Sport Ivory is a Nashville-based band consisting of lead vocalist Jeffrey James, guitarist Justin Halpin, and sound designer Jordan Harrell, that managed to first shoot to prominence releasing only one song per year. Their 2018 single “Traveler’s Hymn” was featured in Showtime’s Shameless, and their 2019 single “Try to Remember” was featured in The CW’s All American. Their newest single “In My Dreams” was released on September 25, but the band intends to break the “one song per year” streak with multiple records later this year. Sport Ivory is a self-proclaimed side project for the trio, who each lead robust solo careers. Jeffrey James is a pop artist who has competed on NBC’s Songland and ABC’s The Voice. Justin Halpin is an Americana musician who has had his music featured on Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars, Riverdale, and over 200 others. Jordan Harrell is a sound designer whose debut solo album is anticipated for release in Autumn of 2020.
Amelia Spalter: When I first read your name and that you came out of Tennessee, I thought, “Alright, they must be big game hunters or something.” But listening to the music, you definitely don’t get that vibe. So, what does Sport Ivorymean, and how did you choose it?
Jeffrey James: We started with a different name, and then a month before we were going to release something, another band came out with the same name. A good and bad of anyone being able to record music is that every name is taken. I do think my wife found the name Sport Ivory.
Justin Halpin: Yeah, it was Lizelle, it was.
Jeffrey: We were traveling when our original name was taken, so there was incessant texting, you know, “Okay, let’s just throw out a bunch of names it could be.” She was like, “What about this? ‘Sport Ivory.’ It means to show your teeth, sport your ivories.” It’s pretty dope. But there’s been a handful of people who also go, “Do you guys like hunting elephants?”
Jordan Harrell: Yeah, which is tough, because like you said, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s funny because I even brought it up when the name was suggested, “Does that make us look like we’re in the ivory trade or something?” But nah, we all liked it. We all like it.
Justin: I do like the fact that it makes people ask questions. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a band title that does that. So many people have throwaway band titles. So, if you have something that’s a little bit provocative, that’s alright with me.
What was the original name?
Jeffrey: Tall Buildings.
Justin: Just as stream of consciousness as our current name is. Yeah, our music has kind of a canyonesque quality to it, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of reverb going on, so I felt like Tall Buildings matched aesthetically with what we were doing. But someone beat us to it, and I wish Tall Buildings well.
Jordan: I’m glad it happened, because I actually like Sport Ivory a lot more than Tall Buildings, so…
Jeffrey: Oh, I love our name.
You guys were friends before Sport Ivory, so did you initially just make music recreationally, or was your first collaboration the moment the band was born?
Jeffrey: [I met Justin when] he moved into the house that I was living in. Jordan’s older brother was also living in that house, and that’s how we met Jordan. So, we just all became good friends. Late one night we were hanging out and were just like, “Hey, why haven’t we made a thing like this?” I think Jordan and I had worked a little bit together, but Justin and I had been writing off and on for years.
Justin: Jordan and I had done some stuff together as well.
Jeffrey: I think we were just drunk enough to be like, “Why haven’t we?”
Jordan: It was one of those moments where we were all just kind of shocked that it hadn’t happened before.
Did you have licensing in mind when you conceptualized the band?
Jeffrey: Knowing Justin’s connections to licensing, we understood that it was going to be a good outlet to promote our music without having to get a label or a publicist or whatever. We knew that licensing was going to be the fastest path to get people to hear our songs.
Justin: Sport Ivory just also just naturally lends itself to that. Jordan can build these beautiful aesthetics and environments musically, that lend themselves really well to pairing with a visual. Jeff can do super emotional, kind of falsetto, delivery of his voice, which also lends itself to that. And I certainly have a background in knowing how to write this stuff. So, it would have been a missed opportunity if we didn’t take advantage. Not that we were necessarily like, “Let’s go get licensing!” But we were thinking, “This feels like something that will match well with visual.”
When you first saw your songs on TV, were you excited about hearing them in the context of the show, or were you mostly just wishing the actors would shut up so people could hear your track?
