Harriet Schock in Conversation…
August 15, 2013
Forgive me. I’ve been in such chronic pain that for twelve weeks it was simply impossible to sit upright and type. But right now I’m experiencing a rare reprieve. I don’t know how long I have before the torment returns, but I’ve got time to tell you about the singer/songwriter Harriet Schock (love the name). There’s a photograph of Harriet that, to me at least, captures her essence. It appears on the cover of her third album, You Don’t Know What You’re In For, from 1976 and was taken by Ethan Russell, noted for his dramatic shots of The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Beatles. Harriet appears to be gently staring down the photographer, fixing him with an exquisitely self-possessed gaze and a Mona Lisa smile. I am glad that it has been preserved because it helps me describe this complex and enigmatic songwriter. About two years ago, I tentatively explored the possibility of getting her first three albums reissued despite knowing little about the process. Her four most recent works are, I’m glad to say, readily available both as hard copies and download. But the three albums that established her trademark witticisms, melodies and chord progressions are currently unavailable to the wider public. Many people enjoy 1970s production values – the string and horn arrangements that don’t exist any longer in quite the same form, the vocals that aren’t excessively treated, the prominence of the piano, the intimacy. Harriet comes from this golden age of singer/songwriters – an age that has never been surpassed.
Harriet’s third album, You Don’t Know What You’re In For (1976)
Photos: Ethan Russell
Until the 1980s, 20th Century Fox had its own record label, 20th Century Records. Among its extravagantly talented stars-in-waiting was Harriet, along with Patti Dahlstrom and Rita Jean Bodine. Harriet had moved from Texas to Los Angeles in her early twenties, having married an actor she met at the Dallas Theatre Centre. When his work took him to Hollywood, Harriet agreed to follow. "I was very close to my family and that’s probably the only way I would have moved away from them," she says. "The marriage fell apart and he moved back to Kentucky. I stayed in Los Angeles and briefly worked as an advertising copywriter". Someone as creative and musical as Harriet was never going to be satisfied working in advertising for long, and she began acquiring a following playing the gay bar circuit, accompanying herself on the piano. "They were the only places I knew where a singer/songwriter could do original material, so I played them a lot, week after week". Word of Harriet’s talent spread quickly.
“Roger Gordon, who was a publisher at Colgems (EMI) came to see me perform. Shortly thereafter, Jack Gold signed me to Columbia but there was a payola scandal and all the acts signed by anyone at that label in L.A. (in other words, not by Clive Davis) were dropped. As I recall I got a car, which was really important because my ex-husband got our one car in the divorce. Then Danny Davis from Colgems took me to Russ Regan who headed up 20th Century Records. That’s when I got signed to the label I would actually record for.”
I first heard Harriet’s music after stumbling upon her albums at Music & Video Exchange, the second-hand outlet with the most surly and uncharismatic shop assistants in London. It was the Notting Hill branch. I knew I’d seen her name before and, within minutes, the information surfaced in my mind. This was none other than the same Harriet whose song-writing credits I’d spied on albums by Syreeta, Smokey Robinson, Roberta Flack and Helen Reddy. I knew I’d found something special. I clutched all three albums and rushed back to my flat near the Post Office Tower (like most native Londoners, I can’t bring myself to call it the ‘BT Tower’). Minutes later, what emerged from my record player were nothing less than three-minute romantic masterpieces, filled with the kind of flourishes and subtle tricks that today can only be found in musical theatre; deft use of internal rhymes, gorgeous melodic lines, sardonic humour. Instantly, I was a life-time member of the Harriet Schock club, whose members, it turns out, come from every corner of the world. Much to my delight, I noticed at least two Sondheim-esque traits running through the albums – Harriet never allowed the stress to fall lazily on the wrong syllable of a word, so her songs sounded uncontrived and intelligent, and she made only minimal use of melisma. Of course melisma (when a series of notes is sung for one syllable of lyric) was practised masterfully by lots of 1970s soul artists, but is now so gaudily overused on TV talent shows that it has become embarrassing and passé.
If Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell (not to mention Buffy Saint Marie) formed the first wave of singer/songwriters, then Harriet led the second, which came a few years later and included Melissa Manchester, Wendy Waldman and Karla Bonoff. To this day, her songs manage to balance the specific with the universal. No matter their subject matter, there is always space to allow listeners to overlay events from their own lives on to the material. Her first album was 1974’s Hollywood Town, produced by Roger Gordon, and it thrust her straight into the spotlight.
