Corey Harper is post-Portlandia on the national stage

Corey Harper does not immediately strike me as a folk musician, but after speaking with him, I see where and why he deserves the classification and his early critical buzz.

Harper most likely lives in the latest wave of the 21st century folk revival genre, which according to “Not An Academic Source” Wikipedia, is defined by characteristics including the adaptation of folk styles to pop/rock structures, elements of new singer-songwriter material vs. songs orally transmitted across generations, and having a different socioeconomic background of the populations whose music is being popularized.

Harper’s website is as sleek and pretty as he is, with all of his social network call to action buttons in a neat row beneath his logo-signature, smaller and farther reaching than the graphic above them. His official photos show an alternate universe where Justin Bieber didn’t put down his guitar when Scooter Braun uploaded him to the world in 2008 and also was warned about how to avoid all his problematic messes. When I asked on my Facebook friends what to ask Harper in a post containing his press photo, a writer from the queer beat responded with lyrics from Azealia Banks’ “212”: “What’s your dick like, homie?/What are you into?/What’s the run dude?/Where do you wake up?”

The Bieber comparison might be easy, given how close they are in age, but it also imitates life: Harper met Bieber through a Venice Beach arts collective and wound up opening the West Coast leg of Bieber’s ongoing Purpose World Tour.

“It was a lot to think about in the moment, very humbling and exciting,” Harper said in a May 18 phone call between myself and his publicist about playing the MODA Center last March. “It was great to play my home state, and with people I’ve looked up to my whole life.” Harper sounds like my youngest brother on the phone: quiet, keenly intelligent, and mumbling even though I know he’s perfectly capable of enunciating. It’s an endearing quality, given the crisp-yet-atmospheric nature of his music.

Harper’s music seems like a genre of Americana that is twentysomething influencers discovering themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Adele’s best work is about her late teens and early twenties, after all. Folk music, especially informed by singer-songwriter laws, is the documentation of authentic experience. On his debut E.P. On the Run, Harper’s songs are reflections on relationships and experiences chronicled in the years when he left the University of Oregon for Los Angeles, in a style of music influenced not just by 1960’s & ’70s soul, but also John Mayer, Bieber, and the hybrid of ’00s indie rock and R&B I describe in my Vérité review.

“It’s been a lot of credibility all at once,” Harper said of his quiet ascent to the national stage and the global scene. He speaks like he understands the responsibilities entrusted to him when he represents Portland in L.A., or on Bieber’s cosmic platform, or during his period in Australia, or on his forthcoming micro-tour, which features a stop at Sasquatch, where he shares a bill with Chance the Rapper, whose “Same Drugs” Harper released a cover of back in February. He will also visit the American South, making connections in a region that loves blues guitars that is different from Portland, L. A. or Australia.

I find Harper’s Australian months interesting because of the continent and New Zealand’s recent output of pop-tinged musicians who have achieved global success (Lorde, Iggy Azealia, Betty Who, Gotye, Kimbra et al.), and how, back in 2008, declared “Whoever cracks dance music wins” while in Australia. Some might remember 2008 as the year Lady Gaga, Bieber, Kesha et al. temporarily dethroned the guitar as an instrument of the dominant form and forever shifted pop paradigms as we know them today. “Being an artist is representing your country,” Harper said. “So many countries are influenced by America and are creating their own cool music influenced by what they get from us.”

Harper is a world-traveled representative of Portland, in an era where Portlandia, a TV show that may have debuted when Harper was in high school, is ending, and the rest of the country/world will need a new reference point if Portland wants to remain relevant (and trust me, it really, really does). As a Rose City ambassador, Harper might not be a walking Voodoo Doughnut, but he’s still pretty sweet.

Harper and I are both technically millennials, yet I’m of that subset that can claim being part of Gen Y (whatever that means). He is on the other side of a generation gap that I can perceive but not fully see. Being younger by 5+ years, Harper is part of the generational subset that made Snapchat into what it is today, the one transitioning media preferences from textual to visual. He’s the same age as my photo editor, who jokingly, gleefully and sometimes unintentionally makes me hyper aware of my age. My teens and early twenties are long behind me, and I can only imagine what it’s like to have that part of my life back, but to be in California, or Australia, or anywhere else in the world, not overanalyzing and overthinking but just playing soothing-sounding songs about exes that never veer into bitter or self-pitying, or using your Washington mythos in a metaphor about California sun. Corey Harper lets you unplug and chill, and doesn’t make you feel bad for doing it.

Before Corey Harper plays Sasquatch, he plays Mississippi Studios on Wednesday, May 24 with Dustin Ruth. Doors open at 8 p.m., show starts at 9 p.m. For tickets, visit Mississippi Studios’ website or box office, and check back for our review of the show.  

DISCLOSURE: The author and his family attended middle school with the subject and his family over a decade ago. The author has no memory of the subject from that time, and the subject was not aware of this fact before the interview.