Rockin' the harp

She's a 'Wild Woman': Deborah Henson-Conant plays blues, Latin and Celtic with an electric harp at Pantages Theatre

March 25, 2011 

Deborah Henson-Conant doesn't look or sound like a typical symphony soloist. Dressed in short skirts, glittery tanks and cowboy boots, with long thin braids, she merges Latin, blues, jazz and Celtic with a showstopper voice and a stand-up comic delivery. Oh, and she does all this with her instrument strapped round her shoulders - a metallic-blue electric harp.

Offstage, Henson-Conant, who’s bringing her harp to the Pantages this Sunday, is just as unexpected. Talking musical politics with a down-to-earth voice, the Grammy-nominated 57-year-old is all about stories – her own, her family’s, the harp’s. From learning chords on ukelele and piano at age 7, Henson-Conant moved on to concert harp in college, paying her way through the University of California-Berkeley with cocktail lounge gigs. After winning an NEA grant to study jazz, she began a touring career, but got tired of lugging a 100-pound harp around the world. Dreaming of a solution, she eventually got it made for her: an electric harp that revolutionized harp music and got her recording contracts, TV and radio appearances, a Grammy nomination and gigs with everyone from Doc Severinsen to the Boston Pops. She writes her own compositions and orchestral arrangements, and turns a symphony concert into a world music theater evening.

This weekend, Henson-Conant will play her 11-pound lever harp with the Tacoma Symphony. Over the phone, she talked with The News Tribune about musical justice, cowboy boots and what she’ll play on Sunday:

How did you get started on your electric harp journey?

I’m still exploring the answer to this question. When I first started harp, I was playing the big concert harp, and I did a lot of touring in Europe. It just became so difficult. I was spending all my time figuring out how to transport the harp around. Then one New Year’s Eve, I had a vision – myself playing a strap-on harp in front of an orchestra. The instrument hadn’t been invented yet, and I didn’t even know how to write for orchestra. Eventually, Camac made a model for me, and I went back to school to learn to write music.

But I had noticed a big break between pedal (concert) and lever (folk) harpists – the former had no respect for the latter, and yet builders were making such gorgeous instruments. I grew up in a family where justice was important, and that seemed really unjust to me. Now I’ve been playing harp around the world and I’ve begun to understand the huge political significance of the lever harp. In many countries, like Ireland, Senegal and Uruguay, it’s the national instrument, the voice of the people. I feel whenever I’m up there with this instrument in front of an orchestra, it heals a huge injustice.

You spent much of your childhood in a house with your divorced mother, aunt and grandmother. How did it influence your music?

Music was my first language, what I did with all my relatives. And my klutzy, beautiful mother – she sang all the time and had a way of launching into operatic arias that would have people in tears, then go back to burning dinner. So I see that in people now, and it’s a constant theme in my music and stories – when ordinary people do extraordinary things.

You’ve played many big orchestral gigs. How did you come to play with the Tacoma Symphony?

I often end up playing with a symphony because the harpist there encourages them to bring me in. I suspect that’s what happened here in Tacoma. There’s an incredible harp community in the Puget Sound area, both folk and concert harp.

Were you at the national harp conference here last July?

Yes! And I presented an all-harp blues musical there, and I’ll be playing a mini-cameo version of it at the Tacoma concert with nine local harpists (including TSO principal Calista McKasson). That’s something no one’s ever seen before.

What else will you be playing?

I always open with “Cosita Latina,” a flamenco piece that allows the audience to start with what they know of the harp and move on to what I do with it. I love blues, so I’ll play a couple of blues songs, and I always play “Nightingale,” that’s a Celtic-style song about my mother’s voice. Then there’s another Celtic piece, “Wild Harp,” about a minstrel who takes a harp to war instead of a sword. All of these will be with orchestra, but I’ll also play at least one solo, including “Take Five.” That’s a piece most people haven’t heard on the harp.

When you play blues, how do you deal with the fact that the harp has such a long decay (resonance) on each note, compared with, say, a guitar?

It’s definitely been a journey to learn different styles on the harp. It does have a long decay, and even more when you add distortion and electric amplification. I go back and forth between how much damping to do and how long I want the decay. I want to utilize the harp’s difference and still be true to the origins and rhythms of the music – kind of balancing the idioms of the genre with the idioms of the instrument. In a perfect world, they would inform each other and create a new genre.

You’ve been billed as the “Wild Woman of the Harp.” Do you like the title?

Well, I am wild, but many times I’m the opposite, too. When I do seem wild, it seems totally normal to me.

What about those funky outfits. Do you have a stylist?

No, I choose them! If I could have dressed this way when I was 7, I would have. Where I grew up, the hip people were cowboys, and so I have to wear cowboy boots. But it all has a reason: I can’t run around the stage in high heels, and if I didn’t wear short skirts, I’d trip. And my hair is easy to look after this way.

Is anyone else playing electric harp like you do?

No one I know of is using this harp with symphonies. But it’s my dream that other people will do what I do, because I think this is the way to play the harp. It’s getting more popular. Lady Gaga has a harpist. … Now, harpists are growing up thinking this is normal; it’s seeming like a reality to young harpists.

You’ve done a lot of amazing collaborations, including interpreting a chemical reaction on the harp. What’s the wackiest thing you’ve done on stage?

Last year, I played at the annual Ig Nobel Awards, and I improvised the World’s Most Depressing Russian Music, sobbing into the piano in a long black dress. That was possibly one of the strangest things I’ve ever done. But I’ve also done some wonderful collaborations, like improvising with singer Bobby McFerrin, playing with cartoonist Gary Larson – who’s a wonderful guitarist – and playing a single-harp duo at a party with Steve Tyler from Aerosmith. It’s these intimate moments that are what I love about playing music.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

HIP HARP

What: Tacoma Symphony with electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma

Tickets: $24-$77

Information: 253-591-5894, www.broadwaycenter.org; 253-272-7264, www.tacomasymphony.org; www.hipharp.com

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