Harriet’s first album: Hollywood Town (1974)
Photos: Mike Paladin
“It was an exciting time but I had no “compared to what”, so I thought this was just what happened when you wrote songs. During the seventies, there was a station out here called KNX FM. They played album cuts. And according to my ASCAP statement, every cut on all three albums got played. I couldn’t go to the grocery store without hearing myself on the radio. That was the single most thrilling thing of all. I’ve been known to roll down my window and tell the stranger in the car next to me to turn a particular station on because I was on it. Okay, I did that only once before I realized how crazy it was. I also walked up to a group of very mean looking bikers in a restaurant when I was being played over the P.A. and told them. I’m not sure they were impressed but at least they didn’t hurt me. My first album cover was up on the outside wall of Tower Records and I had a picture taken of me standing in front of it with my so-seventies patchwork jeans on.”
Harriet with her Tower Records billboard (1974) and, years later, in Amoeba Records, L.A.
Photos: Mike Paladin and Mark Giffin
Hollywood Town was the launch-pad for a career that has remained buoyant to this day. Those who only engage with music at surface level, who think it’s a nice thing that gets played in shops, might hear it as a light pop confection and miss the point. “I had a disc jockey tell me when he heard my records that he thought they were a polished sort of Anne Murray until his wife made him take them home and listen closely. He then discovered I had something to say. I mean no disrespect to Anne Murray here. It’s just that my album sounded less like a “singer/songwriter” record than a pop artist’s album and in those days that determined the kind of airplay you got.”
The album is a seamlessly cohesive statement in which the narrator goes through a number of social and romantic rites of passage and shares the experience with sometimes barbed, sometimes touching observations. It introduces Harriet’s piano-playing style, which flows from the same influences of blues, classical and pop as Carole King. Supporting musicians are of the highest calibre – Leland Sklar, Larry Carlton, Russ Kunkel. These are the names you see stamped over the very finest offerings of the 1970s and give you some idea of just how important 20th Century Records considered Harriet’s career. ‘Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady’, which was to become Harriet’s signature song, opens with a conversational line that neatly encapsulates her bracing and intelligent approach: “I guess it was yourself you were involved with/I would have sworn it was me”. She manages to place a melodic and lyrical hook right at the start of the song and it’s not hard to imagine how this must have ensnared people hearing it on radio.
But just as ‘Ain’t No Way…’ was about to go stratospheric, events beyond Harriet’s control conspired to hinder its progress. “I came very close to having a top forty hit with it. The promotion people from 20th Century are still talking about it today. A music director of a major top forty station in L.A. was poised to start playing it but he wanted it sped up. I think he was moving faster than normal because of some chemicals rolling around his system. Russ Regan recalled the record, sped it up and reissued it. There was another station, in San Francisco, which promised to play the record if the L.A. station did. A few days before they were due to play me – which would have made it a hit because they were huge stations – the music director had a fight with the program director and quit. We lost the L.A. station which made the San Francisco station pull out. I didn’t quite understand what a disaster this was when it happened. But decades later, when I heard them retell how close we were and how heartbroken the label was, the severity of it became even clearer.”
Harriet had to adjust to success of a different kind; other artists and acts swiftly recorded their own versions of her songs. From Hollywood Town alone, her songs were covered by Manfred Mann, The Partridge Family and – most notably – Helen Reddy, who took ‘Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady’ well into the US Top Ten. “I was anonymous all the way to the bank,” remarks Harriet drily.
Harriet’s second album, She’s Low Clouds, came out later that year, created by the same team. It kicks off with ‘Go On And Go’, a startling break-up song, and also includes ‘Play It Again’, a soulful and beautifully arranged tribute to Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Harriet’s piano-playing is gorgeously prominent and the album stands as a sonic extension of the themes first put forward in Hollywood Town. The songs are crammed to burst with witty remarks, internal rhyme, hooks upon hooks upon hooks, and memorable rhetorical questions, including, ‘What’s the good of new love/That’s too graceful to grow old?’ (from ‘Brooklyn Can Hear You Bragging’). The front cover makes it look as though Harriet is asleep – a better choice would have been to use the bright, engaging photograph on the back.
