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"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" Deborah Henson-Conant

deborah henson conantSmitty:  Today I have rolled out the red carpet for a very special guest who just happens to be a very special person.  She’s without a doubt one of the most creative entertainers on the planet.  She sings, she plays the harp, she tells stories, and composes symphonic music.  She has literally transformed the harp into a very cool, hip harp.  Case in point, her latest new offering; it’s called Invention & Alchemy, a CD and DVD that you must add to your collection.  Please welcome the amazing and so gorgeous Ms. Deborah Henson-Conant.  Deborah, how are you?

Deborah Henson-Conant (DHC):  I’m great.  How are you?

Smitty:  I’m wonderful.  It’s great to talk with you.

DHC:  Well, it’s great to finally connect.

Smitty:  Yes, wow.  So you have got to be one of the most happiest people on the planet right now because these two projects that you have put together are truly amazing.

DHC:  Well, thank you.  As you know from creative projects, the real joy is when you’re actually doing it. And I gotta say, of course, I was probably the most happy when I was in the middle of rehearsing and recording and editing for Invention & Alchemy….I mean, it’s exciting to watch it now, but it was really exciting to create it.

Smitty: I can just imagine.

DHC: And to get to have the kind of open collaboration that I was able to have.  I felt like this project allowed me to bring my life full circle, everything from jazz to musical theater. And to have the kind of people working with me who were willing to collaborate in that open….not only across the genres but across, you know, music theater?

Smitty:  Yeah, all the facets of entertainment.

DHC:  That’s right. To find a group of artists who were willing to do that with me on the kind of level that we did it was amazing, and then to have somebody in the wings who said “Look, this is incredible. Let me help you get it on DVD.” I mean, it’s a dream come true to have a project like that and I feel like in many ways it’s the culmination of a life’s work and it’s also the beginning of a life’s work.

Smitty:  Yes, and when I think back on some of your past projects that you’ve done such as Talking Hands and Naked Music

DHC:  Yes.

Smitty: …and my personal favorite, Caught in the Act

DHC:  Yes.

Smitty: …all of those could’ve very easily been fantastic DVD’s themselves, you know?

DHC:  Oh yeah, they could’ve been.  I will say that of course, the instrument that I play….and I was gonna say “chosen,” but I certainly don’t remember having chosen the harp….the instrument that I play, one of the things that I loved about it was how physical it is. And that it really is historically the instrument of the storyteller.  In many different ways it’s also, you know, now that I have an electric harp that I can strap on and wear like an electric guitar, I have pretty much any world open to me through that instrument, whether it’s sort of the magical storytelling world or the jazz world or the more theatrical world or, as you see in Invention & Alchemy, the orchestral world.

Smitty:  Yes, and you do it so well.

DHC:  Well, until I had an electric harp, I certainly couldn’t have written or arranged the kind of orchestral arrangements that I like to arrange, which is bombastic and large with a lot of brass. You couldn’t do that with an acoustic harp.

Smitty:  No.  No, you would’ve had to just sit next to it like some of those old movies.

DHC:  Right. I mean, it was always a great instrument from a technical standpoint and it’s a fun recording instrument because you can get really close to it, but in terms of taking it into that kind of huge context, that was not possible until, say, like the five or ten years ago when the technology caught up with what I wanted to do.

Smitty:  Yes indeed. When I looked at the DVD and when I listened to the CD, I said, you know, this is really something for someone who when they were first introduced to the harp, didn’t even like it.  (Laughs.)

DHC:  Yeah, well, I think that may be why it all happened.  I think one of the things I didn’t like about the harp was the stereotype of the harp. And what has become exciting to me over time is to dig inside it and find out what is really there in this instrument, which has maintained….I mean, it’s one of the oldest instruments.  I mean, as you see on the DVD, I talk about the Celtic minstrels who marched into battle with a harp.

Smitty:  Yeah.

DHC: There was a time when the harp was such a powerful statement about a culture, about the Celtic culture, that harps were burned and harpists were hung because they were such strong cultural images that in England they were seen to be very dangerous. Yeah, it’s been fascinating for me to start out in the stereotype, looking at the stereotype, and then spend a life digging behind that and finding the power of what’s really there when you get beyond the stereotype.

