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Telling Tales, a short conversation with Dean Harlem

26 April 2024

Hi, Dean. Let’s start with a bit of background. Can you tell me a bit about your musical journey and how you got started and arrived at where you are today?

After graduating from high school, I couldn’t wait to leave New Jersey. When I was 18, I permanently left home and hitchhiked to Nashville and then all around the US, just trying to figure out how to make a life in music and songwriting. After a year of hitching around, I settled in a slummy apartment in San Francisco, where I stayed for three years. I got my start by busking, which is how I made a living in SF. Playing on the street for five or more hours a day, I started to learn how to entertain crowds. What works and what doesn’t.

After that, I moved to New Hampshire and just started playing anywhere I could get a gig. I had my own original songs; I bought a van and began to tour the US. I recently made the move to Nashville. Now, I’m focused on writing a full-length album to follow up this summer’s EP, Red Oak Hill. I’m touring Ireland later this year and playing wherever I can around Tennessee. I also just started a residency at Chief’s on Broadway in downtown Nashville (I play every Sunday from 7–10 pm and Wednesday from 5:30-9 pm). 

Listening to the latest single, “Keep You,” there are some interesting musical reference points, such as Townes Van Zant, and perhaps the more understated end of Ryan Adams. Which artists would you say have influenced you as a musician?

Townes Van Zandt is right there in my top favorite songwriters of all time, along with Bob Dylan and John Prine. I wrote “Keep You” in one sitting while on tour in Ireland. I wrote it with Mark Knopfler’s “Romeo And Juliet” and Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl” in mind. For the studio recording, my producer, Brett Ryan Stewart, drew inspiration from Ryan Adams. The trumpets were inspired by U2’s “Angel of Harlem.”

Having celebrated your New Jersey roots with the album Asbury Park, you now find yourself in Nashville; how different are the two places regarding making music? How different are the music scenes in each?

Very different. Nashville is a place where you are constantly surrounded by other musicians who are better than you. It’s humbling and intimidating but ultimately inspires me to work harder and hold myself to a higher standard. I’m not sure what the music scene is like in New Jersey, but I know that it’s a lot harder to find great roots and songwriter music than here in Nashville. 

How would you describe your music to someone yet to hear it?

That’s a great question and one that’s always hard to answer. I’d probably say it’s storytelling music. If words and a good story are what you look for in a song, then I would hope you’d appreciate my tunes. 

Can you tell me a bit about your musical residency in Nashville?

It’s at Eric Church’s new bar, Chief’s on Broadway. I’m really excited for this opportunity and have been enjoying these shows. The room is on the second floor, and the show is called “Friendly Shadows.” It’s a place for people who don’t want to hear the same songs they hear everywhere else on Broadway. It’s more geared towards the songwriter and original songs. It’s a truly unique spot where you can expect to see an intimate performance. The stage is set in the centre of the room so that you are surrounded by the audience.

I think Eric Church wants to bring back a little bit of the old Broadway, where it used to be a hangout for local songwriters and not just an amusement park for tourists and mainstream cover bands. I’m really grateful to the Chief’s team for having me and supporting local original music. I play every Sunday from 7 to 10 pm and Wednesday from 5:30 to 9 pm. My set list changes every night and includes my own songs and a selection of my influences, from Hank Williams to Bruce Springsteen

Are there plans to tour the new songs, and where would you like to see that take you?

I’m currently booking a tour to Ireland in August. I was considering doing a few tours out to Texas, New England, and the Midwest this summer, but since I have this residency opportunity, I’ve wanted to focus on that and hone my show at Chiefs. I will do a few short regional tours in the States to promote the coming album. 

Generally speaking, what does the future look like for you musically and otherwise?

The life I want is writing songs, touring and making albums. In that order. I’d like to find a little management and a booking agency to give me a hand with things. I’ve been doing everything DIY for over ten years and I have less and less time to sit and write, which is what I enjoy the most.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and best of luck with everything that the future holds.