“My first response to any musician is, ‘I don’t wanna hear about your politics. I don’t care about your politics’,” says Nathan Harden. “A lot of us, the last thing we want to hear when a musician starts to speak is a political statement consolidated into a three-and-a-half minute song.
“The idea of conservative music doesn’t sound appealing to me, or anyone,” Harden adds, breaking into a laugh. “It sounds boring, right?”
Those are unusual statements, perhaps, only to those who don’t know Harden or his day job. A 2009 graduate of Yale, Harden took his alma mater to task in the book Sex and God at Yale, which deliberately referenced William F. Buckley’s 1951 conservative classic God & Man at Yale, and made Harden a sought-after commentator on the Right.
But while his writing and blogging can be found on any number of websites, right-leaning and otherwise, Harden left New Haven for Nashville (after graduating with a Humanities degree in 2009) because he was serious about pursuing a musical career. This he has done as the frontman for Band of Love, a quartet that released its debut album last year. And while Harden shies from the term “conservative music,” there’s little doubt that the passionate, polished rock on Ballad of Dani Girl offers a clear alternative to the prevailing themes of the music industry.
“It’s inevitable,” admits Harden, “that who you are comes out.”
Who Nathan Harden is has something to do with why he wrote the book he wrote, and why he makes the music he makes. Self-described in the former work as “a home-school dropout with a G.E.D.” who had twice been rejected for admission to Yale, Harden found himself appalled that his long-awaited introduction to the Ivy League was during the hijinks of Sex Week, which offered porn stars as guest professors, and graphic demonstrations of sex toys and techniques.
If it goes against the grain to claim that women are the true victims of the sexual revolution, then Harden has nonetheless made the claim in both his writing and his music. Ballad of Dani Girl is a concept album of sorts (“I’ve always been a huge fan of concept albums,” Harden enthuses, citing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as a personal favorite) that traces the troubled path of the title character, through the very “liberated” American landscape that has now become the norm.
The music is the result of Harden’s longstanding friendship with guitarist Justin Weaver, a Nashville session whiz who’s played with the Dixie Chicks and was a member of the major-label country act Highway 101. And the two other members of Band of Love, bassist Jono Brymer and drummer Corey Siegle, are also in-demand Music City pros. “Listen, I’m in a band where I feel like I’m surrounded by people who are much more talented than I am,” Harden insists, via phone from his Nashville home one recent Friday afternoon. “Which is the dream situation for any artist.”
Via email, Weaver remembers the genesis of Dani Girl as “just Nathan, a drum machine and myself getting the bones of the tunes. Then we took it into the studio and Jono and Corey worked their magic on it. It’s a collaboration all the way.”
But the story of the album is Harden’s take on the damage that our changing social mores can do–and whether redemption is still possible for those who succumb.
“The purpose of this narrative is to look at, number one, the great hopes and dreams that we enter life with as humans,” explains Harden. “And then, step two, where are the darkest places where those longings can take us? And then step three, where are the places where those longings can be fulfilled, in a very beautiful and powerful way?”
Dani, Harden says, is a composite character, but the ominous title track–which finds Dani, “ears ringing with the shot of a gun,” after being “locked in the back room” by an aggressive admirer–draws on the story of a particular female friend of Harden’s.
“It comes at the darkest point of the record. She kind of went down a really difficult path in life, and got hurt pretty bad,” he says. “And I’m happy to say now that’s she’s in a much better place in her life, emotionally, spiritually, every way.
Asked whether the subject realizes that she inspired the song, he hesitates. “I don’t know…that’s a good question! It’s kind of…it’s a pretty sensitive subject area. And it’s not someone who I’m close to on an everyday basis anymore. So I would say probably not. But I couldn’t say that absolutely.
“I drew from my own life, from my wife, from other people,” Harden adds. “But there’s got to be some element that’s universal, even if you’re telling a very specific story.”
Weaver jokes that his bandmate “goes to a cave dwelling or maybe a mountain peak and receives the words” to Band of Love’s songs. “None of us are quite sure where those come from!” But there’s no denying Dani Girl takes a hard line, relative to today’s sex-first ethos. As an example, Harden points to the ballad “Girl in White,” which has more than a little U2 in its hypnotic sway.
“This is a sort of anti-Miley Cyrus view of sexuality. It’s sort of taking what we all know, as red-blooded males, that there’s something alluring about a woman who…doesn’t show everything in the first three seconds you meet her,” he says. “It’s modesty and restraint…the erotic charge of what a woman withholds from you.”
Sex, he adds, “has always been a big part of what rock n’ roll’s about. But it’s gone from treating it with metaphor and subtlety and allusion…to a kind of tediously literal approach to sex.
“The power of restraint and even, to use a kind of literary term, the elliptical–what you don’t say, and what you don’t show,” Harden says, “is something that’s been lost in modern pop music.”
Popular music’s embrace of what we might call the “for-profit sex industry”–Harden namechecks it as such in his book–is part of what makes it part of the establishment it once claimed to despise.
“The taboos that used to animate rock ‘n’ roll have kind of been played out. It’s hard to shock anyone anymore. Unless you say you oppose gay marriage. That’ll shock people!” a laughing Harden offers.
“The only way to embody the rock ‘n’ roll spirit,” he adds, serious again, “is to somehow push back against the prevailing groupthink that is spewed out by establishment Hollywood and the music industry–the progressive views that they take for granted.”
But pushing back, Harden says, doesn’t mean signing on to endorse the nearest Republican candidate. Part of his reluctance to align Band of Love with any political movement has to do with the examples most prominent in today’s culture.