Smitty:  Isn’t that amazing?

DHC:  Yeah.

Smitty:  I didn’t realize that it had that much influence.

DHC:  I didn’t either. I mean, this is the kind of thing where I went out and really kinda had an attitude about it in the beginning but met many harpists from indigenous-type cultures, certainly a lot in the Celtic cultures, and by that I don’t just mean Ireland. I just got back from France, where I was at the biggest Celtic festival in Europe. There are seven different Celtic lands and they’re very strong and their culture, their language, and their music is what keeps them alive.  And when I start hearing the stories about that, those were the first people I got stories from, and then I started seeing that there are many other indigenous harp cultures like in Venezuela and in Vera Cruz, and there’s a whole Hispanic harp culture that is also very strong.  Who knew?

Smitty:  Yeah, exactly because you have not only introduced us to some fantastic music that you’ve created, but you’ve educated us at the same time and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

DHC:  Well, thank you.  That’s really important to me that a performance not just be about entertainment or that you don’t even sit there and think “Oh wow, that person’s a really good player,” because what did that really give to the audience?  Maybe this is because I came from a theater background and my mother sang opera, so there was always a story and a meaning inside the music….that it’s very important to me that when I get on stage I am giving the audience something with which to expand their lives.  Whether it’s a song that they could sing about their birthdays or whether it’s a little bit of a historical perspective or whether it’s just the idea that you can take something that you don’t even like and end up making a wonderful life out of it.

Smitty:  Yeah. Isn’t that amazing?  I read somewhere where you said that the harp taught you to give up your own prejudices.

DHC:  Absolutely, yeah.

Smitty:  And I can see the harp is an excellent example of that, when you were just speaking about getting past the surface of the harp and the stereotypes and that kind of thing. And then you find something truly amazing there for a lifetime.

DHC:  Yes, and something very strong versus the stereotype of the pristine, prissy, gentile instrument. You realize that you scratch beneath the surface and there’s this drama and this power and it’s nothing like what my prejudiced view was. And that’s happened to me several different times in my life. I know this interview’s about music but, you know, by the man that I ended up sharing my life with, I learned a lot about gender prejudice from being with him and what he’s like as a father and how important fatherhood is to him, so it’s just so interesting how we walk around with these stereotypes and prejudices and, man, as soon as you explode them, there’s beauty and power inside.

Smitty:  Yes, I love that, that’s a beautiful thing, it truly is.

DHC:  Yeah, it’s exciting.

Smitty:  Well, I will tell you….and I read this somewhere….Deborah, I will hold your hand any time.  (Both laughing.)

DHC:  Oh, thank you.  Oh, right, right, that was my excuse. I so did not want to play the harp when I was a kid and I just remember that that was finally what got my parents to let me stop taking lessons, and I don’t think they really believed me. I remember saying to my mother “I don’t want to play the harp because I’ll get calluses and no one will hold hands with me.”

Smitty:  (Laughs.)

DHC:  And I think she realized when I said that, that I was gonna use any excuse to try to get out of the harp.  (Both laughing.)  That was a pretty weak one.

Smitty:  I read that and I had to laugh.  I said oh my God.

DHC:  Oh yes.

Smitty:  But, you know, I’m real curious about your visit to France because there, you had all of this authentic music and all of this culture and people that have been around this music for ages and they’ve been around the harp and know truly what it means to them.

DHC:  Right.

Smitty:  How did they embrace your music?

DHC:  Well, it’s very interesting because I go there….of course I go as a musician, but I didn’t try to play Celtic music. There is a great Celtic influence in my work, but one of the reasons that this particular festival is important to me and I think that I am important to it is that my instrument was built there in Brittany. And it was based upon the traditional Brittan harp, but it’s an electric instrument, and what’s exciting to them and also to me is that I can go back to the seat of the culture of this instrument and show them what a different world that harp had made for me and what a different world I’ve been able to make for that instrument.

Smitty:  That’s very cool.


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