Interview: Gretta Harley discusses new project Love and Fury

From left to right: Bob Watanabe/Guitar, Kai Strandskov/Drums, Gretta Harley/Vocals, Jane Mabry Smith/Bass, Gary King/Guitar. Photo Credit: Andrew Kvenvolden

Capitalizing on her apparent capacity to bi or even tricolate, Seattle’s industrious and ever-passionate Gretta Harley unveils her latest project, a band called Love and Fury, co-masterminded with rock producer and songwriter Gary King. Working up vocals and lyrics from King’s original music tracks, Harley completed enough songs for the new Love and Fury album Planet, which they’ll premiere live at the record release party, Saturday February 23rd at the Royal Room. She was kind enough to sketch out her master plan below.

NWMS: Did you grow up in Seattle?  If not, when did you arrive here?

Gretta Harley: I grew up on Long Island, NY- southwest side close to NYC. I spent half of my 20s in London and in NYC, and then came out to Seattle, eventually moving here around 1990.

NWMS: What are your most pivotal memories of music, growing up?  Which music grabbed you, shook you, and made you want to make music?

Gretta Harley: Jesus Christ Superstar, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Deep Purple, Deodato, The Beatles and Elton John are all a part of my earliest memories pre-ten years old. I created a “stage” in my living room, and performed dramatic renderings of this music regularly to myself. I begged my folks for a piano. That took two years to come to fruition.

I don’t know where this music love came from. The only other music in the house was my father’s obsession for Wagner. But I wouldn’t say we were a musical household. Before the parents agreed to get me the piano, I played my dad’s old clarinet from grammar school that he dusted off from the basement. I was a dutiful practicer and never stopped. I still have that piano by the way. I always collected records.

NWMS: How long have you been doing music professionally in Seattle?

Gretta Harley: My first band in Seattle was Maxi Badd. We released our first cassette, A Full Room Of Hostile Elvi in 1991 or 1992. I also played punk rock in NYC in a band called, And They Became Slaves. Then there have been several bands and music projects ever since.

And when you say “professionally,” as it coincides with music, I take you to mean as a life-time passion that doesn’t bring in a solid income. I have been a professional music teacher and music director since 2002 and that does pay my bills. I used to teach at Cornish College of the Arts, and I teach privately now in my home studio. Selling records and playing local shows just doesn’t bring in a livable wage. With streaming and the audience’s expectation to get music for free, it is less lucrative now that ever to make a record.

NWMS: What projects are you proudest of, and why?

Gretta Harley: I am always proud of the projects that I am doing as I am doing them. So right now, Love and Fury is my jam. I am very proud of making These Streets a few years ago with my co-writers, Sarah Rudinoff and Elizabeth Kenny, because of the long reach it had. Not just to the audience who saw the show, but to the women and the music we chronicled. The stories and healing that happened behind the scenes in the pre-production was ground shifting for me. It felt like we were channeling something bigger than ourselves.

That project helped to heal something, for many of the women we interviewed, and who sat in the audience at the show. It’s a weird, weird thing when a history doesn’t acknowledge you, forgets you existed. It can be demeaning, and it was to many. I witnessed, during the process of making that show that being recognized is a revelatory salve. Food.

I am also very proud of Home Alive, the organization I co-founded with eight other women that brought self-defense techniques and self-defense awareness to people, not just in Seattle, but across the US and abroad. I produced the first compilation CD with Valerie Agnew (7 Year Bitch), which I think holds up, still, as a work of art (including visual art by local artists and directed by collective members Stacey Wescott and Jessica Lawless). That time in my life, which was also really difficult and heartbreaking, is something I feel very proud that I was a part of. Building something meaningful and empowering with community is enriching. More food.

NWMS: How did you first make contact with Gary King?

For this project, it was right after the election of Donald Trump. I was still mourning my former boyfriend, James Atkins (Hammerbox) who had passed away from cancer within the year, after a battle that I was very close to. After his death I had some of my own health problems, so I was pretty down in the dumps. Gary contacted me out of the blue. I was happy not to initiate an art project, and I felt like his contact was a sign to get out of my doldrums and make art.