Jordan: All American was a brand-new show at the time. But Shameless was an “Oh my gosh” moment for me, because this was a huge show that I’ve known about forever. It was really cool to be in All American too, because it’s a fun show. I was honored that they chose the scenes they did to use our music as the backdrop for, because they’re really emotional, important moments in that story— I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t seen All American yet.
Jeffrey: And we’ve had both songs on All American now, because “Traveler’s Hymn” was in the first season, and then “Try to Remember” is in the second season. “Try to Remember” was the dream sync you really want to get, because they used more of our song than the actual length of the song. Like, they had to repeat the song. And there’s a lot of quietness in the scene, so we did get to just hear ourselves. That’s the dream sync that you never get, and we actually got it.
Speaking of dreams, what show do you most dream of having a Sport Ivory track licensed to?
Jordan: I’ve been watching this show Dark. It’s a German show, but they have a lot of American music, really music from everywhere, and the musical direction of that show is so good. There are some other tunes that we’ve made but haven’t released yet that are of a darker feel that I think would lend themselves really, really well to that show. I just love the aesthetic of Dark, so, that’s my dream one. Anyone else?
Jeffrey: Dude, I’ll go with that. Dark, that’d be awesome. Justin?
Wait, is there any show Justin hasn’t already been on?
Justin: Well, there was a ‘one that the one that got away’ from me in the licensing world. Another project that I have was down to the final two for the theme of Westworld. We didn’t get it, obviously, but that would be a cool sync. It’s an incredibly ambitious show, and aesthetically, it’s beautiful. I love the acting performances and everything else; I’d love to be a part of that show in some way.
Jeffrey: Yeah. I mean, HBO anything is, like, it.
Justin: Yeah, HBO does it the best. Their shows are incredible, basically movies every week, but the way they do business also is fantastic.
Justin, you’re the king of licensing. How did you first get involved with putting your music on TV? Were you approached by a show or were you just watching one day and thinking, “What’s my best chance of getting on Grey’s Anatomy without becoming an actor?”
Justin: Well, I’m not sure I’m the king of licensing. It was a means to an end in the beginning. I knew that I wanted to write songs for a living, and it was an opportunity for me to get my music heard. I didn’t move to Nashville and start writing songs until I was 27 years old, I got a late start. I was in a completely different industry and just made the leap, then I couldn’t get a publishing deal. I had an opportunity and a really fantastic agent, who I actually met through Jeff, named Marianne Goode at All Media Music Group in LA. We just started doing some projects together, started getting a little bit of traction, and one license turned into ten, turned into a hundred, turned into now close to 200 film and television licenses over just the last four or five years. So, it’s been a very rewarding career move that I wish I could say was entirely intentional, but it was not. It was just the path of least resistance.
Jeffrey: If I can brag on Justin for a second, he’s great at being the man behind the curtain. The reason he has so many successful projects is that his brain is just excellent at juggling as many things as possible. He’s doing this [Sport Ivory], he started UNIONS, he’s got all this other stuff he works on as a songwriter, and it’s all because he is constantly working and wanting to create new things. He’s like, “Alright, that’s running, now let’s start something else.” It’s why he’s great at what he does.
Justin: Say more nice things about me.
Besides the characteristics Jeffrey just highlighted, do you credit your success primarily to finding the right agency to partner with, or to the snowball effect of amassing credits over time?
Justin: It was a combination of things. I was doing the right projects because I had learned enough at that point about what songs need to be on film and TV. There’s a certain style of writing that works in that world, it’s very different from, say, pop radio. I had, again, a fantastic agent who was really working with me, and we had a great symbiotic relationship. It was a confluence of things that all eventually came together.
What is that “certain style” of songwriting that works specifically for film and television?
Justin: I hate to say “film and television writing,” because that makes it sound like there’s this… So look, first of all, you just have to write great music that you believe in and that you would be willing to put on the radio. But what tends to work on film and TV is stuff that isn’t too incredibly specific. Because if you’re writing a song about “Having your morning cup of coffee and you can see your breath, and it’s November, and it’s a rainy day,” or whatever, well, every visual that you’re referencing would now need to be [factored in on screen.]
