All the Elements: An interview with Joy Harjo

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Joy Harjo interview

Joy Harjo, 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, hails from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and is the author of nine acclaimed books of poetry, including An America Sunrise (2019), as well as several plays, children’s books, and two memoirs. Yet on top of her accomplished career as a writer and poet, Harjo is also a musician, and has produced seven award-winning music albums, her latest being I Pray for My Enemies (2021). 

Like her poetry, Joy Harjo discusses ideas of heritage, nature, evil, creation, women, and prayer on her new album. In contrast to her mostly instrumental previous album, 2010’s Red Dreams, Harjo returns to a spoken-word style. Her 2008 album, Winding Through the Milky Way, also exhibits flutes, but adds other native instruments such as drums, chanting, and spoken-word elements discussing creation stories and native folklore. The application of rhythm is also prevalent to and in her music, allowing her to mix jazz, hip-hop and R&B styles with Native American musical tradition. I Pray for My Enemies uses material from poems and short snippets of lyrics, crafting a 16-track album about understanding and interrogating our society, our environment, our past, our heritage, and our future.

For our Zoom call, Harjo was dressed casually in black and projected a savior faire of street smarts plus book smarts—laid back, but attentive. Already having done three virtual events that morning and afternoon, she said she hoped her voice would hold up. (It did).

Konstantin Rega: Being a poet, how do you think your lyrics inform your music making? Do the words come first, or the melody, or is it a sort of pas de deux between them?

Joy Harjo: I go between both and it just depends on the song. Like, some of them just start out as songs. Sometimes, I have the melody and I start by writing the words, but often what I do, and if I’m directly writing a song, I will start with the rhythm track. Everything is about rhythm. I either start with the rhythm track or loops, and I start building a song that way. Or, you know, I can pull out a piano or a guitar.

There’s one little piece in there, sort of like a vignette—I don’t know what you would call it using music terms—a little sax piece I recorded on my iPhone as a note to make something large in the future. But sometimes with poems that become songs, it just depends.

This album features more spoken word, whereas your last album, Red Dreams, was a bit different. What led you to do this kind of approach with your music?

That one, that’s when there was a Native Music category in the Grammys, and then they did away with the category. But that one was native flute. I was learning native flutes and decided to do it as mostly an instrumental album, predominantly. There’s some words in it; there’s a little poetry. So that was a departure. That was quite a departure from what I usually do.

Being a member of the Muscogee Nation, you have been influenced by the traditions and culture—as evidently seen through your poems—and I wondered how did you go about blending that heritage with your jazzier/spoken word style?

Yeah, well, when I play music—and I play anything that’s got a blues, jazz, or rock derivative—I always say, well, I’m playing traditional native music, because Muscogee people were part of the origin stories of Blues and Jazz. You have what the African people brought and what those French people who had settled there brought. That’s where it started. But if you hear our traditional music, you know. And Stomp Dance is part of it; there you can hear the roots. Anyone that hears it is like: Oh wow, there it is. 

You hear the blues shuffle, you know; there’s rock’n’roll. There’s all the elements. There’s call and response; there’s syncopated rhythms. There’s so much there, and I’m sure you know as with any kind of existing cultural influence that there’s influences that go both ways.

The first person who influenced me in that way was Jim Pepper, the sax player. And it was Don Cherry who urged him to go back to to fold in the influence of the songs his grandfather taught him when he would go to Oklahoma from Portland, Oregon every summer. And that’s how “Witchi Tia To”, his quintessential song, came about. From that strong blending of jazz and rock and native music.

Jim Pepper started pulling in those elements—his grandfather was Caw—and he pulled in Muscogee Creek elements, and so I’ve always looked up to Jim, and I was lucky that I got to hang out with him, got a few lessons from him. And when I would go to New York, we’d always go over to the music district to check out mouthpieces and just, you know, listen to music.

Throughout your album, you have a lot of ideas centering around place and community and heritage and women, their interactions. I think it was “Earth Home” that examined this very interestingly. But for you, how are they all linked, and how do you see them through everyday life?

“Earth House” was a tribute song to someone who taught me. She taught me a song, but what she taught me most of all was a kind of sense of respect for place, for the earth, for the gifts of the earth. And everything she did—you know, whether it was cooking something, or helping people in the way that I talk about in that little piece—showed that. It was all about healing and about non-judgment and treating everyone the same. She was very deeply imbued in her Pueblo culture. She was kind of a cross-cultural phenomenon. 

So, all of the songs, they all—and I think everything anyone does—reference place. ‘Cause, you know, even if you’re looking at a book or you have a piece, you’re referencing a tree or a series of trees, or our clothes that we have on, the fabric, even if it’s made of synthetic stuff, it’s made of earth materials. 

