Will Merriman formed The Harvest Ministers in 1987, which many people remember as the year of The Joshua Tree, the year Larry Mize jammily won The Masters, or the year they weren’t born yet. It is a long time for a band to have been around, and about time for an anthology – so here we are. You Can See Everything From Here draws on all five of The Harvest Ministers’ albums, from 1993’s Little Dark Mansion to 2010’s Strange Love Letter, and from their glistening early 7” singles, ‘Six O’Clock Is Rosary’, ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’, and ‘If It Kills Me And It Will’.
During a ridiculous run of form in the 1990s, the Ministers were one of those bands, like The Pixies or The Smiths the decade before them, so grossly overburdened with great songs that they could leave masterpieces off albums. ‘Six O’Clock Is Rosary’ is utterly exquisite: a song so sparse and taut and elegant and lush with feeling that it would be the peak of almost any other band’s career.
Their fanbase has never been huge and never half-hearted. You Can See Everything From Here features liner notes in the form of a mini-memoir by Michael O’Hara, who introduced me to the Ministers through his infectious encomiums in Hot Press. He begins: “I don’t remember the first time I met the woman who was later to become my wife, but I remember the first time I saw The Harvest Ministers”. He’s in so much trouble with the missus that you know that he means it. He was not alone in his ardour. You had to commit to The Ministers as much as they committed themselves, in their scrupulously honest, aching songs like ‘Dominique’, ‘A Drowning Man’, ‘Orbit’, and ‘I Hang From A Great Big Oak’, which sounds like you’d imagine it sounds.
As the years have flown in, Merriman has added to his writing a lightness in tone that was not always obvious early on; but he has retained a vulnerability, an openness to the experience of longing, that catches your breath. If anyone saw a forty year old guy in a suit on the Red Line Luas at 7.30am in early May looking like he was about to cry, that was me, listening repeatedly to 2010’s ‘Strange Love Letter’, hearing each time afresh the string-soaked plea that ends the song: “Please / Ple-e-e-ease/ Please don’t wait till forever / To answer my strange love letter”.
When you get to my age everyday life takes over and you can get a little shut off from your emotions. The Harvest Ministers songs that populate You Can See Everything From Here open you back up. They reconnect you with emotions that you ignore, or don’t have any time for, but that you have to feel to stay healthy; to stay human. If that’s all I ever got from art, it would be enough.
State spoke to Will in advance of the album’s release and upcoming Dublin show, wondering how the band initially got together…
“I started the band with a friend of mine, David Duffy, who was the singer. He also played a beautiful harmonica and ‘Can’t Go It Alone’, featuring his playing, appears on the EP ‘If It Kills Me And It Will’, with Gerardette Bailey on lead vocal. We put an ad in Hot Press (probably) and recruited Padraig McCaul [now a brilliant, successful painter – NC] on saxophone duties. Later discovering that Padraig was a shark and could play almost every instrument under the sun.
I remember the first demos we did with Shea Fitzgerald out in the Music Mint in Glasthule and the innocent pleasure of taking the Dart back into town with recorded tape in hand, proud as a boy who’d just picked grapes all day. Still as a songwriter one is always consumed by the next song and how to write it. I don’t dwell too long on what’s gone before. Never have, never will”.
You’re not one for dwelling. Yet here we are with a retrospective! So could I ask you to dwell a little – or at least to draw a line between what’s gone before and where you are now. Do you have a sense of how you have changed, or stayed the same, as a songwriter?
“You mentioned ‘I Hang From A Great Big Oak’. Well that’s probably one of the rawest songs I’ve ever written and a somewhat dramatic one too, particularly when experienced in a live situation. ‘Who is this guy singing about hanging from a great big oak, is he for real? But I like that unnerving of an audience, though you have to be careful not to over do it – nobody wants to be reminded too forcefully about how bad things can be. Light and shade, very important.
‘Strange Love Letter’ contains a lot of raw emotion. ‘So You Finally Struck Oil’ [“So you finally struck oil / Got your hands on a big pile / All that money that won’t be mine / I bet you’re really proud”] is like someone dreaming of one day maybe having the opportunity to stick two fingers up against the world, yet does the person involved really think it’s going to happen? We’re all full of day dreams, it’s how we handle them that counts.
I’ve always considered songwriting as a craft, not in any in-depth technical way (which is fraught with over-analysis and musical cleverness), but in a basic sense of capturing the song as it is played and sung by the singer – like all the old blues singers or Elvis’s Sun Sessions. You’ve written a song, play it, and while you’re playing it, we’ll record it. Repeat this process till you have enough for an album, and when you have 30 – 40 (or more), we’ll choose 13 or whatever to release. This of course is easier said than done, and writing words and music is not easy and can take any number of years before you are satisfied with the work you have done”.
I’m curious what your take is on the connection is that people make with your music. Or another way of asking that is: What do you look for in the art and music that you love?
“I’m not sure it’s a question of looking for something in art and music. I think someone fundamentally feels a connection with the piece of music / song they are listening to and it is the same with art, which can soothe, make you laugh, cry and reflect on your very existence.
I was fortunate enough to be standing in front of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ recently and despite the throng of people milling around, I felt myself being transported to an inner place of peace and solitude – not a physical space but a space where one could easily discard as meaningless, the every day irritations which fill most of our lives. Literature has this power too, and books like Infinite Jest and The Old Man And The Sea, though two vastly different styles, are examples.
I think that is why I had such a great time writing the songs for Padraig McCaul’s exhibition The Light of Which I Speak. There was a connection between the landscape Padraig was painting and the characters within the music, illustrating how a songwriter’s imagination is or should be where everything starts and finishes. So maybe the people who like our music are drawn in by some of these sentiments. They are the same sentiments I feel when I listen to music. Chuck Berry never fails to make me laugh. Take ‘Nadine’ – ‘I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat, thought I saw my future bride walking down the street’. You’re immediately swept up in the tale; pure brilliance. The flip side of that is Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, in terms of colour, for me this is a deep dark blue, an equally engaging brilliant song – you’ve got music coming out from the inside with no frills attached. People like that. I like that”.
You might say something about what’s next – where you go from here, given that the anthology is an opportunity to acknowledge the past and move forward.
“The anthology will be followed by our next studio album. Work on this is at an advanced stage and I would hope this new collection of songs will be out some time early next year. This is why we wanted to precede this record by the anthology as the idea was to give people who have never heard our music a chance to be introduced to the band. My mind has already wandered to the album after. A songwriter is constantly moving on, never settling for a second, and the driving force behind all of this remains the imagination”.
You Can See Everything From Here is out now. The Harvest Ministers play Bewley’s Café Theatre on June 7th.