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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
December 5 , 2023

How UM singer Jasmine Harris — granddaughter of ‘60s folk music icon Joan Baez — is finding her own voice

Jasmine Harris stands with guitar outside First United Methodist Church of South Miami on Oct. 6, 2023.
Jasmine Harris stands with guitar outside First United Methodist Church of South Miami on Oct. 6, 2023. Photo credit: Valeria Barbaglio

On a wet Thursday night in September, rainwater filling my shoes, I trekked across the University of Miami’s palm-tree laden campus, buzzing with anticipation. I was headed to the United Wesley Chapel where I was about to watch singer-songwriter Jasmine Harris perform some of her new material for the first time that evening.

The show — part of the chapel’s weekly “Coffeehouse” gathering, where new artists introduce themselves to the university community — had yet to start. Inside, a crowd of about two to three dozen students had taken their seats. After a momentary struggle to open the church’s hefty front door, I walked in and locked eyes with Harris, seated on a multi-colored rug sipping ginger tea, her legs sprawled across the stage beneath her at the opposite end of the room.

Lights from overhead bathed her face in shades of lavender and blue, illuminating an expression that seemed somehow nervous but serene at the same time. Before I could walk up to Harris to wish her the best of luck, she adjusted the petite pink bow in her hair and gripped the microphone in front of her. It was showtime.

A rising star within the ‘Canes community, 20-year-old Harris — a native of the San Francisco Bay area and junior at the University of Miami studying modern artist development and entrepreneurship — has already headlined three on-campus events this year: Hurricane Productions’ “Patio Jams,” United Wesley’s “Coffeehouse,” and a taping of UMTV’s resident late-night talk show “Off the Wire.” As the newest addition to ‘Canes Records, UM’s official student-run record label, and with her debut album “Baby Steps” slated for a spring 2024 release, crowds at her performances are growing, and her social-media presence is steadily rising.

Harris is the scion of mid-century music royalty. As the granddaughter of Joan Baez, a pioneering folk singer and five-time Grammy Award winner, one could argue that making music is in her blood. Baez rose to fame during the 1960s as a social activist who sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington and released dozens of albums over the course of more than six decades.

As Harris stands on the precipice of launching her own career, it seems like everything is falling into place. But interviews with the up-and-coming artist reveal that she’s at a crossroads — something is holding her back. She’s not interested in signing a flashy contract with a record label or going out of her way to chase gigs. And, as much as she loves making music, she isn’t sure that the lifestyle of a recording artist is what she wants long-term.

“I place a lot of emphasis and value on other aspects of my life outside my music,” Harris told me. “Music isn’t my be-all and end-all.”

Nevertheless, her passion for the craft is serving as her North Star for now, and she’s taking everything in stride.

“The universe seems to be wanting me right now, so I’m just going with the flow,” she said. “All I know is that music makes me so happy. And that’s why I’m willing to see where it goes.”

‘People are going to say and believe whatever they want, but I work my ass off.’

While Harris’ classmates and other members of her generation might recognize Joan Baez’s name, most people born after the year 2000 may not fully understand Baez’s impact within the larger American music tradition.

The legendary folk singer was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 thanks to her contributions to the mid-century American folk music revival. As African Americans battled for civil rights and the United States waged war with Vietnam during the 1960s, Baez traveled the country giving live performances, using her musical gift as a vehicle for anti-racism and anti-war activism.

With top 40 hits such as 1971’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and 1975’s “Diamonds and Rust” — which peaked at number three and number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively — Baez, alongside other folk singers such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, helped push the genre to the forefront of American popular music throughout the 1970s. Now, she’s the subject of the recently-released documentary “Joan Baez: I Am Noise,” which highlights the trajectory of her storied career through never-before-seen archival footage provided by her family.

Around campus, it isn’t uncommon to hear students familiar with Harris’ pedigree casually invoke the term “nepo baby.” Harris seems aware of the perception some hold that her family might have opened doors for her, but laughs off the notion that opportunities have found her on a silver platter.

“I think the ‘nepo baby’ label is super funny,” Harris said. “People are going to say and believe whatever they want, but I work my ass off. I’m doing 19 credits this semester, and I’m recording an album.”

“I have a lot of privileges, but I’ve had to work hard,” she added.

Jasmine Harris
Jasmine Harris stands with guitar outside First United Methodist Church of South Miami on Oct. 6, 2023. Photo credit: Valeria Barbaglio

Harris’ love of music emerged in elementary school

However, Harris has privately wrestled with what her life as a recording artist may look like if she finds commercial success.

For most of Harris’ childhood, her grandmother and father — who joined Baez’s touring band as a drummer shortly after Harris turned 5 — would spend eight to nine months on the road every year. Harris’ quality time with them was reduced to infrequent interactions behind concert stages or on tour buses.

