Sometimes fate is your enemy.
Los Angeles musician Alex Casnoff, the founder, singer and chief songwriter behind the band Harriet, is scheduled to give me a tennis lesson at the Elysian Park Courts near Dodger Stadium, but El Niño is not making it easy. And when the rain breaks on a Friday morning and we get out to the courts, men 20 years our senior are already occupying them, with no sign of ending soon.
Casnoff teaches tennis to children as a side gig, one of many odd jobs that pay the bills, including scoring commercials. But tennis for Casnoff is a little different than his other money makers, as a tattoo that plainly says “tennis” on his left thigh reveals.
“You cannot think about anything else while playing tennis,” he says, smiling, “and as a very anxious person, the game totally alleviates that for me. Not that I don’t have a temper on the court, but when I do, it is completely about tennis and not about my life.”
His love for the sport forms a nice dichotomy with his other great passion, music. “My music is the manifestation of all my anxiety, because I write songs about my feelings. When I write about those feelings, I am not escaping them. The thing is, I love stress. I’ve always been like that. I never liked school except for finals. I liked cramming. But that isn’t always good for me.”
As Harriet prepares to release its debut album, the end result is anything but the product of a cram session or a strict deadline. The band first received press, including a feature in L.A. Weekly, back in 2012, when Harriet released the EP Tell the Right Story. He was coming from a background of playing with other rising local institutions like Dawes and Papa, and that early bit of songwriting carried echoes of those bands. Now, four years later and with new supporting cast and record label, Casnoff is ready to offer up American Appetite.
Casnoff is well aware that four years is a long wait for a freshman offering, but is matter-of-fact when he says that’s just how long it took to make it.
“When we recorded the EP,” he says, “it was pretty much just my thing that I invited some friends to play on. It wasn’t really a band, but I gave it the name of a band because I envisioned it one day becoming that. The process of forming a band is pretty difficult.”
Casnoff saw his first group of cohorts disintegrate after a year-and-a-half, with only drummer Henry Kwapis remaining from Harriet's early incarnation. When the current lineup, which also features guitarist Matt Blitzer and bassist Patrick Kelly, finally came together, Casnoff didn't rush it. “It took a long time to have everyone be able to express themselves through the music,” he says, “but part of the delay was also just because of the business side of music, which I don’t really like.”
After the current Harriet lineup finished recording what could have been the debut, the band didn’t really like the record labels that were showing interest. All the while, they kept writing until the right label finally came along: Harvest Records, home of Death Grips, Best Coast and Glass Animals. As a result, songs were continually dropped and added to the endeavor.
“When I was in high school,” Casnoff recalls, “I did my first recording session at this studio in Burbank. And there was this super rich guy that was worth tens of millions of dollars that had bought this classic studio and wouldn’t let anybody rent it. He spent 15 years working on his album, and everyone would say, ‘He’s never going to finish.’ I think it is very easy to do that. I think it is very easy to not show what you are working on.”
A byproduct of the long gap between Harriet's first EP and American Appetite is that the project’s sound has evolved. The band was originally lumped in with the rootsy Americana/Laurel Canyon revival that Dawes was associated with. But that’s only a piece of the puzzle that makes up Harriet’s current sonic range. Casnoff lists of Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy and Peter Gabriel as songwriting influences, but notes that his band members' jazz backgrounds also play a part in how their music takes shape, allowing the four-piece to jam on ideas until a song forms
As a result, American Appetite is hard to pin down within a specific genre, with Casnoff’s soulful vocals and pop sensibilities cast as the record’s binding substance. Whether it’s radio-ready alternative pop on “Inheritance,” the Cold War Kids-esque, piano-driven title track, or the dance rhythms that are the backbone of “Irish Margaritas,” there is plenty about the album that could find success beyond the local level. But even that idea raises Casnoff’s suspicion.
“I try not to think about the future too much,” he says, “or else it would just increase my anxiety. But sometimes I worry about what happens if people really like the record. I’ve always been the type of person that has been inspired and pushed by people not liking things, and people turning me down. That’s when I want to write songs, to prove them wrong.”