She’s Low Clouds (1974), second album in Harriet’s classic trilogy
Photos: Mike Paladin
Though She’s Low Clouds garnered similar critical acclaim and support from Cashbox (a defunct trade title not dissimilar to Billboard), it did not break through (despite yielding another Helen Reddy cover); a change of approach was called for. 1976’s You Don’t Know What You’re In For, produced by Billy and Gene Page, was an example of pop music with soul production, not unlike Melissa Manchester’s Don’t Cry Out Loud album, which was produced by Motown’s Leon Ware. Key figures of the singer/songwriter movement, including Leland Sklar and Tom Scott, are present, but the sound is a considerable departure from the first two albums. “Since Gene was a famous string arranger, he put strings on every cut,” explains Harriet. “It isn’t nearly as stripped down as Hollywood Town and She’s Low Clouds.” The collection’s high-gloss factor makes for a wonderfully indulgent listen; it has a sultry quality not unlike that of the Evie Sands albums from the same period (Estate of Mind and Suspended Animation). Tucked away amid the clever and affecting love songs (most notably ‘I Could’ve Said It All’) is a withering parody of the Lieber/Stoller perennial ‘I’m A Woman’. ‘He’s So Macho’ is a send-up of cartoonish masculinity incisive and pointed enough to stand side by side with ‘You’re So Vain’.
“When I first started writing songs,” says Harriet, “I wrote comedy songs—satire, parodies. Once I started writing more autobiographically, the humour and irony stayed but the subject matter switched to what I was hurting about or wondering about or just wanted to say. I’m from Texas and I shoot from the hip, so some things sneak in there that a more thoughtful writer might have the good sense to leave out.”
Harriet’s lyrics are often character studies with a sting in their tails but not wholly damning of their subjects. “I never feel like something is totally someone else’s fault,” she says. “That’s just an ignorant point of view, in my opinion. Also it’s boring. If there’s no realization or some understanding the song leads to, then it’s just a rant and I think the ranter looks worse than the rantee. Also, being a Southern woman, I’ve had to learn to separate the head from the body without the victim ever knowing there’s a knife involved. And sometimes that head just has to go.”
But despite the lovely front cover and the lusher production, You Don’t Know What You’re In For marked the end of Harriet’s first recording career. “Disco came in and though I was still performing, I didn’t know how to fit into what was happening without abandoning who I was completely.” Harriet bid the seventies farewell, having bestowed the decade with a trilogy of albums whose sheer beauty and quality still attracts listeners today despite languishing out of print. As a fan, of course I wonder what Harriet’s 1980s albums might have been like, had they been made. Would she have put through different stylistic straitjackets, like Melissa Manchester and Carly Simon, in search of a home? Overblown power ballads? Synthesised, new-wave pop? Reggae? R’n’b? Would a team of stylists have thrust her into lycra and leather or crowned her with unusual, lacquer-drenched hairstyles?
Rather than pursue any of those questionable paths, she side-stepped into song-writing behind the scenes, working for Jobete, the publishing arm of Motown. “It was so much fun interacting with Berry Gordy and Hal Davis. I had started writing with Misha Segal and we got signed as a team. A working day usually entailed going to Jobete and finding out what was needed, showing songs to Mr. Gordy, working with Iris Gordy (who is still a close friend) and others there. I wasn’t really employed by them. I just had a publishing deal. Ironically, Lester Sill, who had run Colgems when I was signed there, took over Jobete so I worked with him again. A number of nice projects came out of my collaboration with Misha Segal – the music for The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking and the song, ‘First Time on A Ferris Wheel,’ which has been sung by over 30 people—either live or studio-recorded. Smokey Robinson sang it in Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, a Motown film, and Nancy Wilson recorded it. Many others covered it. The ultimate recording was Carl Anderson’s and it became his trademark. What a truly great singer he was.”
