Main Street man
Clay Harper's prolific muse offers up an imaginary soundtrack
Call on Clay Harper at 8 p.m. on a Thursday, and chances are you won't find him watching NBC's "Friends." In fact, he's never seen the show. Not that he has anything against the top-rated sitcom. He'd just rather busy himself with other things. "I always seem to be wanting to do something," he says during a recent lunchtime interview at his Midtown home. "And I don't spend a lot of time sort of camping, you know what I mean? I don't veg that often."
Who can blame him? Harper, 40, doesn't have time to grow couch-potato roots. When he's not tending to duties associated with owning all those Fellini's and La Fonda restaurants around town, he's hanging out with his girlfriend or helping raise his 9-year-old daughter, Barrie, who lives with her mother in a neighborhood north of Atlanta.
"She is my number one priority," he says of his daughter. "Then after that, I can get it together. Like President Clinton, I can compartmentalize."
Harper has been compartmentalizing a lot lately — particularly in the creative department. Before he was a successful businessman, Harper was a songwriter and frontman for the band the Coolies. The gift has not wilted with Harper's venture in the moneymaking world. In fact, Harper's industrious musical talents are profiting nicely — artistically if not monetarily.
To wit, some of the hats he's worn of late: Last year, he and his brother Mark Harper released their second children's storybook CD; he recently worked with the Subsonics on songs for a new album; he's currently working on a project he describes as a "Buena Vista Social Club" for reggae.
In the midst of all this activity, Harper has just unleashed his most recent project, a concept CD called Main Street, released on local label Terminus Records. Featuring drivin' n' cryin' frontman Kevn Kinney on lead vocals, the CD is a soundtrack to a movie that has never been made. It follows the downward spiral of a lawyer who lives on the corner of "inspiration and desperation."
The title track includes the melancholy idyll, "There's no such place as Main Street/Where the sun shines all the time/ And birds sing like only birds can sing/When they're singing in your mind." Main Street might not exist, but clearly it exists in Harper's mind, and on CD.
Harper says the recent spate of movie soundtracks "that have absolutely nothing to do with the movie," sparked the idea for Main Street. "They exist just to get this band and this band and this band exposed. So what I wanted to do was alter that so completely. It's a soundtrack that has everything to do with the movie, but the movie doesn't exist."
He wrote the entire CD, including snippets of dialogue, with Kinney in mind for the lead role (locals such as Col. Bruce Hampton and the Subsonics' Buffi Aguero make spoken cameos as well). Harper calls Kinney "the best singer in town."
"To me, he comes across as so sincere," Harper says of his longtime friend. "He really gets into character and he feels it. He's so unique. He's got so much character in his voice."
Harper is pleased with the finished product. "It does convey what I wanted," he says modestly.
But to loiter on Main Street is to miss the whole point of Harper. This is not a guy who loiters for too long on anything. He becomes obsessed with a flash of inspiration, he gives birth to it and he moves on. When talking to Harper, subjects of conversation never linger for more than a minute. He's always reminded of ideas he still has yet to bring to life. "I've got a hundred that don't happen, and I really get down on myself," he says. "I'm like, 'Damn, I've got to do this.'"
Among Harper's unconsummated brainstorms are a screenplay for the next Austin Powers movie that involves a guy named Brownfinger who falls for the shaggy spy; a comedic cooking show called "Look at That Idiot"; and a computerized game (not unlike those Japanese ones you have to baby-sit) where characters are sent to prison.
"You get your sentence and you make a decision whether you want to be a punk or a whatever, who you want to align yourself with," says Harper of his game idea. "Then you have to check on your status every day. Say you get sentenced to five years, out in two. That means your game will last two years. Then you get probation, unless you get killed. If you don't check on your game, chances are some horrible stuff is going to happen."
Harper smiles as he says this. Ideas are the currency of his world.
For now, though, he's concentrating on the reggae album, which is being recorded in his home studio. The presence of his daughter is always there, too. Like her dad, Barrie has a creative streak. Her drawings, bright renderings of animals, people or landscapes, adorn the walls of Harper's home. They shine an innocent aura over Harper when he's making music or simply writing down his latest thought.
Barrie's existence in Harper's world, in fact, seems to put into perspective his chase to make all ideas tangible.
"I've got the luxury of time," he says. "I'll get around to it."
Main Street is currently available on Terminus Records; see www.terminusrecords.com for more information.