“I just came out of a theater watching Moonage Daydream about David Bowie and I was so inspired,” says the multi-hyphenate artist Chris Harford. “You don’t think of him as a painter or sculptor or filmmaker; he just did art all the time. It’s so inspiring.”
Throughout his decades making art and music, Harford’s seemingly been magnetized to prolific creators, and, perhaps as a result, has an uncanny ability to bring multi-talented artists together. Maybe it’s because he’s one himself. Whether he was starting a record label with his Three Colors bandmates (at a time when that wasn’t so easy), recording his solo albums (with many, many musicians and producers), bringing together his Band of Changes (with an evolving lineup), playing with Rogue Oliphant (which includes singer-songwriter Ray Kubian and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon), Harford has brought in others to make and share interesting, engaging and unique work.
Now, he has a space for it—he’ll open Studio 17 in Hopewell, an art and music gallery, on Nov. 11 with performances by some of the members of Rogue Oliphant. The studio is steps away from the recording studio for Harford’s Soul Selects record label, which recently released a three-record edition of Rogue Oliphant’s latest album, Highlights of the Lowlife.
For Harford, who grew up in Princeton, Hopewell is a fitting, full-circle space to open the studio.
“As my daughter put it, ‘This is something you’ve been working for your whole life, toward something like this. Like a collective or a place to work, and have commerce out of, and so this is the genesis of years and years and years of moving toward this,” Harford says.
There’ll be more art shows and live performances in the future at Studio 17, but it’s good timing—with the ever-busy Muldoon appearing in Frenchtown the next night—to get a show together to open the space this week. Thinking of future events and programs going forward, Harford says, “Our brains are on fire. This is a way of christening and getting it started and seeing if we can do this.”
Harford’s pedigree in tackling big projects like this is undeniable. After he, Dana Colley and Hub Moore started Three Colors in the mid-’80s, they launched Soul Selects to release their music. Those musicians, and the ones they signed early on, went myriad ways over the years; Harford himself signed to Elektra Records for solo work. The label went dormant for a while, but in 2020, it released two full-length dub albums by Blanc du Blanc, and now the new Rogue Oliphant record.
It wasn’t as common for bands to start their own label in the ’80s, when record companies were massive, as it is now in the digital age. But perhaps it’s best to just adjust what we think of a record label to describe what Soul Selects does.
“It’s never felt like a company wheeling and dealing. When it got revived in the last handful of years, it’s been a thing of passion. It’s a ludicrous idea, but… too late,” Harford says. “We’re not actually looking to be a commercial thing. We don’t necessarily do that. It’s more a work space. There’s so many musicians in this area that I feel likes it’s been cranking.”
Because Harford is more interested in fostering creativity, it makes sense that Studio 17 will feature art as well as music. Harford first showed his paintings at CBGB’s and has since shown at over 20 galleries in the area. Harford says he was, “always drawing as a little kid,” and his parents were both hobby artists and took him around to galleries and museums to view it.
He went to art school but was too intimidated to take art classes—“at the time, I was too focused on music so it was an excuse.” Now, though, he says about art and music, “it’s important not to take them too seriously,” but instead to let the unique expressions of creativity flow in each medium—in the solo endeavors of art and the communal creation of music.
In one of Harford’s many musical collaborations, he plays with the Band of Changes, which, as the name implies, rotates members. But because he’s been playing with so many people for so long, there’s an invigorating balance of familiarity and trust with members, but a healthy amount of spontaneity emanating from what they bring to each session.
“We’ve been doing this together so long. We go on memory. What I love about the Band of Changes is each member brings what they bring to it night to night, which keeps it fresh. If it’s songs we’ve been playing for 30-plus years, it’s still fun,” Harford says.
New collaborators also help keep things fresh for Harford, particularly when they’re as esteemed as Paul Muldoon. The Princeton professor won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for Moy Sand and Gravel (along with many other honors for many other works), edited Paul McCartney’s anthology The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, has contributed to musical offerings from operas to rock, and hosts a traveling music and words variety show.
Years ago, Harford was meeting with the Irish record producer Patrick McCarthy in Princeton to discuss the esteemed producer working on an album. McCarthy mentioned that Muldoon was a bit of a national hero in Ireland, so the two set about finding him on campus, which they did. But as Harford’s interests evolved, he wanted to learn more from Muldoon, so he devised a plan. Turns out, the feeling was mutual.
“I would see Paul at Small World [Coffee]. He was always very gracious about saying hello I wanted to be around him and pick his brain; I was getting very curious about words and poets and higher ed, so I planned to ask him if we could have coffee and pick his brain or maybe come by his office and [take out] his garbage just to hang around him,” Harford recalls.
Harford worked up the nerve to ask Muldoon out to lunch. Muldoon said he always wanted to ask Harford something, so he asked who wanted to go first. Harford ceded to Muldoon.
“He said he has been to a few of my shows, and said ‘You have a way of selling a song and I want you to be part of this thing I’m working on. How about you go now?’ I was like, ‘Nevermind.’”
From potentially picking his trash, Harford went to picking music to play over Muldoon’s lyrics. How wild. And now Muldoon’s opening Harford’s Studio 17—there really is a magnet between Harford and other creatives. And to be sure, it’s been a fulfilling creative endeavor for Harford to match Muldoon’s lyrics to music in Rogue Oliphant.
“That to me is really fun, to write lyrics to someone else’s lyrics. It keeps me in the game. Imagine being in the band The Cars, imagine if I could write a pop song like that. Or if I could paint pictures like Picasso. You say that to yourself—I could paint like that or I could write a song like The Cars—but you can’t. Not that that’s even my thing. But what seems easy just isn’t. [Rogue Oliphant] has just been a way to keep writing and singing and be collaborative.”
But matching creation to form is kind of what makes Harford special. And the new Studio 17 space is a unique way to continue that work in the low-key awesome little town of Hopewell. We can’t wait to see what beautiful creative pairings come next.
Soul Selects presents the opening of Studio 17: An evening of Poetry and Song by Paul Muldoon, Chris Harford and Ray Kubian. Studio 17, 17 Seminary Ave., Hopewell. 8 p.m., Nov. 11. More info here.