Introducing Corey Harper: Folky singer-singerwriter has an eye for pop

Corey Harper

Photos: Alessio Neri

NAPA — Singer-songwriter Corey Harper is on the biggest stage of his fledgling music career, dealing with a minor mishap with his guitar pedalboard. Even though it’s unnoticeable to the crowd that has gathered to see him play at BottleRock Napa Valley, the 22-year-old is not getting the correct sound.

Harper has a new pedal that adds a wah effect without him having to control the effect with his foot, but the volume on the higher strings is underwhelming. Rather than getting upset or scared (because he’s also on his first tour), he’s taking it in stride.

“I actually welcome mistakes like that, because that just makes you a better musician, a well-rounded person,” he says shortly after his set. “If you can overcome them and you can figure it out, hopefully you’ll never make that again.”

Harper was born in St. Louis and his family moved to Vancouver, Washington after his father accepted a teaching job at the University of Portland. He was about 5 at the time. He grew up listening to ‘60s and ‘70s folk and loving guitarists like Eric Clapton and Lindsey Buckingham. When he was about 13, he latched onto Jimi Hendrix and John Mayer, to whom he’s now often compared.

Both of his parents are English and literature teachers. When he also picked up an affinity for writing, it seemed natural that he would follow in their footsteps. At the University of Oregon, Harper did study literature, as well as journalism and African American history.

But by that point, Harper had turned to music. The aspiring singer-songwriter didn’t know much about the industry, but knew he was having fun performing in dorms and Greek houses. His education, meanwhile, had him questioning where his passions lay.

Corey Harper

Corey Harper photographed at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa on May 27, 2017.

“I just felt dry; I had a short attention span in school, and I wanted to go and do something that was more fulfilling for me,” Harper says. “[Music] was new for me because I’d never really played for anyone until I got to college. I was just kind of figuring myself out.”

When one of his childhood friends told him he wanted to start a creative home for artists in Venice Beach, Harper quit school one year in and became the first tenant, even though his largest performances in college were in front of other students and small groups of people.

“He was, like, ‘I have this space, we want to come and turn it into a live band venue. You should come down and hang for a couple of months and play music,’” Harper says. “That was the green light for me.”

That was two years ago, and he still calls the co-op, called Winston House, home. Since then, the co-op has grown to include numerous musicians and other artists. Harper had a chance to hone his performance skills, and work on his music. The house became a safe space for other budding musicians and an audience of like-minded people. Around the same time, Harper was introduced, through another musician, to Justin Bieber.

The pop star accepted an invited to see Harper perform at Winston House, and was impressed enough to invite him to open some shows on The Purpose World Tour in 2016.

“He’s a normal guy who does a lot of different type of things,” Harper says of Bieber. “He’s a very accepting, very passionate, and very understanding human being. And he’s just very funny and a regular guy, as much as his surroundings hype him up in a way. … But at the end of the day, he’s a 23-year-old dude from London, Ontario.”

To hear Harper describe his big break, he was in the right place at the right time. He was a guitar player when other singers needed to find a guitar player, and a singer and songwriter when that was needed.

Corey Harper

Corey Harper photographed at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa on May 27, 2017.

“I just fell under the perfect area, and also the perfect demographic of people that were needing to put their energy and time into something,” he says. “It was a long process of finding that vibe that we have right now.”

Living in Venice Beach, Harper wrote his first EP, On The Run, which he released in November 2016. The record was an amalgamation of his varied influences and the people with whom he worked along the way. There are call-backs to the folky singer-songwriters who influenced Harper when he was younger, a sparkling cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and a couple rollicking country-tinged tunes like “Beneath” and “California Sun,” which feature breezy, summery backdrops and steel guitar solos.

The latter song really does sound like John Mayer’s material, both in the sandy vocal delivery and bluesy guitar playing. Harper welcomes the comparison.

“I grew up on his music, and he made the kind of music that I like to play so much more approachable,” he says. “I think that [Mayer] may have probably felt the same way about Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix. Tom Petty is a huge inspiration … and Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Those guys get it, you know? They do their thing and it’s passed to so many different kinds of music styles and different people.”

Harper has been gigging around L.A. for a couple of years, and the shows with Bieber opened up a new world of possibilities (he’s got millions of streams on Spotify now), but he hadn’t been on a proper tour until this spring. He also got his first tastes of festivals, including Sasquatch, BottleRock, and Bonnaroo in May and June. Sharing a stage with Tom Petty at BottleRock (he was the first performer, and Petty closed out the night) was both intimidating and humbling, he said.

But while he views the opportunity as filling some big shoes, Harper is not scared of the prospect of playing on a big stage. Even his pedalboard mishap is a part of the steep learning curve, on which he’s closer to the bottom than the top.

“The worst thing you can get is experience,” he says.

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