Peter Harper’s road to singer/songwriter was circuitous. Although he grew up in his family-owned music store, Claremont Folk Music Center, he decided to pursue fine art, earning a Master’s of Arts from NYU and having a successful career as a sculptor. Then things changed — or more precisely, the world changed — and Harper wasn’t finding satisfaction creating visual art as he once had. So, he set down his sculpting tools and picked up a guitar.
Fast-forward to 2013, and Harper, who also teaches fine art at California State University Channel Islands, released his self-titled debut record, touring the U.S. and Europe to get his music out to the people. In 2017, Harper went back into the studio and created Break the Cycle. Produced by Grammy Award–winning engineer Sheldon Gomberg, the album features introspective lyrics backed by an amalgamation of blues, folk, and rock music. Thoughtful, articulate, and easy to laugh, Harper is a delightful raconteur, and our recent phone conversation wended from topics such as how people consume art to playing for intoxicated crowds in dive bars. The following is a snippet of our conversation.
Why did you decide to change artistic directions? Some of the things that I was trying to say in my sculpture … that I felt were really critical and important on a social level, weren’t getting across. That was frustrating. So I made bigger sculptures. Then I made sculptures that became interactive. Those helped, but it still wasn’t having the impact that I was hoping for. When I picked up the guitar to try to convey those similar messages, the songs really have…profoundly done that, in a way that the sculpture couldn’t.
Was it hard to shift media? How do you incorporate your fine art into your musicianship? Initially I thought, “Uh-oh. I’m trading one for the other,” but ultimately, it has been a fusion of everything. … [For example, for] my last album, Break the Cycle, I pressed 200 copies of that album in vinyl. … I hand-drew every single album cover. Each album cover became a one-of-a-kind work of art in a limited-edition pressing. I got about 30 albums in, and I thought, “Oh, my God. I’ve got 170 more. What did you do to yourself?” I just kept going, and now that it’s done, and I can look back at all the artworks — what a phenomenal experience to be able to meld my skill sets. So the art isn’t lost. I’ve found other ways to weave it in.
Peter Harper & The Last Three played Twilight Time live at Indy HQ. Credit: Erika Carlos
Still, it was quite a career leap. Instead of worrying about whether or not I can succeed, I just try. … Once you’ve accepted that failure is a constant and that success is the exception, when you get it, it’s such an honor and a privilege that you cherish it, and you hope you can make it last for a long time.
I like the way your song “Break the Cycle” moves — it changes pace and mood, incorporates several musical genres. How did it come about? I turned on the news and saw the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan Theatre in France. I just thought, “This can’t go on. We can’t just keep killing one another, on either side. As Americans, we’ve dropped enough bombs, and as radical extremists they’ve shot enough innocent people.” … I sat down … and the moment that I found that right tuning, it just came pouring out. … The real surprise came in the studio. The guy who was going to play the electric guitar had to bail out at the last minute. [Sheldon Gomberg] said, “Oh, I’ve got a guy [Val McCollum, guitarist for Jackson Browne].” He came in and he started playing, and I thought, “Oh, my God. This guy is off-the-charts good. … He started ripping into it, and everything he did was brilliant.” [Just] as I wrote it and it poured out, he played his part, and it poured out.
Do you have a new record in the works? I’ve got an EP, which is five songs, coming out on Valentine’s Day. The five songs that are on this EP are really fun. It’s a range between a full band and just me and the guitar. It’s blues, and it’s sort of pop-folk. It’s just really fun music. Then this summer, I will have a 12-song album, which will include the five songs from the EP and seven new songs. …There’s a lot going on in there, dynamically.
Peter Harper will play Saturday, January 19, 6 p.m., at SOhO Restaurant and Music Club. Call 962-7776 or see sohosb.com.