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Nearly Stranded in Bulgaria, Harrison Fjord Are Rolling With the Punches

Mario Yniguez and collaborators sing during an early Bulgarian excursion.EXPAND
Mario Yniguez and collaborators sing during an early Bulgarian excursion.
Freddie Paull

If anybody's aware of how the best-laid plans can go awry, it's the members of Harrison Fjord.

In October, a contingent of the Valley psych-fusion outfit traveled to Bulgaria to work with famed singer Yanka Rupkina on their auspicious new album.

"It was fruitful for what it was," says singer Mario Yniguez. "During our two weeks in Sofia, we spent time laying the rhythmic foundation and structure of the album as well as recording the Bulgarian women featured on the album. It was amazing to see our entire group become inspired by the surroundings."

The trip went so well that a collective of 12 members and collaborators returned to the country on March 7 — only to find themselves nearly stranded due to the coronavirus.

"That last Wednesday [March 11], we were out drinking with friends and then Trump canceled flights from Europe," Yniguez says. "We're on the phone with United all night, actually watching all the tickets evaporating. Then it turns out the next day that Trump had misspoke — big surprise. So we left that Saturday morning."

Upon their return to the U.S., Yniguez and several collaborators, including bassist Jonathon Sheldon, band videographer/photographer Freddie Paull, and friend/pianist John Solari, self-quarantined in a family home.

Yniguez says they've since tossed their production schedule out entirely, which would have culminated in a big release show planned for July. They've tried to remain positive by recording and filming various projects, including a delightful cover of "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."

But the question begs: Why not just continue the album while in isolation?

"A lot of the band had said they trust the direction that I want to take it in," Yniguez says. "But I don't feel free to make it if I'm not collaborating. In a lot of ways, we needed that perfect storm of being there and being in the same room together to make it work. We'll wait to put out the album for as long as we have to wait."

The trip still proved fruitful. That had less to do with recordings and everything to do with creative input.

"The last day we were there was just so magical," says Yniguez. "We got to hang with [Rupkina] for a couple hours and tell her we wanted to name the album after her. She was just so happy to hear it all."

That meeting also clarified some of the record’s larger themes, with the band commemorating the artistic essence of Rupkina.

"The album is really about Yanka's energy," Yniguez says. "It's not a perfect concept album or something with a hard and fast story, but how she has gifted us with her narrative. We're going from where we are and how we were living and were raised to how she lives and did things. It's about that living duality between Yanka and us."

All those positive vibes doesn’t mean the band isn't stressed about delays or the state of things. It’s easier to maintain perspective with a muse like Rupkina.

"You let this eat you, you won't do anything," Yniguez says. "Yanka actually said, 'Viruses and crises come and go. If God wants to take me, he will. I'll live on. But you have God's blessing, so you will make it.'"

Similarly, the events of the past few weeks may appear bleak, but they also serve as a vital plot point in this project’s overarching storyline.

"We're sitting there with family and girlfriends all stressing," Yniguez says. "But we get to look back at a time and place when we were working on this project, actually pacing the changes to policy and culture."

Yniguez is keenly aware of these narratives, and he hopes this project can one day become part of some massive canon. One that began with Rupkina’s "big" tune, "Kalimankou Denkou," which made its way to the ears of Kate Bush and David Bowie, and somehow entered Yniguez’s life.

"I am amazed at the chain reaction of events that led us to [this] point," he says. "[A friend] compiles this list of famous Bulgarian musicians, and Yanka is the only one that our friend Maria might possibly have a connection to. Then we connect with her, and it turns out she is the soloist from the very first piece of Bulgarian music I ever heard and what started me down this rabbit hole. It’s just ludicrous."

As his quarantine draws near, Yniguez says he's turning his gaze back to the album. At the same time, he’s looking back on this latest trip. This chapter may have been a downer, but it's another part of the larger journey worth celebrating.

"Probably 25 to 30 percent of it was working," he says. "You have all these Americans, some of whom had never been out of the country, running around Bulgaria. It was absurd. It taught us a lot, and we still had fun. I wouldn’t change a thing about it."

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