One of the standout contestants during season 17 of American Idol was Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, the Louisiana-born talent who captured fans’ hearts with intensely personal original songs and an affecting life story. Harmon, 26 when he was on the show, grew up as a pastor’s son and came out to his family, but didn’t find acceptance. Supported at his audition and on subsequent episodes by his partner John Keister, Harmon also received encouragement from the judges, especially pastor’s daughter Katy Perry. As the season progressed, so did Harmon’s story, leading to his parents flying to Hollywood to be with their son at a live broadcast, and profess their love for him.
Following his elimination from the show, Harmon graduated from Towson University in Maryland as a vocal performance major. At his graduation ceremony, Harmon was asked to sing the National Anthem. Two months after the Idol season finale, Harmon recorded his first album at Big Ego Studios in Long Beach, Calif. Billboard caught up with Harmon in Joshua Tree, Calif., where he was winding up a few days of recording all of the songs for his second album.
Tell me about making the second album.
I didn’t really start thinking about a second album until a month or two ago. I had been writing pretty frequently since we finished recording the first album in July. [Producer] Chris Schlarb was the one to kind of throw it out there. He said, “Next time we record we should do something that’s a little different. Not so long and involved.” We had a full orchestra and a choir. We had a few different ensembles on that record. We wanted to do something a little simpler and faster. Just allot three or four days to do a record, and whatever we get done in that amount of time is it. I had plenty of songs written by then and I was ready to record.
How many songs had you written?
We narrowed it down from almost 20 for this record, which was about the same that we were working with for the first album. I usually come in with a bunch of songs and we carve out an album from what’s there.
How many have you recorded for this album?
Ten so far. We’re going to do the 11th in a few minutes.
How is recording here at a house in a remote location in the California desert different than recording in a studio?
The first thing is we have windows and natural light, which is great. I’ve never been out here in Joshua Tree. It’s really beautiful. It’s inspiring to be recording while looking out at the horizon and seeing all the mountains and everything. [I have] great people to play with. I love working with Chris Schlarb.
What is Chris’ background?
Chris has been producing records for a while now. I met him four years ago through a friend of mine who’s also a musician. The first time we recorded together was when I was living in Virginia. He ended up flying out to my house and doing a set up similar to what you see here – a home rig, portable kind of situation. We took four or five days and did a little EP. That was my first time working with a producer and recording any of my music properly. We enjoyed that and we kept in touch and talked about making another album someday and here we are four years later.
Tell me about some of the specific songs you’ve recorded.
The song you just heard is called “Easy Waters.” I wrote that in January. It was inspired by a region in New York, North Salem, that I visited over the holidays. It was really beautiful. “Out on the Run” is going to be on the album. A song called “Friend.” A lot of things that have to do with being away, getting away. Part of that is seeking inspiration and adventure and the other part of that is this escapism that I’ve been experiencing over the last year. I think the whole last year has been very life-changing for me. Especially the end of the year and the early part of this year, I really wanted to find some peace and quiet.
Not just here?
Ultimately that has to come from within. It doesn’t matter where you are. You can be in the most peaceful place and still be not at rest. The environment does help and I think it’s been great to take a trip every now and then. Obviously, this place is amazing and good for the soul.
How did you first learn about Joshua Tree?
This was actually a suggestion from Chris. He had recorded here a few years ago and I had a friend who came out here and recorded a few years back. It sounded idyllic. I had never been to a real desert before. Los Angeles is a desert, but nothing that’s wide open. So I wanted to go somewhere new and Chris set this whole thing up for me.
You just recorded an acoustic song. Is the whole album similar to what you just played?
Yes, there’s a lot of acoustic guitar on the album. We’ve got a pretty minimal set up. We have a couple acoustic guitars, drums, bass and a keyboard and some percussion. I think part of the challenge for this recording is that we have fewer instruments to work with than the last recording. For that, we had a horn and string orchestra. We were back at the studio, so we had a few more instruments to choose from, like a grand piano. I think we’ve made the most with what we have and discovered some really cool sounds. The people that I’ve played with have been amazing.
So you’ve had other musicians come in for this album?
We had a band here. They went home two nights ago.
Have you done any backing vocals?
We’ve layered a few harmonies. We’re going to be doubling some vocals too. We’ve got some extra layers but it’ll all be my voice on there. Honestly, it’s fun to work with a few elements and make them go as far as they can. And I love being so up close and personal with the band, all in the same room.
What is the arc of development from your first album to the second?
I wanted the first album to be pretty broad in its style so I could go in whatever direction I wanted to with the next album and it wouldn’t be a total left-field thing. I was able to take a few elements from the first album and expound upon them this time around. I think the whole sound is a little bit more focused by nature of having the same ensemble for each recording. I think the theme is a bit more coherent throughout.
What is the theme?
It’s about being out on an adventure, getting away from the noise for a bit and trying to tune into that inner voice.
How has your life in the last year informed this album?
This last year has been crazy and one of the things that has kept me anchored is my friends – friends that knew me a long time ago and some friends that I just made recently. Having that sense of connection and community carried me through a lot of weird times. Also, finding sanctuary, whether it be physical or a mental emotional state. That’s what a lot of the songs are about but also that I wanted to escape and try living in fantasyland for a bit because reality is too weird sometimes.
Looking back, how do you feel about the American Idol experience?
I grew a lot as a result of that experience. I was able to share my music and my story with the world and a lot of people rallied around me. That was huge for me because I was able to do a Kickstarter campaign [for the first album] and it was wildly successful. We met our goal and then some in two weeks.
Before you were on Idol, you were a very private person and you became a very public person. How has that been for you?
It’s been cool. Part of that is being more sure of who I am and more comfortable speaking my mind and being myself, at least on my social media. It’s nice to meet people when I’m out. Someone might recognize me and say, “Oh, we love your voice.” It can be really encouraging, but I’m still kind of a private person.
Bring us up to date in terms of your family.
They’ve been a lot healthier in my opinion. I think we’ve all grown a lot in the last year. We stuck together through all the change and they’ve come in contact with people that resonate with our story very deeply and that’s a good thing because it’s not easy to go through that amount of change in such a short amount of time. I think the fact that we’ve been there for each other no matter what and have found this new community of support has really carried us through and we’re better for it.
What role do live shows play for you?
I’ve gotten a chance to play a few live shows since last summer. I recently played at Club Cumming in New York City, a club that Alan Cumming started. I’m playing at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, Connecticut in March. Some of my heroes have played there, like Art Garfunkel and Todd Rundgren and Rufus Wainwright. It’s good for me because I consider myself more of a songwriter and I love recording and doing the live thing is a total different energy. It’s given me the opportunity to design my live set and build up some momentum and stamina, because doing an hour-and-a-half or two-hour set is a lot.
In the live set, do you do covers?
I do a couple covers here and there. I did “Prisoner of Love” by James Brown. It’s usually just me on the guitar with a drum and bass. I’ve dabbled in some Carole King and James Taylor stuff. “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Fire and Rain.” Other than that, most of my set is original stuff.
What did you take away from American Idol in terms of life lessons?
The big lesson that I learned was that my value was never up for a vote and it never is for anybody. And I think being on a show like that can challenge you to perform for love or approval, like, “Am I good enough?” and all that. I had to go inside of myself and say, “This is who I am. This is a bonus.” The whole experience is fun. I was stoked to have that kind of opportunity to put myself out there a little bit. It opened up so many doors for me and I’m grateful.
You can go on YouTube and see yourself singing to Katy Perry. Does that seem surreal?
It still doesn’t feel real. I don’t go back and watch those but I see other people post them every now and then. I can’t even process that that happened. It was all so fast.