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Interview with Grammy nominee Bill Harley

Two-time Grammy-winning storyteller Bill Harley discusses his funniest award show moments and what drives his wacky stories.

Bill Harley

Bill Harley Photograph: Susan Wilson


The grizzled vet of this year’s lot, Bill Harley has already pocketed a pair of Grammy Awards and a whopping seven nominations throughout his illustrious career. The rub is that this storyteller’s dominance had come in the now-defunct “Best Spoken Word Album for Children” category, which was eliminated last year and absorbed into the Best Children’s Album award. Thanks to the overflowing laughs on his latest CD, High Dive, we’re not surprised that Bill Harley once again has a seat at the Grammy party. Plus, we’re sure he’ll draw quite a crowd when he appears at 92YTribeca at the end of February to tout It’s Not Fair to Me, his forthcoming musical storytelling collaboration with fellow kids’ entertainer Keith Munslow.

What will you be wearing?
I’m horrible at dressing. I’d just as soon wear a T-shirt every day of my life. I don’t like the glitzy part of the Grammys; I’m not a glitzy guy. I’ve rented a tuxedo every time, but in 2011 I bought my own tux the day after the Grammy Awards and thought that would be the kiss of death. So I will be wearing my own tuxedo this year!

Describe what you aim to accomplish through your music.

I really try to honor the emotional lives of kids. I’m not as much prescriptive as descriptive, asking kids, “Did this happen to you?” I think when you do that you are validating a kid’s experience, which is one of the things they really need. As adults we are so forward-thinking, giving kids the things they need to know for later on, that sometimes we don’t pay attention to what is going on right now. The two emotions that drive my stories (I know this is going to sound terrible, but it’s where humor comes from) are terror and powerlessness. [On High Dive, Harley shares such stories as working up the nerve to jump off the high dive at the swimming pool and fighting with Mom over which Valentine’s cards to buy for his classmates.]

What is your favorite story on High Dive?
“Field Trip” took forever to come together, and structurally there are some really interesting parts about it. The first third of the story, the balloon episode, describes the two characters together, and that is almost enough [for its own story]. I’ve had that story in mind for a long time. And I’ve also been carrying around the episode about what happened to me on our fifth-grade field trip to the Indianapolis Statehouse [when the governor ended up buying lunch for Harley and his mischievous friend Glen]. It took me forever to realize that the first part was going to inform the second.

How much of the material in your songs is derived directly from your own childhood memories?
There is a lot of exaggeration; I wouldn’t go on Oprah and swear that these stories are absolutely true. But I’ve had some real bizarre experiences! 

What has been your most interesting Grammy moment so far?
The first time I went to the Grammys, at the reception beforehand, there was this really well-dressed guy asking about my work. After about 25 minutes of him being so nice to me, I ask if he’s a musician. He says no, so I ask him if he’s a producer or engineer, and again he says no. I ask if he is in the industry. No again. He finally admits he’s a janitor who crashed the party!

What’s your onstage Grammy nightmare?

The year I beat Gwyneth Paltrow in the spoken word category, someone in the press room asked how it felt to beat the actress, and I replied, “Well, I guess it’s not a beauty contest!” The next day, I made The New York Post with the caption describing me as the “bald, middle-aged storyteller.” This year, I’d like to have the zipper up! But there is always a possibility that I say something stupid, and I look out and see [my wife] Debbie going, “I can’t believe you just said that.”

So you’ve beaten Gwyneth Paltrow and lost to Julie Andrews. Is there anyone else famous you’ve taken down at the Grammys?

I beat the Muppets once, and then the next year lost to them. I think I lost to Elmo once too!

You’ve played at events like Kindiefest in the New York City area. Has that shaped your sound at all?
If I can get them in the room, kids and parents are kids and parents. Generally, if I get ’em they are fine. That said, New York is a tough place to get an audience, for me. I’ve never played in any big venues there. There is so much stuff going on in the city that it is a real challenge, but I love going down there. I love going to New York City.


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