Wielding a psychedelic-painted Fender Squier and blessed with a falsetto that could shake Stonehenge, Australian singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Harts electrifies pop with both musicianship and showmanship. His second full-length album and stateside debut, Smoke Fire Hope Desire [Washington Square/Razor & Tie], sits comfortably between the turn-of-the-century production wizardry of The Neptunes and Timbaland and the primal Monterey Jazz Festival fret-burning of ’67 Hendrix. At the same time, the overall theme directly addresses a modern yearning…
“It’s a play on that old saying, ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,’” he admits. “I added a positive second line, ‘Where’s there’s hope, there’s desire.’ That phrase really sparked the whole context, which means hope and desire are a direct response to smoke and fire. There’s a lot of sadness and trouble in our world, but there’s still a lot of love being born.”
It nods to the classic records that Harts—born Darren Hart—obsessed over during his childhood in Melbourne, Australia. As a kid, he fell in love with everything from Sly & The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind, & Fire to Queen and Prince. While attending high school, he learned how to play the drums and picked up keyboard, guitar, and bass soon after. In 2009, Harts formally came to life as a delicate amalgam of rock, pop, funk, and soul not only written and performed entirely by its architect, but also recorded and mixed solely by him as well.
“I do everything myself,” he says. “There’s no external producer or any other collaborators influencing the process. It’s completely a one-man thing. I get to be 100% me.”
International audiences quickly embraced this singular vision. He released his first full-length, Daydreamer, in 2014 followed by the Breakthrough EP a year later. Rolling Stone Australia, NME, The Guardian, Herald Sun, Sydney Morning Herald, Vogue Magazine Australia, Faster Louder, Music Feeds, and more unanimously praised Harts, while GQ Australia named him among its 2016 “Men of the Year.” His music soundtracked both a Rimmel London spot starring supermodel and fashion icon Kate Moss and a national Subaru campaign.
Well before the accolades began rolling in, it was the late, great Prince who had a hand in building Harts’ signature confidence and giving him the necessary tools that would eventually catapult him to the next level. The icon discovered a young Harts on YouTube, and reached out to invite him to Paisley Park Studios; even proclaiming, “He reminds me of how I was at that age.” With this, Harts joined a very small, very elite group of artists that Prince mentored and praised publicly. He even sat in with Prince’s band during an exclusive 30th Anniversary celebration of Purple Rain that was held behind the gates of the legendary compound during his stay.
Beyond performing for “The Purple One,” Harts enchanted audiences with his ground-shaking live show around the globe at Splendour InThe Grass, Pinkpop Festival, Stereosonic, and more in addition to touching down in North America for CMJ 2015 and SXSW 2016. Preparing for those trips, he began demoing songs for what would eventually become Smoke Fire Hope Desire.
“Coming to America was what really started the process,” he says. “I needed new material for the showcases. After I had a few songs written, it became clear to me that everything was lining up for an album. I had been touring a lot, and I was discovering who I am as an artist and how my audience perceives me. I wanted to showcase the guitar, but I also wanted to diversify and add more R&B and hip-hop flavors. I pushed to create an expansive album that felt coherent. That was the main aim.”
From November 2015 through April 2016, he assembled these 14 tracks in his bedroom studio once again playing and recording every single note. Premiered to much fervor on Triple J, the first single “Peculiar” flaunts a hummable guitar solo between orchestral horns, slinky bass, and an urgent and chantable refrain, “Don’t it ever feel so peculiar, babe?”
“I started writing lyrics about what I was feeling that day,” he admits. “Sometimes when you wake up, something’s not really quite right, something’s a bit off, and something in the air isn’t like it was the day before. I had the lyric, ‘Colors all around, but we only see gray.’ That means everyone is oblivious to something you’re seeing that day—or everybody else is seeing in perfect color, but you’re seeing gray. It’s a relatable idea that goes both ways.”
While “Fear In Me” ponders the state of the world, the funked-up strut of “Power” gives way to an uplifting proclamation, “Power to us all,” and another display of six-string fireworks.
“It introduces the catchier side of the album,” he goes on. “There’s a complex instrumental, but it’s a pop song at the same time. Lyrically, it’s very much about empowerment and unity between other people and love for one another.”
On “Hope,” his voice careens from a lithe croon into a hip-hop-inspired bounce before delivering another hypnotic refrain over entrancing production punctuated by violin and samples. It touts a message that, “We can all achieve our dreams.” Smoke Fire Hope Desire culminates on the 6-minute plus blues-inspired odyssey “Ain’t Too Far Gone,” which respectfully pays homage to Buddy Guy and B.B. King.
Ultimately, the album represents every side of Harts. “I want people to take away a few different things,” he concludes. “I want to bring impressive musicianship back to pop. I want people to hear a message of coming together and unity in the face of crisis. I also want them to let loose and sing along. It’s about everything together.”