Jeffrey: So many amazing artists do these story songs. When you go back and watch a Grey’s Anatomy episode, it’s almost laughable how much the people who put the music in there really want the lyrics to be talking about what’s happening in the scene. You’ll see a lady walking down the street, and the song will be talking about “When I was walking down the street.”
Justin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It can be too on the nose. It’s nice to write to the emotion, then when you’re dealing with trailer stuff, to write songs that start very small and get very big. So, write songs that really kind of take you on that ride, giving you a little bit of everything; a rising action then a big drop. Then it’s just letting the song be a story in and of itself sonically, but not a story lyrically.
Jeffrey: Yes, that is it. I feel like that’s not even giving anything away, because you still have to find out how to make art within that, you know? It’s good art that people respond to. You [Justin] just happen to have found a way to release it without a label and make a living on it.
Justin: Yeah, I can’t stress that part enough. There are a ton of people out there who are just writing songs to get on television, and you can hear it. When you hear one, you’re like, “That’s musical fast food.” There’s nothing there. It just gives you a payoff for the 15-second clip, but [without that clip], there’s nothing there. It doesn’t make you feel anything at all. One of the reasons why I love the Sport Ivory stuff so much is the fact that we stand behind these songs 100%, whether you’re pressing play on Spotify or we’re in an emotional scene on All American. Wherever it is, we’re completely behind it.
So far, we’ve only discussed licensing to scripted projects, but is the process the same for live events like sports? (No pun intended.)
Justin: Same process. You never really know where your stuff is going to end up, to be honest. Sometimes you get stuff licensed in places where you’re not even positive it makes sense. But I always love that it was used. It’s really just trying to cast a wide net with your agent and hoping that even some of the stuff on the peripheral comes through. I’ve done a bunch of sports stuff, but a lot of those songs I wrote thinking, “This is going to be great in sports promos!” didn’t land sports promos. Then stuff that I’m like, “This is just going to be a whatever scene in a drama,” ended up in sports promos. So, you just don’t know.
Once you’ve given a song to an agency, do they have carte blanche over distribution, or do you retain veto power?
Justin: They definitely will check back with you on stuff that could be in a gray area. An example is, I’m part of a project that got an offer to have a song in a Harvey Weinstein documentary. It was for a tough scene, where they were going through some of the accounts that the victims were giving. I had a conversation with my collaborator on that project, and we just didn’t feel right about it. So, you definitely have to weigh in—yes from a branding standpoint, but also kind of ideologically—where you stand on certain things. It makes sense, because their job is to facilitate the opportunity for you and then for you as the artists to determine which of those opportunities make sense.
Assuming none of you entered the industry with lucrative media licensing in mind, how did you each find the courage to commit to music full-time in a society that is not known for encouraging creative pursuits?
Jeffrey: We all found our own paths. I was the show choir kid and a singer from a young age. So, I went to college because I loved music, but I didn’t quite have the strength to dive in, so I started as a business major. But then when I got [to college], and was surrounded by people pursuing music on all different levels, I quickly realized all I wanted to do was perform and write songs. Being in that college bubble of, “Let’s just talk about music and why it’s cool and great,” was my motivator, and I was lucky enough to have parents who didn’t blink an eye when I told them I was going to do music.
Did you change your major to music, or did you drop out?
Jeffrey: I changed my major. I wasn’t good enough to drop out. I definitely needed college to grow up and become a better musician.
Jordan: I would piggyback off of that and say what a privilege it is to have parents who aren’t fearful that I won’t make a living. Both that and to have parents who very much instilled the idea of “do what you love, pursue your passions” since I was young. When I went to college, I didn’t know what I was going to major in, and it was actually my dad who suggested, “What about music? Why don’t you just try? At least have a conversation with the dean and see if you’re interested in the program.” Not many people have that in their parents, which I grow to understand more and more as I get older. There are entire cultures in this country that view music as not even a career decision, but basically a hobby, along the lines of, “Sure everyone has that dream, but it’s not a worthwhile career.” So, personally, what made it possible for me was the privilege of having family who trusted me and wanted me to chase the things that I loved.