As the nineties got underway and ‘Harriet Schock – Recording Artist’ receded further into the past, up surfaced Nik Venet, who had not only signed the Beach Boys but also been an instrumental figure in the original singer/songwriter movement, producing brilliant albums by Dory Previn and Wendy Waldman. His influence had a revolutionising effect on Harriet. “He couldn’t see any shred of who I was in what I was doing – collaborating on R&B dance tunes. He made me realise there were people who actually got who I was and wanted to hear that. So I started recording again”. Beginning tentatively with the low-key, cassette-only offering, “American Romance”, Harriet’s renewed recording career gained momentum with the release of the concept album Rosebud in the late nineties. American Romance (since reissued on CD and digital download) was a discreet, keyboards and vocal release which contained several songs that forced the listener to stop whatever he or she might be doing and succumb. “For What It’s Worth” and “You Are” were two such moments. The follow-up, Rosebud, was more widely publicised and featured star players like Dean Parks, produced with a kind of pop chamber-group approach. Just as she had in the 70s, Harriet was able to command top-flight talent, and collaborated with no less than Arthur Hamilton (composer of ‘Cry Me A River’) on ‘Worn Around The Edges’. The album’s concept was a winning one – Harriet took the themes and motifs of classic cinema and grafted them on to stories and moments from her own life. A live album came next – a most suitable format for an artist who is very much a storyteller and whose intimate asides to her audience are always witty and worth preserving.
The come-back albums, American Romance and Rosebud
At the same time, the advent of the internet facilitated contact between Harriet and her audience in hitherto impossible ways. “It was spectacular, the way it enabled people to find me,” she says. “I heard from people saying they’d worn out their records and did I have any CDs of these albums. Of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t legally get the rights. I would hear from disc jockeys who played the records, fans… and children of fans who grew up with the records. A few years ago, a 25-year-old girl from Stockholm contacted me. Her parents had owned a record store and had brought home my first album, Hollywood Town. She took an extreme liking to it and it formed the soundtrack of her childhood. She wanted to meet me and planned a trip to L.A. with her band called Molly Ban. I showcased them at an L.A. Women In Music Singer/Songwriter Night, an event I have been hosting for 22 years. They brought the house down. The girl, Alexzandra Wickman and her partner, Mikael Back, accompanied me in a show I did a few nights later. It was so lovely to see how much the record had meant to her. She remembered songs from it I hadn’t performed in years. I’ve since added some of them to my current set list.”
It was at this point that Harriet and I came into contact. I wrote her an email, wanting her to know that I’d heard her first three albums, I’d listened to every word and marvelled at every elegant, shapely melodic line. I commissioned Harriet to write some short film reviews for the magazine I was employed by, to tie in with her surprise appearance at a musical festival in Somerset. I went to the show (as brilliant as I’d anticipated) but had to leave as soon as the last note was played; I was moving from Fitzrovia to Fulham (a terrible, terrible mistake that led to the most miserable stage of my life). In 2002 we would eventually meet in Los Angeles, sharing a stage both that year and the following one. At the time, I was trying to be a performing songwriter, getting paid gigs around London but finding very little traction.
By now, Harriet had become a teacher and her home in the Wilshire District of L.A. was the musical version of a literary salon. Initially, she’d been reluctant to teach something that she felt had to be innate. After all, you cannot teach talent. “I had a friend who is now quite well known as a classical composer—Morton (Skip) Lauridsen. He asked me to teach song-writing at USC. There was no department of song-writing at that time. I answered by telling him it couldn’t be taught. The next year he asked me again. I decided I wanted to see if maybe it could be taught. So I devised a step-by-step method of tricking the USC students into doing what I did naturally. In other words, I felt like a potter who had been throwing pots for a long time. I no longer thought where to put my thumb or how to set the clay on the wheel. I just thought of a pot and threw it. But these students needed a method to get something out of them that was what they really wanted to write about. And song-writing was a language they didn’t speak fluently yet. So I had to get them speaking English and keep them communicating until suddenly they had a song, without falling off into “song-writing”—that foreign language they didn’t yet speak well. I taught there for a few years but I found that these kids were not motivated the way an actual songwriter might be, so I stopped. I taught for the Songwriters Guild of America for quite a number of years. I honed my steps and made them work better and better. Now I teach privately, over the Internet and in classes here in L.A. It’s really fun. My students study with me time after time until they become very good friends.” Anyone interested in adopting some of Harriet’s techniques but unable to commit to actual lessons can pick up Becoming Remarkable, a print anthology of Harriet’s song-writing articles.
