A deeply personal essay…

In early March of 2020, I quit a tour for the first time in my life. I was opening solo for Torres in venues across Europe. As we moved from city to city, we watched the literal warning signs pop up in different languages, and I began to worry that I wasn’t going to be able to get home. Home at that point was Hudson NY, where Kate, my then girlfriend and now wife, was working as a live music promoter. With several shows still to go, I bit the bullet. I said my solemn goodbyes and heartfelt apologies to Mackenzie and her band, changed my flight and took a cab to the airport. Hours later, the pandemic was declared and travel chaos ensued. I’d managed to nab a flight back via Heathrow. By the time the Torres band flew home to NYC, the only option they had to fly back was via Russia. When I made it back to Kate waiting to pick me up at JFK, I let out a sleep-deprived bawl in our car in the airport parking lot. She drove us home and, like everyone else, we waited for this thing to blow over in a few weeks.

As those chaotic first few weeks of the pandemic unfolded, we thankfully remained healthy. But it quickly became obvious that we were both going to be out of work indefinitely. We had a flight back to the UK booked for May and at first thought we could tough it out until then. When that was cancelled with no alternatives offered, it seemed probable we would get stuck. We joined many others heeding the call of their home nations to repatriate. Somehow, we packed up (and stashed and dumpstered) our lives in four days. We’d set up our record label, Hand Mirror, the year before in preparation for self-releasing my first solo album, which meant that in addition to packing suitcases and relocating furniture, we also packed and shipped the entire label stock of vinyl, which up to that point had been stacked up in our apartment waiting to be released.

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Our heroic neighbour agreed to drive us to the airport. We didn’t say goodbye to any of our NY friends. This was partially because we didn’t have the time, but mostly because we didn’t know if the flight would actually take off, or if we’d be heading straight back up the Taconic Highway to Hudson to try to work something else out. After a dark winter and quarantining inside, it was the first bright sunny day I’d seen that year and the Hudson Valley was in full seduction mode. I could feel some ancient part of my mind lighting up at the promise of spring to come, even though the rest of me was wracked with heartbreak, stress and exhaustion. My evolutionary response to the scenario was as bamboozled as I was. We left the highway and zipped through Queens with eerie ease. The airport shops were mostly shuttered. It felt like a closing down sale at a doomed regional mall.

Miraculously, we made it back to the UK. Kate’s sister picked us up at the airport and drove us to her house, where we’d spend the next three months sleeping in her spare room and figuring out what we were going to do next. We felt lucky that we both had our health and a place to stay. The day after we landed, the UK went into lockdown. – In April, we released my debut solo album and my shows were replaced with remote press. It was jarring. I did a promo interview live on New York public radio, directly after an emergency statement from the Mayor. I stood up from the call and the swirling stress from the discord of it all triggered an asthma attack.  

We had founded Hand Mirror for many reasons and, before the pandemic, had originally had plans for live events, but now it felt like the most appropriate activity we could do was fundraising. We set up a Patreon and, with the help of a few supportive and encouraging patrons, we manufactured fundraising merchandise. I was moved by the amounts our supporters helped us raise for charities whose work particularly resonated with us – UK youth LGBTQ+ homelessness charity akt, the Marsha P Johnson Foundation, Exist Loudly and Lesbian Asylum Support Sheffield.

Back in NYC and also stuck inside, my best friend (and Maid of Honour) Ashley Connor was making an experimental short film for Sam Abbas’ quarantine movie ‘Erēmīta (Anthologies’ . She asked me to create the soundtrack. Still living out of a suitcase and having never recorded at home past demo quality, I knew I had to up my game. I’d always made records as a nomad, clutching hard drives as I bounced between borrowed equipment in rented spaces on borrowed time. I’ve worked in all manner of studios and assumed many different roles in music making. Still, it felt like I had thousands of flight hours but had never been the pilot. Owning the role of producer was more of a mental block than anything else, but circumstance dissolved that intimidation. Ashley gave me no limitations for what the score could be. I downloaded my own copy of Logic for the first time, something that felt disproportionately momentous. Before the pandemic, I had held ambitions of composing for an orchestra. With that now impossible, I decided to approach the synthetic noises I was using like they were my own orchestra in a box. Working on Ashley’s soundtrack early in the pandemic gave me the confidence to continue producing my own solo work. I managed to win a grant which would cover the costs of mixing and mastering an album if I could be self-sufficient in recording. It felt like the quest I needed to push me into discovering this new direction.

