Though he wears a cowboy hat, William Fussell’s shoulder-length platinum locks and bedazzled eyelids don’t scream “country musician.” But his claim to the genre is bona fide, which is obvious the moment this London-based, Atlanta-born crooner opens his mouth and out pours the lilt and break of Roy Orbison. Fussell’s voice is unexpectedly resonant, its strange power hitting you in the solar plexus just as the soulful strains of another famously pompadoured singer emerge along the edges.
“I was born in what is basically a swamp on the Florida/Georgia line. My dad was an Elvis impersonator,” says Fussell, 30, who performs under the moniker Honey Harper. “I grew up around all that country stuff.”
Honey Harper opens for the English rock band Temples at Meow Wolf on Oct. 19.
On the phone from his wife’s family home in northern Ontario, during a break between Honey Harper’s summer and fall tours, Fussell talks about his musical influences. His mother was a big fan of “that ’70s glammy thing,” and aesthetically, he says, he’s trying to mix the AM radio sound embodied by artists like Olivia Newton-John and The Carpenters with the sensibility of Merle Haggard. But he emphasizes that his music is more than reproducing other musicians’ ideas. “I take influence from a lot of different things that aren’t what my music sounds like,” he says. He doesn’t have much of a Southern accent, but you can hear a bit of one when he calls out a question to his wife and co-lyricist, Alana Pagnutti.
“What current country music we been listening to?” he asks her. Her answer: Kacey Musgraves. “We also really like Jessica Pratt. She’s a folk artist,” he says. “And we’re really obsessed with this hip-hop band from Texas called Brockhampton.”
Fussell is particularly inspired by Gram Parsons’ concept of “cosmic American music,” a genre that blurs the lines between country, rock, bluegrass, soul, and folk. In describing Parsons, who died in 1973 of a morphine overdose at age 26, The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin could well be writing about Honey Harper: “With his pouty, androgynous good looks … inveterate hipness, folkie past, and rock-star pals, Parsons defied the stereotype of country singers as backward hillbillies, but there was nothing ironic or post-modern about Parsons’ approach to country, especially as a solo artist. Parsons wasn’t goofing on country or subverting its conventions; he genuinely loved the genre, its hardscrabble roots, and working-class soul.”
Fussell’s previous bands, Mood Rings and Promise Keeper, offered floaty, somewhat unfocused indie-pop, but he was always writing country songs in the background. Pagnutti encouraged him to record the material. It seems like an inevitable transition because the music he makes as Honey Harper sounds like the polished work of someone twice Fussell’s age and experience. He blends darkly poetic lyrics with a fondness for synthesizers and isn’t afraid of a biblical reference or two. Honey Harper could be the lovechild of David Lynch, Donovan, Waylon Jennings, and Vangelis. His music evokes the surreal feelings that you’d expect from such a lineage, but it isn’t campy or silly. His lyrics veer toward sad and serious.
“The same old faded rainbow that guides you to your false hopes/led you to the table of Abraham’s label/And all your best friends hate you/And all your worst friends praise you now,” he sings in “SOFR,” from his 2017 EP, Universal Country. He has a few recent singles featured on YouTube, and he’ll release a full-length album in 2020.
“It’s hard for me to write about happy stuff without coming across as too plastic-y or something. It’s weird that sadness is easier to write about than happiness,” he says. “I’m always ashamed of my lyrics. Alana makes them much better.”
Fussell is representative of a new trend toward diversity in the country music genre, even if mainstream taste-makers aren’t making it easy for outsiders to break in. The genre is often associated with a sort of hyper-masculinity and can connote images of pickup truck-driving white men drinking beer and waving American flags. In April 2019, Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X turned that stereotype on its head when his single “Old Town Road” skyrocketed to the top of Billboard’s cross-genre Hot 100 chart and the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart while also climbing the Hot Country Songs chart. But Billboard kicked the song off the country chart for not being country enough. Some music critics and Lil Nas X fans interpreted this move as racially biased against an African American artist. Lil Nas X later came out as gay, further upending preconceived notions about country musicians (as well as rappers).
Throughout his career, Fussell has always embraced an androgynous appearance. That’s just who he is, he says. He’s not trying to present as nonbinary or transgender — despite the feminine sound of his stage name. “Honey Harper” is a combination of his grandmothers’ names. Although he’d love to change the way country music is perceived, he insists he’s not making any kind of grand statement outside of the music itself.
“I’m a white man. I’m straight. I can only speak from that sense. I’m just trying to be myself and bring a softer edge to the genre. I’ve been trying to make it aesthetically and tonally more cosmic. I’m still kind of searching.” ◀
▼ Honey Harper, 21-and-over show
▼ 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19
▼ Meow Wolf, 1352 Rufina Circle, 505-395-6369
▼ $27 in advance, $30 day of show; santafe.meowwolf.com/event/temples