and politics. "I don't think this would have happened if I wasn't already set up to do recordings by myself," says Newman. "It was very much a power trip: from A to Z I was able to control the whole process. I did do a studio session at one point, and within an hour I knew I couldn't do it. As soon as you're in a studio there are things outside of your control: the tape is running, the clock is ticking. Here, I can start the hard drive running and play for eight hours."
Newman's approach to the acoustic guitar involves a bit of cheating: he uses a Fishman Rare Earth pick-up and a Fender Princeton amp, milking the sustain, reverb and slight distortion he can get as part of his compositions. But that's as complicated as his set-up gets for now. "As soon as you put too much junk between the acoustic guitar and the audience it devalues the process a bit," he reasons. "It makes it less intimate, you relate less directly to what the musicians are doing.
"Part of why I gravitated to the acoustic guitar is because it was something I could do by myself. I did a tour this spring and carried everything at once: guitar in one hand, amp in the other, backpack with some clothes and cables. Every once in a while I'll break out the lap steel or a looper and try and dig into things a bit more, but other than being curious I'm not really committed to extending beyond the simple platform I've given myself."
That said, he's not ready to go it alone entirely acoustically, as he discovered at a recent show in the States. "I played at a bookstore where there were no amplifiers, and it drove home to me how much I'm really not an acoustic guitar player! It was rather unnerving, and a few things crashed and burned. That was the first time I'd ever done that."