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deborah henson conant
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Deborah Henson-Conant interview page 2

DHC:  So my going back there has less to do with any roots of mine in Celtic music, but has to do with our sharing this instrument.

Smitty:  Yes.  Now, did you always sing or did you incorporate vocals into your music later on?

DHC:  I sang from the time I was a little girl, very small.  I grew up singing and singing with my parents.  I believe I sang before I talked.

Smitty:  Yeah, read that somewhere.

DHC: When I was signed to GRP, even before then, when I decided that I really wanted to play jazz, I chose to not sing because I wanted to break, again, a stereotype of the chick singer.  I didn’t wanna be the chick singer. So that was very important for me to develop as a player and to be able to hold my own as a player on this instrument, and at that time I was just playing the pedal harp; in other words, the big harp. But I realized after few years….certainly after I was with GRP….that my voice was really important to me, that it was a very important part of what I do, and when I started singing again I got a lot of negative feedback about it.

A lot of people were telling me that I needed to stop singing and it was going ruin my career, and I realized that it didn’t matter because I had to sing.  It’s an important part of my voice.  And if I was to leave it behind, just as if I was able to….as if I played without any theatrical aspect, I wouldn’t be giving the audience me, and I think it’s essential that every artist gives the audience who they are.

Smitty:  Yes, absolutely.

DHC:  That’s what we go there for.  We go to see a window into how this artist integrates in the world or how this artist reflects and resonates in the world, and how this artist resonates for us their experience of the world.

Smitty:  Yes indeed.

DHC:  And if they’re gonna hide….if they’re gonna say, well, I mean, many people would probably disagree with me on this, I love hearing people sing, I love hearing people talk, I love hearing people be who they are. What I certainly like hearing somebody get up and pretend they can sing if they can’t. I’d rather hear them sing not well and to know it and be singing because they needed to sing…

Smitty:  Yes.

DHC:  …than to have them act as though it was good, because it can. My grandmother Edith had this philosophy which was people have to sing, and she was not an artist, she was a farmer, and she learned to play the piano.  She said, “People gotta sing and someone’s gotta keep ‘em together.  That’s why I play the piano.”  It was completely not an artistic thing.  She didn’t care about art, she didn’t care about music the way the other side of my family did.  To her it was as fundamental as vegetables.

Smitty:  How ‘bout that?

DHC:  People gotta eat their vegetables and they gotta sing.  It’s like you’ve gotta do it.  (Both laughing.)  And I think what she was onto was that people need to share themselves, and this is not just people on the stage. I mean, I’m a performer, I go on stage and I perform, but music is really important to me in every part of my life and not just as a performer.

Smitty:  Absolutely.  Well, I don’t know how we could do without it.

DHC:  Right, and for me, I’m not a listener. I mean, I love to hear people sing, especially if they don’t know I can hear them. Like if somebody’s working next door and they’re whistling, that’s really beautiful to me. To me it’s a participatory thing. If one person sings to me, I’m in heaven, I’m crying, it’s beautiful.  And I also think of it as something we all have to do.

Smitty:  You’re right.

DHC:  Whether we’re good at it or not.

Smitty:  Yes indeed. I totally agree. Well, talk to me about the harp. How many different types are there?

deborah henson conantDHC:  I have no idea how many there are. In the Western world there seems to be two basic kinds.  One is the kind that traditionally is large and has pedals and the pedals are for changing keys. Actually, I would say basically the differences between harps have to do with how you change key.  So, on the big harp you do it with pedals. On what’s called the little harp, although some of them are as big as big harps, they are called lever harps.  You change the key with a lever. You use your hand to do it.  But there have been other very interesting harps. There’s something called a chromatic harp, which is more like a piano which has twice as many strings. The harp is like all the white keys of a piano.

And to get the black notes, as it were….I mean, that’s a really simplistic way of looking at it….but to get the chromatic notes there are varying ways of doing it.  So, on the concert harp it’s done with pedals.  On the folk or lever harp it’s done with levers.  There’s a chromatic harp where it’s done by having twice as many strings. So there’s all these amazing amount of variations on the harp because they’re still developing this, and there are so many independent harp builders throughout the world, at least the Western world. And they’re still trying to come up with ways to deal with this, you know, how do you change keys?