But Gary and I have a little history. We had first met while I was putting together the Home Alive CD (The Art of Self-Defense). He generously offered his studio – The House of Leisure – to record some of the local bands that we wanted on the compilation. Some of the original recordings were very garage rock in their production, small budget quality, and we wanted everyone to sound as good as possible. The potential was that the record could have wide distribution, being on Epic/SONY Records, so we were looking for a way to include local bands that didn’t have a budget for a good quality recording.

I always respected Gary for stepping up and offering his space and his talents. My band Danger Gens also recorded our full-length record there, Life Between Cigarettes, (produced by Martin Feveyear). Years later I saw Gary’s band, Slippage, with Jack Endino and that was the first time I heard him play guitar and I remember really liking his guitar playing.

So when Gary called me he had also been healing from some health stuff, so while we were recording we both felt like we helped each other start feeling good about life again. The timing was right. I think as we get older there is a humility that comes to the surface. The cool shit bullshit washes away and you just meet as two beings. And that’s what happened with us, and I think it helped the music feel that way too.

NWMS: What were your impressions of his stuff?

Gretta Harley: Oh, I immediately loved it. His music made me happy. The songs were hard, and thick, and riff laden. It captured anger and hope. Heart and longing. Love and Fury. Ha! His songs were on a website and had these funny titles that I later learned were coined after computer programs. (Gary is a programmer.) The first one was called something, I don’t remember, but I called it “Scorpio” ‘cause this epic coda sang in my head: “crawl out of the water…”  I love epic. And Scorpio is my rising sign. And I felt that I was hiding under water and wanted a way out.

So that’s where that first song came from. I went to his studio in White Center and we hadn’t seen each other in a really long time. I sang “Scorpio” first and he liked what I did, so he said, try another. I think the next one was “Ling.” We just kept going after that, meeting on Sundays, usually. One song at a time until we had fourteen I think. They are not all on this record.

NWMS: Had you worked with Gary King on anything prior to this project?

Gretta Harley: Only in that he was the studio owner and manager of House of Leisure. So we only worked together logistically, not artistically before this project.

NWMS: How did King get in touch with you about the Love and Fury project?

Gretta Harley: Out of the blue. He sent me an email I think. It’s my understanding that Gary had been trying to partner with a singer/lyricist for a while. I think two other women had laid down some vocals on different tunes that I did not touch. Those felt kind of off limits to me, like I’d be a voyeur if I attempted to do anything with those. But I guess the larger project didn’t get off the ground until Gary and I started working together. It was timing, and kismet. It took a few weeks to “get” each other and we had a few rough spots, but not many, and those moments made us better working partners. I think we had mutual respect for one another and the musical chemistry was right.

Ya know, this was originally slated as a recording project. At some point we looked at each other and said, “This music needs a live audience. It would rock so hard. Let’s put a band together.” At first it felt overwhelming because the parts are so intricate and it would be so difficult to replicate these tunes with players, but we rounded up the right people.

NWMS: What were your first impressions of King’s instrumental tapes? Did he work alone on them?

Gretta Harley: They were Mp3s I think, on his website. I loved them. They just rocked. They had layers and layers of guitars. They were epic and hard and there were a couple of gentle ones in there too, or gentle, or unexpected moments. One or two had a twangy feel. I learned later that most of these tunes were created by Gary sitting in front of his computer, holding a guitar and pressing “play.”

He used MIDI tracks with live instruments. Some of these songs started as jams with Gary’s friends. He’d bring the songs to them and they’d just jam out in his studio. Greg Gilmore played on a couple of the ones I heard. And Terry Malone and Doug “Sluggo” Owens played drums on the tunes that Kai ended up replacing. Not that anything was wrong with their playing. We were looking for cohesion and it seemed like a no-brainer to bring in a drummer to play on all the tunes.

Gary was continuously adding, editing, changing, replacing, through the entire two years that we worked on the record. Even with mixing and mastering. I met my match and then some in the OCD arena. But that’s what makes a great artist. And I believe he is one.

