By Christopher Hislop
Brett Hartenbach is a lifelong musician and writer who has long played in the shadows of others – albeit brightly – as a sideman and collaborator. Playing and working with such folks as Daniel Johnston, Rachael Davis, Wooden Eye, his wife Dawn Boyer (and Rock My Soul) as well as sharing the stage with Ellis Paul, Mary Lou Lord, Teddy Thompson, Eddie from Ohio, Susan Werner, Garnet Rogers, Girlyman, Kris Delmhorst, Mark Erelli and Josh Ritter, it's not as if he hasn't found some cherished musical moments from his side of the bandstand. In light of dire personal challenge, Brett released what amounts to his debut record, "Frame from a Bad Movie," in June of 2016 – a collection of his own original material.
On Jan. 7, 2011, Hartenbach was diagnosed with a grade III anaplastic astrocytoma brain tumor. He has fought valiantly for the past six years, but is now in a palliative-care-to-hospice program. The following is an interview that he graciously accepted to do. It is a conversation about his latest album. It is a conversation about leading a musical existence. It is, inherently, a conversation about life, and of making the most of your time. It is a conversation about believing in yourself and allowing yourself the opportunity to give a little something for the world to hold onto. And finally, it's a conversation about calling a tie between the Beach Boys and the Clash.
Seacoast Sunday: Let's start by chatting about the latest record (which for all intents and purposes is your "debut"), "Frame From a Bad Movie." It's been years in the making and ultimately has a bit of a sad story behind it. I've never been in the position of having to ask someone a question like this (so I'm still going to tread very lightly), but, what was it like putting this album together as a "'bucket list" type of entity knowing what you knew when you began to really push this thing across the finish line?
Hartenbach: It was a relief to finally be able to finish it. I also experienced a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction because it's an album I'm very proud of. My wife, Dawn Boyer, asked me what top three things I'd want to do while I had time, and this was the first on the list. Making a trip to Paris and playing as many good gigs as possible followed. She, with the help of many friends, made all three happen. In the case of the album, she contacted Joe Rogers, a great friend, who was enthusiastic about helping to engineer and produce some recordings I'd made many years earlier as well as to add final touches on songs that needed them. Joe and I spent about a year working together, and I enjoyed every moment. I had worked with Chris Magruder of Thundering Sky and Jeff Landrock of Landrock Recording a few years back as well, but the bulk of the recording was done at one home or another between here and Michigan.
I really didn't have any bittersweet feelings about it. I'd been wanting to make this album for more than 30 years, and it's gratifying to know I can now offer it to the world, leave a little something of me and my music behind.
Ways to help There are two ways to support Brett Hartenbach and his family during this difficult time. https://www.gofundme.com/brett-hartenbach www.thebrettfund.com
To learn more about Brett Hartenbach and his music, visit www.bretthartenbach.com and find him on Facebook.
SS: You're a lifelong writer. Is the act of putting pen to paper an easy or arduous task when you put on the "songwriting" hat? Do you look at your tunes like you would another songwriter's tunes when you've got your "critic" hat on? That's an interesting dynamic.
Hartenbach: Anyone who knows me would laugh and immediately say it's an arduous task. I'm probably the harshest critic about my work than anyone else could ever be. It's a blessing and a curse; it keeps me sharp, but it can also do my work in. I do look at my tunes the way I'd look at another artist's — I wrote as a music critic for All Music Guide for many years, and I learned a lot from Robert Christgau as well — actually, maybe I look at my tunes in a more critical light than I do with others, now that I think of it.
SS: Music. What is it good for? Why have you spent your life seeking it? Why have you spent your life creating it? Hartenbach: Okay, so now I can't get Edwin Starr out of my head. Music is good for entertainment, sure, but in my case, music has been, and is, a lifeline, the core of who I am. It's a lens through which I view the world. People have joked that I'm a walking music encyclopedia or a music geek, but it goes much deeper than that. It's a reason to be, a way to make life meaningful, if that makes any sense. And practically speaking, it's been a way to make a pretty decent living. I feel fortunate for that.
SS: What do you hope people take with them when they experience "Frame From a Bad Movie"?
Hartenbach: That it's a completely immersive experience, the way albums used to be. That when you begin listening to the first song, you're on a journey that makes sense all along the way until the end, when you feel you wound up where you needed to or should have with the musical thread that weaves through. I hope people can feel the joy and satisfaction I got when making it. I want people to engage and think and feel on a deeper level than they would with many other records out there. I hope these songs invite them to do that.
SS: Looking back, are there things you might have done differently in regard to your musical career? What advice might you offer to someone just starting out? Hartenbach: With all the technical tools out there now, I would have told myself to make many more albums before it was too late. They'd have to be of high quality, though. Just because you have the tools doesn't automatically mean the album or the songs are going to be stellar. That takes time, experience, lots of mistakes, and a lot of work.
