Call Redialed: Michael Harren: "The Animal Album" & "The Animal Book"
Last year I attended Michael Harren's multi-media performance, The Animal Show, at Dixon Place in NYC. Since then, Michael has been hard at work adapting that show into a book and album. It's so great to catch up with Michael now as he readies to celebrate the release of The Animal Album & The Animal Book.
On June 21, come on down to Judson Memorial Church (55 Washington Square South) and join the festivities when Michael (and his all-vegan string quartet) perform selections from the show, as well as earlier works. Click here for tickets!
After the show, we are going to DANCE IT OUT to the tunes of DJ Miss Blue Sky and the incredible Rockin' Raw will be on hand with their glorious food. Dancing, music, art.
1. This June you are celebrating the release of The Animal Album and The Animal Book both based upon your multimedia show The Animal Show. How did you decide this show would also make a good album & book? Which came first, the album or book or did both come at the same time? I had the book and album idea in the back of my mind from the start. After I wrapped up my first solo show, Tentative Armor, my good friend luke kurtis approached me about creating a book and an album based on the show. His company, bd-studios.com would publish the book and I would work on the album and release it on my own. It was such a fantastic project and a really special way to document the show. I was so excited about doing it again, I think I reached out to luke the moment I had the idea for The Animal Show. This show has become such an important tool for my animal advocacy, it means a great deal to have the ability to reach more people with it.
2. Let's start with the book. What was the hardest part of the book to write? Which parts flowed out of you effortlessly? The majority of the material in the book is pulled from the stories in the show. It was a little tricky reframing some of them from the conversational form they took in the show into something that would make sense in the pages of a book. I had lots of help from luke with that part of it. I think the hardest part of new material to write was the section about the slaughterhouse vigil I attended in Los Angeles. Reliving that night and being so close to so much suffering with the inability to do anything to stop it still haunts me. Yeah, it was really tough to dig back into that.
3. Were there any animals or stories you wanted to include in the book, but couldn’t? Actually, we managed to get everything in there! We even added back a story that I cut from the show called “Glue Trap.”
4. What does having this book made mean to you? How do you feel it will help animals? On a personal level, holding this book in my hand — it kinda serves as proof that I did this thing, you know? It started out as a seed of an idea to create a show while in residence at Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary, then it became that show, then a tour, and now this book and album. For many years I thought I was not the kind of person who could pull off something like this.
As far as how it might help animals, I worked hard to share the perspectives of the animals in the stories and highlight their individual personalities. That’s one of the things that people said that made me realize that this kind of work has the potential to help people shift their perspectives about animals. Having these stories written down potentially gets them to more and more people who may also be affected by the stories and be inspired to change how they treat animals.
5. Now, let's talk about the album. The first single is out already, "Home Again." To me, the song is about finding who you are & learning about the unconditional love of an animal. In this song you sing "It's so hard to find my way home again. I don't want to find my way home again." Do you feel you have found your way home at this stage in your life? I have always written about home, I think because I have always felt like a little bit of an oddity. Even as a kid, I felt a little off and like I didn’t quite belong. Maybe that’s why Corky, the dog who inspired the song, was so important to me. I was hitting adolescence when she was in my life, and beginning to realize that I was gay, even though it would still be many years before I would come to terms with that. Corky was this loving, affectionate little person who loved me unconditionally and stayed by my side no matter what. In that same way, I have spent most of my adult life as a single person, so the concept of “home” is a little bit of a challenge in that way too. Even for us gay folks, the idea of “home” or “family” include partners, and houses, and yards. I feel like I have built a family of friends and love my growing creative life, but part of me is increasingly wistful and longing for partnership with another human. I think there is a bit of that in the song too. I miss the home I had, but not enough to go back there; and I long for a new kind of home, but have no idea what it looks like or how to find it.
6. What can you tell us about the other songs on the album? “Home Again” is the only traditional song on the album. The rest of the album is comprised of instrumentals (most with my gorgeous string quartet) and some spoken and word sound pieces. Like the book, it has been really interesting transforming these pieces from live performance into something that works well on an album.
7. Which song was the most fun to write? Which was made you want to just give up on making the album? Right now I am having a blast with the track “Blood and Beaks.” In the show, I played a synthesizer improvisation in this piece that was heavily inspired by musician Ron Anderson. I decided at the last minute to reach out to Ron about recording the improvisation himself on the Korg MS-20. Not only did he kindly oblige, but he recorded some guitar for the track as well. The piece has a really refreshing new take from how I did it in the show, and I was literally cheering in my little studio when I listen to his work on my song. Absolutely fantastic!