Kate and I rented a one bedroom flat above a pub. Over time, we affectionately nicknamed it The Honeymoon Suite. In addition to that frenzied move back to the UK, the wedding we’d been planning had also taken a hard left turn in the pandemic. We had intended to hold an event for 150 in September 2020. Instead, we got married in a small, outdoor ceremony in front of our half-dozen bubbled parents and siblings. We were married in the garden of the venue we had originally booked two years prior, in a village called Eyam – AKA ‘The Plague Village of Eyam’. Coincidentally, Eyam is famous for quarantining itself during The Bubonic Plague after receiving a box of cloth from London containing plague-carrying fleas. The actions of the villagers protected the surrounding communities and saved countless lives. I followed a YouTube tutorial and made our bouquets out of the wedding flowers our friends sent us. We drove ourselves to and from the ceremony in our own car, stopping off to take wedding photos on the moors. A passing biker gave us a thumbs up. We drove back to the flat and were later congratulated by neighbours who saw us unload the cake Kate’s Mum made us (which we cut in the flat at our Zoom wedding reception). We sent an email to our previously intended guests letting them know what our first dance song was (Acapella by Kelis), encouraging them to dance to it in their living rooms as we did. We didn’t take a honeymoon and still haven’t.

It was in that flat, The Honeymoon Suite, that I began writing and recording what would come to be my second solo album. I made it in the same room as we ate all our meals, held our virtual wedding reception and attended a funeral over zoom. It’s a ship in a bottle of that time.

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Kate took a remote call centre job when we first got back. This meant we were in the same room, her taking customer service calls and me working on the album. With a busy bar beneath the floorboards, I had to record strategically. I’d program drum machines and synths in the day, record guitars in the evenings over the din of the pub-goers, and I’d squeeze vocals into the quiet weekend mornings. I was used to spending days at a time programming synths for other people, but exploring the process for myself wasn’t something I’d given myself much time to do. I dove in deep and really took myself to school. Starved of human contact, I enjoyed finding the traces of humanity in the synths I was using, every designer’s interpretation of similar principles creating different results.

Sonically, I was influenced by the feeling I missed most acutely – of being subsumed. Subsumed in crowds, in choirs of voices, in clubs, and of feeling like a small part of something bigger than myself. The synthetic sounds I chose were influenced both by chasing a way to recreate that sensation. I was influenced, too, by the idea of haunted technology. My life of touring has meant that digital intimacy has always been a frequent topic of conversation in our household. The year before, I’d been asked to write an article on how digital developments were changing and influencing music communities. Kate had published a poem called ‘love poem with facetime’. The glitches and degrading samples on the record reflect the limitations of the digital intimacy we were all relying on at that time as we literally phoned it in.

I’m someone who likes to roam and finds great comfort in wide open spaces. We have since moved back to the edges of The Peak District National Park, whose vistas so influenced my first record, our fourth home in 18 months. I dearly missed those landscapes when we were locked down in the flat with no outdoor space. My brother loaned me a Nintendo Switch and I found solace in games with large maps to explore like Breath Of The Wild and The Witcher 3. I began to consider the connection between how virtual spaces are created and the time I was spending building sonic environments in music-making. Songwriting and gameplay both have the power to transport.

There were weeks at a time that I didn’t feel like bursting into song. As a result, most of the tracks emerged out of the synth drones I would make in those harder weeks. I felt comfort and release in sculpting instrumental noises when I couldn’t begin to put my experiences into words. I realised early in the process that I had to try and and be kind to myself or recording alone would turn into a torturous experience. I had to get used to being my own mirror, my own sounding board. Editing my own vocal takes was particularly ego crushing. Nevertheless, there are many parts of production I can’t imagine I’ll leave up to others from now on.

The songs eventually percolated but they were quickly expanding. As I felt them outstretching my reserves, I knew there was some gusto I needed to outsource. I contacted friends that I’d made over years of touring, and ended up with brass by Nate Walcott (Bright Eyes) and Aaron Roche (Lower Dens, Sufjan Stevens, Anohni, Flock of Dimes), slide guitar by J.R. Bohannon and backing vocals by Sophie Galpin (Soft Lad, Self Esteem), all sent down the wire from their respective homes. It was even mixed and mastered remotely (mixed by Jeff T Smith in Leeds and mastered by Guy Davie in London). That summer, I was supposed to be playing with Sleater-Kinney on their tour with Wilco. Instead, I took part in a similar exchange and sent them some backing vocals that I recorded in the flat and that appeared on their album ‘Path of Wellness’.

As the months went on and the album continued to take shape, our Patreon kept us connected from lockdowns and has evolved into what feels like a beautiful monthly prompt. The flexibility it gives us is invaluable. In December 2021, I had been planning on sending something else as part of our monthly mailer, but just before it went out I ended up writing, recording and sharing a Christmas song in a couple of days when inspiration struck. The immediacy of it felt wonderful.

Having navigated the vinyl supply chain shortage, we will be releasing the album this summer on Hand Mirror. There’s a photo of our homemade wedding bouquets on the back of the album artwork. Kate took the cover photo and designed the layout. She also designed our original wedding invitations so it felt apt. The songs are a mix of love, grief, anxiety, resilience, danger, heartbreak and hope. Part pop record, part electronic soundscape, part interior still life, it was a rabbit hole and escape hatch. It’s called ‘Honeymoon Suite’. I hope it travels far and wide.

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Harkin’s new album ‘Honeymoon Suite’ is out now.

Words: Harkin
Photo Credit: Kate Hewett

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