What a Wuss!
"People accuse me of being a pussy. But that's cool. I don't care. "
Shawn Harrington sits quietly on the patio of the crowded sports bar McDuffy's in Tempe, nursing a Corona. He squirms as he searches for the right words to describe his songwriting process, which has enabled him to craft a prolific output of three albums in three years with his rising Phoenix alt-rock band Jed's A Millionaire.
"It's kind of like having sex," he says at last. His buddies Dan Mueller and Robert Githens, Jed's bassist and manager, respectively, nod their heads and chuckle in requisite macho agreement. Sounds like a typical Saturday beer outing.
Then Harrington delves a little deeper -- just as he's prone to do in his songs -- and the tone of the conversation switches from sounding like a Miller Lite "Guys Night Out" commercial to a sappy chick flick.
"It's like, each time you make love, you give a little of yourself away," he says, as his friends' Beavis chuckling subsides. "Part of yourself that you may never get back again. Songwriting is like that. You get in touch with something deep inside, but at the same time, you give it away. That's just the cost of it."
Mueller and Githens glance awkwardly at one another, as if somebody just switched the satellite feed of simultaneous football games on McDuffy's 70 TV monitors over to the Lifetime Channel. For a few uncomfortable moments, the trio of thirtysomething males shudder with the fear of traveling just a little too close to their feminine sides. Then, suddenly, the crowd of half-drunken college football fans erupts over an Arizona State touchdown on Oregon State's home soil. The testosterone level is, thankfully, restored.
"I've known this guy since high school," Mueller finally laughs, punching the sulky Harrington with a playful jab to the shoulder. "He's just one of those guys who doesn't hold back what he's feeling. If I was a lyricist, I'd try to butter it up a little, make it sound cool. But Shawn doesn't."
Surely, Harrington doesn't have to worry about looking like a wuss. With his stocky build, jock's short hairstyle and Leno-esque jaw, Harrington fits right in with all the rugby-shirted frat boys crowding the bar. Yet from the sound of things, Harrington also writes more late-night poetry than a high school girl. Haunt, the third Jed's A Millionaire album of original Harrington songs released since 2001, arrives in local record stores only this week. But already, Harrington has written enough new songs for a fourth, according to Githens.
"He tells me he gets ideas all the time in the middle of the night," says Jed's doting manager, "and goes out into the other room to write them down in his notebook." The music is crafty, muscular melodic rock. Harrington's lyrics, though, have an unguarded honesty seldom seen outside of a pink diary. The words are aching, even introspective.
"I love to write," Harrington explains. "But I can't settle for just writing little ramblings about everyday things. I like to dig a little deeper than that. I like to go back into my mind and open up dusty boxes, and evoke some memories, evoke some ghosts. You have to bleed a little in your music. You have to put a little of yourself in there."
By now, even Harrington notices he's crossed a little too far into Oprah territory for the raucous beer-and-pretzels crowd surrounding him.
"Instead of just saying, I like big butts!'" he adds, affecting a booty-shaking dance move in his chair.
"Who's ready for another Corona?" Githens asks, jumping up to make a run for the bar. "I'm buying!"
If Harrington's bar banter conjures thoughts of an Oprah-Dr. Phil all-star hankie-sharing coffee-talk orgy, you should hear the songs he writes for Jed's A Millionaire.
"I wanna pour out everything I am," the singer cries on "Give," a song from the new Haunt. And over the course of the record, that's pretty much what Harrington does -- again and again. He sings in a strong, unfaltering voice, which helped win him Most Entertaining Singer accolades in this past year's New Times Music Showcase. On this album, Harrington applies those golden pipes to a particularly melancholic set of songs -- even for this band.
"When Shawn first played the new songs for the other guys, I was like, Man, you gotta give these guys something to rock out to,'" confides Githens. "They were all pretty sad, introspective songs."
To the five-year-old band's credit, however, bassist Mueller, guitarist David Demson and drummer Jason Roedl managed to infuse Harrington's soul-baring poetry with just the right amount of back-slapping swagger to keep the CD rocked out. On "Found," Harrington pleads, "Help me, I'm drowning and I can't stay afloat." Thankfully, the band rides the cheery, buoyant melody with enough firepower to keep the listener from being dragged down with the singer.
