Wilson Harwood is a Bluegrass banjo musician based here in Boulder, Colorado. Wilson is also a music educator, runs the Upslope Brewery Open Mic Night, and is a well established musician in town. As a member of Roctin Grove and Mbanza, his background is dynamic and his drive is one of a kind. He recently began the Creative Accelerator program here at madelife as an audio production accelerant. Enjoy this interview we had with him about his start, development, and life as a Bluegrass banjo player.
Tell us where you are from and how you got into your craft?
I am from Bethesda, Maryland and I began playing music at age 5 on the violin. I didn’t stick with it for more than a year or so. In the fourth grade I picked up the clarinet and played in band at school until seventh grade. I began playing guitar at age 10 and have not stopped since. Throughout middle school and high school I played in a gigging Ska band. When I went to college I decided after my freshman year to transfer to the college of music at The University of Colorado at Boulder. I graduated with a BA in Music in 2010. Directly after graduating I helped found Rocktin Grove. We have been touring, recording, and having fun for the past five years. During that same five year period I joined a bluegrass side project Hilltop Harvest and an Appalachian African Fusion Band, Mbanza. All in all, I have been slowly working on my craft for the past 22 years in many different forms. I think my music represents a varied background and a strong affinity towards world music.
Can you name a couple of artists that have been an inspiration in your career?
I picked up the banjo mostly because of Belá Fleck, Earl Scruggs and bluegrass in general. I fell in love with bluegrass in high school after attending Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic camp in Tennessee. My early influences were Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones along with bands like Rancid and Big D’s Table. I had a big jam band influence from around the time I was 14 to when I was 23 or so. I was really inspired by Keller Williams, Phish, String Cheese Incident, and Yonder Mountain String Band. Now I am listening to as much music as possible and certainly not sticking to any one genre. I love Ali Farka Touré, Tinariwen, Shovels and Rope, The Lone Bellow, and many other bands that have soul, groove, and harmonies.
You are in the process of developing your sound as a solo artist, can you tell us about the sound and performance your fans can expect to see?
I think my roots have always been in songwriting over the years. I think fans will expect to hear a traditional songwriter with his instrument, but also a twist with live looping and guest appearances by many talented musicians. I love playing with other people and collaborating on new sounds, overall, I think of my solo career as really just creating a foundation and focus in my life that allows for more collaboration and projects. The music itself will have a strong rhythm and groove with an emphasis on the lyrics, story, and composition.
You have been the lead guitarist for Rocktin for several years and also play a key role in Mbanza, how do these projects stimulate your creative self-expression differently than being a solo artist?
I have always played with bands and love working in groups. Rocktin has always been an open book as far as everyone’s input and our musical direction. This means that we have always allowed creativity and feel and everyone’s own backgrounds to guide the music. There wasn’t a strict genre adherence or one musical director. I think Rocktin, in that sense, has given me a chance to play with a big rock band sound while still allowing me to write at the songwriter level and has given me an appreciation for outside input and collaborative growth. Mbanza has greatly enhanced my banjo playing and has helped my rhythmic feel. Playing with Eric Sugarsnap on the Ngoni is an incredible experience and has taught me to listen for space in the musical texture, and develop a strong improve style on the banjo. Mbanza just has a really cool, unique and exciting sound and I am looking forward to how far we can develop it.
I truly believe that any artist can make it if they practice and hone their skills and constantly work to develop a business and eventual income. I think where a lot of bands and artists fall short is having too much of the business or too much of the creative side without a good sense of the balance. It also is important to remember that most artists can be successful and still work a side job from time to time. I think it would be really hard to succeed, however, without giving your work the adequate time to make it the best it can be. In that sense a full time job may interfere with the process.
Can you share one piece of advice to up and coming artists?
Network, practice, and learn! That might sum it up. I think that networking is key to finding your support group, your fans, and your scene. Although, cross-genres exist it is much easier to promote, collaborate, and generally grow if you know a lot of like-minded people. Practice is the key to self-satisfaction and growth. If we don’t continually work on our sound and skills then we will inevitably fall behind or stay stagnant. Practice doesn’t mean just playing your instrument or doing tutorials for your electronic set up, it means developing songs, interacting with other musicians, going to shows as well. Learn! Learning is similar to practice, but I think it means keeping an open mind. As I get older I feel myself sticking with common practices, but I try to challenge my views and what I think I know on a daily basis. In madelife I am really trying to learn from the other participants. Learning also means taking the time to sit down and work on something that might not immediately benefit me, but will certainly help down the road.
What exciting things do you have brewing in the madelife Creative Accelerator Program?
So much I can’t even keep track of it all! Well seriously, I am recording and rehearsing for my first EP release. I am booking a single release show and a subsequent tour. I have hired a web designer, photographer, and graphic designer to work on my brand and image. Lastly, I am working on learning new programs like Abelton and Pro-Tools and I am learning how to organize my time to create systems that I can replicate when I leave the program. Ideally, I will be ready to tour, perform, and produce more music with the tools I have developed at madelife, all the while, making a living wage.
Check out his website at wilsonharwood.com