Interview: Jess Womack From The Harriets On Their Debut Album, Her Life As a Teacher and Her Fears For The Music Industry

Featured Image: Refugee Blues Photography

Reminiscent of decades gone by, The Harriets’ sound is filled with nostalgia and joy. Their debut album is a journey through different memories, starting with ones of love and happiness, moving towards days tinged with regret and feelings of escapism. They have already made waves in the Leeds music scene due to their lilting guitars, beautiful three-part harmonies and the unique, folky story-telling style of the two frontmen, Daniel Parker-Smith and Ben Schrodel. Formerly consisting of just that duo, the band have now expanded to accommodate a permanent drummer, Ryan Bailey, and a keyboardist, Jess Womack.

So far, only one single has been released off the record, titled ‘Cafe Disco’. The 80s-style guitar riffs that introduce the song immediately evoke the strange combination of emotions associated with sentimentality. The raucous happiness of the track is only complemented by the introduction of huge guitar chords and heavy drums. The rest of the instrumentation is equally heart wrenching: a chorus of voices, muted guitar and the tinkle of a piano. The record swings from acoustic lullabies and piano ballads to 60s style anthems, filled with brassy sound. The four-piece have even experimented with synthesisers and strings, bringing together the past 70 years of musical history into one 9-track record.

Iona Skye

Having a female instrumentalist in the band is sadly very rare. However, it quickly becomes clear how much, Jess Womack, has brought to the band after only one listen of The Harriets’ new record. For example, the album is filled with more complex harmonies and keyboard-led tracks than previously – a nice development in the group’s sound. We had a chat with her on what it was like to join a pre-existing band, the pressures women face in the music industry, and how she is coping with lockdown.

How did you come to be a part of The Harriets?

“So, I met Ben at University. We both worked at Leeds University Union and when we found out we were both musicians, we talked about booking out one of the practice rooms to jam but never really got the chance. We stayed in touch and a few years later, I finally got around to seeing The Harriets play. I loved their sound and the energy that they brought to the stage; when I saw that they were looking for a keyboard player who could sing, it just felt like a calling and an opportunity I didn’t want to miss!”

Was it difficult to join a band that had already been around for quite a while?

“I was absolutely terrified that I was going to ruin their sound. During the first gig, I don’t think I once looked up from the keyboard in fear of making a mistake. But playing with The Harriets just feels really natural. They’re really lovely guys and they made me feel welcome, and like a part of the band from the first rehearsal.”

What do you think you have brought to the group? ​       

“On the surface, another layer of texture and a third vocal harmony (I’d like to stick in a few more) but in time, I’d like to bring forward more songwriting ideas.”

Cover artwork for Hopefuls

In your opinion, what is the main reason people should listen to your debut album, ​‘HOPEFULS’?

“It’s unique, musically stimulating and full of catchy hooks, melodies and harmonies.”

What is your favourite track on the record and why? ​            

“That’s a tricky question. Probably ‘Darlin’’, I love the call and response in the vocals, its light-hearted, fun and I like the intricate layers of melody in the instrumental parts.”

What aspects are the most important in a song? ​ 

“For me, it has to have a nice tuneful melody. I enjoy analysing a complex or interesting chord progression but what is the point of a chord progression without a good melody?”

What was your dream job as a child?

“A primary school teacher. I always dreamt of running a recorder orchestra, but after a day of work experience, coming home covered in snot and having my hair tugged all day, I thought I’d be better off with slightly older kids!”

What led you to training as a teacher? ​

“I ran a school music festival when I was in 6th form and as part of the project, I had to direct my own choir and band or orchestra of students. I loved every minute of it. Becoming a music teacher meant I’d get to experience that joy of engaging in making music, over and over again, both in the lessons that I teach and the extra-curricular clubs and concerts I run. Don’t get me wrong, it is a tiring profession and certainly not without its faults, but it’s such a rewarding job.”

Who inspires you as a keyboard player (and as a performer in general)? ​

“My old piano teacher! She’s just incredible and I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for her.”

What are the main pressures that you think women face as musicians? ​

“I’ve been really lucky in that I haven’t experienced many pressures as a female musician. I’ve performed in bands, choirs and orchestras (my main instrument is actually the flute) and I’ve seen so many of my female musician friends flourish within the industry. I think we’ve come a long way and I know there’s always more to be done, but a lot of pressures are only pressures because we allow them to be.”

Do you think it is especially difficult for a woman to be taken seriously as an​ instrumentalist?

“I think it can be. I played the drums and sang in my very first band. I remember my first ever soundcheck, and the sound engineer kept telling me to hit the drums harder because he wasn’t picking any sound up. I really was hitting them hard, it was only later that I realised he was probably taking the mick about me being a female drummer. But, it didn’t faze me and I carried on. I only stopped drumming in a band because, as I’m sure Ryan will confirm, it’s such a pain lugging a full drum kit around!”

Other than gigs, what are you most looking forward to after lockdown? ​

“Just being able to jam with others, and Café Nero. I’ve become quite the barista throughout lockdown, but I really enjoy and have missed catching up with friends over a nice strong coffee!”

How are you keeping busy during this time? ​     

“I’ve been teaching, or trying to teach music online. It hasn’t been easy but it’s still been somewhat rewarding. Other than that, playing the piano, working on my MTL (Masters in Teaching and Learning, specifically music composition), cooking and baking, eating my baking (hopefully offset by engaging in PE with Joe Wicks) and learning the guitar!”

How much do you think the music business will have to change after this pandemic?

“I fear that the pandemic has and will continue to have a devastating impact on the music industry, and it will likely be a long time until live music returns to the norm as we know it. Bands, promoters, agents and venues had their incomes grind to a halt, which will undoubtedly cause the smaller companies and venues to close down permanently. Audiences will also take a long transition period before they feel safe to return to venue settings again. I think this will be more of a journey back to full health than a quick return, and we’ll have to adapt to that.”

Finally, do you have a message for every woman trying to make it in this industry?​

“Being a woman is not a barrier. We are underrepresented – that’s a fact. And we will experience difficulties as women, but the music industry is making moves and we need to focus on that. We shouldn’t allow under-representation, for example, to discourage us in our pursuit to make it in the industry. I know it’s easy to say that, but good musicians also know that success comes from discipline; you have to practice and practice and practice, and that’s hard work!”

HOPEFULS, the debut album by The Harriets, is coming out on July 24th.

‘Cafe Disco’ and their recently released single, ‘A Trip To The Moon’, are available on all streaming platforms.

Keep up with them on:

Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Spotify | Website

Pre-save ‘A Trip To The Moon’

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