I recently had the chance to sit down with local singer-songwriter Henry James Patterson. He is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota studying Supply Chain and Operations. Patterson has been making music since he was 13 and has played in various bands including Early Eyes. Over the past few months though, he has embarked on an exciting new solo project. Read on to learn about Patterson’s musical roots, inspirations, and finding a balance between school and music.
How did you get your start in music?
I started playing guitar when I was 6, and I actually took lessons and I didn’t really like having lessons, so I quit. And then when I was 13 I just picked it back up and I started playing again, and taught myself from then on. I was pretty much starting back over again, and since then I’ve just been teaching myself and learning from others along the way; just playing guitar, learning other instruments, learning how to sing, learning how to write songs, learning how to record. A lot of taking the initiative myself.
How would you describe your music genre?
It’s always changing. I want to be as open as I can to anything overall in this world. I don’t want to box myself in; I’ve done that too much in the past and I’m really starting to develop traits of all sorts of different kinds of music of my own. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot more funk and soul, and even some reggae too, which kinda came out of nowhere. I just started writing songs that have this weirdly out-of-nowhere infused reggae. I’m also writing this song now off of my album that I’m gonna put out soon. It’s got zydeco, like New Orleans kind of things. We’re throwing some piano on it—it’s real wild and obviously indie rock and pop and stuff. That is the general overtone. I wanna be accepting of as much as possible, not only accepting but embracing.
What are your songs about?
I’ve only written a few songs in this past year actually. I have a whole list of songs that I wrote a long time ago that I haven’t done anything with so right when I went solo I decided to bring those back up. It was the summer and I had a bunch of shows so me and my friends and my band recorded those songs. I wrote a lot of those songs when I was a senior in high school which is kind of weird because I’m not anymore, so a lot of them were about leaving home, almost like advice I’d give myself. In this one song in particular, I kind of speak from another perspective which is kind of cool because now I’m in that other perspective where I would be telling someone that’s younger like, “hey, watch out for these things,” and also exposing where I’m naïve. I definitely have that mentality of going into school, which I think is good, very humbling ‘cause college is a big crazy place, so is the world outside that, so a lot of them were kind of introspective in that way.
What are your influences?
I’m really influenced by everything; I just want to absorb as much as I can. I love Steely Dan, I also like The 1975. I know those are two completely different bands in every possible way, but I like both of them. I like John Mayer and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. I like Sade. I used to like the Strokes a lot. Jacob Collier and DeAngelo lately, they’re super good. Always liked Tame Impala. Cory Wong too, he’s a local guitarist, I’ve been really into him lately. I think there’s also this other dimension of personality to it, and purpose and mission as an artist, and Chance The Rapper is someone I really look up to in that regard for what he’s been doing in terms of his activism. Also, Bob Marley for sure in what he did in his time. Also, I like what Paul Simon was doing with Graceland; that stuff always, I thought, was really cool with the inclusion of South African artists on that one. Social change is really important to me so a lot of people like that.
How do you incorporate social change into your music?
A lot of it’s woken up in me since coming to school. I was definitely aware of a lot of these things in high school, but I wasn’t in a totally balanced spot yet to write songs about it because high school was when I was finding out a lot of the inequalities and injustices in our world, and that was really upsetting to me; it actually really turned me off from a lot of things. I was pissed, I was angry, but since I’ve started to write songs again, I definitely see myself writing songs themed around some problems in our world like that. Right now, I’m in a much more balanced place where I see things for what they are, but I still want to do what I can to make things better for humans so that’s something that I’m definitely doing
Talent aside, what has helped you become established in the Twin Cities?
Just being friendly to people and always being honest. Just being nice. I think that that’s something that is easily forgotten. Sometimes musicians can be competitive and they can have their own issues, and I try and make sure that whenever I play with another band or hang out with people that I’m having fun and that I’m giving love—and so far so good.
How do your experiences playing in a band versus solo work differ?
I started off playing guitar in a band when I was in high school, not singing at all. I was so scared of singing and even when I was in 10th grade I was like, hell no. And then when I was in 11th grade I was like, alright, I actually need to write some songs and start learning how to sing, and that’s when I recorded my EP that’s out. It was in eleventh grade so I’m really itching to record something new. It’s always eye-opening because I started in a band and then went and did some solo stuff, and then I had another band in high school, and then when I came up to college I was in Early Eyes, and then now I’m doing solo stuff. My friend Grayson DeWolfe has been playing a couple of shows around town this fall, and I’ve been playing guitar in his band; really my goal is to just play in as many groups as I can, and offer my work and learn from other people and get better. That’s what playing in different groups can give you. It’s a new perspective on things that is always fresh, thinking on your feet and it just allows for faster growth. Every time I’ve changed something or started something new, I definitely was challenged to grow in some way whether I learned to lead people better in one setting or in another setting maybe I learn to follow a little better and also just listen more. Every way.
