- Luke Awtry
- Harrison Hsiang
Harrison Hsiang works best at night. Or at least he did when he was first writing songs in college. "Only the really late hours of the night were productive for me," he says. Those nighttime fits of creativity always ended with Hsiang passed out on the couch, he recalls, fully clothed. Hence the name of his new indie-rock project, Couchsleepers.
Tall, biracial and brilliant, Hsiang is one of the most fascinating bandleaders in the Burlington scene. Currently a PhD student at the University of Vermont, the New Jersey-born 25-year-old is equally drawn to neuroscience and music, the subjects he double-majored in at Middlebury College. While synapses and neurotransmitters may consume his professional life, music dominates his personal time.
"They're both searches for truth," Hsiang says of his dichotomous interests. "One is objective, and one is subjective."
Couchsleepers are set to release their debut album, the appropriately titled Only When It's Dark, this Friday, February 28. The record, which was written, produced and largely mixed and recorded by Hsiang, is full of sensual, nocturnal transmissions. Hsiang's tunes largely ruminate on romantic relationships — or perhaps one romantic relationship in particular. But Hsiang defines his experience in relatable ways. Anyone who's spent a night staring up at the ceiling with questions rattling around their head about the warm body breathing softly next to them should find meaning in his music.
Before Couchsleepers emerged from the ether, Hsiang fronted another band with a similar, albeit somewhat lighter sound, called the Giant Peach. He formed it while he was still a student at Middlebury. (He also sang with and arranged tunes for the college's a cappella group Stuck in the Middle.) The band put out its one and only record, Pulling Teeth, in 2018, about a year after he was accepted into the doctorate program at UVM.
Hsiang is glad to have moved on from his first band.
"I could see that we were directionless," he admits. "The songs felt immature to me. [And] we ran into problems with the name." (Though not a literal reference to Roald Dahl's classic 1961 children's novel, James and the Giant Peach, the moniker clearly infringed.)
"I think professionalism is the defining difference," says former Giant Peach member Mike Nunziante by phone of the two bands. Now based in Stamford, Conn., the musician plays slide guitar throughout Only When It's Dark and is part of Couchsleepers' live lineup. "Couchsleepers has a very focused sense of direction," he continues. "It's heavier ... in terms of the emotional depth of the album."
Hsiang also occasionally plays keys with the formerly local, now-New York City-based group Fever Dolls. That band's front person, fellow Midd grad Evan Allis, encouraged the strikingly handsome Hsiang to literally put his face on Couchsleepers, since Allis saw it more as a solo project than a true band. Hsiang appears in all of the album's promotional art.
"He cares more about music than anybody I've ever met," Allis says of Hsiang by phone. "Each line is incredibly autobiographical. His music has so much meaning and importance to him, and I think that comes across a lot more than it does with other people."
The album's closing track, "Sleepless," was the first tune Hsiang penned for the record.
"It felt like the first sentence I ever made," he recalls.
Released as the album's fourth and final single, the wispy, slow-burning closer encapsulates the entire collection of songs, at least in terms of production: spacious atmospherics with heavy reverb, a double-helix of piano and guitar, emotionally heavy crescendos, and Hsiang's intimate, spine-tingling vocals. His voice control is athletic, switching from delicate whispers to bright bursts of vocal splendor.
As Hsiang began writing the material that would become Only When It's Dark, he realized he was constructing a narrative.
"I'd written a lot of songs, but this was my first lens into what it meant to be a real songwriter," he says.
The album's cover image also speaks volumes about the themes within. Modeled after UK artist Miles Johnston's drawing "Boundaries," the photograph centers Hsiang and a woman, Anna Chamby, standing together in what should be a tender embrace — yet their arms pass through each other's torsos as if they were incorporeal. The pose implies an unfulfilled longing, a disturbing, otherworldly disconnection between two people.
With a little prodding, Hsiang distills the album's essence into poetic phrases, such as, "I sleep much worse without you," and "too-late love songs." His song titles and lyrics support these sound bites. Throughout the record, Hsiang wrestles with the finality of a passionate relationship, the thought of which keeps him from catching many Zs.
Hsiang's songs continually come back to themes of late-night (or early-morning) restlessness. On the foggy "Half the Night," he wonders aloud, "What's going on in that head of yours, darling?" while "lying awake after half the night spent." And in the opening seconds of "On Your Mind," he ponders why "Only when it's dark that I feel like I can talk to you like this."
Further clues into Hsiang's psyche emerge in the video for "In My Head." Directed by Macaulay Lerman, the semi-narrative clip depicts a literal and figurative search for answers about romantic relationships.
"It's about chasing something that's out of your grasp," Hsiang says.
The totality of his work hinges on the precarious moments at day's end when people examine and reexamine the minutiae of human existence. Sleep, in many ways, is about surrender. And the phantasmagorical parade of unanswerable questions Hsiang presents is, in many ways, a silent battle against that capitulation.
Hsiang has a perennial interest in sleep, cognition and consciousness. He began his career in neuroscience studying the subjects.
"We need sleep because we get tired, but that doesn't really answer anything," he says. "Why do you get tired?"
Currently, he's working on research relating to "a two-receptor system that's involved in hypersensitization of nerves and inflammation" — or, in layman's terms, "Why is the fire alarm going off if there's no smoke?"
With a little help from melatonin, Hsiang says he's a perpetually vivid dreamer. Though he puts little stock in the new-agey, prophetic style of interpretation, he doesn't exactly write off his dreams as nonsense.
"As a means of introspection, or an unconscious prompting to look at stuff, I think [dreams are] fascinating," says Hsiang.
If Only When It's Dark is as cathartic for its songwriter as it sounds to the listener, perhaps future Couchsleepers music will dive deeper into what's on the other side of consciousness. Hsiang is certainly qualified to explore it.