As a singer/songwriter with a folky bent, Alexis Harte spent about a decade leading his own bands and taking care of all the details that entails. These days, the Berkeley-reared guitarist and vocalist has found an ideal partner in Oakland’s Damond Moodie, a soul-steeped singer/songwriter who’s also co-director of Pumpkin Seed Childcare.
They’ve effectively combined their complimentary sonic sensibilities in The Lemonhammer. The quartet celebrates the release of a new EP Made In A House 1 p.m. Sunday at Freight & Salvage on a double bill with Judea Eden Band as the opening act. The ticket price includes a copy of the EP.
Moodie contributed vocals to a track on Harte’s critically praised 2009 album Big Red Sun, and before long they had “developed real songwriting chemistry together,” Harte says. “Damond comes out of soul and blues and R&B. My background is much more the acoustic folk world. I used to be a real purist about playing acoustic, but when we start mixing things up I had the desire to play a lot more electric guitar and start exploring tonal variations. Having to front your own band and write the songs, book the gigs gets old too. It’s nice to share that with another person, and bring two sources of inspiration into a band.”
Harte’s longtime collaborator Aaron Brinkerhoff holds down the drum chair, and Irish bassist Ferg Lenehan takes care of the low end. They both contributed some material to the EP, but they’re better known as a sought-after rhythm section tandem. They also back Los Angeles singer/songwriter Kate Isenberg, and the full-throated Judea Eden.
“Judea is a wonderful performer,” Harte says. “We’re going to keep thing fluid. She’ll open with a 30-minute set, and then she’ll join us. We’re going to have lot of guest musicians on hand too.”
A follow up to the 2012 EP The Lemon Hammer, the new project came together in Harte’s downtown Berkeley home studio (hence the EP’s title). The band also gave the first one away at the EP release concert, a move that’s much easier to make with a cost-efficient five-song disc than a full-length album.
“We recorded in my house, so the main expense was mastering and pressing,” Harte says. “I’m working on my sixth full-length album and everyone else is working on their own projects. We figure other people are busy, and five songs is a lot for most folks to listen to. It’s a good sample of what we’re doing.”
In many ways Harte’s musical identity is the product of his Berkeley upbringing. He moved to town as a five-year-old in the mid-1970s, just as his parents were separating. His father, physicist-turned-ecologist John Harte, is a founding member of the Energy & Resources Group, an interdisciplinary graduate program at Cal. His mother is a long-time social worker at Alta Bates. Alexis had minimal formal instruction on guitar, but he did take the classical guitar class at Berkeley High, which consisted of being told, “here’s your guitar. Go play in the stairwell for 40 minutes. Don’t get high.”
While the jazz program provided those students with a strong sense of community, the rock and folk identified musicians were largely left to their own devices, Harte recalls. Charlie Hunter was a year ahead him and a similar stairwell dweller. “Jude Gold, an editor at Guitar Player for years who’s now off touring with Jefferson Starship, and Alex Skolnick, a great metal guitarist, were both around, and Shelley Doty was also part of that scene,” Harte says.
As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz (where I first met Harte when I was an editor at the independent student weekly City On A Hill and he was my intern), he worked on his guitar playing but didn’t do much performing. He went on to earn a master’s in environmental science at Yale, and spent three years working in Brazil. When he returned to the Bay Area at the end of the 1990s, he got a job with Friends of the Urban Forest, and released his first album, JuneBug, a beguiling solo project featuring his guitar and voice.
He spent several years working for the City of San Francisco as the Urban Forestry Council coordinator, while also pursuing his music, releasing several albums featuring his rapidly developing craft as a songwriter. He also found some success in licensing his music for television and film, and in 2007 he decided to pursue music full time. Five years ago he founded the Pollen Music Group, a company with four composers and an executive producer that creates scores for film, video, television, commercials and video games.
The Lemonhammer isn’t at the center of Harte’s musical world, but it represents a sweet spot where his interests converge with Moodie’s. They settled on the band’s evocative name because “it speaks to the range we’re going for, the thump and the sweetness on top,” Harte says. “It’s about the mix of bass and treble, the whisper and the boot, the sweet and the heavy.”
Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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