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Random Rules: Jesse Harris

The shuffler: Jesse Harris, Grammy-winning songwriter of Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why," and respected neo-folkie whose six solo albums—including his latest, Feel—blend roots music and lounge music to relaxed, sophisticated, sweetly yearning effect.

Cartola, "Amor Proibido"

Jesse Harris: Cartola is an artist from Brazil who didn't record until much later in his life, but had a big influence on a lot of famous artists down there, like Gilberto Gil. I discovered his music recently when I was in Brazil. I've been listening to Brazilian music almost constantly for the last few years, ingesting as much as I can get my hands on. Richard Julian was the one who told me to check out Cartola. Telling someone to check out Cartola is like telling someone to check out Tony Bennett, you know. [Laughs.] You say "Cartola" to anyone who knows Brazilian music, and they say "Oh, of course, yeah." But before that, I hadn't heard of him. I love his music. It's sort of like samba, but then at other times choro, which is starting to get really popular again in Rio.

The A.V. Club: Is it also like Tony Bennett in that it's hard to know where to start?

JH: Actually, no. There are only, I think, a few albums available. So anyone looking for Cartola would find those records pretty quickly.

Neil Young, "Expecting To Fly"

JH: This version is from Decade, but my favorite version is from a live bootleg, a Carnegie Hall concert I've had on cassette for years and years. This one is way more orchestral, and the version that I have on cassette is just him on piano. Really beautiful. I love Neil Young. His songs were the first songs I learned to play, and I recommend anyone who is starting guitar to learn Neil Young songs first.

AVC: Because they're so simple, or because you can learn a lot from them?

JH: Because they're so simple. But on the other hand, Neil Young does throw in a major seven chord here and there, so if you're a new guitar player learning Neil Young songs, you'll learn some seven chords, and some different positions. Nothing too complicated, just enough to kind of open up your knowledge a little bit. Plus the songs are just so great. "Helpless" is the first song I ever learned.

Björk, "I See Who You Are"

JH: This is from her new record, Volta.

AVC: Have you spent much time with Volta yet?

JH: You know, I haven't. [Laughs.] I've heard it twice so far. I think it's beautiful. I'm a big Björk fan, and the truth is, I almost didn't get this record, because although I liked her last two records, I didn't like them as much as the previous ones. I was thinking of just skipping Volta, but then someone said I should really try it. And I actually think it's awesome. Some of the best stuff she's done in a long time.

AVC: When you say "get this record," do you mean…?

JH: I buy CDs. I do. I still like to have the artwork, and see the credits, and have the CD in my hand, and take it in the car. I don't know if I'm ever going to get over that. I don't think I'll ever be able to replace that with mp3s. Besides, I just don't think mp3s sound that good. They're definitely of a lower quality.

AVC: Is that hard for you as a recording artist, knowing that a lot of people are going to be hearing your albums via mp3?

JH: It's really strange! In the '70s and '80s, everyone was all about high fidelity, and probably even before that, in the '60s, with tube amplifiers. People were so into their stereos and their sound systems. And now no one cares at all. It's more about having the music in any form whatsoever. Sound quality is… I think it's probably worse than transistor radios, because at least those have some charm, you know? But I hear they're working on making mp3s sound better.

Cat Power, "Keep On Runnin'"

JH: I actually got into Cat Power because I worked with her. She did a tune of mine for this soundtrack, and I flew to Miami to produce it, and to play on it. During that time, I was really addicted to You Are Free and The Greatest. I would listen to them, I don't know, every day. Prior to that, I'd heard Cat Power from friends mostly, and I'd always liked what I heard, but I'd never gotten totally into it. But I knew her singing enough that when we asked her to do my song, I knew that she'd be right. I don't know, there's something in her singing that seems… not put on at all. It seems uncontrived, and honest. And raw. And vulnerable. I think anything that open just draws me in.

AVC: Is the same true of Björk for you, or is Björk more about her songwriting and creativity?

JH: Björk is more about a sonic experience. And her voice is so dramatic and freakish, you know? I've never heard anybody sing like Björk. I remember seeing The Sugarcubes on television a long time ago, before I knew who she was, and I remember thinking, "I don't really like the sound of that, but the singer is incredible." Björk is just so musical and so creative. You're always curious what she's going to do. And you can tell that she's serious about music. She plays with great musicians and always works with great people. She's just a total artist. She's almost like a performance artist.

Gal Costa, "Sebastiana"

JH: I guess Gal came out of the tropicalia movement? I don't pay that much attention to the movements and styles and stuff. I just have certain artists that I like from Brazil. I tend to focus on music from the '60s and '70s. There are some more recent albums that I've gotten into that I really love as well. But that period, for me, is just… Discovering artists like Gal Costa and Jorge Ben and Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, it was like discovering Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and James Taylor, for me. It was like a treasure trove.

AVC: How did you get into Brazilian music?

JH: First, through the obvious, most famous stuff, like Antonio Carlos Jobim with João Gilberto and Stan Getz. I heard those records when I was a teenager. Later, I was traveling in Paris, staying in the apartment of a friend who had like 3,000 LPs. I just spent all day going through the records and checking stuff out. And one day I pulled out this Gilberto Gil record called Refavela. I didn't know what it was, but it totally blew my mind. And over the years, I would discover records here and there, but I didn't get really into it until about three or four years ago, when I took a trip with some friends down to Brazil. Then I did a tour down there, and bought like a stack of albums. And I have a friend named Mauro Refosco who's Brazilian, who actually plays on my new record. We were hanging out at a record store in Sao Paolo, and he told me all these new records I should get. After that, I just got hooked. And once you get hooked, one thing leads to another, and one artist leads to another. Collecting them is like collecting baseball cards or something.

AVC: You made the comparison to Joni Mitchell, but you can't understand the words, can you?

JH: No, that's true, I can't understand the words. And that's a strange part about it. I wish I did, because people say, "Oh, you should hear Caetano's lyrics, or Chico Buarque's lyrics, they're beauuutiful," and I do feel bad, but for some reason, it doesn't matter to me. I don't know why. In a way, not knowing the words makes it more about the sound of the voice and the melody and the music. Having listened to it a lot, I am starting to catch certain phrases. I listen to a lot of different music in different languages, so I'm sort of used to that, too.

Brigitte Bardot, "Fleur-de-lis"

JH: This is sort of a silly tune. I actually do speak a little bit of French, but I have to be the laziest person on earth when it comes to languages. As soon as someone starts speaking in another language, I go completely blank, and I start just spacing out and thinking my own thoughts. I'm really dense when it comes to learning languages. So with Brigitte, even though some of the words I know, it's more that I just like the sound. I find her records so light and fun. And I like her singing. This is a great album, Best Of Bardot. Good party album. I love that '60s sound. So charming.