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Between the Marlboro Man and Tim McGraw lie few appealing examples of an evolved American masculine ideal that embraces the sensual and the strange in equal measure. Those in search of new material need look no further: out of the arid landscape of male prototypes emerges country crooner Honey Harper in a rhinestone-encrusted suit, pale and glowing like some intergalactic visitor reared on a strict diet of Elton John and old Westerns.
Starmaker, Harper’s debut studio album out last month, saw him drifting somewhere between Orville Peck’s fine-tuned heartland shoegaze and Tammy Wynette’s tear-soaked ballads. Harper’s deep-molasses vocals and syrupy twang conjure the scalp-tingles of hearty country with a surrealist indoor-cat twist. On the opening track, “Green Shadows,” Harper offers auto-tuned commentary directly from the mothership, painting a glimmering portrait of “a black hole in the sky” that’s “green like honey dripping slowly from the clouds.” “In Light of Us” sees him pivoting to the past, mining a deep country vein for lyrical inspiration: “You tread lightly on the truth, dancing like an angel in the devil’s high heeled shoes.”
Both the outer space star and the lovesick country boy fit neatly inside the artfully crafted Honey Harper persona, which happens to be as deliberately constructed as it is natural. Born William Fussell, the son of an Elvis Presley impersonator, Harper grew up basking in the camp splendor of a father who made a career out of imitation, cultivating luscious sideburns and a cult karaoke following across southern Georgia. From these beginnings emerges a character who blurs dimensions and genres, tailor-made to distinguish Fussell from his contemporaries while channeling the sounds of his predecessors.
To understand how he manages to make country music for people who hate country music, we sat down with Honey Harper to discuss everything from buying the right cowboy hat to his future hot sauce empire.
On keeping himself busy during quarantine: I mean, Jesus Christ, I don’t know what I’ve been doing. I’ve kind of just been looking out this window. I’m with my wife’s family in Canada, I set up a makeshift studio with rented gear, and I’ve been writing some new songs. My days have been fine, I guess. There was a week where I went into a weird hole, because I hurt my foot and I couldn’t get off the couch.
On the importance of a name: The name came to me in bed. There’s going to be a lot of stories about beds. I had a great grandma Honey, and another great grandma Harper. I love them both, so I just put them together. Honey Harper is who I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve always been after this sort of glam country stardom. I love to perform, and I knew that I wanted to channel this Elton John energy. I have had to change my game up a bit though, because Orville Peck has done such a great job of tapping into the country energy. So, I’m trying to branch out the cowboy aesthetic into a bit more of a futuristic kind of vibe.
On dreams: I couldn’t fall asleep last night. I had this beautiful dream about a thing I really want to do. It’s a 70s rock opera—lots of rhinestones and big hats. I’m lowered from the rafters with my white sparkling suit on, like Elvis, or David Bowie. By telling you this I will it into existence.
On his roots: I come from a long line of rednecks. So, I come by it honestly. I worked pretty hard to lose my accent in high school, though, and now I’m kicking myself. But you still can hear it if I drink or sing or go back to Georgia.
On his boots: I’m in Birkenstocks. All the time. I also have this pair of Laredo boots I got near my parents’ place in Georgia that are amazing. They’re like…three sizes too big, which just adds to it. Walking the cobblestone streets of London, where I live, with these big old wobbly cowboy boots on is just… asking for it.
On whether you can trust a cowboy: I mean, their hats are pretty amazing. A lot of people are gonna tell you it’s the boots right off the bat, but I’m thinking…you can wear the right hat with any look. You can’t always trust a cowboy, though. A lot of the people that I grew up with in south Georgia were your typical…yeah. Let’s leave it at that.
On buying the right hat: Ooh. I like this question. Your first hat has got to be black or dark brown, don’t get too crazy with it. And just buy one to start, you don’t need a bunch. Work your way there, then you can go wild on your second one. I’m looking at mine now, and it rides low on my head, just above my eyebrows. That’s good—you kind of peer out from under it.
On the bookshelf: I’ve got some Harry Mathews, who was big in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m interested in the exercise of just writing something down every day, no matter how good it is, so I’m reading Mathews’ 20 Lines a Day, which is…exactly what it sounds like. He was also part of this experimental poetry journal called Locus Solus, and its title is borrowed from a novel by Raymond Roussel, so right now I’m reading that too.
On the spice rack: If I wasn’t making music for a living, I would 100% work in a kitchen. I’ve been building my spice rack in London, and I’ve been using a lot of paprika and cumin these days. I’m learning how to handle nutmeg and cinnamon in savory cooking, so I’ve got those in there. It’s intimidating, but I’m working on it.
On misconceptions: I feel like I’m a lot bitchier than people think.
On life with an Elvis impersonator: We used to go to this one restaurant where he performed all the time, and last time I visited he did “Heartbreak Hotel” and people lost their minds. He actually grew his hair out like Elvis for a while, the sideburns and everything. He could do any version of Elvis you wanted: younger Elvis in the jumpsuit, ‘50s Elvis in the gold lamé jacket. He once did a wedding, and the family paid him in a white suit with an eagle in rhinestones on the back. Such a good deal.
On listening to Honey Harper: You’ve gotta start with “Green Shadow,” it’s the first song on the record. It holds all these genres inside of it, and you can feel these sounds happening to you. That’s when you know you’re not just listening to your parents’ country record. After that, put on “In Light of Us.” That one should hook you.