Birmingham born, London raised Harlea has been causing quite the stir in recent months. Last September she dropped her debut track, the riff-thumping ‘Miss Me’, no warning, no nothing. Yet the single ended up sitting on several viral playlists and racking up 100,000 streams in a week all before vanishing again.
Now she’s back with track number two. Think the female reply to the Artic Monkeys smash ‘Do I Wanna Know’ and you get the gritty, sultry ‘You Don’t Get It’ which unsurprisingly also made it on several viral playlists including Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist; that’s two for two. Unlike artists of today, Harlea has the bare minimum of social media presences. For her it’s all about the music, told her way and sealed with a part of her soul and story.
You’re a bit of an enigma at the moment so how would you explain to people who have no idea right now, what you are about?
I am about just doing what I want, my own thing. I don’t necessarily play by the rules of what’s going on today. I have a passion for the kind of music I’ve been writing even though I got told ‘it won’t work right now, it’s not what’s in’ but I didn’t listen as I felt like it’s my art, if you don’t like it then fine. Basically, I’m just a female doing her thing and not playing by the rules or listening to anybody, which I think is how we should all be.
What got you into music?
I’ve always had a love for music when I was little. But fell out of it when I was a teenager. Then through modelling, music found me, through the people that I met and who I was working with. From there I found that it was a calling. So, I explored it as I figured I had nothing to lose. Over time I eventually finally got to this place where I had been writing with different people and trying to find my sound, I figured if I’m going to be meeting these people and writing these things then I may as well be doing it for me. It was in LA where I finally found the sound I was looking for.
So, ou knew what was in your head, but you couldn’t find the way to get it out?
Yeah exactly, because most people thought that what I was writing with was either just for fun or to learn new skills. I found a lot of frustration in that. I found a lot of joy in music but a lot of frustration in what we came out with because it was never quite what I wanted. It was through time and people that it just found its way back to me. I don’t know how, it just did.
Was there a time when you were experimenting with a genre and now you look back and think ‘Oh God, why’?
Yeah, I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a genre, because I knew what genre I wanted to be in. I think it was that some people had written stuff and were like ’Why don’t you try this and see how it feels?’ and I’d put my vocals on it. God I hope it never makes the light of day [laughs]. They’re not great, once I had sung them I could tell it just wasnt my style [laughs]
Did you ever learn an instrument or has it always been singing for you?
I tried to learn to play a few instruments. I played the piano when I was really little, which I feel is calling me back. So, I’m going to start exploring that again. But I’ve tried the guitar. I feel like everyone asks me ‘Do you play an instrument?’ and I feel like I should be saying yes, but I‘ve tried it and its not happening.
Is there an instrument you’d love to be able to play?
I’d love to be able to play the guitar. But as I struggle so much with guitar many people have recommended the ukulele. It’s because I’ve got really small hands [laughs] so I have this bizarre interest in picking up a ukulele.
So, piano, ukulele and then see where it takes you?
Yeah, piano, ukulele and let’s just see where it goes from there although [laughs] it doesn’t sound like it’s going in the direction of my music!
You left home at 16, what drove you to leave home, move to London and how was it learning the ropes at such a young age?
It was interesting because I started coming to London to work when I was about 14. When I arrived in London it felt like I was home, I just knew where I was going. It was very strange because I grew up in a small town. It was daunting, I left because I was at school and it wasn’t for me. I’m a creative and I knew whatever it was going to do didn’t require me to do my A-Levels or go to university, get myself into student debt [laughs], go through all the usual process and get a 9-5 job. That wasn’t me. I’d sit in the classroom and I’d debate it. I looked at all my options and I figured I didn’t really have anything to lose. Education would always be there if I needed, it so I left and I moved down. At first it was hard, especially since I was so young. So, a lot of people I was meeting were much older, there was just social things that I couldn’t do, but I don’t regret any of it because I learnt so much. Being independent, being on my own, living in the real world rather than in the normal school world. I didn’t find London overwhelming at all. I felt very at home. I lived in a couple different areas, I moved around and it just always felt very natural to me, I just never found it overwhelming.
Was there any point where you doubted yourself in the earlier years going between LA and London?
Yeah, because of the journey I was going through and the frustrations I was feeling. The amount of times I almost quit was countless, because felt like I wasn’t going anywhere getting the satisfaction I thought I’d get. I had thoughts that this wasnt what I was supposed to be doing. But then that didn’t feel like the right answer either. Obviously, it’s never a smooth road but I definitely worked through it and thank God as I feel like I have finally got there [laughs].
