Aotearoa Music Awards breakthrough artist of the year Harper Finn chats with Good editor Carolyn Enting about his EP, Newcomer.
Your hit single Dance Away These Days has had more than 720,000 plus views on YouTube. Why do you think it’s been so popular?
I think people were feeling frustrated in the world with the way things were and the song is an opportunity to channel that frustration into something that is like dancing and singing and makes us all feel a little bit better.
Someone told me that song literally helped them get through the pandemic because they said they felt really defeated and whenever they put that song on for three minutes, they would just close their eyes and dance. Sometimes music is the most powerful way for us to release a lot of energy and I think that was why a lot of people did connect with the song.
There’s a line in the song that says, ‘put the phone away’. Do you think we need to do more of this in general?
In the context of the song, the idea of putting the phone away was symbolic of being in the moment. A lot of people are not necessarily being present, they’re looking through you or beside you on their phones. People are constantly being distracted and quite often miss what’s happening right in front of them.
I think there’s nothing better than looking someone in the eye and having a conversation with them or dancing or singing with them. Being on the phone all the time or being outside of yourself, you are constantly going to be stretched between two worlds and I feel like a lot of anxiety and negativity is found in that space.
I’m addicted [to my phone] for sure. My generation is definitely aware of it but we are still very far from being in that space where we have a healthy relationship with it. My trick is not look at my phone for 30 minutes when I wake up.
I read somewhere that, that first 30 minutes when you wake up sets the tone for the day. So if you wake up and the first thing you do is look at your phone and read some really awful news the rest of your day is going to be tainted by that.
Instead, spend 30 minutes waking up, have a glass of water, some breakfast, and then when you go to your phone you’re a lot better at accepting positive or negative news and it won’t negatively affect your day too much. That’s my phone tip.
Two years ago you had a crew cut. Now you’ve let your curls grow free. Is that part of owning who you are as an artist?
People were sad when I cut my hair a few years ago. I joke that I can’t cut my hair again until this EPs out because all promo photos are all lined up. But yeah, I’m definitely embracing who I am more.
Taking this question down at a slightly different route not many people realise I’m half Filipino. I’m embracing who I am more, my culture and the people that I represent. And whether that’s through the music I’m making or the way I’m looking.
I’ve felt a desire to get in touch with who I am and not try to water it down or pander to what you think is what people are going like or what you think is the acceptable version of yourself because that’s a one way ticket to anxiety and doubt and all those kind of feelings.
There’s something immensely satisfying and encouraging and reassuring when you go inside yourself and find that.
You have a great voice. Have you had any formal training?
None actually. I had laryngitis quite badly a couple years ago and so I had a vocal coach teach me how to navigate that side of things.
That’s muscles, like sport. You need to have a regimen or a routine of how to keep your voice at full strength, but I had no kind of vocal training to find my voice. It came very naturally and just by singing all the time, I found it.
You’re very confident on camera. Do you have any tips for people around confidence and owning your own space?
You have to fall on your sword a little bit. You have to be willing to live and die by what you do on the screen because criticism is going come. That’s guaranteed. You have to be willing and accepting of that before you step in front of the camera, because if you don’t, it will plague the mind.
I’ve definitely been in situations before Conversation with the Moon where I was nervous and there was trepidation to do anything, but that was the fear of the criticism. Anything that’s unusual or strange people will feel uncomfortable with.
I’d rather people dislike it and say they thought it was weird than say nothing at all. I’d rather be acknowledged than feel invisible.
Tell us about your dance moves…
I don’t have any formal dance training. I just move in my own way and I’m notorious for not being able to do things twice. I work with a choreographer who watches what I do and translates that into something that can be practiced and repeated.
Growing up I used to dance to Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Jagger. I was forever dancing… it kind of spontaneously just comes out of me. It’s very instinctive and natural. I’m a drummer as well so I credit a lot of the rhythm and the way I feel rhythm to the fact that I can play the drums.
If there was any advice I would give to someone who wants to dance it would be learn to play the drums.
Can you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yeah, I would’ve been about 14. It was called, ‘you were on my mind for more than a week’. That was the extent of my emotional level. I wasn’t feeling anything deep at all. So it took me a long time to write songs because I wasn’t in touch with my emotions.
I remember being very frustrated and I think a lot of it just came down to, I hadn’t gone through anything significant enough to write a song about. If you’re just hanging out with your mates playing rugby there’s not necessarily a lot of material to write about.
You need to have more substantial relationships with people to really find something that’s worth singing about.
What comes first, the lyrics or melody?
Words I find are the hardest. Things like production will age but the thing that’s timeless is the lyrics, what you’re saying and the sentiment of the song. So I definitely put more focus into the lyrics because I know that’s what will stand the test of time.
I probably make it the harder by putting that level of scrutiny on myself. I really enjoy getting into the weeds with lyrics and finessing lines. But to answer the question, the melody comes first.
I’m someone who sits down at the piano and just plays 30 or 40 minutes every day. And naturally something will pop up that catches my ear and then it’ll be some kind of mumble. Then it’s reverse engineering that. All you need is a phrase that you’ve sung and start writing it from there.
Pianos are rather big instruments to travel with…
It’s the burden of being a piano player. I’m currently trying to organise a piano mover right now. It can be a nightmare. It’s the biggest thing and so heavy. I do have a knack for finding pianos out in public. There’s one on K Road and there’s another one at Pah homestead I went to the other week.
I love anonymously finding a piano and playing. There’s nothing better than the sound of a piano in an empty room. I just love that feeling. That’s where I feel most at home.
Are there any sustainability practices that you follow?
We’re very keen recyclers [in our flat]. We wash all our recycling because if it’s dirty it won’t be recycled. It’s all metal draws and we don’t have any plastic in the house.
I think for my generation especially, it’s at the forefront of our minds with most of our purchases and our commercial decisions are always based around ‘Is this sustainable?’, ‘What has it done for the environment?’ Whenever I buy something it’s one of the main indicators I’m looking at.
Is there a song about climate change in the wind?
I’ve got a song. I won’t say anything about it yet but it’s on top of the list for me and it definitely speaks to that and the way the world just kind of feels like we’re in a cog that just keeps going round and round and the machine’s going to just explode at some point. I feel like it’s the follow up to Conversations with the Moon to a certain extent.
Tell us about your new EP, Newcomer…
It’s about going through things for the first time. That coming of age. A lot of the songs are about having your heart broken, falling in love when you shouldn’t have, right person wrong time, that kind of thing. I think everyone remembers those things.
What does the rest of 2022 hold for you?
I’m heading to New York. I’ve got a couple friends who’ve got a place in Brooklyn, so I’m going to spend some time writing now that I’ve finished the EP. While it’s out there in the world, it’s an opportunity to put my head into something else, which I’m really looking forward to.
I spent five days in New York in 2021 and it was all I needed to know that I wanted to go back as soon as possible. Because for a songwriter it was the most inspiring place I’ve ever been to. It felt like on every street there was a line from a song or a poem. So I was drawn to that straight away.