Harry James Angus, musician, Struggle With Glory
I like the way Greek Mythology tells us stories about love that are uncomfortable, morally confusing and generally unromantic ...
If the name Harry James Angus doesn’t immediately ring any bells, we’d bet hard cash that you’d recognise the now-iconic sounds of his trumpet. As a member of the immensely popular musical troupe The Cat Empire, Harry has blended his vibrant style of play into numerous party anthems. Recently, Harry has stepped out on his own, playing and recording solo in between The Cat Empire engagements. This year Harry released Struggle With Glory, an engrossing concept album that blends tales from Greco-Roman mythology with layered and moody jazz compositions. The album is an incredible collection of songs, and those eager to see it live can do so on Friday September 28 when Harry performs live for Brisbane Festival audiences. Before Harry takes the stage, we fired some questions his way to find out a bit more about the inspiration behind his new record.
To start, we’d like to go back to the beginning. What was the moment that first ignited your passion for music?
I don’t know, and I don’t know if I even have a grand passion for music. I meet people all the time, who can’t play music, but who I feel are way more passionate about it than I am. For me, it was just a way to pass the time, like tapping on pots and pans, and then later I was getting some kind of social reward from doing it, but it always felt easy compared to a real job. Maybe I haven’t pushed myself hard enough. But I do remember I was pretty shy and unpopular in primary school, then one day I got up and sung ‘Memories’ from Cats The Musical and then people seemed to like me a lot more.
Did you have any musical role models that influenced your formative years as a budding musician?
Gilbert Askey lived on Eel Race Road down in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs. He was an octogenarian trumpet player from Texas who had played with, and composed and arranged for Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, knew all the old jazz guys and all the stories, he was the best teacher. Three-hour lessons for 20 bucks, then he would drive me to the train station and press the $20 back into my hand, “go buy your girlfriend some pizza…”
While legions of listeners know you from your work with The Cat Empire, you’re also an accomplished solo artist. Can you tell us the difference between Harry from The Cat Empire and Harry James Angus the solo musician?
The musicians I’m playing with are different, the music is different, the setting is different, I’m the only thing that stays the same. I don’t think my approach changes very much – I guess I get a bit more time to stretch out when I play solo, it’s a less frantic energy.
Speaking of solo work, our office really enjoyed listening to your new record Struggle With Glory! For the uninitiated, can you break down the concept behind the project?
So, it’s an album of songs that are based on stories from Greek Mythology or Greek epic poetry. It also draws on the hymnal, call and response style of gospel music. At its core it’s essentially jazz but it has these other flavours too.
What inspired you to use the stories of Greco-Roman mythology as basis for the album?
I always liked these stories, and I had been reading them to my kids recently, you know, the kids versions are easier to get through so I got through a lot of it in quite a short amount of time. Then I just picked up a pen and started writing. It’s all pretty simple stuff, but I like the challenge of trying to capture the plot and the scope of a story in a couple of verses.
Many of the stories featured in Struggle With Glory boast elements of tragedy and longing – is there any particular reasoning behind using tales with darker emotional nuance?
Pretty hard to find a happy story in those days. Someone is always being too selfish or being taken advantage of. I like the way Greek Mythology tells us stories about love that are uncomfortable, morally confusing and generally unromantic. To my mind, the way we talk about sex, love, and men and women today is closer to the internal reality of these myths than it is to the ideas reflected in The Beatles’ golden oldies or, say, a Jane Austen novel.
What were some of the challenges in pairing the mythological source material with the sounds of jazz and gospel music?
None really, apart from that it’s a strange idea from the beginning! But the archetypal turns of phrase that we already know from traditional hymns and gospel songs kind of informed a structure for my lyrics.
You’ll be performing Struggle With Glory at The Tivoli for Brisbane Festival – aside from the excellent music, what can audiences expect from the show?
This will be a one-off, truly unique experience, as I’m performing the show for the first time with a full choir from the ACPA – Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts. I’ve never done these songs with so many singers before and I’m really excited. So there will be some serious harmony going on, which is how you want it.
What is something that you are finding inspiring about the world around you?
Birds. Now that I’m a little older, I really like birds. I’m not a full-blown twitcher yet but I’m definitely headed in that direction.