Kree Harrison Recalls the Roots That Led to “Chosen Family Tree”

Though singer-songwriter Kree Harrison directed her musical energy toward the traditional approach of pounding pavement and taking every performance opportunity that would present itself – leading to a pivotal run on Season 12 of American Idol – Harrison didn’t walk the pay-your-dues path of playing in churches, guesting on talk shows, and contributing to other established artists’ recordings, gradually achieving slices of wider recognition, without her own unique set of unforeseen pitfalls. Namely, Harrison grappled with the decision to separate from members of her family at a young age. Yet, rather than address the feelings developed from that experience from a place of pain, Harrison has chosen to highlight the subsequent changes in her life from a place of strength and gratitude through her new single, “Chosen Family Tree,” which she has recorded a special acoustic version of for American Songwriter.

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Thinking back on how her life came to take on the form it has, Harrison notes that her present sense of acceptance and inner peace surrounding the early upheaval of her family structure didn’t manifest in the form of a sudden epiphany. Rather, it’s been an ongoing emotional process that’s been intertwined with her physical move away from Texas – a change she made decades ago.

“I’d say I’ve been like homesick for 20 years cause I moved [to Nashville] from Texas when I was really young. So being away from own family for a long time, I felt like I had adopted people just in my tribe and you know, I’ve always just called them chosen family. And I mean obviously it goes even deeper for a lot reasons – especially nowadays – being accepting of everyone too. I think that a lot of people can relate. I think everyone has chosen family,” says Harrison.

Those wondering if the positive momentum that Harrison’s pursuit of music started to obtain as a young adult played a big role in the formation of her new chosen family – especially the dramatic boost in public awareness that arose from the milestone of “Idol” –  would be correct. However, don’t be mislead: it wasn’t the reality show’s glitz and glam or, even the fact that Harrison’s went just shy of all the way in the competition, that catalyzed her embrace of support and love outside her family of origin. In truth, it was much more the unseen difficulties and more awkward moments of “Idol’s” opportunity that had a dominant impact on shifting Harrison’s perspective toward the significance of bonds with others.

“I feel like in the process of [singing on ‘Idol’] especially, you know, I had a lot of people around me that would challenge me in a good way, and that my being chosen family that like, don’t hold anything back. I think that was one of the biggest moments in my world, as far as just friends being there for me during that process – among a million others. But just as far as music goes, that’s the first thing that comes to mind,” Harrison says, as she proceeds to recall a piece of wisdom imparted on her long ago by her sister, which rang true during experiences like “Idol,” among other moments of personal achievement.

“My sister told me a long time ago and I didn’t understand what she meant then but she said, ‘You’ll have what I call “chapter friends” in life. You’ll go through a good timeframe together and you’ll bond. And then sometimes you’ll outgrow them or they’ll outgrow you. And then you’ll have some of your other friends that are like lifers. They become like your chosen family. And they’ll challenge you and inspire you and stand beside you and do all things you’d assume a chosen family member would,’ says Harrison.

“So I definitely feel like I’ve found that and I feel like a lot of people have too,” she says. “It’s why I think [“Chosen Family Tree”] is so relatable because we all have somebody in our lives like that, I think. You look around you and you think, ‘Holy sh-t, we went through that together; that bonded us for life’.”

What the public saw might have looked unflinchingly perfect but underneath the televised success, the steadily unfolding period of self-discovery served to nurture not just Harrison’s view of valuable relationships but her very approach to singing itself – both of which would eventually contribute to the musical character of “Chosen Family Tree.”

“On [American] Idol, I was really just trying to figure out a way to emote to a red light,” Harrison says. “[It] was a such a crazy thing, to try to figure out how to [present] myself in a certain way that people will [ultimately] hear me and believe me – not just hit the high notes but also hear what I have to say [through the music.]”

Even though “Chosen Family Tree” is a project that’s emerged so many years removed from that perspective-shifting life experience, it’s interesting to find out that a different memory, even further back in Harrison’s past, not only spurred her toward genuine closure over her familial separations but the person who helped bring about that emotional clarity would go on to have a direct hand in helping to write “Chosen Family Tree” and, be a part of Harrison’s present-day life.