I would have also believed in myself more. Self-doubt is a terrible hindrance, and it definitely held me back more than I want to admit. I would have liked to have been more confident and assertive about introducing my songs to audiences and to others in the business. I've had a great career as an acoustic guitarist — some have referred to me more than once as "the other guy" when I've accompanied some fine singers and musicians — and although I wouldn't trade any of those experiences because I count myself lucky to have had them, I do wish I'd been more forthcoming about my own music. I found that, at times, certain people wouldn't respond to it the way they would to songs that were less demanding, and that made me doubt my vision and talent. I wish I'd seen that it was more an issue of many listeners not knowing how to engage with material that required more of them than simply listening to a tune that's easy to sing along with or dance to. Language, rhythm, picking patterns, unusual chord progressions, the different sonic layers it takes to convey the right shades of meaning, the emotional message behind a song — all those are important to me.
My advice to someone starting out would be to record any ideas that you have and not worry about how strange they might be. That strangeness is what makes you an artist and gives you a voice different from the millions out there. Also, if you're stuck on something, don't keep working on it, because you can kill it. Leave it until later. Find people in your life who believe in you, too, because the business side can be tough, and we all need support to get us through. A strange combination of stubbornness and being a nice person are also important. You don't want to compromise your vision, but no one wants to work with an egotistical jerk. Many times, others have great ideas you might not have thought of on your own.
SS: You grew up in Ohio and came to Portsmouth in 2003 from Michigan, where you moved when you were in your twenties. What brought you to the Portsmouth area? What kept you sticking around all these years?
Hartenbach: My wife brought me to Portsmouth. She lived in the area, and I wanted to be with her and marry her. So I moved, and I did marry her, and I never looked back. Marriage kept me sticking around, and so did the community of musicians I began to find myself part of. I've played with many different people across the U.S. and the world, but I've made deep friendships here, both musical and personal, that I treasure. In fact, Dawn once asked me if we might move to Nashville or Austin before we got too old, and I told her I didn't want to leave this community. It means too much to me.
SS: I'm sure there's a lot of highlights that you look back on, but, for me, I was really touched by the record, "Everything's OK ... If You Look at It That Way," which was a batch of your tunes performed by your peers and culminated with a monumental show (which featured one of your collaborators, Daniel Johnston) at the Rochester Opera House about five years ago. I mean, that was a special record. What was your first reaction to it when you first took it for a spin?
Hartenbach: I felt pride, humility, a sense of being blown away about what everyone had done — it was incredible to hear how others interpreted my music. All those different shades of meaning and color that I might not have thought of or given a tune – I loved hearing how some people took them to completely different places. I still play them over and over in order to learn from them.
SS: Looking back on a lifetime of music, what are five tunes that have stuck with you the entire way?
Hartenbach: "Bus Stop" by The Hollies (it can be thought of as my fundamental driving force)
"Late for the Sky" by Jackson Browne
"Just One Smile" by Dusty Springfield
"Penny Lane" by The Beatles
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Judy Garland's version, because there really isn't any other that compares.
I want to list my top five albums, too, if that's okay, because I love how the great albums are almost like novels comprised of song. You hear the story running through, and you're changed.
"Shoot Out the Lights" by Richard and Linda Thompson
"Grievous Angel" by Gram Parsons
"Highway 61 Revisited" by Bob Dylan
"Dusty in Memphis" by Dusty Springfield
"Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys, tied with "London Calling" by The Clash
SS: With respect, what's one question that you wish a journalist would ask you that hasn't happened yet?
Hartenbach: What are some of your favorite musical memories?
SS: What's the answer to that question?
Hartenbach: Standing on stage and turning to see Taj Mahal singing right behind me while playing at one festival. That was a thrill. Jim Lauderdale telling me he enjoyed my playing during a round — another thrill for sure. Getting to meet Richard Thompson, a musical hero of mine, at a Passim benefit at the Sanders Theatre in Boston. I got tongue-tied. He's such a nice guy, but shy the way I am, and we both kind of stood and grinned at each other, and I had no idea what to say. Meeting and talking with Jeff Daniels at the Michigan Theatre. Playing the Newport Folk Festival with Mary Lou Lord and Rachael Davis. Playing with Dawn and Rock My Soul — it's a gem of a group, and the musicians are among the best I've worked with, not just in this area, but in general. I've had the most fun with them over the years. And finally, playing with Dan Johnston — so many great moments and stories there. He gave me the chance to perform around the world with him, and I'll forever be grateful to him for that. The Union Chapel in London was an all-time favorite venue for me, and so were the Black Cab sessions we got to do together there. I've met so many great people along the way, established so many long-lasting and deep friendships through music, and I count myself a lucky man.Tags: 0