Growing up, she admired her family’s dedication to their craft and felt she had to prove to them, particularly her grandmother, that her love for music was legitimate — not a fleeting interest that came about simply because of who her family is. But because of their travels, Harris’s childhood memories are flecked with feelings of being disconnected from her father and grandmother, and sometimes make her wary of following in Baez’s footsteps. She fears missing out on quality time with friends and loved ones while pursuing her career.

“Even though I’d love to have a career as a performer, I saw how fame was very isolating for my grandmother,” Harris reflected. “No matter how bright and exciting the clouds may seem, I refuse to allow my feet to be swept off the ground.”

While her family’s connections might not have kick-started her career, their love of music may have helped ignite Harris’ original passion.

In second grade, her parents gave her a Taylor Swift songbook and, as a budding Swiftie, she’d sit at the piano for hours, teaching herself how to play songs like “Back to December” and “Better than Revenge.” During middle and high school, her yearning to create music outside of her bedroom and living room blossomed. Harris began penning lyrics in her diary, exploring the dilemmas teenagers typically face: awkward feelings, unrequited crushes, questionable friends.

Harris’ godfather, Alan Abrahams — a former executive producer at RCA Records’ West Coast Division during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and an old friend of Baez — recognized her budding talent and wanted to help. The veteran producer agreed to arrange a one-on-one private studio session and, ultimately, the godfather-goddaughter duo recorded eight tracks together.

In an interview, Abrahams praised Harris as “an old soul” who “was amazing in the studio.”

“The next day, she came to my apartment and thanked me for what she described as one of the best experiences of her life,” he recalled.

From the stairwell to the recording studio

After high school, Harris moved across the country in 2021 to begin her studies at UM’s Frost School of Music under the scorching sun of the Magic City.

During her first year on campus, she often decamped to the dingy stairwell of Stanford Residential College, her freshman residence hall, with only her phone and her acoustic guitar in hand. She transformed the reclusive, solitary space into a private enclave where she’d spend hours writing and recording new music.

From these initial sessions came the foundation of her debut single, “Mannequin,” a slow-burning alternative ballad exploring the messy feelings associated with missing a past lover.

Harris enlisted 20-year-old music-engineering major Jake Sonderman, who had experience mixing and producing singles for indie artists, to apply finishing touches to the track. He added backing instrumentals, and the pair spent a few studio sessions refining the single before releasing it last November. It didn’t quite reach “hit” status, garnering nearly 6,500 streams in its first year, but Harris is proud of the outcome.

“I received a bunch of messages from random people who loved the song,” Harris said. “I don’t really care that much about making money as an artist. I make music because I want to connect with people. I think my stories are relatable and can mean something to other people.”

Undeterred, Harris and Sonderman began work on her debut album in the winter of 2022. Entitled “Baby Steps,” the ten-track offering will recount the trials and tribulations Harris has faced while navigating friendships and romance within the bubble of a college campus.

Pulling inspiration from alternative pop stars such as Lana Del Ray and Phoebe Bridgers, Harris says the songs will shy away from the snappy structure of popular TikTok anthems that rush to upbeat choruses within the first 15 to 30 seconds. Instead, they’ll take the form of slow-tempo, drawn-out records that resemble descriptive poems, gently unspooling one life story after another.

“Every song is sort of a different major story of who Jasmine is,” Sonderman said. “The album does a pretty good job of portraying that story as a whole.”

‘This performance reminded me of why I even do music in the first place — to connect with people’

To record the tracks, Harris and Sonderman frequently dodged between the university’s on-campus facilities and their respective apartments. A personal and creative chemistry flourished between the duo, forged by countless hours of writing and composing.

“Sometimes we both are on the same page about where the song’s going to go, and other times we’re really not,” Sonderman explained, adding that the album is an amalgamation of “all of her influences.”

“As Jasmine grew to trust me more, she would let me finish an idea and would grow to really like it,” he said. “But she gets the final call.”

Neither Harris nor Sonderman are divulging too many specifics about what to expect from the album, but it’s clear that it will bottle up the same essence she brings to her performances — a relaxed, at-ease sense of authenticity that evokes a developing artist who’s feeling the pull of the spotlight, the resistance stemming from her apprehensions, and the spectrum of experiences and emotions she’s navigating as a college student.

Back on stage at United Wesley Chapel, after half an hour of performing songs that drew both laughter and tears from the audience, Harris positioned her slender fingers on her acoustic guitar and strummed her setlist’s final note. As the storm still raged outside, and the sound of applause overtook the momentary silence inside the chapel, I rose from my seat at the back and made my way toward her.

By now, Harris had already joined her friends in the crowd, and I hoped to congratulate her before she was swept away into the night to celebrate. I caught her for just the briefest of moments and asked her how she felt about the show.

“This performance reminded me of why I even do music in the first place — to connect with people,” she told me. An ear-to-ear smile stretched across her face, and she looked precisely where she was meant to be.

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