When I first heard Phoebe Bridgers’ cover of “Part Time Heart”, I assumed it was a classic song, passed down throughout the years to grace the ears of a new generation. To my surprise, it was actually written within the last few years by the 22-year-old, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Harrison Whitford: a new voice whose music feels more immediate and assertive than ever.
Whitford is a longtime collaborator and friend of Bridgers’, having played and written with her consistently for over six years. They’ve had bands together and been side by side during her meteoric rise over the last year.
“[Me and Phoebe] have known each other for almost six years, and we’ve always played together in some capacity. She’s always been really supportive,” Whitford said over the phone.
While supporting Bridgers’ and playing guitar with her on her expansive touring schedule is taking up most his time, Whitford is also having a moment of his own. He released his debut album Afraid of Everything earlier this year. The album is a biting assemblage of poignant, candid songs that put himself, his virtuosity, and his forthright songwriting on full display. Balancing the somber delivery of Elliot Smith with the pop-sensible charm of Paul Westerberg– two songwriters he cites as major influences– Whitford’s debut is a haunting tour de force of both writing and performance from a young songwriter at only the beginning of his career.
The album was recorded in close quarters with his friend and collaborator Marshall Vore, who also played a huge role in writing and recording Bridgers’ debut Stranger In The Alps. Whitford was also a significant force behind her debut. Vore co-wrote a good deal of the songs– most notably “Scott Street”– and played drums, and Whitford wrote on “Demi Moore” and played guitar throughout. What they accomplished recording that album helped inspire Whitford’s own debut.
“I met Marshall in 2014. Phoebe and I used to have a band, and he came to a show. We were just really fast friends. Ever since I met him, we talked about making a record together at some point. It was a pipe dream that we had broached and thought would be fun to do,” he said.
In many ways, Afraid of Everything feels like a companion piece to Bridgers’ debut. They were both recorded around the same time with a similar cast of musicians, and the sonic parallels between the two albums are often easy to spot, including background vocals from Bridgers, Whitford’s virtuosic and often hauntingly drawn out guitar leads, to the hushed and ambient production that often renders the vocals in a warm glow.
“Stranger in the Alps is a very clean sounding record, but it’s raw in the sense that it isn’t trying to hide anything or mask any unwanted colors,” he said. “We recorded [my album] right after we were working on [Phoebe’s], so we were definitely taking things from that process and putting them into this new framework.”
The difference between the records lies in the recording. While Stranger in the Alps was recorded in a meticulous and drawn out manner with juggernaut producer Tony Berg in Los Angeles, Whitford, Vore, and a group of close friends recorded the songs that would become Afraid of Everything in only three days at Sound Emporium in Nashville. With Kevin McGowan on drums, Alex Labrie on guitar, Tarka Layman on bass, and Ethan Gruska on piano, the album was recorded quickly and left for months of revision.
“The raw elements of the album really come from the fact that we had three days to cut ten songs, and everybody probably had eight cups of coffee a day. There was no taking breaks. We made the basic live tracking at a furious pace, and then just overdubbed those over the next six months,” he said.
The result is an album that feels raw and thrown together but meticulously crafted and arranged upon closer examination, in a similar vein to Elliot Smith’s Either/Or. It yanks you into its orbit from the first note and keeps you ferociously spinning in it until the very last line.
The towering and poignant “Take A Walk” opens the album. Written following a bad psychedelic trip about the sense of fear and desperation that lingered for months after the drugs left his system, the song flawlessly illustrates a period of uncertainty and foreboding, where you can’t trust your own thoughts.
“It was a really scary few months after that [trip], and towards the end, when I started regaining some sense of normalcy, I wrote that song. I had self-diagnosed myself during that time with something called Depersonalization Disorder,” he said. “I had this funny experience where somebody messaged me on Instagram and asked if that song was about depersonalization. It was insane that they put that together.”
“Both My Friends” is another standout. A profoundly beautiful song that embodies loneliness, self-doubt, and isolation, it envelopes you like a long, melancholic gaze at a shimmering skyline. It’s Whitford’s opus; a song with the potential to make you feel as if everything massive and unwavering you’ve ever felt is crashing over your shoulders a flurry of light and sound.
