HARRIET BROWN: FREE BEHIND THE MASK
photography by FUNAKI
On Mall Of Fortune, Harriet Brown’s second record for Innovative Leisure, following 2017’s Contact, the one-man-funky r&b-band explores shopping at the mall as a metaphor for existence. While it’s full of songs for grooving on the dance floor and/or between the sheets with a lover, there’s a theme of searching for meaning, self-love, and acceptance that elevates the music and really reflects the crisis of today. In this interview, Aaron Valenzuela digs into the creative process behind his completely self-produced record, paranoia versus confidence, and finding out that everyone else is as lonely and confused as him. He finishes his February residency at the Echoplex on Mon., Feb. 25. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
What does the mall mean to you?
Harriet Brown: I originally got the name for the album driving around Orange County. There’s a strip mall—I think it’s probably Vietnamese—but it’s called Mall Of Fortune and they have this sick neon sign. It was right after I made Contact and I was like, ‘That’s going to be the name of my next album.’ The ‘mall’ is pretty much the mall of your life. If you think about you life as a mall, you want to take something home with you. You can’t just spend all your time browsing or else you’re never going to take anything home. It’s this idea of going through the mall of your life and having to figure out what it is you’re going to spend your life on. It’s kind of general, kind of vague, and it can be interpreted in lots of ways.
You started working on this right after Contact came out?
Harriet Brown: ‘Retail Therapy’ was all I did at first. Then I didn’t get back into the studio until November of 2017. During all the time when I’m not in the studio making the album I’m always recording little ideas that come to my head. Whether it’s based off a lyrical theme that I want to focus on or just some chords or synth sound that caught my ear or just a drum loop, I’m always recording. Once I started working on the album I went through all these ideas I had and tried to flesh them out into songs. From there I just kept filtering stuff out. Less and less things make it to the next stage basically. I did it all at home except for some acoustic guitar I recorded at another studio.
What draws you to doing it all yourself?
Harriet Brown: That’s a good question! I think there’s something about feeling like I can do everything on my own time. I never feel rushed but I also have a hard time waiting for people when it comes to Harriet Brown. In the moment when I’m feeling something, I just want to do it as much as possible. I get picky about little things and I just like the freedom I feel working by myself. This project in particular is all about autonomy. For performance it’s easier doing it myself because there’s no organizing and rounding up of course—but I would love to play with an amazing band. I just don’t have the resources. I can’t afford to pay people! Hopefully someday.
Since it’s on your own time—with you by yourself, you doing everything—do you think that makes for music that leads to a deeper revelation of who you really are?
Harriet Brown: Definitely. Working on the music by myself, I go into these holes or warps—almost time warps or worm holes—that would probably be less possible if there was someone else in the room. At the same time—and with this album in particular—I could have benefited from going out a little more in terms of my mental health. After the process I realized a lot of people in my generation were feeling some of the same things I was working through. The way social interaction has developed these days, with social media you have almost an overload of contact with people through your phone but maybe actually very little contact with people in real life. During this process—I don’t want it to sound extremely dramatic—but I got into this sort of weird paranoia where even with people that were my friends I was almost examining too much what people’s intentions might be or what people might really mean. I was feeling very lonely and unsure. I was overly paranoid about who was being authentic and who really wanted to see me. Did I really have friends? While there’s so many things I love about working alone … at least in this time in my life, it was something that was not super beneficial to my mental and emotional well-being. With that said I think I’m going to keep working by myself—ha!—but the next time around I want to make it a point to be more relaxed, take breaks, go out. Stuff like that would be a bit healthier for me.
Everything you mentioned are the symptoms of our time. That is the design of our world right now. What you’re feeling is what so many people are feeling too.
Harriet Brown: Definitely. I realized it wasn’t just because I was working on the album—that’s the thing. After finishing I started trying to go out and see people that I hadn’t seen in a year or two. They were feeling the same thing. They were feeling like, ‘Oh, do I have friends? What are friends? Do these people really care about me?’ But when you actually get out there, you realize that you can trust your gut more than you think you knew you could. If someone makes me feel uncomfortable then maybe I don’t need to see that person. But at the same time there are all these people that are willing to share warmth and love and security with you.
It’s easy to forget that they’re probably looking for the same stuff you are.
Harriet Brown: Exactly. During this crisis it seemed that all my friends were feeling the same, and feeling that L.A. is probably one of the hardest cities for that. Just because of the way it’s laid out. It’s so easy to spend so much time at home. All my friends had not been going out. All my friends were alone. Especially artists or musicians. I was having to recover from the negative effects of this initial naivety that I felt when I moved to L.A. four years ago. I was almost too open and let certain things happen that weren’t good for me and let myself get taken advantage of and used and because of that, I was learning that I built a shell around me and went in the opposite direction. So now I’m all about trying to find this balance. I guess the album is about dealing with that. Knowing that you need to find this balance, but also acknowledging that it’s really fucking hard and difficult to do in the moment.
So this album continues the conversation you started on Contact about wanting to find a way to communicate and connect, but now you’re dealing with the next step in a process of thinking.
Harriet Brown: I definitely see the linear process. If someone really looks at the content of these albums you can get a picture of where I am as a person, how I’m growing and what I’m dealing with.
That’s the lyrical side. Then there’s evolving musically. This time around you produced everything on your own from start to finish?