In recent years, Harriet’s career has continued to diverge. With Geoff Levin, she composed the theme song for Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks, the animated children’s TV show with voice acting by Mel Brooks which enjoyed worldwide syndication. “It feels great to meet children who can sing my Jakers theme song by heart or young adults who can sing the Pippi Longstocking songs because they grew up on them. I also have a song from a Little Mermaid album that’s a children’s favorite and Misha and I wrote the songs for the animated Secret Garden. I really enjoy the children’s market because it’s less strict in subject matter. I mean you can use your imagination and let it go wild. I think one of my favourite projects was writing a song for Disney’s Sing me a Story with Belle. I wrote to an old re-cut cartoon of Mickey Mouse, Pluto and Donald Duck ghost-busting. The film Ghost Busters had to have been inspired by that old cartoon. They even said “I ain’t scared of no ghost”! I also love to write for regular films and television. It’s just that kids remember every word and note of what you write and it’s so rewarding when they come up to you and sing it. I find writing for the theatre similar in that you don’t have to dumb down. Oddly, writing for children and for the theatre, you can be intelligent because in theatre, people are listening and children hear songs hundreds of times. You can also be melodic. So you don’t have to have some mindless phrase both lyrically and musically repeating over and over for a listener who is actually doing four other things while your song is playing.”
Next, Harriet forged a successful alliance with London-born director and playwright Henry Jaglom. She composed the music for Going Shopping (2005), Hollywood Dreams (2006), and Irene in Time (2009). “I met Henry Jaglom around 2005. He was speaking at an event and he found out I was a songwriter in his audience. He said, “I just make movies because I can’t write songs” and I thought to myself “I just write songs because I can’t make movies” and at that moment I knew I would work with him. He had me submit a song called ‘Going Shopping’ for his film of the same name. I submitted lots of versions. Finally there was one version of the song that his son, Simon, said he thought was good – he couldn’t get it out of his mind. So Henry sent me into the studio to record it and asked me if I would also record some cues he could use. That started a long-term collaboration. I provided the theme song at the beginning and end of that film along with cues that were used under fifty per cent of the entire film. Then later, I provided some music for Hollywood Dreams. Then his star, Tanna Frederick, wanted to do a concert with me. She had sung some of my songs when she was briefly cast in a play Karen Black wrote around six of my songs – Missouri Waltz. Tanna’s schedule wouldn’t allow her to continue in the play but she liked my songs. So I put a concert together with Tanna. She and I both sang my songs with my band backing us. Henry Jaglom came to the show and decided that night to use my band in his next movie, Irene In Time, on camera. It featured my band and four of my songs but the song that’s played in it over and over is ‘Dancing with My Father’ which I wrote with Ron Troutman. Henry called me recently and held the phone up to his car radio. Apparently my record of ‘Dancing with My Father’ was getting played on the Sinatra channel of Sirius radio. After Irene in Time, Henry cast me in a play he had written. I played one of the ensemble starring roles in Just 45 Minutes from Broadway (2012). I was also in the film of the same name that was released last October. It has now been sold to In Demand so it’ll be seen much more broadly than just major cities. It’s already led to other acting roles for me. That’s a lot of fun.”
Harriet with the late Karen Black, one of the vast number of performers who have interpreted her songs and which includes Smokey Robinson, Nancy Wilson, Helen Reddy and Manfred Mann
Photo: Andrea Ross-Greene
In between all of that, Harriet found the time to release her sixth studio album, Breakdown On Memory Lane, in 2010. The title is clearly more than just a reference to the track of the same name; a concept is there for anyone who cares to perceive it. Harriet is embarking on journey, breaking down at ten different points along a road where she is confronted by (and comes to terms with) aspects of her past and present. She conducts a delicate post-mortem of her first marriage (‘When You Were Mine’), gets to grips with the vagaries of life as a performing songwriter (‘Sound Check Song’), admits to a longing that can never be sated (‘Searching For You’) and dispenses with an unsatisfying relationship (‘You Just Don’t Get Me, Do You?’) before embracing a new one (‘It Tears At Me’). It’s a stunning piece of work, with an unadulterated and unapologetic pop production that recalls the approach of her first two albums.
Breakdown on Memory Lane (2010)
One final point: developments occur so frequently and rapidly in Harriet’s career that by the time this article is published, it will require an extra paragraph with at least one more to follow with the passing of each month. Watch this space.