Hailed as one of the top ten voice actors in the business, voice actor and member of the American rock band Rock Sugar, Jess Harnell spoke to Dom ahead of the release of his band’s second album. Having voiced hundreds of Hollywood’s favourite characters, Harnell discusses how he has kept his creative flame alight during a pandemic and how his definitions of success have developed on the journey through his career as both an actor and musician.
For some, the bombshell of a pandemic has wreaked havoc with their creative spark and motivation, however this is not the case for voice actor and Rock Sugar frontman Jess Harnell. Audiences of the cartoon shows ‘Rick and Morty’, ‘The Simpsons’ and Steven Spielberg’s 90s cartoon ‘Animaniacs’, may be familiar with the voice of the award-winning actor as his career has enabled him to act as the voice behind some of Hollywood’s most famous cartoon characters. Despite the many barriers that a worldwide pandemic has presented for actors and actresses everywhere, Harnell admits: “Fortunately I have been able to record at home. It’s a little different to being in a studio because I do it surrounded by Rhinestone pants and leather jackets.” With a plethora of experience, having mimicked over 150 celebrities both speaking and singing, his acting career has been unaffected since it relies on being behind an animation rather than standing directly in front of the camera, something he is incredibly grateful for as he discusses, “It’s been a creative output that’s fortunately been able to continue in these circumstances.”
On the other hand, with the loss of live music, the same cannot be said for Harnell’s band Rock Sugar which take the hard rock music of the 80s and 90s and fuses it with timeless pop hits to create a project like no other. The rock band has shared concert bills with the likes of AC/DC, Linkin Park and Aerosmith but unfortunately the turbulence of the past year for the music industry has prevented them from sharing the stage with more incredible classic rock bands. Instead, the band have taken up the challenge of writing and releasing a new album to accompany their first entitled ‘Reimaginator’, which was released in 2010. “We’ve never been more creative,” Harnell outlines excitedly, “this new album is going to blow the first one out of the water!” Having worked on the album for four years, COVID has not defeated the band’s moral as Harnell says that despite the pandemic, the band, “did continue to do a lot of good things for it during all this craziness,’ which can only leave fans of the band with a delicious taste of anticipation ahead of the new release.
With a treasure chest of accomplishments throughout his enthralling career, Harnell’s depiction of fame and success has altered throughout his experience of working in the music and acting industries, admitting that: “There was a time that I think I judged it by how many jobs I had as a singer and a voiceover actor…I’ve been very blessed to continue to work consistently for all these years…the most important definition of success for me now I think is achieving some sense of security for yourself and your loved ones.” Harnell’s outlook on his success should be admired by the generations that wish to follow him in his footsteps and continue down the same career venture, as he expresses his ambitions working in the film and acting industry are “to make people happy and to make people feel better and not worse”, something that he firmly believes he has been “relatively successful in doing so” throughout his career. In a year that has tested even the most talented of creatives in terms of their motivation and the limits of their imagination, Harnell expresses, “I’d like to be even more successful because you can never make enough people smile, and this year more than ever, I think they need it.”
It is no surprise that the trials and tribulations of 2020 denied artists from producing and releasing new material, but even with these drawbacks Rock Sugar has maintained a positive approach towards releasing their second album as Harnell declares: “Bringing it back in 2020 couldn’t have been a better time! The world needs stuff to smile about and have a good time with and rock out to.” Rock Sugar’s approach to their artistry is certainly inspiring as they place the element of fun and enjoyment at the forefront of their career. Harnell describes: “We always say that you know, a lot of bands invite people to come watch the band have fun. We invite people to come have fun with the band and it’s a different mindset.” Perhaps not taking themselves too seriously is why this band is exactly the promise of positivity that everyone needs as we approach the daunting and unknown events that 2021 may pose. A leading name in his acting profession, Harnell keeps a handful of celebrity friends at his disposal as he hints that there are at least “10 celebrity cameos” featured in one of the music videos for a track on the new album.
Although, with the first album having had its praises sung so highly by fans of the band and Harnell, how could Rock Sugar surpass the success of their initial release? “We only wanted to do the second one, if we could make it,” says Harnell, “the only negative versus that is it means the third one has to be better – so I don’t know how that’s looking because I don’t know how we’re going to top this one.” Indeed, the only way of explaining just how earth shattering Harnell believes the band’s second album proves to be, is by comparing it to a “mashup equivalent of Bohemian Rhapsody all over the place.” It would be intriguing to see if the king of rock himself, Freddie Mercury, would agree with this statement if he were still alive and able to witness the album that Rock Sugar are proclaiming is their biggest success to date.
For a lot of creatives, their talent begins at a young age and this was the case for Harnell as he explains: “Well, I had always done voices. I’d done them ever since I was a kid. I would imitate relatives and imitate people on TV. And I always knew that I had like a silly, putty, vocal box and I just always liked to sing like people as well as myself and developing my own style.” Looking into the finer details, the talent of imitation is also incorporated into Harnell’s band Rock Sugar as he admits, “it’s sort of the best of both worlds because I get to emulate all the singers.” Growing up in the 1980s, an era in which some of the most iconic voices were discovered and the era of music that Harnell takes the most influence from, Harnell declares: “I grew up loving…all these people that I just thought were the greatest, from Steve Perry to Axl Rose to Joe Elliott and Don Henly and Bryan Adams and everybody else down the line. I get to kind of take on elements of their voices and that is really exciting for me.”
Whilst Harnell is a success in the United States, he holds the influence of the United Kingdom close to his heart as he acknowledges: “The UK is incredibly special to me. It always has been – most of my favourite things that ever existed came from the UK from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin…to the whole culture and all the theatre…the love of my life is also from there.” A huge fan of the Beatles, Harnell excites in the possibility of renting studio two at Abbey Road, the studio that the Beatles recorded most of their recorded output. With this incredible opportunity in mind, Harnell also discusses how he plans to, “record seven or eight Beatles songs in Abbey Road studio two” during his next trip to the UK. There is no doubt that he is a man of very high aspirations.
Both the music and acting industries can feel like two daunting, deep pools for inexperienced creatives wishing to break into either scene; Harnell’s advice regarding navigating through the world of work and success is admirable as he expresses, “The first thing is that I always say the main difference between people who are successful and people who aren’t, are that the people who are successful don’t give up.” With great emphasis, he agrees that the key to finding one’s own success is to never give up despite the trials that may be faced on the journey. “Don’t give up and don’t lie to yourself and say, ‘Oh man I can never be a Rockstar, I can never be a voiceover artist’ because you know so few people make it well, that’s true, but people that do make it…if they made it, then why can’t you make it?” Harnell encourages as he reinforces his message of positive influence towards people. He is clearly one of life’s truly nice guys.
An unforgettable voice in the vast worlds of voice acting and musicianship, it will be exciting to listen to Rock Sugar’s highly anticipated album upon its release, as Harnell hopes it will bring a sense of light and fun into the world when it is most needed. There is even a Kickstarter page which has been set up for people to donate towards the album, ahead of its launch; so far over $50,000 has been raised by fans of the band. Reflecting upon all the turmoil of last year’s events, perhaps we should all take something from Harnell’s positive attitude in striving to just put a smile on people’s faces, as we endeavour into the new year.
Words: Lucy Tessier