Harriet Brown: Yes—this was the first time that I fully produced an album myself. On Contact I produced it all myself in demo form and then went to a friend who had more experience in the studio and worked with him on building it out to sound more finished. That was a cool experience but a long process. It was a year and a half of building it out to the finished version, which was much longer than I had wanted, but I got this free education from it. That was what made me want to do it myself the next time. Thinking about the themes on Mall Of Fortune … there’s paranoia but I also talk about self-love. There’s this battle between self-love and self-care battling all this paranoia and doubt. On the music side, I wanted to acknowledge the idea that if I want to do something, I can do it. When I recorded Contact I had it in my mind that I didn’t know how to produce, really. Even though in my head I knew exactly what I wanted. Even though the demos aren’t that far off from the final product, I had so much doubt in my ability as a producer and studio engineer. And I still had that doubt going into Mall Of Fortune, but I knew I could do it and at least I would try to do as much as I could by myself. And I totally could! And I had a lot of fun. The album in itself was this battle between my confidence and self-doubt.
Some of the loops on Mall Of Fortune are so intricate. Let’s pick a song and take apart the creative process. I found ‘Retail Therapy’ pretty compelling.
Harriet Brown: It’s one of my favorites for sure. I have a home studio and I mainly work with electronic hardware. Most of the loops are stuff I’ve built out of sequencers and synths. That song first started with the drums and bass. I was listening to a lot of electronic garage like UKG and German bass and jungle music. This was my first attempt at jamming on something with that vibe and complexity of drums and bass but also minimalism. That’s how I came up with the first beat. And then I was also listening to a lot of chill-out music and downtempo and new age stuff, so that’s where the ambient synths and guitar loop that’s going on most of the whole way came from. And then it all came together. It’s funny because this is actually the first song that I wrote for the album right after I finished Contact. I really went crazy on the drums all across this whole album, and with this one I really wanted a kind of drum solo throughout the whole track. I recorded myself drumming with pencils on the desk really crazy. I took the audio and I changed it into MIDI and sent that out to my electronic drums. It’s pretty live in this way. The whole album is very electronic but it’s all pretty live as well. There are loops but I played bass live on the keys straight through the songs. ‘Retail Therapy’ was the beginning of the aesthetic theme of the album. I was like, ‘Ooh, maybe this album is going to be about this theme of the mall. ‘
How does the persona or concept of ‘Harriet Brown’ nourish your creative expression? How does it function as a space to inhabit?
Harriet Brown: People always ask me who is Harriet Brown and I always say, ‘It’s me.’ It’s the most of myself that I feel that I can be. In a way the moniker—the space—operates for me as a mask or sunglasses. I can put this name on and it makes it easier for me to not worry about what anyone else is thinking. I can one hundred percent do what I feel. I can be Aaron underneath that.
It’s interesting how masks can make people feel more free to be themselves.
Harriet Brown: That’s what it is for me. It is kinda funny, right? Maybe in the future when I’m feeling really mature and confident and not giving a fuck … maybe that will be the time I release music as Aaron Valenzuela. For now it’s easier to have this name I can use as a mask to then do whatever I want and feel free behind the mask. On this album I feel like I did whatever I wanted to do and all I had to do is do it.
People are funny. Such a tendency to overcomplicate everything.
Harriet Brown: Definitely. It’s something I’m really trying to figure out in my life right now. Post-album I had to really focus on self-care. I’ve been going to therapy and exercising a lot and trying to see people—trying to be healthy. I’ve always been scared of making the wrong decision. I grew up in church so when it came to decisions you just always had to be asking the holy spirit for the answer. That was always hard for me and those habits definitely bled into my adult life. But currently I’m trying to learn that I know what I want and I’m the only one that can really know and communicate that. No one else is going to be able to figure that out for me. It’s up to me to do what I can do to make it happen. That bleeds from general life into making an album.
The album is almost an exercise in being decisive and believing in what you’re doing and doing it.
Harriet Brown: At the end of the day I’m the one who knows if it sounds right or not. It’s tempting to seek other people’s validation—with that said, I love getting opinions from friends and taking it into account—but you can get caught up in looking for other people to tell you what sounds better, this or that. But at the end of the day, you know what makes you feel good about it.
You just gotta believe in yourself!
Harriet Brown: That’s what I’m working on. That’s what the album is all about.
And it’s fun music. Yes, of course we are talking about these things on a deeper level but the ideas are embedded in songs that make you move or feel sensual.
Harriet Brown: It’s cathartic. I was definitely trying to make danceable tracks. You were asking about the differences in making Contact and Mall Of Fortune—this is also the first time where things felt really focused. I made an album from start to finish in five months. Aside from ‘Retail Therapy,’ I did the writing, production, and recording of everything else in one stretch of write-produce-record-mix. It was the first time for me to do it all this way. Contact was a collection of things I had made over a few years and then tried to put together. So this was a cool experience. The album means a lot to me. I hope people can relate to it and dance to it.
Maybe make out to some of it.
Harriet Brown: Have some children to it—definitely.
HARRIET BROWN ON MON., FEB. 25, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1554 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / FREE / 21+. SPACELANDPRESENTS.COM. HARRIET BROWN’S MALL OF FORTUNE IS OUT NOW ON INNOVATIVE LEISURE. VISIT HARRIET BROWN AT HARRIETBROWNMUSIC.COM.