Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Dillon Stewart
Harlan Hutton is the vocalist and guitarist of her eponymous band, “Harlan.” The 22-year-old songwriter recently released her debut full-length album, which also shares her name.
Delicate and sharp like shards of glass, Harlan’s songwriting is dazzling and clever. Her style is a culmination of her own interests; she cites various elements from musicians across musical genres.
She explains how the storytelling elements of The Dixie Chicks, the animated energy of No Doubt, and the thought-provoking instrumentation and album-mindedness of Radiohead have all helped shape her own music.
A late bloomer, but a quick learner, Harlan didn’t start playing music until high school. She spent much of her early childhood performing ballet and playing sports. Upon quitting ballet her freshman year, she needed an artistic outlet.
“I would just get on YouTube and look up tutorials. Like ‘first guitar lesson,’ or whatever. I was trying my hardest to play so quietly in my room so my parents wouldn’t hear me because I was really embarrassed. They must have heard the worst renditions of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’” she laughs. “I really wanted to learn from a music theory standpoint, so that I would understand it all better.
After about six months of practicing privately with online lessons, then 15-year-old Harlan convinced her parents to let her take guitar lessons. She began learning under Landon Moore, the bassist for Marcella and Her Lovers.
“I started to learn songs that I had grown up listening to. I practiced those for a while and I started kind of singing along with my favorite songs, whatever. I’d been doing that for about a year-and-a-half and I started feeling pretty good about my skills at that point. I had been taking lessons and playing guitar for hours every day,” she says. “I started going to house shows and stuff and I had some girlfriends who also liked singing and playing guitar. I was thinking ‘Why do we wait around for these guys to ask us to join their bands when we can just make our own?’ So, my first band was an all-girls cover band called Ferdinand.”
Ferdinand performed for the first time in 2015 at a GRRL PUNCH Release Show. (GRRL PUNCH is a Memphis-based magazine that highlights the female experience.) Playing alongside them was China Gate, now Super Low, and Melinda, a band Harlan would soon join.
“I think the guys in Melinda we’re like, ‘Oh, Harlan can actually play guitar!’ So literally right after we played, they asked me to join Melinda. I actually thought they meant that night, so I was like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah! I can go grab my amp and guitar!’ she laughs. “They were like ‘No, not tonight. But you can play with us in like a month.’”
Melinda began to gain traction in the local scene and started being approached to open for touring bands coming to Memphis. The band of teenagers found themselves playing late into the night at bars across the city, only to wake up and go back to school the next morning.
“We started playing like legit shows when we were like 17. A band would hit us up over social media and be like ‘let’s play a show together.’ We’d show up at like the Hi-Tone. These touring bands would be like ‘Who the heck are these kids playing the show?’” she laughs.
The core members of Melinda, which includes Harlan Hutton, Gabriel Hasty and Griffin Roane, would later form “Harlan” and “Dave Bow Bow.” Each group focusing on one of the member’s songs and style.
After the group graduated from high school, Melinda was put on hiatus. She explains that there were a lot of life transitions happening, and Melinda’s other guitarist left Memphis to attend NYU in New York.
She then began pursuing a music theory degree at Rhodes, taking classes in music theory, classical guitar and music technology. At the same time, she started focusing on making her own music.
"What I was feeling naturally was right. Going to school for music definitely boosted my confidence, but I don’t think I needed it.”
“I started to have the chops to write my own my stuff which is something I always wanted to do, but I never felt the chord progressions or instrumentation would really do what I was hearing in my head justice. But after learning some theory, I started to feel like I had the skill to do what I wanted,” she explains. “Those classes definitely improved my technical understanding of music, but it also made me realize that I wasn’t really lacking in songwriting. What I was hearing in my head did make sense. Even though I didn’t have technical understanding, I could have written those songs. But what I learned about music theory gave me the confidence to be like, ‘What I’m hearing and what I’m writing does work technically.’ What I was feeling naturally was right. Going to school for music definitely boosted my confidence, but I don’t think I needed it.”
By December of 2016 Harlan had released her first recording of “Forever Endeavor” on Bandcamp, which at the time of this article you can still listen to. The next semester she started to switch majors, shuffling through different ones before landing on a dual major in business and mathematics.