NWMS: How did you go about putting lyrics and vocal melodies to King’s work?

Gretta Harley: I just heard the melodies in my head as soon as I heard the tunes. Sometimes I’d stream the songs while walking the dog or doing my dishes or something at home, and melodies would pour out. I’d take notes. I’d sit with the songs in front of my computer and free-write words. Then edit. Then edit some more. Sometimes I’d take handwritten notes into the studio and work out the details on the spot, with headphones on. Try a few different things.

Gary had a lot of input with my vocal approach, and I found that really helpful. I’m from NY, so at first he was really tiptoeing around me, not wanting to tell a singer what to do. He later learned I’m good with direct communication. We were collaborators for sure.

NWMS: What were the most demanding challenges and how did you push through them?

Actually, my vocal control was my biggest challenge. First of all, these songs were not in keys that I would normally sing in. Also, I had been sick, and before that taking care of James when he was sick, and then the loss of him, and I hadn’t really sang regularly in a couple of years. My instrument had atrophied. I was bummed that I couldn’t sing what I wanted to. That was new to me.

So I started taking vocal lessons with Susan Carr and began working my voice out like an athlete. Sue is an incredible teacher. I learned so much from her and kick myself for not taking vocal lessons earlier. I mean, I took lessons when I was a teen and in college. But still, there was so much more to learn. I didn’t know! So it took a year to record the vocals because I wanted to redo most of them. “Ling” is a first take, and almost a free improvisation. That performance has some magic in it that I didn’t want to mess with. I didn’t re-record that one.

As a live band, the biggest challenge has been choosing which guitar parts would be played. Gary layered sometimes 5, 6, 7 guitar parts on a song in the recording, and they are all important parts, but there is only Bob and Gary playing it on stage. I learned while I was involved in theatre a term called “killing your babies.” Gary has had to kill some babies in the live version of these songs. It’s been hard on him, and Bob (laughing).

It’s taken some time to realize, but the live band is a separate entity in some ways. Although everyone has worked very hard at being true to Gary’s initial vision, and I think we do a pretty good job at delivering these songs on a stage, there have been some music casualties. But I think we do a good job. And I am very excited for people to hear and appreciate that artistry involved in the many guitar layerings, and intricate arrangements that Gary has created on the recordings. And to appreciate the incredible amount of work that these fine musicians have put in to play these songs as intended in a live setting.

NWMS: What are your major themes in the lyrics?  Did they evolve organically, or did you work from a pre-determined structure?

Gretta Harley: The themes of these songs originate from my feelings about the socio/cultural/political climate right now. Kali is my muse. She is the Indian goddess of death and rebirth. Death and birth are linked. I believe that we are living through a man-made death of our political and cultural structures. So if it is dying then we have to birth something else. We have to imagine, and manifest what we want to see in its place.

We have a lot of work to do as a country and that is not going to be an easy feat. Fear and anger have been prevalent in the national discussion, as well as in Europe. The structures we grew up in, the glue for generations are now threatened. Corruption is obvious and rampant while hiding behind lies and a system that allows it.

People are pissed off. And we have social media, which teases people into reacting quickly and with emotion, rather than logic and knowledge of history, which has caused confusion, disinformation and problems for us collectively, with our families, friends and anonymous strangers. But at the same time, we are conversing together and challenging what we think. We are on a teetering fulcrum.

Did you know that “apocalypse” literally translates to “the unveiling?” Mia of MKB Ultra first told me that. We are in a type of apocalypse now, seeing things for what they truly are. But we don’t agree on what we are looking at. Or what the truth is.

There is no commonly identified truth anymore. So now what? What’s the way through? Personally, I think we have to slow down, and be really mindful of what we do and say and what energy we bring into our lives, and choose to put out into the world. To me it’s important to scale down, and to appreciate and nurture personal relationships, strengthen the relationship to self.

The enemy to me is sloppiness, and generalization, objectification and dehumanization of the other. But I do it too. I try, keep failing and try harder. We have to begin with self and work our way slowly, honestly outward to the people we can touch, speak with, love, debate with. So these are my thoughts and these lyrics reflect them.