“I mean, I cringe when I see these left-wingers riding around with Barack Obama, like his sidekicks, playing their ‘Born in the U.S.A.’, or whatever, with some kind of Democratic talking points going on behind it,” says Harden, who further explains that his aversion to hearing politics in song usually has to do with the fact that they’re so often “bad politics. Uninformed politics.”
“But I think you have to be very careful as an artist of aligning yourself with any political party or politician. When I look at people I admire who have used their fame for political purposes, they’ve done it in a largely nonpartisan way,” Harden continues. “I think of Bono and U2. I don’t think Bono is very conservative on most things–although he’s gotten a little more that way as he’s realized that the free market is such a great helper in trying to help the world’s poor–but he’ll stand beside a Democrat. He’ll stand beside a Republican. He’ll stand beside whoever he has to accomplish his goal. So I think that’s a smart way to do it.”
Harden also suggests that it’s more productive to view artists as “countercultural,” rather than just “liberal” or “conservative.” “Think about someone like Joni Mitchell, who is kind of profoundly anti-feminist, if you listen to her talk about women’s issues. And most people wouldn’t know that about her. Does that make her a conservative? Well, no–not in the usual sense. But it does make her anti-establishment, versus what the sort of mainstream, liberal establishment view is all about. And that’s the key for me. The sort of political animus of our band, if there is one, is that we are profoundly anti-establishment. We are countercultural just by nature of who are, and the beliefs that we hold.”
As the de facto spokesman for Band of Love, Harden’s views are inevitably associated with the group’s. Does this ever cause tension? “As it happens, we all are pretty much in the same boat politically and religiously,” he says. However, while “it’s great that we all sort of agree and get along when it comes to these issues…that doesn’t come to the forefront.
Weaver agrees. “I don’t really have a political outlook. I have a definite belief system for sure,” he offers, calling himself a “family guy” who finds himself “living a conservative life.” Politics, he says, “usually disappoints me more than anything.
“I’m not on a team in the sense that I root for a party. I find that foolish and also the downfall of our government.”
Working sessions with a variety of artists, Weaver says he’s “learned not to ‘spar’ with people that have a different view than I do. I listen to what they have to say. I have what I feel I’ve learned from my experience and that’s all I can speak on. That usually keeps me out of arguments!”
That approach has also kept Band of Love out of any partisan-themed appearances. “In fact, we had the opportunity recently to perform at a very large, very overtly conservative event,” Harden recalls. “And Justin said to me, ‘I’m not so sure that I’m down with that. Because I don’t want to feel like I’m whoring out my music for some politician.’
“I don’t think we ought to shy away from political issues, from voicing concerns. I do that every day as a writer and blogger,” adds Harden. “I think there’s a time and place for that; I just think the middle of a rock show is not that time and place.”
Some would doubtless argue that popular music’s focus on guilt-free sex is part of a larger drive towards immediacy, both lyrical and instrumental. In an increasingly crowded music field, you do what you have to do to be noticed, fast.
“There’s no doubt that the drive for quick and immediate attention kind of favors a cheap play on sexuality and music,” agrees Harden. “Did it work for Miley Cyrus? Sure, for a while. But where does she go from here? Once you’ve done full-frontal nudity in your music videos”–he chuckles–“what’s left?”
What Band of Love is doing to make itself stand out from the pack may be less dramatic, though still noteworthy. The band shot a video for each of the 10 tracks of Ballad of Dani Girl (they can all be seen here), and they’re still giving the album away for free (you can get it at noisetrade) as they work on a follow-up. In addition, the foursome teamed with the charity Love146, a group that helps children rescued from sexual slavery, for the video “Soldier of Peace.”
Beyond those efforts, Harden puts stock in the virtuosity of his bandmates. Weaver, he says, “can sit down and blow your mind away with the guitar. And that’s something that very few bands out there can do.” The old saying about “talent will out,” he believes, still rings true. “I think of two people: Lorde, and Adele. These have been (recent) artists who have impacted people in a much deeper and much more lasting way. And why is that? People sense that there is some deeper artistic talent at work.
“It’s harder to get that initial attention without resorting to the cheap trick,” Harden concedes. “But people aren’t fooled by the cheap tricks for very long.
Cheap tricks, he adds, aren’t synonymous with sex.
“There is something deeply sexual about music, about rhythm. And I don’t shy away from that. If you’ve ever read the Song of Solomon, you can find some of the most erotically-charged literature right in the Bible,” says Harden. “So I don’t think God shied away from sex, either.
“I think the difference is that while I’m not shying away from sexual topics, in my writing and even in my music, my take on sex is gonna be profoundly different. So the way that breaks down is this: there’s a particular message coming out of the music industry, which is that sexual fulfillment comes from getting it on with as many complete strangers as you can this coming Friday night, doped up on amphetamines or whatever. But when you look at the lives young people are leading today, the sex is not that great. The hookup culture, that’s the big lie: that all these people are having these great sex lives. When every study shows that the people who are having the best sex lives are married, and disproportionately conservative and religious. And then you find out that actually, all these people living under this libertine idea of sex–they’re not even having as much sex as the married couple living next door to you! So the narratives about sex that music often sells are ludicrous.”
But to neuter music in the name of decency, Harden believes, cuts rock ‘n’ roll off from a critical part of its past. “I think it’s important that any musician be able to conserve in the language of sexuality, because that’s just an important part of it. There’s room out there for all kinds of takes on the subject. But I think it’s a mistake for someone to say, ‘I’m going to be asexual in my music.’ Because then I think you’re talking about bad music.
That charge can’t be leveled against Band of Love — something Harden is at pains to point out.
“I just wanna say that you can make love to our music!” he adds, before concluding with a chuckle, “After all, we are a Band of Love.”