Smitty: When I watch you play I’m saying to myself “How on earth does she do that?”  Because there’s so much happening and it seems as though your hands are moving so fast…

DHC:  Right.

Smitty: …and you’re moving and there’s all of this great music, and it’s like this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.

DHC:  Ha!  Well, one of the things that I did love about the harp when I was a kid, even though I didn’t really like the sound of it, is I loved the coordination puzzle of it.  It was very intriguing to me, the fact that you have to do one thing with your feet and one thing with your hands, or if you’re playing a strap-on harp, which of course they didn’t have when I was a kid, ….when I first started playing it ten years ago, all I could do was practice putting it on, walking across the room, playing a couple notes, and come back and put it down. That’s all I could do because it was such a new instrument for me.

And the integration with it has been really fascinating.  And finally, I think was about five years ago….I went and I played at the Edinburgh fringe festival and I did a theater show, one-woman show, and I only took that little harp, so it was an instrument I wasn’t that familiar with, and I said to myself, “Look, it’s now or never.  You have to…”  And I think of the instrument as a prosthesis.  I think of all instruments as prostheses in a sense that it allows you to reach further or it allows you, in any case, in order to really dance or play whatever it is with a prosthesis or an instrument, you have to integrate yourself with it.

Smitty:  Absolutely.

DHC:  The process of becoming an instrumentalist is becoming one in a way, with that instrument. The same way that if you lost your legs and you needed to have prosthetic legs, the prosthetic legs are fine, but what’s beautiful is your integration with them. You’re learning how to run, walk or whatever it is so that you can do what you need to do.

Smitty:  That’s a beautiful analogy.

DHC:  Thank you.

Smitty:  Yes.  Now, the strap-on harp. How many strings are on this instrument?

DHC:  It’s different.  The one that I’m playing right now, I think it has 30 strings.  Another one was built for me with a few more strings, and I’ll start experimenting with that, but the company that built the first one, the one that I play in the DVD, we are collaborating now on what’s called an ultralight, which is a harp that’s even lighter.  They will be talking to bicycle manufacturers about carbon fibers.

Smitty:  (Laughs.)  Oh my goodness.  Now we get into Nano Technology now.

DHC:  Well, yeah.  I mean, that’s what’s so amazing is that, like I said before, the marriage of technology and my art is what has allowed me to go into the areas that I’m going into now, and this technology is very, very new.  You know, my harp has a piezo pickup on every string.  That’s not that new.  But using lighter material so that I can strap this thing on and so that they can have more strings on it and so that I can have a greater range with it.

Smitty:  Yes, you can…

DHC:  That’s all just becoming possible.

Smitty:  Yes. You can dance more.

DHC:  Yes, absolutely. It’s amazing to me because this instrument has really become my signature instrument.  It’s amazing to me that it took me years of going around to harp builders and sketching it out or trying to draw it and trying to explain to them what I wanted to do. I think they all thought I was crazy, but finally I made a prototype myself and I went to France and I played it for the man who was the most inventive harp builder and I showed him what I wanted to do and then he was like “Oh, I understand, Deborah.”  And, you know, the next time I saw him he had built me the prototype. So my harp has 30 strings, but I’m hoping that the ultralight will probably have maybe 32 to 36.

Smitty:  Well, it’s a striking instrument, the colors, everything. It’s a beautiful instrument and to see that evolution of the instrument to where it is now. I think it’s just a fascinating thing.

DHC:  Yeah, I do too, and that is not my doing. This was the brainchild of the man who built it, who is no longer living now, but it was his idea to build it in that kind of a color and in that kind of a shape, and I’m really glad he did.  I have another harp that’s like bright red.  That doesn’t really matter to me. I see that it’s fun and it’s wonderful and it’s exciting to the audience.

Smitty:  Yeah, I love the blue and gold.

DHC:  Yeah, yeah. That was his idea and he made it that color because I often tell the story, which I tell on the DVD, about how what I really wanted was a blues harp. And I don’t know whether he misunderstood the story or he was making like a double joke, but when he brought me the harp, it was like “Deborah, I have brought to you the blue harp you always wanted.”

Smitty:  (Laughs.)

DHC:  But Joel [Garnier], no, I wanted a blues harp. So I think that’s why he made it blue.


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