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d probably go back to when I was 13, when I was having a tough time in general with school. I started to lose myself. I would tell myself it’s okay, trust your gut, trust your instincts because you know what’s right for you. I belong out in the big, bad world, meeting people, creating, travelling. I would tell her it’s okay, you’re going to be fine [laughs].
What’s the creative process like for you? Whether that’s drawing or music?
Well, that depends on the type of drawing [laughs], this drawing is going well! (Harlea is in the middle of sketching her pet dog as we chat) He’s adorable, he’s a gremlin.
The creative process. I very much go with the flow and just see where everything takes me. So, where I got to today with the music was very much working with the team I met. We wrote so many songs, many of which you won’t hear [laughs] because you know not everything you write is genius. You just pull inspiration from everyone and everything you see. I never start a day with ‘this is what I want to write about’ because I feel like I’m limiting myself by doing that. Instead I ride the creative wave, whether it spurs from a conversation, whether it spurs from something we heard on the radio. Whatever it is, somebody’s experience they dealt with the other week, I just take it from everywhere because I don’t think you should ever limit yourself to one idea, or one thing. I think that’s how we got to where we were with the music.
Has there ever been a time where you want to write a random song about, I don’t know, maybe about fried chicken, just to get it out there and keep it original even if it is shit?
[laughs] No but you know what there have been times when we’ve been very frustrated with the writing process. You write a great chorus or verse and you don’t know where to go. Usually we just go off for about an hour, throwing out the most stupid ideas [laughing], its really easy to make a really shit, cheesy song! [laughs] I can’t think of anything specific we’ve done but we’ve definitely had some giggles in the writing room for sure! It’s amazing how many funny things you can find that rhyme with certain words that suddenly come out of your mouth spontaneously.
Your songs have a real classical rock ‘n’ roll sound to them; I know you mentioned you had a clear idea about the direction you wanted to take your music in, so how was it so clear to you?
Music changes all the time, at the moment we’re in this real electronic stage. When I was in the writing process I’d get guidance and advice from people on what I was doing. A lot of people told me ‘you shouldn’t do it that way, you should try and do it this way…the movement right now is this...’ And it never felt right for me to follow what the movement was with the music. I knew it wasn’t my passion, that music wasn’t me. I wasn’t listening to that music when I turned on the radio or if I listened to my iPod. So, I always ignored them because I knew it wasn’t right. I’ve always loved indie music, rock ’n’ roll music, that’s always been where I’ve wanted to sit but it’s always been very male heavy. I just had this vision, why couldn’t a female sit right there alongside them? There’s no reason why we can’t. I found a sound I liked with classical instruments, what I love about old-school music is that it’s real music. I’ve been always drawn to that kind of music but with a modern day vibe and catchier rhythms. If you listen to the arrangement of their songs it was the way they were put together, in a pop way. I felt that nobody was doing that. So that’s what I set out to achieve.
It really comes across in the two songs you’ve released so far, in terms of both sounds and content. You could imagine listening to them a couple of decades ago but also now. They have a timeless feel to them.
Yeah, and that’s exactly what I wanted to achieve, so it feels really good for me when I hear people say that. That’s exactly the direction I wanted to go in, there were women doing it back then, but not as many doing it now. They might start there but then they go in a different direction and get swept up into that pop stream.
There’s a real grittiness to the tracks, especially ‘You Don’t Get It’, that has been missing from a lot of female artists. It’s a sound that guys are used to but it’s refreshing to have female vocals to that sound.
I’ve never been afraid to be in a female in this man’s world. I’ve always just listened to me as I’ve always known who I am. It’s not going to hold me back and that shows in the music. Fuck what you think [laughs] I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do, if you don’t like it too bad! But somebody out there is going to like it! I’m just doing my art in the way that I like it and I think people can feel that.
So, what influenced your sound? Was it something you grew up with your family playing in the background or artists you were just drawn to?
I guess artists and what I’ve experienced. In terms of sound it would be all the classics in terms of music. I grew up loving the Artic Monkeys, Stevie Nicks, I loved a whole range of people. I even love Beyoncé but she’s not my kind of music [laughs] but I respect her as an artist. I have influences from everywhere. My family didn’t really listen to that type of music. Music is pretty strong in my family, my older brother was in a band and so was my uncle. It makes sense as to why it’s always been calling me.
How did it feel being put on the New Music Friday playlist on Spotify and racking up 500,000 listens on Soundcloud with pretty much no press launch?