The saxophone too, of course. I remember being at a meeting of native peoples from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego in 1990. I’m in that native village way up there where we walked through clouds, and I heard a saxophone in the market, so I immediately cut through these winding, little streets, and here’s a guy with a saxophone that he made out of found materials. I was just so blown away; I loved it. And you know, he offered to sell it to me, though the price was way beyond reasonable. I should have borrowed the money and bought it. And so, I think about that: how somebody way up there in that native village in the Andes had made a saxophone that sounded like a saxophone.

Have you written anything about that?

No, no. I did write one—using my poetic license—saying that Rabbit invented the saxophone. And Rabbit is our Muscogee trickster figure. He’s also a trickster figure for many West African tribes.

When people listen to your album—whether they’ve listened to you before or not—what do you want them to get out of it? Is there an ultimate message or different messages that you work into the album for people to latch onto and take from the experience?

I don’t know. I don’t usually go at creative works with messages. Otherwise, I figure on writing essay!

I think that since the album came during a period of a lot of division in this country, a period of pandemic, a period of racial profiling and race-based violence, the album was born out of a need. I mean, it’s called, I Pray for my Enemies. And music does this better than anything. Music crosses borders, it crosses boundaries beyond language, beyond laws, it crosses over almost effortlessly. That’s why I included some poems like “Fear.” 

I’ve recorded that on Joy Harjo & Poetic Justice: Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century. That “Fear” poem’s made quite a journey. Then I recorded it again on Native Joy for Real with a hip-hop producer. But this time, my co-producer Bret Martin said, ‘well I don’t know.’ Usually, I do an album with ten songs and he goes the other way—that’s why there’s sixteen. But I pulled that poem out and said: Well, this fits the time. And we need a poem to get rid of fear. That’s the purpose of that poem during these times where there’s a lot of fear mongering going around.

The press release talked about how you thought the idea of songs and poems as distinctively different expressions. And I wondered if you could unpack that a bit further? For some artists, like one of my favorites, Joni Mitchell, her lyrics can stand on their own, but they’re also so tightly woven in with her music. And so, I wondered if that’s how it is for you when writing music?

I came to poetry because of music. My mother used to write songs that I grew up with in my very early years when we had music in our house, before the divorce and “the evil stepfather.” The “evil stepfather” arrived and killed all the music in town. That’s why I didn’t start playing sax until almost 40. Before, we had the best country swing musicians at our house—because Tulsa kind of an arts and music center. And so, I grew up hearing my mother, listening to her. She would make demos of her songs. The lyrics were really her strong point. So that’s the roots, and the root of my poetry came from there, from blending with music. And so when I’ve written poetry, even from way back, I can always hear music. And my poetry is always rhythm oriented. 

Yes, that was quite prominent while reading your collections. So, what are you currently reading or listening to and has this influenced your latest work, I Pray for My Enemies?

Oh man, what am I reading and listening to? Big question. I was going to start trying to go back to everything Wayne Shorter. Right now, I’ve just been doing virtual performances talking way too much, but I listen to just about everything. I do a lot of dancing actually. When I was a kid, I learned to tap dance. And I was in a Native Drama and Dance troupe when I was older. So, I still include dance workout in what I do.

Let’s see, I’ve been reading Natalie Diaz’s wonderful new book of poetry. And Eric Gansworth’s new book. Oh man, that reminds me I have a stack of new poetry books sitting over in the bookstore down the street. I need to make a list because whenever I get asked that question everything goes out the window. 

Are there any anecdotes that during your travels making the music you find prevalent or that’s affected you?

So, Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Tuatara)—we’ve been friends for a long time—for over 10 years, saying: Okay, I owe you; I wanna help you make your next album. And so probably May or June, he says: I’m up here in Port Townsend, I have a week here and if you can make it up here, we will record the foundation tracks and then come down your way.

So that’s what we did. We got in our little RV, kind of the size of a camper. And we drove across country all the way from Tulsa to Port Townsend. We were saying that this album was made all over. One of the guitar players sent his tracks in from Nashville, other people came into the mixing studio, in Jack Endino’s Mixing studio, Seattle. I love Jack; he was one of the best things to happen to this album. For backing vocals Lisette Garcia came down here and we recorded most of the voice tracks, some of them I recorded before. And I got my two stepdaughters on there. On “Stomp All Night”. It took a lot of country to make this album. 

It’s amazing with technology what we can do. I was recently reading The Six Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and she talked about how it’s a New Pangea, how everything is connected through globalization and air travel and what have you.

Yes, especially your generation. When I was growing up it was not like that. But we’re absolutely connected; we’re one person. And what marks the planet is diversity of life forms—which includes diversity of music life forms, too.

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