Kyle Harris began writing songs at the age of twelve, but it was another two decades before he decided to play them publicly.
"I just never saw a reason to play any of it for people," he says. "I'd been writing songs regularly that whole time, but I never thought I'd enjoy playing them for people so much. I just thought, 'This is something I'm going to do on my own.' A kind of therapy."
Harris's two-man indie-folk band, Bearsnail, has been playing shows around Denver for the past year and a half. And in that relatively short time, the act has attracted the kind of dedicated and enthusiastic fan base that many bands would kill to have. Even before Harris released his album Imperfect Goodbyes, his audience would unironically sing along to every one of his madcap songs. "I want to open my guts to you/And I want you to do the same for me, too," he sings on the catchy "Guts." The song is about a former lover, but when sung live, it becomes a deal he makes with the audience: If you get weird, so will I.
Bearsnail, with Shaky Molars and Sounds for Fathers, 7 p.m. Saturday, February 11, Aztlan Theater, 974 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-0188.
"When it's possible to just let go of all the self-awareness and just start singing, I really get into it," Harris points out. "Then you can really fuse with an audience and build a connection, a relationship. Then people sing back to you! It's a live act of communication, which is a beautiful thing."
Bearsnail taps into the inherent need listeners have for sincerity, which is often lacking in today's music. There's a surrender of ego and a courageous vulnerability about Harris that is endlessly refreshing. What's more, he has a terrific sense of melody and song structure. At the same time, though, he makes no overt attempt to impress with his chops. Bearsnail's music lies in the tradition of Jonathan Richman or Daniel Johnston, yielding songs that put more emphasis on emotional inflection than complex instrumentation. He's self-loathing yet comical, a big heart with just the slightest touch of cerebral philosophy.
"I grew up listening to show tunes," reveals Harris, which explains the infectious, sing-along nature of his music, some of which you could easily imagine Kermit playing with a banjo in an early Muppets movie. Harris grew up in a Southern Baptist household, and his early musical selection comprised a strange hodgepodge of whatever he could get his hands on, from classic country to '60s rock. "When I was in the fifth grade, I heard the Violent Femmes for the first time," he recalls, "and I was like, 'What is this?! They suck! They're terrible! But it's so moving.'"
It was around this time that the young Harris began writing his own songs — but he always felt they were too revealing for anyone to ever hear. "People don't know that I'm kind of an introvert," he confesses. "Everyone thinks I'm this gregarious, friendly person. The side of me that's writing a song is that naked person in the basement."
The non-music side of Harris worked hard at an academic vocation throughout his twenties, majoring in film at Hamilton University in New York and then moving on to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned his master's degree. He eventually left the Windy City to work for Free Speech TV in Denver, where he formed Improbably Pictures and produced a documentary on needle exchange. Up until then, he had been immersed in the competitive, professional world of academia for most of his adult life.
While living among that group, Harris slowly warmed to the idea of performing for a live audience. The whole time he was in school, he'd continued to write songs, dozens of them each year, but never showed them to anybody. As he worked to establish himself in Denver, he made new friends all the time, artists without any agendas. It was through the strong encouragement of a roommate that Harris was finally inspired to break his nearly two-decade-long musical silence. She had overheard him playing music alone in his bedroom when Harris assumed no one was listening, and had ganged up on him with other friends one night while camping, insisting that he play a song. "I was terrified," he remembers, "but they liked the songs."
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For all those years, Harris had used songwriting as a kind of creative confessional booth; he found it easy to pour his heart out because no one was listening. "As a writer and a filmmaker, I am very meticulous," Harris explains, "but as a musician, I can kind of let everything go." This outlet provided him with a means to endure the loss of two close friends who committed suicide, one of them a lover of four years.
These tragic events invariably led to a stream of songs on the subject of death and loss, particularly "Turn Up the Volume" and "Tribute Song," a pair of sentimental yet wise tunes in the vein of the Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize." Even when tackling the subject of suicide, Harris applies humor and playfulness to his songs, which allows him to delve into the darkness of the human experience while bringing back a funny line and a catchy melody for people to sing along to. In "Turn Up the Volume" he sings about Flavor Flav in one line, then cleaning up the mess of his friend's suicide in the next — and somehow, the song never seems ridiculous. As a songwriter, he manages to strike a delicate balance between embracing the beauty of life and commenting on its cruelty. "If they could see how much we hide/They could tell us what to show," he sings on "Guts," which opens the album. From start to finish, the CD is full of memorable gems, including the quixotic "Mixtape Dance" and the Dionysian "Me and My Friends."
Despite his initial discomfort, Harris continued playing his songs publicly, enlisting Riley Cockrel on bass and backup vocals. The pair named the group Bearsnail and recorded a twelve-song CD named Imperfect Goodbyes. Even now, however, the idea of performing is still a bit of a paradox that Harris has to tiptoe around, being that his favorite places to perform are small house shows and DIY venues, where the fourth wall, the one between entertainer and audience, is almost non-existent.
"I'm much more comfortable playing for people I don't know than people I do. If you play songs about messy emotions" for your friends, Harris concludes, "then they start to worry about you, and I can't be as vulnerable."