“For a long time, I would always hear ‘Well blood is thicker than water’ and I was just very confused about that saying. Then one day me and one of my closest friends, part of my chosen family, Audra [Mae], who co-wrote the song with me [and Skylar Wilson], we were talking about it and I said, ‘I don’t know where the hell this saying comes from but I don’t understand why it’s a thing,’ Harrison says.

“So I started looking things up, studying, doing my research on it. And it turned out that it came from something said back in [wartime] when young men were in the trenches together and they started saying that because they literally shared blood during that time. And that was kind of like closure in my mind. Like, ‘Okay, now I get it. This saying exists for the exact reason that I thought it did. Because I sometimes felt closer to the people that I have chosen, or that have chosen me, than my own blood. And that’s really the first lyric [in the song]; that’s how it all came about,” says Harrison.

Given how much of Harrison’s past and present seemed to keep crossing paths as “Chosen Family Tree” was coming together, and knowing Harrison lived in the deep south and spent time performing in churches as a child, the spiritual and gospel-style influence in the track is understandable. (Take it from me / I’ve finally found / Who lifts me up / my solid ground.) But Harrison noted that the song’s instrumentation, like its slowly expanding organ and light flow of the song, just fit well with the intended imagery and the song’s overarching message, more than anything else. 

“I definitely ain’t trying to preach at nobody,” she says jokingly.

“But you know,” she continues, “I feel it just comes natural to me from a lot of my influences growing up. But I don’t necessarily think it’s just a gospel thing. I think it’s just the soul. Soulful music, hymns, [for example.] You could say that some Aretha Franklin songs are more on the gospel side, or Ray Charles’ [music] too, which is piano heavy. I just felt like [“My Chosen Family”] had that vibe anyway, of like, a congregation of people [but] I didn’t want to make it [sound] churchy or preachy.”

The slower tempo track, which starts out with a minimal set of instrumental parts, takes on more sound and a rising dynamic level as the music goes on. That, combined with the song’s primary metaphor of a growing tree, the call to “Just plant a little seed and feed it, feed it / Shine a little light when it needs it, needs it” and, most full-circle of all, the inclusion of folks in Harrison’s chosen family tree reinforces Harrison’s message many times over in firmly united but delicately subtle ways.

“I like that [the song] has got a lot of space. Ironically enough, within the lyrics, [the instrumentation] just kind of grows with the song. I love it. I’m really proud of it. And you know, at the end, when you hear a lot of people singing with me, you know, the little gang vocal, it’s a lot of my chosen family. And I thought that would just be the cherry on top. Or the apple on the tree.

While the acoustic take on “Chosen Family Tree” Harrison performed for American Songwriter certainly unfolds differently than its studio counterpart, having so many memories connected to the humility of making music and being constantly inspired by the loving and supportive nature of the song makes it easy for Harrison to emote and impart goodness, no matter what the arrangement may be. Furthermore, for Harrison, regardless of what form the song takes, it’s all about what “Chosen Family Tree” can hopefully encourage to happen after the music is over.

“The fact that I get to stand on a stage or play around my house with people that are my chosen family––I don’t have to reach that far to find inspiration [to perform] because I’m wearing it everyday. I think that by putting out something like this [song] and by sharing my heart in this way, there’s a little bit of light about that I can give. And I feel like that’s one of my purposes in life. By performing this song, at this time, during what we’re going through in this world, I feel like it’s very important. And also, [something that’s] not hard to do. Because I think people need it,” Harrison says.

“There’s so many lanes of [family connection,]” she continues.

“There are people who were never accepted. There are people that were adopted. There are people that never knew their own blood but they have guardians or people around them that have been better than that because they are chosen to them. Whatever the case may be, [“Chosen Family Tree”] goes way further than just my own story. I want to put this song out to have these kinds of conversations. I think that is the kind of stuff that will be timeless and the whole point for me to ever put out music ever again, as of now, is to have music that outgrows me.”

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