Grammy Nominated, Multi-Talented Deborah Henson-Conant
Heading To Flagpole Radio Café
By Shannon Hicks
Deborah Henson-Conant is a very difficult artist to categorize. She is a brilliant harpist — a Grammy nominated one — and not in the traditional big-harp-on-the-floor-performer-sitting-behind-it-in-a-chair-to-play-on sense.
She is also a singer, a composer since the age of 12. She performs solo concerts as well as an orchestral soloist. She is also a visual artist.
She is vibrant, and easy to talk to, even when she is coming off one night’s rest following a 4,500-mile monthlong tour, which was exactly where she was on October 25 when she spoke with The Newtown Bee.
The best part is, she is coming to Newtown next week.
Henson-Conant will be the next guest artist at Flagpole Radio Café on Saturday, November 5. Showtime is 7 pm in the theater of Edmond Town Hall, 45 Main Street. She and her unique instrument — an 11-pound, hip-borne harp that she often wails on like a guitar — will be headlining. She is very much looking forward to offering solo moments as well as joining with The Flagpole Radio Café Orchestra for a few numbers.
“I play with symphony orchestras as a soloist, and also do a lot of solo shows. My recent tour was a combination of that,” she said Tuesday morning, “and I believe the show in Newtown will be some of that as well — the work with the orchestra as well as a few of my own songs. I am prepared to do my solo show on the harp, playing blues and flamenco with stories, and suspect I will probably do some blues with the band. That just sounds like too much fun. I can’t wait to be there.”
Part of Henson-Conant’s excitement stems from the fact that while growing up, she had very few records. Of those, the majority were radio-style programs.
“I love radio, I love spoken word. I just love that way of having a show,” she said.
Her playing ranges from raucous to delicate and her performances blur the line between musical performance and theatrical event. She’s a cross-genre, blues-flamenco-Celtic-funk-folk-jazz dynamo. She solos and wails on the harp like a rock guitarist (Springfield Union News says she creates “distorted bends worthy of Eddie Van Halen.”)
“I can play Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star Spangled Banner, and at the same time you realize this was the instrument of the Bards,” she said. “It’s so cool that [the harp] was perfect for them, yet it’s perfect for Hendrix or the blues or whatever I want it to be.
“There is a huge history with the harp, but this is a completely new version of this historical instrument,” she said.
Henson-Conant is in fact writing her own chapter about the historical instrument. She studied classical harp for a very short period, then ignored the instrument for a decade. She felt, according to her bio, it was “a sissy instrument,” but returned to the mocked instrument during college when her college orchestra needed a harpist. According to legend, it was after sitting through one too many classical performances that Henson-Conant dragged her six-foot-tall gilded harp from a Boston hotel restaurant to a nearby jazz club and asked the band leader if she could sit in.
She has not taken a back seat since. What helps is that she doesn’t always have to sit down to play her harp.
Henson-Conant usually performs on her signature instrument: an electric blue “harp-with-the-soul-of-an-electric-guitar,” according to her website (www.hipharp.com), that was created for her by the French harp builder Joel Garnier in 1998. The instrument — called a body harp — features individually electrified strings that allows her to “soar over the brass section of an orchestra, or play exquisitely delicate solo passages.”
Its smaller than usual size also allows her to strap it on to her body, which creates a visually interesting appearance. Henson-Conant built a harness that allows her to perform with her harp at hip level.
“I love moving around with it,” she said. “I can be pretty physical.”
Her harp is also wireless, which allows her to walk around, or dance, or even lie down if she wants to, while performing.
“I had the idea, in the middle of one of my recent shows, to just lay down on the floor with the harp,” she said. “I was laying there playing it, it was sticking right up, looking like a shark’s fin, and I realized… I had no idea how to get back up,” she said with a laugh. “I needed two people from the audience to help me get back up.”
Today Henson-Conant has more than a dozen albums to her credit, including the 2007 Grammy-nominated Invention and Alchemy, a DVD-CD project recorded with Grand Rapids Symphony that features her one-woman show with the 80-piece orchestra.
Henson-Conant has toured with the Boston Pops, opened for Ray Charles at Tanglewood, jammed onstage with Bobbie McFerrin and offstage with Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler (The Boston Globe has called her “a combination of Leonard Bernstein, Steven Tyler and Xena, the Warrior Princess”), and starred in the PBS special Celtic Harpestry.
Her artistry is difficult to describe. There are so many genres she touches upon. She had a hard time answering the “How would you describe yourself?” question when presented to her, but with a laugh, and a few pauses, she did well.
“I am a performer, first and foremost. I love theater and musical theater, and I create … [pause, laugh] … I use music to tell a story.
“In my shows, I get on stage with a single instrument, and I love to create different worlds out of different sounds,” she said. “From instrumental sounds to spoken words to singing. I do on stage what I love to see on stage: I love to see people take one thing — an instrument, or idea, whatever — and explore it every possible way. That’s what I love about the instrument that I play.
“It’s a new instrument and I get to find out about it. It’s like a person. I feel like I am constantly discovering this instrument the way you learn about a person.”
To get a great idea of Henson-Conant and the possibilities she explores with her harp — certainly no longer a “sissy” instrument when she handles it — visit www.hipharp.com and check out the 7½-minute introductory video.
Flagpole Radio Café is an engaging show created by Jim Allyn, Martin Blanco, and Barbara Gaines in conjunction with Newtown Cultural Arts Commission. Performances feature music by Mr Allyn and The Flagpole Radio Café Orchestra, a dynamic ensemble created for the show, and radio-style comedy sketches by Flagpole Shakespeare Repertory Theatre, in addition to the featured guest performer.