It’s quite surreal, as much as I love my music it’s also nerve-wrecking because when you put it out there…it’s out there [laughs]. It feels so out of your control like ‘Oh God I don’t know who’s listening to this.’ But to see the response I’ve been getting has been amazing. The New Music Friday playlist to get it once is like wow, but to get it for the second single as well…it’s just like ‘that’s cool!’ [laughs]. It has been really satisfying seeing the response i have had with my music, especially when everyone at the initial stages said I should be do something else rather than the music I’m doing.
Your latest single ‘You Don’t Get’ has a strong statement of doing it on your own, which clearly comes from all your experience; so, is there a desire to say something powerful that goes throughout the rest of your work?
I think it goes down to the fact I think my music carries all the same character, which is a strong female doing it for her. In all the songs, no matter what they’re about, she’s made the decision. Nobody has told her what to do or influenced her in anyway. It’s very much that she’s been leading herself with her heart. I think that for me is what carries through all of the music.
You’re a bit of an enigma on social media, what was the thinking behind that and how does it affect you?
Well for me it’s all about the music. I’m just not very good with social media. I’m a little bit old school in a sense, I roll my eyes at things that are very current and today. I guess I just don’t want to give it all away. I feel like on social media there is no secrecy, it’s all laid out on the table, there’s nothing to discover. Whereas by resisting it a little bit, people still have more to find out about you which I think is far more interesting than telling them everything. That way it’s more of a journey, you go on a journey with the artist, with the music. That way when anything new comes out, music, interviews, whatever, you learn a little bit more about the artist. I’m quite a private person naturally, friends I’ve had for a long time are still learning things about me because I’m just not that person. So, I feel like social media is just a reflection of me. This is a journey.
And you’ve got to be in for the long haul.
Yeah, you’ve got to be in for the long haul [laughs].
How was playing your first gig last week and how are you feeling about your first headline performance?
It was really good. We had a really good time butunfortunately I wasn’t very well. So, that was tough but I got through it. I’m really looking forward to the headline one because I’m fighting fit! Yeah, I go back into rehearsals tomorrow so I’m looking forward to being back with the band and just getting ready for Tuesday. I’ve never played on a Tuesday [laughs].
So, what’s in the future for you?
This year, I’m just going to finish working on my music. I’ve got multiple songs that I’ve got to try and choose which one to release next, and I want to make sure they’re perfect. Then some new music, playing more shows and getting it out there a bit more.
How do you choose what to release next? It is something you just know is right or is it more planned than that?
It will come to me. Right now, I don’t know. But I know when the time’s right for me to release the next one, I’ll know. So, I just want to make sure I just have everything ready because at the moment I just don’t know which one to release next. So, it’s exciting for me to figure out which one to do.
Okay so these are just some quick-fire questions.
What are three things people don’t know about you?
I’ve been banned from drinking green tea. [laughs] I hate coffee… and I’m absolutely terrified of the ocean.
What are you most excited for in 2017?
I’m excited but also nervous to see as a society where we’re going to be by the end of 2017 [laughs].
What are three things you would take to a deserted island?
Sweet potato fries.
[Laughs] I would take my family and a camera.
What flavour ice cream would you be?
I’m not adventurous when it comes to things like that, I’ve just always like vanilla ice cream.
London or LA?
Both. I can’t. The balance between the two is perfect.
What’s the most embarrassing song on your iPod that you hope no one ever finds?
Probably a Christmas song I recorded when I was 9.
What’s your karaoke song?
Ohh, I don’t know. I don’t know when the last time I did karaoke. Umm a Jay-Z rap.
Who would you invite to a dinner party and what would you cook?
I would invite my best friend Holly, because she gets on with everybody. I’d invite David Bowie because I think he’s just fascinating. Now who would go well with those two? Sorry I’m probably taking ages. I feel like I’ve forgotten everybody’s names! Hmm. Maybe if think about what I’d cook for them it will give me an idea of who to have as my third guest. I would cook, making sure they aren’t vegetarian or anything, Thai green curry, I have an obsession with Thai green. Then probably chocolate mousse for dessert.
Yeah. Holly, David Bowie and I need someone else. Shit this is hard question. Who would make a good crowd with them?
See I’d go for someone like David Attenborough because I reckon he has loads of good stories.
Oh yeah, can I steal that one because that’s good. Oh no I’ll tell you who. What’s his name from Only Fools and Horses?
Yes David Jason. I love him. Okay I’m going to put David Jason. So, Holly, David Bowie, David Jason eating a Thai green curry and chocolate mousse. I think that’s a really good combination of people.
Okay last one. Brunch or roast?
Roast. Oh yeah Sunday Roast, I make it a thing when I’m in LA, ‘like I’m English’.