Harlan played its first show in March 2017. The group released an EP and several singles before releasing their debut full-length titled “Harlan” this past June. The album, she says, is a collection of re-recordings and older material, some of which had been written nearly four years ago.
“I’m really excited about the new stuff I’m writing just because a lot of the songs on my most recent album are re-recordings. Some of the material and lyrics are almost four years old,” she explains. “College is a time when you grow a lot, so I feel like I’ve matured a lot since I originally wrote some of those songs.”
In August of 2019 Harlan set off on its first tour, performing in fifteen cities along the Eastern United States.
As far as modern influences and inspiration, she says she looks up to artists like Lucy Dacus and Memphian Julien Baker.
“Lucy Dacus is super badass. She’s just got killer lyrics with one-liners that just hit you, like damn. She also shreds! Which is really great. I love a girl shredder. There’s also just this really quiet confidence about her when she’s performing,” she explains. “I also look up to Julien Baker as well. She’s another quietly confident person, and a Memphian as well. But they just let their music speak for themselves. Which I think is really powerful. They don’t have anything to prove. They’re going to get up there and perform what they’ve written. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, they’re like ‘Whatever.’”
As far as being a woman in a male-dominated music scene, specifically within the indie/alternative rock world, Harlan has her qualms. She describes the duality of the discussion as tricky, but unfortunately, it’s an important conversation that we still need to have.
“It’s hard to talk about being a woman in the music industry because it’s a complicated thing. One side of me is like ‘shut up, I don’t want to talk about the fact that I’m a girl, I want to talk about me being a musician.’ Then the other side of me feels a need to celebrate female-identifying musicians. It’s hard because I want to talk about it and celebrate it, but also I’m like ‘Shut up! Just listen to my music,’” she laughs. “People expect you to sound a certain way or to have a certain skill at guitar when you’re a woman in music. I think it’s definitely held me back before. Walking into a creative space and just feeling less than. It feels like I’m on a different playing field when I’m songwriting. Even if I’m alone in my room, I feel like there’s a different standard set for me – a different standard for my guitar playing and my vocals. You can name a bunch of bands with a dude lead singer who can’t really sing, but he gets away with it because he doesn’t have to be...I’m not a trained singer. I don’t really need to be for the genre of music I’m playing, but there always feels like there is this pressure that I have to be a better technical singer since I am a woman.”
"It seems like your gender is more important than any aspect of your songwriting or musicianship."
Harlan explains that this feeling isn’t specific to just musicians, but to women in general.
“There’s a feeling that everything is a competition. Louise Page always says, ‘collaborate don’t compete,’ which I think is really powerful. Women, especially in music, have this feeling like ‘Oh, she’s singing and playing guitar? She’s going to take my spot in the scene.’ You know what I mean? There’s definitely an urge to feel the competition instead of collaboration,” she says. “I think that’s due to the scene just making you feel like you’re there as a token woman, a novelty. It seems like your gender is more important than any aspect of your songwriting or musicianship. That it’s the most important aspect of who you are.”
On the other hand, she says that it’s important to celebrate women in the industry. She explains that events like GRRL FEST and organizations like GRRL PUNCH are helping change the way we see women and gender in the music industry, and that is why it is important to have these discussions.
"I’m not really sure how much can be done immediately, but I do think there are so many powerful women out there who are saying ‘Shut up, let me in!’”
“I want to do my part to make that better. I think that that just means continuing to write the music I want to write and making an effort to use women in all aspects of the music industry. Right now, I’m recording and touring with all guys, but I think it’s important to be conscious of who you use to support your work. That means who you make merch with, who you play with on shows, who you record with and so on. I can be the only girl on a show or whatever, but in that moment, I can at least prove to one person in the crowd who doesn’t think women can play guitar that we can. Those nights there’s going to be an even playing field,” she says. “You know it’s hard and it sucks, it’s a whole industry built on a boys club. I’m not really sure how much can be done immediately, but I do think there are so many powerful women out there who are saying ‘Shut up, let me in!’”