A VCU alum’s scientific approach to music

Devonne Harris said it’s a technique he learned in VCU’s Jazz Studies program.

A drummer sits at a drum set in a recording studio.
Whether he’s penning instrumentals for his solo work or developing tracks with his band Butcher Brown, Devonne Harris (aka DJ Harrison) builds his songs methodically by researching and experimenting with new sounds. (Photos by Joey Wharton, courtesy of the artist)

It might be a piano chord or the strum of a guitar or a simple drum beat, but when Devonne Harris, aka DJ Harrison, sits down to write a new song, those first loops of melody and rhythm become the map that guides his entire production.

The multi-instrumentalist performer and producer takes a scientific approach to songwriting — a technique he said he learned in the VCU School of the Arts Jazz Studies program. Whether he’s penning instrumentals for his solo work or developing tracks with his band Butcher Brown, Harris builds his songs methodically by researching and experimenting with new sounds. 

“Doing extensive research is definitely something I practice — listening to new recordings, watching videos of performances and interviews,” he said.

Harris’ curious ear has been just as important to his success. The son of a radio DJ, Harris grew up with music. He started with violin and moved from there to the drum line in high school. From a young age, he sampled sounds from recordings that spanned decades and genres. Those formative years shaped his eagerness to explore new sounds that defy categorization. Even his band Butcher Brown describes its style as “garage punk jazz funk.” In his young career, Harris has performed across the country with Galactic, Turkuaz, Kamasi Washington and Steely Dan at jazz clubs, festivals and concert halls. He even recorded with Jack White on his recent album, “Boarding House Reach.” 

“I grew up recording to tape, so I like to keep that aesthetic while recording,” Harris said. “Even if it’s to a DAW [digital audio workstation] software, I try to play every part as close as possible to the final, trying to not rely so much on editing. There are definitely certain sounds I use to get desired effects, but I’m also trying to find new ways of crafting tones unfamiliar to the ear.” 

Harris further staked his claim in the Richmond music scene about five years ago when he co-founded the Jellowstone music production studio with No BS! Brass Band leader and fellow VCUarts classmate Reggie Pace. Located inside an unassuming house in the near West End, the studio has been the cradle of many new projects by local artists — including Harris himself — released under the Jellowstone label.

Subscribe to VCU News

Subscribe to the VCU News newsletter at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Monday and Thursday.