John Harrison lives in a little brick house in downtown Chapel Hill with his wife, Heather, their 10-year-old dog, MC Parker, and a one-eyed tabby, Clementine. A bearded guy with broad shoulders and rectangle-framed spectacles, Harrison offers a brief tour of the home. The first stop is the dedicated music room in the back.
The windows allow for plenty of light—from streetlights or the sun, depending. A militia of guitars and a banjo hang from the wall. Harrison talks excitedly about his new Roland JUNO synthesizer, his pedal board and his Fender Jazzmaster—an electric guitar modified in unlikely ways. The instrument is perfect for North Elementary, a smart, fuzzy rock outfit Harrison has led for 10 years. But there's an old acoustic Yamaha, too, spattered with spray paint, reflectors and stickers. Harrison kept it at the end of a long-finished relationship; he swears that it only sounds better with age and abuse.
He should know: Harrison plays this guitar every day. Along with the banjo on the wall and the synthesizer flanking the desk, it shapes the core of Know Your Clouds, the intriguing second LP from his alone-with-friends project, Jphono1. Know Your Clouds sounds mostly like a collection of tunes he wrote in this room, on his acoustic with these accessories. That's exactly what it is.
"Those songs," he explains, "are what you would hear if you were just at my house and I was playing my guitar."
Indeed, each track on Know Your Clouds takes shape around a songwriter's kernel of some sort, but Know Your Clouds' skewed pop is anything but an LP's worth of coffeeshop strums. Harrison's textures wend from pleasant instrumental hypnosis to hazy, electronics-led pop nuggets, punctuated by bursts of celebratory guitar rock. But it doesn't sound complicated. It jibes completely with Harrison's aura of nonchalance; he's prone to simply shrug and say, "I like to play guitar."
On this Sunday night, for instance, he's been sitting in his living room, listening to records while dudes jump ramps of packed white stuff with snowmobiles on television.
The machines move with unlikely grace to a soundtrack of pensive prog and hard blues, courtesy of Cave and Caltrop. Most of the men even land right side up.
"This is what I do," he offers with a grin. "I'm just listening to music and watching SportsCenter, whatever's on."
Atlanta singer-songwriter Corey Pallon produced Jphono1's 2012 debut, Living Is Easy, and about half of the new disc. Before that, Pallon had only produced his own music—solo and with defunct rock band Pistolero. He doesn't actively seek the role, he says, insisting that he needs to be friends with a band before producing their music. But Harrison isn't most musicians, Pallon says—his easy manner and openness to collaborators are refreshing in a realm of egos and agendas.
"I just love how relaxed he is about the way he works," Pallon explains. "He's just very chilled out about it. He knows the sounds in his head that he wants."
North Elementary and Pistolero traded shows at first, driving to each other's towns to open for each another. Eventually, Pallon just started driving north to hang out with Harrison and his wife, or they would stay with him in Atlanta. Harrison invited close friends such as Pallon to work on Know Your Clouds, giving them free rein within his music. His pals add spooky, Theremin-like bowed saw and sing backup vocals, wrapping his songs with cozy layers that preserve their homemade nature.
For Pallon, the faith Harrison shows in his friends in these situations brings out the best in those collaborators: "You're playing tracks over someone that you respect—their music—so you want it to sound really good."
Harrison tends to think of Jphono1 as an extension of himself, not as a band. Within his music, he treats his friends as he would within his life—inclusive, involved, amicable. His interests show up in these songs, and his ideas dictate their development.
"If you like Jphono1, you know Jphono1 likes the Tar Heels. You know he went to Key West a few months ago," Harrison says. There's no filter. "I do that for me, as art, because I want to see what happens if you do that for a long time."
Early North Elementary records featured occasional gentle, finger-picked songs, though the long-lived band mostly edited out those impulses after a few years. Then, in 2009 or so, Harrison started playing solo shows, traveling with New York singer-songwriter (and Sharon Van Etten bassist) Doug Keith whenever he made it South.
"I really liked getting in the car with my guitar and going and doing the same thing I was doing with a band," Harrison says. As much fun as it was, though, he wasn't in love with what he played at those shows. "Since I never practiced or wrote anything for that situation, I got uninterested."
He overcame this boredom with an attainable goal—to write 30 minutes of solo music he liked. He dates the start of Jphono1 to 2010, when he bought his banjo and started playing more fingerstyle guitar. By the summer of 2012, around the time he released Living Is Easy, he'd bought his synth and started recording Know Your Clouds.
The initial focus has evolved to allow for hypnotic sprawl without abandoning Jphono1's acoustic core. "Don't Freak Out," for instance, breaks in the middle for a long instrumental replete with discordant banjo and noisy guitar, while "Forever Right Here" inserts an extended, head-nodding bliss-out.
"It may not be new ground for other people, but it's interesting to me," he explains. "It's something I haven't thought of." Harrison wants to explore concepts of passive versus active listening—that is, spacing out in a jam or jumping in for the hook. That's evident in the noise-folk of Know Your Clouds' repetitive stretches. He likes to see what happens when he leaves parts of songs fairly freeform, too, even during recording sessions. He makes albums for the process more than the result, relishing in the chances to build his skills as a musician.
"When I look back at records, they remind me of things in my life that were happening at the time," he says. "It's not their intent, but that's something I really like about [making music] and a reason to document it."
And there will be future records, even if they are as weird as snowmobiles doing backflips to Caltrop songs. Harrison confesses he can't help but write music.
"I don't know how to not do this," he says. "I might become old and weird, but that's what it's going to be."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Worlds with friends."