Do you see yourself as mainly a solo artist, part of a band, or something else?
I see myself more as a solo artist and I kind of have to if I want to radiate the energy of someone who can go up there. But at the same time, I like playing in bands too. I don’t need to be the main guy, but I got my group where I’m the main guy and that’s fun too.
W: Tell us a little bit about your new solo project
A: It’s been a few months now. I started playing just a couple months ago with my friends, Dylan [Salfer] and Isaac [Gadient] and Isaac [Levy]. Isaac Gadient is my childhood best friend. We knew each other when we were less than a year old—we’ve been friends for a long time. We’ve been hanging out together in Red Wing. We played a lot of music in high school in different groups, and then he’s going into music full time, he’s not going to school. Just playing lots of shows and various gigs—making money however you can, and I really look up to him. So, I asked him if he wanted to play some shows. I had a few paid gigs this summer ‘cause as a professional musician, you just gotta get paid. His friend, Dylan Salfer, who I’m friends with too, they play a lot of shows together ‘cause Dylan’s been in the scene for a long time. He’s from River Falls and coming up to the city playing as a blues guitarist, but now every genre, and drumming too and singing—he’s incredible at all these things, he’s so good. He’s also doing music full time, even more so because he’s been around longer, and between those two I’ve learned so much and they’ve helped me grow so much, and that’s what’s made this project fun and worthwhile. It’s really tempting to take what they’ve taught me—and what they’ve taught me is small in the ocean of things I’d need to know to be a musician—but it’s still inspired me to consider maybe leaving school and doing music for a living. It’d all be in sorts of different forms, shapes and sizes, but that’d be a ride that I’d be down to figure out.
W: As a college student, how do you find a balance between school and music?
Working really hard and staying focused and staying on the straight and narrow. I’d love to party all the time, but I can’t and that’s probably for the better. I still go out and hang out with people, and that’s important too cause as a person, you’ve gotta go out there and be with people cause we’re all meant for each other. You can’t just sit inside and only do homework and only practice guitar, but I’ve definitely spent a lot of time pushing a lot of my sleep aside to play music while still getting my grades over at Carlson.
W: What are you studying?
I’m studying Supply Chain and Operations. That’s been really interesting. I’m pretty unique, I feel comfortable saying I’m pretty unique over there, being an artsy musician. I’m kind of an odd guy out. Doing a degree so far has been cool. Another passion of mine is the environment and sustainability, so coming to school it made sense to do something along those lines. So, if not for music, maybe I’d work for a sustainability consulting company, and a supply chain degree would eventually work out for that. You’ve just gotta find the right jobs and internships, make the right friends and do the right work, do a good job and build a resume—so that’s an option I could do. I really like to do something really well; I don’t really want to be split up. So right now, I’m 19 and a few semesters into school, I could take a break and try to do music for a few years, and then I could come back. But at the same time it’s a big life change, and because I’m a songwriter and I record I have this great background for music, but in terms of the gig music economy with all sorts of different jobs and diversifying that to make money to pay the bills—the bills bills bills!—I’m really starting fresh with that; I don’t have a lot of experience. I don’t get a lot of calls. It’s one of those things where I really have to invest a lot into that, and would I be too tired to go back into school. Or would I ever make the decision to go back? I’m at a really interesting crossroads; probably going to figure this out by the end of Christmas break, which is really daunting. I’m also gonna record the rest of my album over Christmas break so I feel like I’m gonna be kind of biased when I’m making these decisions cause I’m gonna be in the midst of doing the thing I love, but I gotta finish this record though, and get it out for the people. I haven’t done something new in like, two years.
Why do you make music?
I think music is just so beautiful. I’ve been super inspired by a lot of other musicians, not only in their music but how they carry themselves with their own self-confidence and self-love and love for other people, because you can’t just do it for yourself if you want to go far in music. It’s an entertainment industry where you’re up on a stage, you’re creating stuff, and you have to care for and love your audience—so it’s a big thing beyond yourself. That’s something I always thought was really sweet, to be able to contribute to something that helps people’s lives cause most of us listen to music, it makes the day better. There’s some really incredible musicians out there doing some wild stuff. It’s a lot of really smart people doing a lot of really smart things, and all humans want to innovate and move forward and get better. Music is a lot of what’s opened my eyes to what we’re capable of so that’s been really beautiful.
What are some of your favorite music memories?
My favorite musical memory is the day that we released the “Minutes” EP with Early Eyes because there were so many people listening and we’d worked so hard to put it out and it was one of those moments. There were just so many people supporting outwardly, and it was so beautiful. When I started playing with my friends Dylan and Isaac this summer, that was a big turning point in my own life because I had left Early Eyes and I was really not sure of myself and what I was doing, and for all sorts of reasons. Those guys really helped me out and I always will remember that
Why did you leave Early Eyes?