Justin: I got a big push from within myself, because I was working in commercial real estate and brokerage and investment. I got a college degree and immediately went into that industry, so I was just playing music on the side. I grew up playing in church, kept playing through college, and then in coffee shops and stuff after college when I wasn’t at work. Then the recession of 2008 hit and everybody I knew lost their jobs. It was a mess, so I said, “If I’m ever going to take a leap and do this, it should be while I’m still in my mid-twenties and can live on nothing. Let’s do it.” So, I moved to LA for a very short amount of time, got the lay of the land there, and realized that everybody I loved from an artistic standpoint was from Nashville or had spent a lot of time here. So, I moved to Nashville and just made it work. I didn’t think about it. Looking back now, it was a youthful naivety of, “I know what the odds are, but whatever. Let’s just see what happens.”
What do you wish people who have never made music better understood about what goes into creating the songs they listen to?
Jeffrey: How many songs you usually write before you write something that you love. Because the more you write, the more you realize your older songs were usually not your best songs. To do it right you need to write as much as you can for as long as you can, because it’s only going to get better. As much as you do need the natural ability, it is really a learned skill. I don’t think people realize how many songs are written before you get to that one really good song. Do you guys agree?
Jordan: I feel like my craft is not the songwriting in the sense that it is for Justin and Jeff, where they’re coming up with melodies and lyrics. Mine is more sound design and production elements. I think it’s probably the same in songwriting, it takes a long time to cultivate your own unique process of how you approach the craft. Because it is a creative craft, it’s really hard to teach someone how to become a good songwriter or how to become a good sound designer, because it’s really just trial and error and figuring out how to inspire yourself. So, I’ll just co-sign Jeff’s point that it takes time.
Jeffrey: There’s an amazing quote that I found years ago from Ira Glass.
Jordan: Yes, of course there is.
Jeffrey: It’s about writing in taste. If you Google “Ira Glass taste,” it’s this long paragraph where he’s talking about being a writer and storyteller in general, but it applies to music so much. It talks about how you probably got into creating your art because you had good taste, you thought “That’s really cool. I want to go out and do that.” If you do have that kind of taste, then you realize once you start making it, “This doesn’t sound like that, and I don’t know how to do that.” Until you get to a place where you’ve done it enough that you finally are making the thing that you wanted to make all along. It just comes. What he says is you just have to keep doing it. You have to keep writing. That cleared up so many things in my head.
Justin: Yeah, I agree with both of them. I think Jordan used the word “craft.” It is knowing that you go through all of the same processes that you would to become good at anything else that you’re predisposed to be good at. I mean, you might have a predisposition to be a good professional athlete, a baseball player, a basketball player, whatever. But those guys work incredibly hard. I think that it’s the same process. You might have a naturally good voice, but Nashville, New York, and LA are littered with people who have an insane amount of talent. The only way you’re going to put all the pieces together and use that talent to develop your craft is by putting in the 10,000 hours and waking up every day, even when the last thing in the world you want to do is write a song, and get after it anyways and write that song.
It’s not always fun. It’s a job. I’d say that’s the thing people are often [misunderstanding.] You have to look at it as a job, but a lot of times people just don’t want to do that. And I totally understand that, having now devoted the last 10 years of my life to it. There are days when I’m like, “I wish it was still a hobby,” because then it would be a lot more fun. That’s not to say we don’t have fun most days, but the act of doing it every single day and putting in the same nine o’clock until six o’clock and sometimes later, is work. It’s what we feel like we’re supposed to be doing, so we love it, but it’s still work.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians who are reconsidering the viability of an industry career due to the financial and practical impacts of COVID-19?
Jeffrey: If you’re looking at it from a viability standpoint, then you’re looking at it wrong. I can count on one hand, and maybe only a couple of fingers, how many kids I graduated with in the music major who are still doing music. My college, Belmont University, has a commercial music degree, which is entirely for kids who want to be in the regular music industry. Not, like, classical or jazz. We’ve all seen how many people have stopped pursuing the music industry because they think in terms of, “Oh, but I need to pay my bills and I want to go on vacations…” If you’re thinking of it through that lens, then you’re already on the wrong foot, because it’s not about that. The question is, “Do you love music and is there anything else you want to do?” If the answer is “There’s also something else I want to do,” then you will probably end up doing that, because this is not something that’s going to pay you back in the way you want it to for the most part. There will be some really good highs, but the rest of it is just your passion. You guys agree?
