Is Jesse Harris the Timbaland of Alt-Country?

Jesse Harris Photo: David Atlas / Retna

Even though he has seven albums of his own (including the recently released Feel), Jesse Harris is still best known for writing Norah Jones's smash "Don’t Know Why" off her Grammy-winning, world-destroying 2002 debut Come Away With Me. When Ethan Hawke decided to adapt his novel The Hottest State for the big screen, he tapped his friend Harris to produce the film's quietly phenomenal soundtrack, which features contributions from Jones, Emmylou Harris, Cat Power, Feist, Bright Eyes, Willie Nelson, and the Black Keys. In a phone interview with Vulture, the amiable Harris, who also performs on the album, stopped short of calling himself the Timbaland of alt-country/indie rock/folk. Still, though, color us impressed.

Were any of these musicians hard to work with?
The most difficult person to pin down was Chan Marshall, Cat Power. She's just that way. She doesn't do e-mail. She doesn't really return phone calls. She just text-messages. She doesn't have a manager. Trying to plan the recording was quite challenging too. But once I got down to Miami, where we recorded, she was fantastic. She was so fast and easy to work with in the studio.

She definitely has a reputation for being unpredictable.
I think it's just the stuff around her that's chaotic. Everything in her life is sort of just flying around. But when it comes to music, she's serious about it. She's lovely, the most endearing person you could meet.

When you started, did you and Ethan talk at all about the pitfalls of the soundtrack as a format?
Yeah. Ethan specifically had an issue with the fact that so many movies today are all about the licensing of old songs. They play on nostalgia and the guarantee of a proven hit. So many soundtracks are just the director's greatest-hits mix tape. We went through soundtracks of the past that had new material: Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, The Spy Who Loved Me, theme songs like "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" and "Moon River." We wanted to create a soundtrack that had uniqueness, that would be identified with the film and not some other thing.

The Hottest State is about one guy's obsession over an ex-girlfriend and their brief, intense affair. What's the lowest you've sunk in that regard?
I've tried to block all that stuff out and certainly don't want to exhume it right now. I've struggled with that kind of love. Most of the famous love affairs of literature or film were quite short. What was Romeo & Juliet? How long were they together? A few days.

"Don't Know Why" was incredibly ubiquitous for a while, and it's now a staple at weddings and in elevators. Have you gotten sick of hearing that song?
No. I kinda keep myself separate from the mainstream anyway, so I never felt saturated with it. But if you write a song and you go into a restaurant and there's a guy with a piano singing and he's playing piano, singing your song, or you hear it at a wedding or at an airport … it's fun! At least for me it's fun. I don't go, "Oh man, if they only knew I've got other songs." I don't have that kind of attitude about it. It's been performed in so many ways. Norah did it, but Pat Metheny did a beautiful version. It was even on a Buena Vista Social Club album; they did a Cuban-Spanish version. I do have other songs and think it would be cool for one of them to get recognized too, but I'm certainly not going to bite the hand that feeds me.

So in what genre would you like to see "Don't Know Why" reinterpreted next? Ska? Punk? Hip-hop?
I'd love to hear Tony Bennett do it — like a real slow ballad. [Laughs.]
Justin Ravitz