“[Both My Friends] is actually about Phoebe and another very close friend of mine. It was the first song we recorded, and the guitar overdub was the last thing we recorded,” he said.
The closer “Part Time Heart” is also one of the most memorable cuts. The song was covered frequently by Bridgers a couple years back, and while her version is powerful and affecting, the recording on Afraid of Everything sees the song at its most transcendent. The recording aims straight for the heart with its atmospheric production that envelops the words in a warm glow and a drum arrangement that resembles the ominous ticking of a clock, trailing up to when “Your part-time heart ran out like a dead-end street,” the song’s poetic and piercing hook.
“What really makes that recording come alive is the drum arrangement Marshall came up with. [He’s] always encouraging me to use these arrangements that are challenging and different, and that’s why I like working with him so much,” he said.
The ten songs that were chosen were chiseled down from a list of eighty that Whitford has written over the last few years, with the exception of a few last minute inclusions that came along at the perfect time. The tenth song (the complete album only has nine) was a big, Replacements-esque rock song that was cut in the mixing process because it didn’t fit with the rest of the album.
“‘I Don’t Want Out’ was one I wrote the night before we went into the studio, and Marshall liked that one a lot, so we cut that song in place of another acoustic one I had. We were mixing in Phoebe’s mom’s basement in Pasadena, and she has this piano with felt mutes, and I wrote ‘Strangers in the Making’ on it in the middle of that, but we had no way to record it in LA, so we got Tony Berg to do it, who produced Phoebe’s record,” he said.
Once they wrapped up recording, mixing, and mastering, Whitford sat on the album, unsure of whether he’d even put it out, but he received enough encouragement to quietly release it earlier this year. Since then, it’s been met with all kinds of acclaim and accomplishment, from people messaging him and telling him they related to the songs to Noah Gundersen hearing it and inviting Whitford on tour with him later this year.
“Once the album was finished and mastered, I sat for awhile and debated whether I should put it out. I didn’t have a strong will to release it, and people around me encouraged me to. I had no real expectations for it, and I was surprised and flattered by all the people that liked it and have been messaging me every day about it,” he said. “It was nice releasing it in a quiet way and realizing that it still bears a certain kind of fruit; putting a record out if it means something to you. You never know if it’s gonna connect, even if a couple of people connect to it and it means something to them, I feel like I’ve done something right.”
This isn’t the first time Whitford has invested his time and vision into a recording and questioned whether he should release it. He recorded three songs with Ryan Adams at his PAX AM studio in LA some time ago, and still has the songs sitting on his shelf; one of which is an early version of “Part Time Heart.”
“I was in LA, and Ryan invited me over to PAX AM to do some recording. He very intensely produced my songs. He has a very erratic, off-the-cuff, and at times harsh [presence in the studio], but it comes from a place of wanting to be spontaneous,” he said. “We did three songs, and they turned out really cool. They may still be something I’ll put out eventually, but right now, they’re just sitting in a Dropbox folder.”
The fact that Whitford has held back from releasing music produced by Adams– a move that for Bridgers, served as her first big break, and could potentially do the same for him– speaks volumes as to his intentions as a musician. Fame or attention don’t seem like huge motivators for him, and while pining for those things isn’t something to be ashamed of, he feels tremendously genuine and down-to-earth as a result.
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that as a musician, I’m always doing things in a haphazard and unplanned way, even when I try to make something really slick. It’s just how it always ends up sounding,” he said.
For the rest of the year, Whitford is playing guitar for Bridgers on her expansive tour. However, Afraid of Everything caught the attention of Noah Gundersen, a huge influence on him. Whitford will be supporting Gundersen on a short run of acoustic dates this fall.
“I met Noah on tour with Phoebe. He’s such a good dude, and his whole crew was a great hang. He really liked my record, and he asked me if I wanted to open for him. It was a hugely cool thing, because I’ve loved his music for years. It’s always a relief when you meet people [you look up to] and they turn out to be really gracious, good people,” he said.
Though Whitford’s success is closely tied to Bridgers, he’s on his own separate trajectory and on his own ramp to success while inspiring those close to him in the process. The world needed to hear Afraid of Everything, and he needed to make it.
“I’ve been lucky to fashion a world where everyone around me is doing something inspiring,” he said.