It's that contrary combination of downbeat words and upbeat music that has pretty much come to define so-called "jangle-pop": catchy, tuneful songs about the new miserable experiences of romance-challenged males first perfected by Tempe's Gin Blossoms and seemingly mined by every successful Valley band since.
But in this case, listening to Harrington trying to explain the challenge of crafting heart-torn pop songs for a sports-mad city that clearly favors its ball teams more than its artists, one can begin to understand why Phoenix continues to produce bands with an uncanny knack for masking raw emotions with rah-rah musical energy.
"I wish I could say there's a musical scene here. But this is it," says Harrington, waving his arm at the boisterous crowd of sports-obsessed collegians around him.
The band is set to go onstage next door in 15 minutes, at the adjoining Bash on Ash. Even though Jed's is opening a concert for Evan Dando, the former Lemonheads singer whom Harrington considers a songwriting idol, the crowd for the football games on McDuffy's TV screens dwarfs the handful of alt-rock fans watching the live music next door.
"I wish you could see the same enthusiasm for live music here," Harrington says, after the crowd drowns out his conversation with yet another rowdy outburst celebrating a Sun Devils TD. "But that's Phoenix. That's what bands have to compete with. I suppose it kind of weeds out the less-dedicated bands. If you're doing it for the wrong reasons, this environment will beat it out of you. You have to love playing music, and believe that you have something to say. Otherwise, you'll just get sick of it."
"It's hard to sell emotions," observes Mueller, who attended Chaparral High School in Scottsdale with Harrington. He sounds fairly Lifetime-worthy himself. "Particularly in this town."
Jed's A Millionaire -- or JAM, to their growing fan base of "Jedheads" -- has had plenty of practice in selling deep emotions to shallow audiences. Before competing with the sports bars for the Valley's limited supply of nightcrawlers, Harrington and his crew worked as the house band at the Fort McDowell Casino.
"Lots of gray hairs there," Harrington recalls of the seniors-heavy casino crowd. "People walking around with their hands over their ears. Obviously not the most conducive environment for live music."
"One night, they kept telling the band to turn it down so much, Shawn just went into a complete lounge act routine," says Mueller, laughing.
"You had to have a sense of humor," Harrington says. "Otherwise you'd go bonkers."
The brooding singer-songwriter finally got serious about having his songs heard once the band had the chance to record. JAM's self-titled first album, produced locally on a shoestring budget, barely sold beyond the pressings pushed at their local club appearances. The second, 2002's Kachina Theater, fared better. That record, named for a defunct one-screen Scottsdale moviehouse Harrington recalls fondly ("I saw E.T. there"), won the band consistent radio play on Arizona's top-rated rock radio station KZON and began drawing the Buddy Ebsen-referencing quartet favorable comparisons to blue-collar hit makers like the Goo Goo Dolls and matchbox twenty (Haunt's track list even reveals a penchant for one-word song titles that only Rob Thomas these days seems to share).
With Haunt, a first-class collection produced by Michael Blue at Los Angeles' Revolver Recordings and adorned with evocative artwork by Arizona artist Eddie Shea, JAM seems perched for major-label success. "A few labels have expressed interest," says Githens, "but we're not really talking deals yet."
Whether the band gets signed with the majors, Harrington seems happy (or at least, as happy as a brooding alt-pop singer can be) to keep pumping out music on the band's own label.
"Right now, dealing with the major labels is just a distraction," Harrington says. "We're doing what we want to do and making the records we want to make. If the labels want to jump on board, then hey, let's party.
"But I've got financial backing for what we're doing now, and really, I just wanna keep on going, and putting the songs out there."
Githens notes that the first song JAM plans to play tonight at the Dando concert is a new one not yet on any album, and that Harrington has already taught the band two other tracks he's readying for the next album.
"I've just got a lot to say, I guess," Harrington says, laughing. "And whether or not anybody wants to hear it, this band is getting pretty good at forcing it down their throats!"
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