Justin: Yes. Also, speaking a little bit to the nuts and bolts, and to use your word, viability of it, the industry is changing a ton right now. So, anything that anybody thinks they know about the industry or that is being taught in a textbook has been obsolete three times over since COVID hit. Then, even before that, there have been so many industry-altering things that have happened. Whether it’s streaming, or even back before that. It’s good to get into music, but if you want to get into it, get into it being willing to make any kind of lifestyle change, to move where you need to move, work with whoever you need to work with, and just be ready. It’s an incredibly exciting time for the music industry because nobody knows where this whole thing is going to land. We are going to keep making music, and people smarter than me are going to figure out a way to make money off of it. You just need to be ready, and if you’re going to get in, get in now, if you can.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I’d say now is a much scarier time for those in the music industry whose primary income is performance, because there are a lot of players. Especially in Nashville.
Justin: True. Nothing is going to happen on the players side until around April 2021, and that’s only if things continue to progress. Even after we hopefully get a vaccine, nobody really knows what the economic viability of a tour will look like in the wake of all this. So, for players, it’s hard right now.
Jordan: I will say, for any creative person right now, having to be isolated is a great way to inspire yourself to be more creative and chase the things that you thought you didn’t have time to chase when everything was go, go, go. So, for the performers, who knows how it’s going to shake out, and that is really scary. But for the music creators, it’s an interesting more flexible time. If your primary income source is songwriting or music creation, know that I’ve gotten a lot of work done during COVID just sitting at home.
Justin: About time you got some work done.
Jordan, as a sound engineer, did you come into Sport Ivory envisioning it’s ephemeral lighter than air aesthetic, or did you find it along the way?
Jordan: The reason I got into sound design, since high school, has been texture. I still remember the first time I heard like Radiohead’s “Kid A,” and it was a moment within myself where, at 16, I went, “I want to make this music. I want to create sounds like this.” Similar to my process of getting to Sport Ivory, I was just going down rabbit holes of “How do I stretch and manipulate recorded sound?” What I’m able to offer to Sport Ivory is because Jeff is very selfless with his voice in a way that a lot of singers aren’t. It’s a very dangerous thing to start manipulating a singer’s voice or doing strange abstract things to their recorded voice, because it’s like, “Hey, that’s my instrument. Why are you repurposing it in a way that I didn’t perform?”
These two have known me since I was in college when I was first approaching the idea of pursuing music seriously. So it’s kind of like a big brother type thing, in the sense that I don’t feel too worried showing some of my faults or shortcomings, and I feel like there’s a lot more room when I’m working with Justin and Jeff than I do when I’m working with other people. Often everyone comes into the room with expectations of your technical capabilities, your ear, and how quickly you can come up with ideas.Because they know me and my process, it’s freeing that if something’s not clicking right away, there’s some grace that’s given. I think that’s the biggest difference when working with them, too, as opposed to anyone else in the industry. I love it, because it feels very similar to just being by myself. You know, I give myself a lot of grace, too.
Jeffrey: We’ve watched him go from someone in college saying, “Oh, I want to come to Nashville and do music,” coming from a place where his influences were so difference from ours as a talented classical musician who was getting into sound design, to now doing this Sport Ivory stuff, and just having done the music for a documentary. When I was watching it, I kept forgetting he had done the music, [and whenever I remembered] I’d be like, “This is so awesome.”
Justin: Yeah, we’ve watched him put in the years of getting better until one day it was us saying, “Oh, dang, we need to work with him.”
Jeffrey: Justin and I always have a certain way to write, even if we’re trying to write for something else. So, what’s been really cool, is we quickly learned that any melody, lyrics or chord progressions that we send over like, “Hey Jordan, let’s record this, you add on and make it your thing,” are going to come back sounding almost nothing like Justin and I had heard in our heads. They’ll come back 10 times cooler. It’s because we know each other that we let each other just kind of work. There’s no rush, there’s no worry about it.
