The multi-talented Chris Harford — a singer-songwriter, musician, recording artist, painter, and photographer to name just a few skills — enjoys employing themes and imagery of the cosmos, space travel, and the stars in his compositions.
Harford will present an all-ages evening of mostly originals with his Band of Changes at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street in Princeton on Saturday, February 4.
This fascination with the heavens and the concept of exploring what’s “out there” might have been in his DNA, as Harford’s father, the late James “Jim” Harford was executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. This organization, the AIAA, is the largest aerospace professional society in the world, with members hailing from some 80 countries.
“It’s a nonprofit, research (organization) of mostly engineers and scientists, which holds conferences across the globe to talk about such things as missions to Mars — but they focus on the scientific and aeronautic side of it,” Harford says. “Because my dad was so involved in this (world of space exploration), he would bring home autographs and things from our U.S. astronauts, and some of the (Soviet) Russian cosmonauts, too.”
“I can even remember some of the cosmonauts visiting our home in Princeton in the 1970s, all of which would explain the space imagery in my songs,” he continues.
“My dad traveled 17 times to Russia, and after he retired, he wrote a book about the mastermind of the Russian space program,” Harford says, referring to “Korolov: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon” (Wiley, 1999), about the enigmatic Cold War figure sometimes known only as the “Chief Designer.”
“But my dad also loved his music, and I inherited that from him,” Harford says.
Speaking of the cosmos, Harford likes to think that the stars have aligned this winter, as he will be able to present an exceptional version of Band of Changes (BOC) at Small World.
Listen up for mostly original music — some drawn from BOC’s latest release “Horn of Plenty” — but with a cover or two thrown in. Like the evolving quality of the band itself, the set list is always progressing.
“We draw up a batch of songs to last two hours, and there are several hundred to choose from,” Harford says. “We’ll cull from that as the night progresses.”
On Facebook Harford describes the aptly named Band of Changes as “a consistently changing series of music performances by a band that never plays the same songs in the same way twice.”
“It’s the idea, ‘isn’t this fun not to be limited to one group, to let the people who come to the group breathe new life into this?’” Harford says. “So it’s new every time, and that’s what the people come for — they never know who’s going to be in the band, and it keeps it fun for me.”
“This is a rare, special one, though,” he adds. “These guys are all in different projects, but when the timing is correct they’ll come together to play in Band of Changes. What an honor it is to play with these folks.”
Although BOC constantly evolves, some of the participants are regulars, as well as being Harford’s old friends from Princeton.
“Matt Kohut is our bass player, a great human being and a local guy whose father was Andy Kohut (pollster and news commentator Andrew Kohut),” Harford says. “I’ve been playing with Matt for about 20 years, and he recently moved back to the area full-time.”
“On drums we have Joe Russo, who’s been enjoying success in ‘Joe Russo’s Almost Dead,’” Harford continues, noting that Russo has worked with members of the Grateful Dead on other Dead-inspired projects and bands, including Furthur.
In addition, guitarist Warren Zanes — a music educator, film score composer, author of a recent biography of Tom Petty, former head of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and original member of the Del Fuegos — will be part of the Band of Changes’ February 4 gig.
“I can’t believe the people coming together for this,” Harford says. “We’ll also have Robbie Mangano, an exceptional musician who’s been playing (guitars) in Sean Lennon’s band. I’m ridiculously fortunate to get these guys to come down from Brooklyn and play in Princeton.”
With some 35 years in music and the recording scene, Harford has worked with such outstanding singer-songwriters as Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson. Harford has received praise in various media, including “The New Yorker,” which described him as someone who “operates in the free zone outside rock’s usual categories. He has a foot in country, a hand in ’70s rock, a toe in folk, a finger in post-punk.”
The publication noted that, with his “gruff but plaintive voice, and his fondness for muddied-up guitars, he sometimes recalls Neil Young.”
The Princeton native’s mother is Mildred Waters Harford, a painter who was also one of the founders of Stuart Country Day School.
Harford caught the rock, pop, and punk bug and picked up a guitar after listening to his older siblings’ record collections and watching them play music. “I heard so many bands playing on campus and performing at Communiversity,” Harford says. “This area is really fertile; there are so many incredible musicians. I had a band at Princeton High School called Random Joe and the Strillards, and we played at school, as well as the YMCA/YWCA, at hospitals, the Arts Council and whatnot, and of course Communiversity.”
Harford graduated from Princeton High in 1980 and spent a couple of years at Connecticut College in New London. It was there that he cofounded the indie band Three Colors, which included Dana Colley, a tenor and baritone saxophonist who later brought his skills to 1990s alternative rock group Morphine.
The group moved to Boston as a band, living in a house in Oak Square in the Brighton neighborhood. Harford finished his higher education at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, earning his BFA in 1985. The next year Harford and Three Colors got a record deal and moved to London.
“Kind of like the Monkees, we all lived in a house together, in a suburb (of London) called West Norwood,” Harford says. “That was a real learning experience — we toured all over England and Germany, something completely different, especially during the Reagan era.”
