February 21, 2008

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Flaming electric harp
Grammy-nominated harpist brings big stories, big sound to Tupelo
By Alec O’Meara aomeara@hippopress.com

If you think harp music is overwrought with stuffy classical themes, then harpist Deborah Henson-Conant thinks you’re musically prejudiced against her instrument of choice.

That’s OK by her, however. She plans to crush those stereotypes at a Saturday, Feb. 23, concert at Tupelo Music Hall.

“People have a preconceived notion of what the harp can do musically, but I am constantly amazed at the versatility of this instrument and the stories that I can tell with it,” Henson-Conant said.

The Tupelo show will mark the North American debut of her latest custom-designed electric harp, which was made in France out of the super-light materials borne of competitive cycling and sits in a harness that frees Henson-Conant to walk wherever she’d like. The unusual harp, which she describes as having “Harley-Davidson flames” painted along the side, combined with her striking, flowing dread-locked appearance, is more than enough to lay those old stereotypes to rest before the first note is even played.

Henson-Conant’s show is directly tied to the harp’s long history, as she has always had a romantic ideal of the medieval minstrel, harp in tow, traveling to tell the stories of the day. She spent time as a classical harp player as part of a phase “to prove to myself that I was a good player,” but as she matured musically, she found herself yearning for a return to long dormant musical theater roots. Her current album, Invention and Alchemy, represents the continuing coalescence of those seemingly very different styles.

For instance, Henson-Conant has a song/story in which she takes a closer look at the Arabian Nights mythos. Those familiar with the story know that there were 1,001 nights of stories, but Henson-Conant asks what happened on night 996 between the sultan and the storyteller to bring about the end of the stories. To her, the missing parts of the well-known story, or the unexplored, taken-for-granted parts of everyday living, can be fascinating. Her songs stretch away from common themes of love gained and lost to wherever her mind may choose to explore. Favorite foods are not out of the question.

“I can express my love for my boyfriend in a song, so why can’t I express my love for the watermelon?” she said.

As much as her current album moves toward the realm of storytelling and away from traditional music, her next project, In the Wings, is likely to complete the transformation. Currently only envisioned as a concert performance, the show will combine songs into a cohesive story. Henson-Conant hopes to begin touring with the new show sometime this year.

In the meantime, she hopes her custom electric harp will someday be as common an instrument as the electric guitar.

“I really feel that one of responsibilities as a player of this instrument is to help other people learn how to play it,” she said.


Deborah Henson-Conant burns up the harp . Courtesy photo.

Deborah Henson-Conant
When: Saturday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry
Tickets: $30
More info: www.hipharp.com.