Do you feel the most talented musicians you’ve collaborated with were born great or developed learned skills?
Jeffrey: It’s like anything, you can practice and practice and practice your skill, but there’s got to be this X-Factor that at one point you either feel it differently than other people or you don’t. I do feel taste comes into that, too. There could be someone really good that I want to work with, but if our musical tastes and how we interact turn out to be really far apart, then we’re not going to make music that either of us will like, honestly. The organicness of Sport Ivory works because we are all really good friends. We’ve been sharing music that we love with each other forever. So, when we got together, we each knew what the other was going to bring, and where their influences were coming from, and it was just really, really easy to work. The people that I keep working with are ultimately just people who I know are bringing something to the table that I’m going to love.
Justin: Collaborations are kind of like first dates when you initially get into it, because you really don’t know how it’s going to go, but it’s about building on that. We’ve all got a long list of people who we’ve worked with once and only once, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the time you become good friends with that person, but you just never work together again, because the musical conversation was not happening.
Who would Sport Ivory’s dream collaboration be?
Jordan: Man, I know personally Bon Iver would be high on my list.
Jeffrey: They’re making me obsolete, but that’s fine.
Jordan: Texturally, I’ve always been a big fan of [Bon Iver’s lead vocalist] Justin Vernon’s work and how he’s grown and changed his sound over the years. In all of the collaborations that he does with other artists, he seems to be very giving to the voice of whoever he’s collaborating with. I think that’s really cool, and for someone who has as distinctive a voice as he does, it’s also just interesting. So it would be really fun to see what Sport Ivory and Bon Iver could do together.
Justin: I’ll second that.
Jeffrey: Yeah, or I’d love getting someone like a Chance the Rapper. It would take us in a direction that would actually work pretty well with Jordan’s influences in hip hop.
Looking to the future of music in a more general sense, Jordan, what production technique do you expect we’ll soon be hearing a lot more of?
Jordan: In the Indie community, we’re beginning to see a lot of people explore modular synths and really allowing self-generating music to happen. I could definitely see other sound designers and producers leaning more into that world of setting up systems that allow music to evolve by itself then taking what they want from that using a really minimalistic approach.
Justin: Hey Jordan, do you want to be in a band?
What have you been listening to recently that everyone should add to their playlist right now?
Jordan: There’s this artist that I just found out about, I believe they’re a French duo, Domenique Dumont. They have a little EP that came out in 2015 called Comme Ça that is just delightful. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants some good day vibes.
Jeffrey: Never try to out Indie Jordan.
Justin: Oh wow, fantastic. Jordan, I want you to text me that name.
Jeffrey: I’ve been loving everything that Gnash put out this past year. Very COVID, modern times, ballad things. Specifically, a two-sided release called, “outside/inside.” One is just about his fears of the world and being alive today. They’re short songs that are just really dope.
Justin: I’ve been listening to someone who’s kind of Nashville royalty, but actually lives up in your neck of the woods in Massachusetts, Lori McKenna’s new record the Balladeer. She is one of the absolute masters of songwriting who is working in Americana and country music today. I don’t listen to a whole ton of country music anymore, but she’s just a monster creative, and her new record lives up to every bit of the subject.
Is there any new music we can look forward to from you guys, either as Sport Ivory, or solo acts?
Jeffrey: On July 31 I had a new single come out. It’s two sided. It’s a stripped version of the actual song, and then a remix of it released at the same time, called, “Like Love.”
Justin: Nothing for my projects right now. I pulled a lot of the releases. With everything that’s been going on, I’m reevaluating what I need to be saying. But my projects will come back strong in the beginning of 2021.
Jordan: I took advantage of my isolation and worked on my debut as a solo artist, which should be coming out hopefully in the next month. The project’s done, I’ve just got to plan how I’m going to roll it out. It’s a little eight song album that I feel very happy about.
Justin: Are you going under your own name for that?
Jordan: I still don’t have an artist name. I was just talking to Jeff about it the other day, it’s a big hang up in all this.
Jeffrey: Have you considered Tall Buildings?
*This interview was originally published in Brown University Interviews and has been edited for length and clarity.