“We traveled around and met all kinds of people, including Kevin Salem, a famous songwriter and producer,” he continues. “But the highlight was meeting and then getting Richard Thompson to play on my album, but also Loudon Wainwright III, as well as members of the Proclaimers. I got a big contract (from Electra Records) to make my solo album, so I got my high schools friends and people from the Princeton area to play on it, but people like Richard were on there too.”
Later he released several independent albums including “Comet,” “Band of Changes,” “Live at CBGBs,” “Sing, Breathe and Be Merry,” and “Time Warp Deck.”
In 2006 Harford released his sixth studio album, “Looking Out For Number 6,” produced by Dean Ween of New Hope-based band Ween. He says he has released a total of 11 independent albums to date, “not including the live ‘taper’ releases,” Harford says.
If his collaboration with Band of Changes is not extraordinary enough, Harford is also busy with his Rogue Oliphant project, a band that includes drummer, songwriter, and music educator Ray Kubian. Princeton professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon is also onboard, and he crafts the group’s lyrics, including songs on Rogue Oliphant’s latest release, “I Gave the Pope a Rhino.”
In fact, on the day I reached Harford for a phone interview, he had just returned from New York City, where he has regular writing sessions with Muldoon.
“Every second Monday of the month, we meet at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, with some other literary friends and musicians,” Harford says. “He’s always writing, and we’ve collaborated on 100 songs or more. Cait O’Riordan, the bass player with the Pogues, is also on our latest album.”
The cover of the album features a raging bull elephant, with a patch over one eye and a scimitar for a tusk, as though it was part elephant, part pirate, and part scalawag.
On the title song Muldoon’s words are like surreal literary snapshots, telling stories straight out of magical realism. He could give Thompson, another wizard-of-lyrics, a run for his money.
Perhaps because of the Irish artists collaborating with him, Harford sounds a little like a young Bono in this particular instance.
We still haven’t mentioned his skills in visual arts, talents he has practiced since childhood, when he was encouraged by his mother and her dear friend Anne Reeves, founder of the Arts Council of Princeton.
Like his music, Harford’s art is challenging to categorize; it’s definitely abstract, outsider art, with some surrealism in there, as well as touches of comic book/graphic arts. He says Marc Chagall is an influence and credits his mother for introducing him to Chagall and others.
“I think there’s a lot of (Edvard) Munch in there too,” Harford says. “I’m also intrigued by the Haitian art my one friend’s parents had on their walls, and my mom’s Eastern European paintings she collected from the former Yugoslavia.”
“My mom is a great painter, and she got me started in visual art, but also growing up with Anne Reeves, the ‘visual thing’ has always been going on, alongside of the music,” he adds. “Art is the quiet side of me, and music is the collaborative side.”
His paintings were first shown at New York’s famed rock club, CBGB, which closed in 2006. Harford has had more than 20 exhibits at galleries in New York, Philadelphia, and in central New Jersey. He recently showed works at the Pennington School’s Silva Gallery, and, along with sculptor/ceramic artist Debbie Reichard, he will have a show of his pottery at the Hopewell Creative Arts Studio later this year.
Harford is going through an especially rewarding period, and, in addition to all this creative activity, just learned that a couple of his songs would be showcased in the new indie movie “Landline.”
“The movie just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and stars some of my favorite actors — John Turturro and Edie Falco,” Harford says. He’s looking forward to the royalties that will come from having his songs placed in the movie; indeed, Harford is currently making a living from his music and sales of his paintings, and he is grateful to not need a “day job” at this point in his life.
Although Harford is divorced and his wife now lives in Ecuador, his daughter Amanda, a recent graduate of the New School in New York City, divides her time between the U.S. and South America.
“She’s an actor and in fact just played Obama’s mom (in a play) at Symphony Space in New York,” Harford says.
Harford is beyond happy being back in his hometown, even after living and traveling all over the world.
“Having this great institution (Princeton University), living here, and getting a chance to collaborate with someone like Paul Muldoon make this area so unique,” he says. “It’s been a great place to settle, to raise my daughter Amanda, and to be creative.”
“Plus, I really want to give a shout out to Small World Coffee, as my daughter was born the same year they opened,” Harford says. “I’ve become friends with the owners, who have brought such great energy.”
“For 23 years, they created a space where I can show my art, play my music, and it’s also a place any age can go,” he adds. “It’s such a powerful thing they’re doing for this community that no one else is doing, bringing free music for the people.”
Aside from the Band of Changes gig on February 4 at Small World Coffee, Harford says he is in the process of planning a tour, but there are no future performances confirmed at this time.
As for Rogue Oliphant, the group plays every second Monday of the month as part of “Muldoon’s Picnic,” at the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st Street, in New York. www.irishartscenter.org
Harford says he and Muldoon are hoping to take the group on a “wee tour” of Ireland and Scotland later this spring; the tour is in the planning stages.
Chris Harford and Band of Changes, Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, Saturday, February 4, 8:30 p.m. Free. 609-924-4377 or www.smallworldcoffee.com.
More on Harford: www.chrisharford.com or Rogue Oliphant at www.rogueoliphant.net.