NWMS: How did you go about making musical changes to King’s tracks, if any?

Gretta Harley: Mostly I used what was there, as is. On a few occasions I asked if we could repeat a part. Or take out a part. The funniest thing to us is that during recording I would just keep singing up to the end of the jams. I guess our ears adapted. I often get used to something until I make it right in my ear mind. So the endings are abrupt in places. Jack (Endino) found that disturbing in a love-ya-like-a -brother kind of way. He’d say: Gary! Why are these endings like this? Gary and I would laugh. We think it’s funny.

NWMS: Who are the other musicians who contributed to the recording, and the live band?  What does each one bring to the mix?

Gretta Harley: Kai Strandskov is the first person we brought in, as someone to replace the drums for the recording project. I had heard him play, and he plays in bands with mutual friends, but I didn’t know him well. Gary and I wanted a particular type of musician; someone who could come in and replace drums to finished tracks. That’s not easy. Choosing Kai was a very intuitive decision on my part, and it was right. He did a great job on the record. And as a bandmate he is absolutely one of the best people I’ve ever worked with. Now remind you, when he came in, we were thinking of this as a recording project. But I was rallying for a band.

I met Jane Mabry Smith a few times, and even sang with her on a project of a mutual friend, Scott Adams. In fact, Kai plays with Scott. Jane and I gelled as people and we wanted to play music together. Again, this was another intuitive decision to ask Jane to play bass in the live band without knowing her well musically. More kismet. She ended up offering a few new bass parts on the record too. It turns out she is an incredible musician, singer, multi-instrumentalist. She has a new record, Virago, coming out this spring.

Post-drums, Gary laid down some MIDI saxophones on “Ling” one day. Jane and I both know Amy Denio, and in fact we play in Jane’s new band Virago together. We suggested Amy come in to lay down the track. Amy went to the studio and ended up playing on “Blackbird” too. Just nailed it. She gave depth to these parts, and we just love them.

Bob Watanabe was a good friend of James’. I ran into him at a show and he asked if I was playing and if I needed a guitarist. I jumped on it. He is great. He fit right in. He works well with Gary in deciding which of the million guitar parts to bring out on stage.

Rob Knop is an old school Seattle keyboard player who I’ve known for years. I think I’ve always wanted to work with him. I emailed him and he said sure. He brings a lightness to the band through his sarcastic humor. He never misses a beat. I feel like we have yet to fully tap his talents. Both Bob and Rob are not on the record, but damn, they are perfect in Love and Fury live. Amy is not in the live band, but she will join us on those tunes at the record release party.

NWMS: The press release invokes psychedelic rock and prog rock.  What would you say are the influences of each on the new album?  Who are your favorite acts in both, and why?

Gretta Harley:  I hear a bit of Pink Floyd in Gary’s music sometimes. Especially in “Prometheus.” I noticed that influence right away and we bonded over our mutual love for the Pink. And Zeppelin.

Our music channels ‘70s and ‘90s hard rock I think. There are changing time signatures, and intricate arrangements. Walls of guitars. Chugging guitars. Licks. We are the product of the eras that influenced us. But also, I think the music is fresh and doesn’t really sound like anything else out there.

NWMS: What are your plans for the future, both with this project and other projects?

Gretta Harley:  Gary is already writing new music. Jane has a great voice and I think he wants to take advantage of both of our voices in the new stuff. I’d love to see what we come up with as a group together. After our release show, I’m sure we will begin some new tunes, but I imagine that the music will be influenced by all of us, who have become somewhat of a family. I love this family.

Click HERE to get more information about Love and Fury’s record release party on February 23rd at the Royal Room. Visit their website HERE for more information about the band.

Andrew Hamlin

Andrew Hamlin likes to photograph shoes and write about dog shit. He was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, where he resides today. He attended the Evergreen State College, where he wrote and edited arts coverage for the Cooper Point Journal. He is the film critic for the Northwest Asian Weekly, and he’s published arts coverage and criticism in the San Diego Reader, Village Voice, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, Goldmine, and other publications. He misses Helen Wiggin. Hamlin’s website is

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