There’s a piece on the album called “Kaporos” that brought me the closest to scrapping the whole project and tossing myself into a well. It’s the story of my attempt to rescue some chickens from a religious ceremony. It’s a scary night to remember, which makes it a little tough to work on. Additionally, it was tough to mix the piece, and maybe I was in a weird self-doubting place too, because the day I worked on mixing this song I dug myself deep into hopelessness. That sounds so dramatic, I know, but I am an indie artist still and new to mixing my own recorded work. It got really easy to focus on my “novice” status and judge myself harshly. Perfectionism. That’s it. I got around to the other side thanks to some trusted friends, and the reminder that this project is one of many I will be working on in my life. It’s so important to remember that I plan to create more and more things and, yes, I am a novice at some of this, but this is all a journey, not just a destination. I hope you’ll excuse that somewhat tired cliche. But these things become cliches for a reason, don’t they?
8. How do you feel the book/album will add to the show's message? There’s something about the written word that is so different from seeing a performance. I guess that’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but the idea that someone can re-read a line, or dog-ear a page to come back to later, all these ways in which the reader can interact with the words and ideas, make for a tremendously different experience with the same words. I love the fact that it has the potential to reach far more people than I ever could in traveling around with the show.
9. I saw The Animal Show last year and while it was entertaining, I definitely felt it was a way to educate audiences about animal cruelty and a slight hidden agenda to get us to go vegan. What are some of your favorite reactions to the show? I am so happy to hear that the hidden agenda to turn everyone vegan seemed slight! Of course, as a passionate ethical vegan, I am always hoping others will choose to stop using animals for food, clothing, and entertainment. With this show, though, I really tried to focus on expressing how I perceive animals, and how I learned about their sentience and individuality. I tried to keep the focus on why I feel the way I do, and the experiences that led me to feel that way. Rather than telling the audience how I think they should feel, I wanted to express why I feel the way I do.
I got a bunch of “I’ll never eat chickens again” responses after my show in Houston, which I would also say had the lowest percentage of already-vegans in the audience. That one felt like a real test to me since I am from Houston and I was not yet an animal rights activist when I lived there. I was worried about how the show would land with former students and theater colleagues who were not as acquainted with this side of me. I have to say that was one of my favorite shows for that reason. The show sold out there, and I felt the audience with me all the way. Even people who didn’t declare they wouldn’t be eating animals anymore, seemed to have at least been able to understand in a deeper why why I am as outspoken as I am about defending animals.
10. What benefits have you personally noticed from going vegan? Have you found a substitute for all the animal products you used to eat or are there some you still crave, but know in you're heart, it's more important to protect these animals than give into a craving? The biggest change in me is spiritually, or maybe you could say, “emotionally." Once I really stopped eating animals it just felt like I was being more honest with myself. There’s a certain amount of denial that came along with my meat eating. I remember moments when I was younger and helping my mom cook where I would be slicing up a chicken’s breast and think “This is someone’s body.” It takes some energy to push those thoughts away and go on as it if it feels okay. In general I felt “lighter” when I stopped eating meat and animal products, but in all honesty I didn’t experience any major health changes. I have recently been dabbling in eating only whole foods, and THAT makes a huge difference in how I feel.
As far as substitutes, they are more and more amazing. The Beyond Burger is a recent favorite that’s on the market. I was one of those “I could never give up cheese” people for a long time, and when I went vegan there weren’t any really great substitutes. My tastes changed over time though. I am so much more passionate and excited about food than I ever was before going vegan, if you can believe that. There is so much fantastic food available now, well beyond the meat and cheese substitutes that are saturating the market right now. If anybody who is reading this wants some tips on trying out a vegan meal or two, dont hesitate to reach out to me through my website. I love talking about this stuff!
More on Michael:
Brooklyn-based composer and performer Michael Harren combines elements of classical composition with experimental electronics and storytelling to create hypnotic and boldly intimate work that walks the line between Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel and Dead Can Dance. He is artist-in-residence at Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary where he created the solo multi-media theatre piece The Animal Show, which premiered in New York City in 2016 and continues to be performed in venues throughout the United States.
In his first solo show, Tentative Armor, Michael combined piano, synthesizers, various electronics, and live musicians with his unique storytelling, resulting in a deeply moving, highly entertaining performance. Through his resonant, powerful, very personal stories, Michael envelops the audience in a funny, poignant, highly intimate tour of his own self-discovery through spirituality, sexuality, and grief. Music, text and photos from the show were released in an album and book of the same name.
Michael Harren has toured as pianist with Sandra Bernhard, is the musical director for Cabaret for a Cause, and has performed at Dixon Place, (le) poisson rouge, Joe’s Pub, Judson Memorial Church, Manhattan Theater Source, The Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama, The Laurie Beechman Theater as well as numerous venues around the country. Michael is a Moogfest artist who presented No Permission Needed: Create with Senator Jaiz at Moogfest 2017.