Get to know Kerry Hallett, the Philly singer-songwriter behind Heart Harbor

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Heart Harbor 0 Jessica Kourkounis
Heart Harbor | Photo by Jessica Kourkounis | courtesy of the artist | Kourkounis.com

It’s not every day that a Facebook post from a nationally-renowned musician points you to an emerging artist from your own city. Last fall, Erin McKeown raved to her fans that she was very excited about the production work she was doing with the band Heart Harbor, who hails from right here in Philadelphia.

We here at The Key immediately checked the band out, and loved what we heard. The project of Kerry Hallett hearkens back to some of the best singer-songwriters in recent memory: Brandi Carlile, Passenger, Tegan and Sara, with a Jenny Lewis-ian sense of arrangement and fearless genre hopping. Recorded with McKeown last summer in Fishtown, the Tender Trap EP boasts immaculate production and infectious tunes; they’ll stick around, and you won’t mind one bit.

Hallett and her bandmates celebrate the release of Tender Trap at The Tin Angel on Saturday, April 23rd; they also play Johnny Brenda’s this Sunday, April 3rd, opening for Laura Gibson, and released a very fun music video for “Hating Nothing” filmed in and around Fishtown in glorious black and white. Watch the video below, and read on for a Q&A introduction to Hallett and Heart Harbor.

Heart Harbor “Hating Nothing” from Jessica Kourkounis on Vimeo.

The Key: Were you a solo artist / singer-songwriter before launching the band?

Kerry Hallett: Yes. In fact, my first solo show ever was at Atlantis: The Lost Bar on Frankford Ave. way back in 2005. (I don’t even know if they still have music there!) I played out a lot in the folk scene in Portland, Oregon when in lived there from 2009-2014.
Most of my gigging has been just me and an acoustic guitar– the band is so new and exciting!

TK: How did you make that transition into #bandlife?

KH: For years I’ve been doing home recordings– where I’ll just loop over myself, playing every instrument or sound separately to get a full band effect (in fact, we approached a good amount of the EP this way, as it was recorded before I found my band members).
So, I’ve been itching for #bandlife for quite some time, but it was almost as if I wanted to have a clear vision and have everything in place sonically before I started trying to recruit members.

TK: How long have you been making music in Philly?

KH: Collectively, about 7 years. I moved here for the first time in 2002, and stayed ’til 2009, tried my hand at the West coast for a bit, and have been back here since January of 2014. It’s good to be back!!

TK: Are you originally from Philly? If not, where did you come to Philly from and what brought you here?

KH: I’m originally from Virginia. I’m moved to Philly for college– to be a bio/pre-vet major at Drexel. Ha! Though I love animals, let’s just say that science and math aren’t my strong suits. I ultimately ended up getting my B.A. in Art History from Temple.

TK: So cool that you got to work with Erin McKeown on the EP! How did you connect with her?

KH: I remember seeing Erin play out a lot back when I was college, and still too shy to play music in front of anyone! I saw her play in Portland a few years ago, and approached her after the show. I told her I was a musician and was thinking about moving back to the East Coast and that I would love to collaborate in some way sometime. That sparked emails of me sharing my demos with her, and getting lots of really positive feedback and interest from her from a production perspective.

TK: When did you work with her on recording and what was the process like? Did Erin bring anything to the table that changed your music in a way you weren’t expecting?

KH: I actually worked with her before recording, too– we had Skype sessions over about a year where she helped me with lyrics, song structures (even made me write a bridge– which is a miracle!), and tons of other ideas, so her input helped me change and hone a lot of things even before we went into the studio. Basically she helped me fine tune everything and funnel it into strong, 10- song package. I was ecstatic when she said she’d be happy to produce the songs as well.
We recorded at Miner Street in June of last year, and Erin was my rock– she really made me challenge myself, musically and mentally! She was so encouraging, and kept everything on track. She even contributed a few piano and guitar tracks to the tunes.

TK: The EP is very much in the singer-songwriter pocket so to speak – which is a good thing! But anybody who follows you on social media will quickly notice your tastes are all over the place, reaching indie rock and punk zones and beyond. How does your listening affect your writing and how do you see your record fitting into the larger musical landscape?

KH: This is a GREAT question! Ha. This is something that I’ve really struggled with for many years– writing music that consistently fits in to a particular genre. As a writer, I am inspired by so many things and have always been trying to figure out what vein my music fits into. Some of the demos I sent Erin were definitely electronic-pop sounding, and some sounded straight up traditional folk, and now with the band, things are sounding more like indie pop/rock. I’ve always been just as moved by the somber twang of a banjo as I am by a thick, persistent beat or a warm, ethereal guitar riff.

For me, with writing, anything goes. No “sound” is really out of the question. The other 5 songs that haven’t been mixed yet are definitely a little more pop-y, with a lot more electronic elements as well.
I am SUPER excited about the way the band sounds now– I’m playing electric guitar with Angel Ocana (of Northern Arms) on drums and JC Hans on keys– we fall into this warm, electric, pop-chasm when we play, and I couldn’t be happier. Their sensibilities as musicians just open up these songs, and have sort of revived them for me (“Hating Nothing” is a 10 yr old song!) I think we will continue to hone our sound and etch out our niche in the Philly music scene the more we write and play out together.

TK: What are your plans for Heart Harbor beyond the release show? Do you plan to tour? How quickly can we expect a full length?

KH: We are planning a short tour of the Northeast in early summer. The guys and I are planning on getting into the studio before that- we plan to release at least a few tracks over this year (possibly another EP) that capture our full, slightly more electric, sound.
As for a full length hopefully next year!

TK: What do you do when you’re not making music? Or is your music your full time gig?

KH: I wait tables — you can find me slingin’ spaghetti & meatballs at Little Nonna’s four nights a week!

TK: Anything else you’d want to add?

KH: Just that I’m honored to be a part of the Philly music community. I think everything that’s happening right now is so exciting and fresh– there’s this great collective momentum, and everyone is really so supportive. I go to at least a few shows a month, and I am just blown away by the talent, love, and community that exist in our fair city!

Heart Harbor plays Johnny Brenda’s on Sunday, April 3rd, and Tin Angel on Saturday, April 23rd. Tickets and information on both shows can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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