Need a gift for a gifted musician?
It's said that youth is wasted on the young.
But not in Harry's case.
He was learning guitar from the age of three, in a recording studio at six, playing open mic nights at ten and released his first single at 13... now, having only just turned 16, he's made an album of astonishing maturity. Shift over Ed Sheeran and Ben Howard, you have new competition...
Richly melodic, acutely personal and beautifully produced, the record fuses the songwriting nous, weathered confidence and emotional insight of a grown-up to the vulnerability and ease of a teenager. Penning his own songs and co-writing with established songwriters, Harry equally masters buoyant pop and nuanced ballads, with two covers that Harry has no trouble putting his own stamp on, and which reveal more about this gifted teen.
The opening "Less Like Me" is the perfect opener, a bittersweet melody with a wistful undertow, in contrast to a breezy "Tomorrow Today" and the Beatles progressions of "Learn To Cry" and "Mr Cold Shoulder", while the closing "Know This Now" is a stunning piano ballad that Elton John would have been proud to write at any age, let alone 15. For someone so young to be able to make such timeless music - is an extraordinary achievement.
But then south Londoner Harry Houseago has been leading up to it for years. His music-mad mum Annie ensured he was immersed in music from the start: "even in the womb," Harry grins, "I was wedged between her and her guitar." When Harry got bored of studying classical guitar, he turned to rock and the blues. Led Zeppelin was a particular favourite but Jimmy Page's acoustic guitar - "and the soul that I heard come out of that" - changed his direction. He embarked on a series of open mic shows with an acoustic guitar and he won a V Festival talent competition when he was 11. Ladies and gentlemen, a star was born...
His stage presence was sharpened by entering competitions such as Live & Unsigned (third in 2009, a finalist in 2010), the UK's biggest search for unsigned musicians, as well as Open Mic UK, where Annie Nightingale and Malcolm McClaren praised Harry, a mere child among the grown-ups. In 2010, he reached the semifinal of the UK Songwriting competition and was best solo act in the BRIT Class Act Camp Bestival Competition. He took part in ITV's Search For Stars competitions, and has been on GMTV, BBC Radio, Teacher's TV, 5 Live Radio and many local radio stations.
Harry wrote "Bicycle" when he was ten (the track appears on the album), and made his iTunes debut two years later with "Wonders Of The World". "I'm writing songs all the time," he declares. "Yes, during school lessons! His own core tastes are for the acoustic sorcery of Brit-folk masters Nick Drake and John Martyn, modern troudabours Ben Howard and Newton Faulkner, the emotional maturity of Neil Young and Frames frontman Glen Hansard and trad folk star Seth Lakeman. And let's not forget jazz, classical, Tom Waits and Lennon-McCartney...
Out of that pantheon of heroes, Harry has fashioned his own musical identity. "I believe that music should first and foremost be entertaining but it's also one of the most direct forms of emotional connection - ears are the first external organs that develop in the womb." Harry is how old, you wonder?
Through musical contacts - and he had enough to choose from - Harry teamed up with the London-based management consultants H And I. The company recognised Harry could record himself and play any number of instruments (by now, he had three EPs of material on iTunes), but to take things to the next level, they paired him with producer/arranger Tim Ross (son of legendary singer-songwriter Christie Hennessy). Recording at London's famed Britannia Row studio ("and bits at Tim's mum's garden shed!"), 11 tracks were completed over the Christmas holidays, and come 2012, Harry had a debut album in the can.
In one fell swoop, the talent competitions are old news; this record is most definitely the sound of a completely different talent. Out of 11 tracks, Harry has penned four songs on his own, with shared credits with Calum MacColl ("Know This Now"), Nikki Gregoroff ("Dreamcatcher" and "Tomorrow Today"), Judy Tzuke ("This Is War") and folk singer-songwriter Liz Lawrence ("Mr Cold Shoulder"). The two covers are '60s pop classic "Put A Little Love In Your Heart" (principally written, and originally performed, by Jackie DeShannon), and "Just A Day", a 2001 single by Feeder radically changed in outlook from the original's buzzing punk-pop to a simmering ballad. "I like hearing a good song performed in a different way...after all, a good song is a good song," says Harry.
If the mid-teen years are traditionally some of the toughest we ever endure - from raging hormones to exams and all that peer pressure - Harry can cope better than most as he has the chance to express himself in song. His lyrics are always personal, often inspired by news reports, such as the BBC story of street children in India forced to work in the years that Harry was enjoying some open mic shows, which led to "Bicycle". "But in some way," he says, "all my words are all autobiographical." He doesn't shy from emotional truths that both belie his age and expose him as a teenager. The album's opening words are "Want to be more like someone and less like me / Want to be like someone who never knew me", and "This Is War" is another sign that confidence might only be skin-deep ("Don't let yourself out of this shell / don't you dare be yourself"). But "Tomorrow Today" is more hopeful, to suit its upbeat arrangement ("You're not alone take this world for your own/ it's alright to fight for today"). In other words, sentiments not just for impressionable teens but for grown-ups too.
If this is what Harry can do at this stage in his life, imagine what he can, and will, go on to achieve.