We just had a lot of differences in terms of musical visions and business visions. Personal differences, too—it wasn’t a clean breakup, but we’ve since talked a little bit, broken the ice. We just had a lot of differences and that’s okay. We’re doing our own things and I’m happy for them and whatever they’re doing.
What’s your favorite Twin Cities venue?
All of the venues man, all of the venues. Wherever you’re playing, play like it’s your last show. I love First Ave, I love watching shows in The Mainroom. I’ve never played in The Mainroom; I’d love to play there. I like the [7th St] Entry, good sound in there. December 10th, I’m playing at the Entry. That’s gonna be a good one. I haven’t played with the band in like a month, and it’s gonna be a few more weeks until the show, so it’s gonna be a while since we’ve played. I cherish playing with those guys, and I’ve played a couple of shows this past month with my friend Grayson. I’m going to guarantee to make it fun so come and have fun. We’re gonna play a nice blend of indie rock, pop, funk, the usual stuff with a useful energy. That’s with Broken Beaks and Love Sequence, and I’m really looking forward to that show. I’ve never played the Entry as a solo act before; I played it a couple of times with Early Eyes and that was always a blast, so this’ll be good. The Entry, it’s a nice cozy little intimate room.
What is one good thing and one challenging thing about playing music?
In my own personal experience, it’s such a satisfying thing to do—listening to music, playing music, watching music—getting better. The growth that I experience in it is something that I’m also really into. Growth is good. Growth is challenging but that’s something that I really like. Something that makes it tough is how people look at you sometimes. We live in a very money-driven world obviously, and music is not super fruitful, but if you work hard you can still get the job done. But it’s always changing too, so sometimes it feels like you’ve gotta grow too much, and it’s hard. Even my own parents really questioned it and wanted me to go to college, so here I am: kinda doing it for myself kinda for them, too. It’s making that transition into wanting to actually do music which is interesting because this whole fall I’ve been trying to transition my mind into being in school, and if I didn’t I’d be failing all my classes right now. I’ve been doing my homework every day and putting off music cause it’s not what I’m doing full-time. There’s definitely friction there with my parents and what they think. They’re super supportive, incredibly supportive still, but it’s one of those frictional things.
What’s a piece of advice you have for younger musicians?
Definitely be humble. I’ve seen a lot of people not be humble and it never does them any good. And being humble means being nice to everybody, learning from people; it’s one of these things that you’ve gotta learn by experience. Learn for yourself. I don’t want to tell people what to do, but having humility is really important. Not acting like you know it all, being a good person but also having fun. Me, I think that I’ve been due for having some fun. I’ve been working pretty hard, and working hard and having fun are two things that are very different. But at the same time you have to do them at the same time because they’re both so huge for human health. I’ve actually learned a lot more about having fun from my friends Isaac and Dylan and other Isaac in this band. They’ve taught me a lot about how to “bool,” in their words, and just let loose, and that can be the spark of life that starts another songs or a project or a new creative idea in some way. It’s a balance, so be really humble and have a lot of fun. We’re here to live on this planet to do whatever we’re doing, but if we don’t have fun it seems like a less purposeful existence, so boom! Make the best of every situation.
What should we expect from you in the future?
I’m always playing shows—my own band, Henry James Patterson (and the band). I’m going to always be recording; I’ve got an album. I’ve got the bass and drums recorded for 10 new songs. Dylan Salfer on the drums and Isaac Gadient on the bass guitar, and they kicked butt. We did some sessions this summer and we self-engineered it. We got a bunch of mics and a bunch of drums and different cymbals and stuff; it was crazy, super fun, just getting really creative. Gonna be recording the guitar and vocals and any sorts of keys with Isaac Gadient. He’s gonna be helping me out; we’re gonna work on the production and arranging together. I really want to learn a lot of things and try a lot of new things out. I have a lot of people who listen to my music right now and I just really want to hit them with something wild. And like I said, with all these different genres, just gonna try some new things, learn more. That’s just the name of the game, always changing things up, and it’s gonna be fun. Gonna finish that up hopefully over winter break and put it out, and I’m thinking of doing multiple waves. I’m also starting to write more songs for a next album because this album is really a “best of high school” almost because a lot of these songs I wrote in high school. So, I’m a sophomore in college—that was a long time ago. I also have to challenge myself to make these songs better because I’ve been playing them for so long and I even think that some of these lyrics aren’t that good, but I’m so used to them that I don’t really want to change them, but I know I probably should. So, I really have to dig deep to actually go forward and make these better because if I’m putting them on an album I want to make it good. You can look forward to some incredible key playing by Ben Portzen, incredible drumming by Dylan Salfer and Isaac Gadient, he played drums on a tune, incredible bassist skills by Isaac too, and then I’ll be singing and playing the six-string over the top—so look forward to it.
You can see Henry James Patterson at the First Avenue 7th St Entry on December 10th.