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Newly solo Dhani Harrison remembers Tom Petty: 'He was the first person I played my record to'

On Oct. 6, Dhani Harrison released In Parallel, his first official solo album under his own name. It should have been a celebratory occasion for the 39-year-old singer-songwriter, son of late Beatle George Harrison, who until now had maintained a relatively low profile playing in his indie dream-pop band thenewno2 and in the power trio Fistful of Mercy alongside Joseph Arthur and Ben Harper, as well as composing music for film and television. However, four days before In Parallel’s release, Dhani tragically lost a dear friend and mentor, Tom Petty — the first person who got to hear the finished album in full.

“He was very supportive of me. I mean, it’s so recent, so new, I don’t have anything to say that’s original,” says Dhani, sitting at Yahoo Music a week and a half later and clearly still processing the terrible loss. “I mean, it’s awful to lose Tom. I haven’t seen anything like that happen since my dad [passed away in 2001], such an outpouring.

“[Tom] was the first person I played this record to. He sat and listened to the whole thing, from start to finish, and loved it. He was so supportive of everything I did. It was just in [February 2017] when I played with him at MusiCares. We played with the Heartbreakers and Jeff Lynne, we had the Bangles as our backing vocals, and right in between the Bangles and the Heartbreakers, that was where he would put me. He was very, very supportive of everything I did. He was Tom. He was the best.”

Dhani smiles, however, when he fondly recalls another jam session with Petty: the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, at which his father was posthumously inducted, and Dhani and Petty joined Prince onstage for a now legendary performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which went viral in the days following Prince’s death in April 2016.

“I think it was the only bit of Prince that wasn’t deleted off the internet. I think [Prince] would sit up late at night — no, seriously, I think he actually would — and delete stuff!” Dhani chuckles. “But because that was owned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that piece of footage, he couldn’t delete it. It ended up being the only bit of Prince on the internet, and it’s like 60 million, 70 million views.”

Recalling that epic moment, Dhani remembers, “Yeah, again, straight between the Heartbreakers and Prince — that was where Tom would position me [onstage]. I’d be like the buffer zone between the other band that was playing with us. That was a hysterical afternoon; wasn’t expecting that when I woke up, let’s just say that. I’m just laughing, because I can see what’s about to happen. I’m watching the Wilburys-Heartbreakers combination … knowing that Prince is about to blow the roof off the building! I wasn’t quite sure what the reaction was going to be from Tom, because we’d been practicing, and he just joined us. And of course, it was the same [reaction] as me, which was we both all started laughing — because [Prince] was so serious, and he’s doing backbends and throwing the guitar and stuff. It was very funny.”

Petty was just one of the many members of Dhani’s extended rock ’n’ roll family. The only child of George and Olivia Harrison, Dhani was surrounded by music from birth, with everyone from members of George’s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys to Siobhan Fahey’s post-Bananarama project Shakespears Sister coming by to record in the Harrison family’s home studio at Oxfordshire, England’s Friar Park.

“I lived next to the studio in our house, so to get to the kitchen I used to have to go past the studio. You’d always get the sights, sounds, and smells of a working rock ’n’ roll band on the road, every day. You’d come home some days and walk through the middle of an Indian classical music session. Like, ‘Sorry, I’ve just came in the hall’ — and there’s tabla players sitting there,” Dhani laughs.

Eventually, Dhani put in his own “10,000 hours” apprenticing, making music, and learning from the masters, and he became a peer among his father’s famous friends. “I don’t think I met anyone at the studio, ever, in any way, that considered themselves to be a big shot — even though they were the biggest of the shots! I never got talked down to, ever. My dad kept good company, and his friends have treated me the same way since from when I was a kid to now. It’s weird, because I grew up, and it’s like they stayed the same age. I grew up, and now I’m part of their group. I think that’s a lot to be said for how lovely the people are.”

With such a background, not to mention bloodline, it seemed inevitable that Dhani would become a musician himself. But he reveals that his father — who raised Dhani in the countryside where he “got a chance to be a kid, and actually be a teenager” — wasn’t so keen on the idea.

“‘Don’t.’ That was his advice [about going into the music business]. ‘Don’t do it. Don’t be in the spotlight,’” quips Dhani. It wasn’t so much that the elder Harrison didn’t want to encourage his son’s artistic endeavors, but as someone who joined the Beatles as a teen and spent his entire adult life in the public eye, George was all too aware of the pitfalls of fame.

“I definitely noticed it with my dad. He used to say, ‘My nervous system’s wrecked,’ after being in the media for that many years,” says Dhani. “He [didn’t want me to pursue music] at the expense of my nervous system; at the end of the day, you’ve got to live in your body for the whole of your life, and if it’s frazzled, you’ve got to get to the end of the race. So you need to look after yourself. He would have rather I was a park ranger or something. That would’ve been nice, too, but unfortunately, I’m a musician.”

Of course, it’s a most fortunate development that Dhani decided to pursue his musical passion. In Parallel is a darkly cinematic, apocalyptic masterwork that sees him tackling own nervous-system-wrecking life challenges, and well as the challenges we all face in this chaotic world dominated by fake news and vapid celebrity culture. The resulting sprawling soundscapes, like “Summertime Police,” “#WarOnFalse,” and “Úlfur Resurrection,” signify the arrival of an ambitious, fully realized solo artist, ready to be recognized by his own name.

“If you want to get judged by your own merit, when you’re like me. … I’m not saying anyone should feel sorry for me. I’m just saying if you want to be judged by your own merit, you have to work twice as hard, or four, five times as hard to get seen, even just to be accepted,” Dhani admits. “[In Parallel] has been really well received. I’m quite happy with having taken so long to do it; it gave me a chance to develop myself as an artist.” As for why Dhani released his previous music under the band name thenewno2, he explains: “I wanted people to get to see the work for what it was, to be able to hear the music for what it was, before having a preconceived idea. … Like in France, someone said to me, ‘You managed to get two albums in with thenewno2 before I knew anything about it, and I was a fan of thenewno2.’ And I was like, ‘Great! Then that means I succeeded in being able to get my music heard.’”

Now living in Los Angeles, Dhani has his own studio and his own extended family of like-minded musicians, including his thenewno2 bandmate and film-composing partner Paul Hicks; Regina Spektor and her husband Jack Dishel; the Verve/Goldfrapp/Coldplay strings musician Davide Rossi; Big Black Delta; and Camila Grey of Summer Moon (the band fronted by Strokes bassist Nikolai Fraiture, with whom Dhani will tour in November) and Uh Huh Her.

“It’s nice to have a community of musicians that you play with,” Dhani muses. These peers, along with another childhood mentor, Jeff Lynne, were also among the first to hear In Parallel, and Dhani says he frequently tests out his unreleased music on his highly respected friends. “I’d have people to tell me if I was just losing myself down the rabbit hole,” he says with a laugh. “And oh, they did.”

Watch Dhani Harrison’s entire Yahoo Music conversation in the second Yahoo video above.

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