The sounds of the London are diverse and eclectic, accompanied by subgenres and microscopic iterations, from grime to dubstep to rock and modern jazz. But one style that seems to have never found solid footing in London is country music. This is to say the stereotypical, mainstream version of the uniquely American art form of back road truck explorations and the timeless combination of jean shorts on girls and cold beer in the hands of men. Sure, this is a fairly reductive vision of country— just like the various subgenres London does inspire, it has permuted and shaped itself with the times. But, to expat William Fussell, who lives in London, the genre’s variation hasn’t quite informed the way denizens of the city think of it. With Universal Country, his debut EP under the Honey Harper moniker, he's challenging the notions of what country music means, not only for his new neighbors, but for his old friends back home, too.
“I’m really curious about how the response will go…Country is a special thing,” Fussell tells Noisey over the phone from London. “There’s that whole meme, #anythingbutcountry, but there’s a lot of beauty in this music and if you can shed light on and get rid of a lot of the stigmas behind it—where it comes from and who it can represent—and associate it with something different, you can do a really cool thing that a lot of people will get behind. The sound is so beautiful.” In this sense, the Honey Harper mission is multifaceted. And in some ways, Fussell spells out his intentions with the EP’s title, Universal Country. The hope is that this music transcends any sort of inherent Americanness associated with the genre.
While place has always been tethered to the genre—it’s hard to imagine Willie Nelson without Texas, Guy Clark without Nashville, Townes Van Zandt without Colorado—Universal Country aims to tease the musical beauty from the genre’s more stigmatic barriers to create something more universal. If Honey Harper succeeds, it will be because Fussell has managed to make a strain of country music honoring the strong legacy of the genre while attempting to revise its more unsavory, commercial aesthetics.
“I’m just hoping it’s a unifying force that doesn’t represent stereotypical, masculine, country drinking songs. Even the best country songs are wrapped in that thing. I want it to be androgynous, more feminine to battle the masculine. I hope it opens people’s ears to something I find really beautiful. That’s the dream, to be able to inspire that idea,” Fussell explains. The EP, though only four tracks spread across 15 minutes, packs a remarkably coherent vision of the project’s sound, touching on classic country themes ranging from the lover’s lament (“Pharaoh,” for which we’re premiering at the Angus Borsos-directed video at the top of the page); to the half-time shuffle recalling the early days of Fussell’s relationship with his now-wife (“SOFR”); and a sky reaching falsetto backed by a pedal steel guitar played to perfection (“Secret”).
Fans of Fussell may be surprised by the Honey Harper project; the Atlanta native has spent the past few years dabbling in various forms of avant-pop with his other groups, Promise Keeper and Mood Rings. But the Harper experiment has been bubbling beneath the surface for for a while, and perhaps all it took was a nostalgic perspective on the home he left to make the country music he grew up surrounded by. “There’s a lot of country music that’s alternative, but I still feel like it sounds like Nashville. Even people I like a lot, like Chris Stapleton. There are people that are doing a very cool version of country, but it’s still wrapped in the same thing. I’m trying to come at it from a different perspective.”
Universal Country is baffling in its uniqueness but the country part of it still rings true. “I wanted to make an album that sounds like The Carpenters and Simon Garfunkel having a baby, and then Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zandt made a baby. Then those two babies grow up and get married in Texas, but Vangelis marries them.” Regardless of which musical cross-breeding yields the result Fussell’s looking for, his debut EP under the Honey Harper name is a powerful statement from an insider turned outsider aiming to diagnose and praise the flaws and joys inherent in country music.
Country’s old masters are still the best, and the breakthrough alternatives bridging the gap between these two tentpoles a little too indebted to the old Nashville studio sound. Harper aims to exist outside of this continuum, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. The Honey Harper project is a uniquely fresh take on a tried and true form, springing from William Fussell’s vision of a more diverse future: “I’m just trying to show what I can see inside of country music.”
Order 'Universal Country' here.
Catch Honey Harper on tour:
November 10 - Amsterdam, Netherlands @ Die Nieuwe Anita TICKETS November 11 - Paris, France @ CMPTR MTHMTCS FREE
November 15 - London, UK @ The Stags Head TICKETS December 11 - Los Angeles, CA @ El Cid TICKETS December 14 - Brooklyn, NY @ Union Pool TICKETS December 15 - Montreal, Quebec @ Casa Del Popolo TICKETS December 16 - Toronto, Ontario @ Smiling Buddha
Will Schube is a writer based in Texas. Follow him on Twitter.