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The Harp in Modern Rock and Pop Music

At last, the music industry has woken up to something that harpists have always known: the harp is cool!

The ultimate proof of this could be the show stealing sight (and sound!) of ten harpists accompanying Dizzee Rascal and Florence and the Machine live at this year’s Brit Awards:

Yet this spectacle did not arrive out of nowhere. Harpists have been making inroads into popular music for a while now. There seems to be two strands to this: first, harps are being featured as an instrument in a pop or rock band. Secondly, the harp is being used as an accompaniment for a solo singer/songwriter, in much the same way as a guitar or piano would be.

Let’s look first at some of the harpists who are finding themselves in rock bands.

Ruth Wall and Goldfrapp

In 2008 Ruth toured with Goldfrapp in the UK, Europe, Australia and USA, playing wire strung harp and lever harp (along with keyboards). Her wire harp can be heard on the Goldfrapp album Seventh Tree.

However, Goldfrapp is just one of many projects that Ruth has been involved with. She regularly plays with partner Graham Fitkin in their experimental jazz and electronica tinged duo, Fitkin Wall.

Ruth Wall website:

Tom Monger and Florence and the Machine

Did anyone else spot the irony that, despite being accompanied by ten glamourous female harpists during the Brit Awards performance, Florence’s regular harpist is male?

As well as recording and touring with Florence and the Machine, classical harpist, Tom Monger, continues to push the harp’s barriers by fronting his own ensemble, Lunamoth. Tom also plays regularly with the singer/songwriter Paul Mosley, and with the Czech alternative electronic musician Eva Eden.

Tom Monger website:

Ricky Rasura and The Polyphonic Spree

The Polyphonic Spree is a self-described “choral symphonic rock” group from the USA. Membership has ranged from seven to twenty-three and includes Ricky Rasura on harp.

It would probably be fair to say that Goldfrapp and Florence and the Machine have adopted the harp on the short to medium term. They are not “harp-based” bands, but rather bands that currently engage a harpist. Certainly, Goldfrapp has released several “harpless” albums before Seventh Tree. The harp may well not be a permanent part of these bands as they continue to change and evolve. Indeed, recently, Ricky Rasura left The Polyphonic Spree and we watch his new projects with interest.

So, let’s look at some soloists, whose harp accompaniment to their voice (on usually self-penned material) is an integral part of their sound.

The tradition of accompanying one’s own singing to the harp is nothing new and masters such as Robin Williamson (Scotland), Mary O’Hara (Ireland) and Alain Stivell (France), have been commanding large audiences for many years. However, these artists have been known mainly in the traditional, folk music arena. One of the first harpists/singer/songwriters to step out of the folk tradition and embrace a more pop or rock aesthetic was Deborah Henson-Conant in the 1980s.

Deborah Henson-Conant

Though somewhat dated now, Deborah’s “rock chick” appearance of leather clothes and long, dreadlocked hair, along with her blue electric harp, was certainly a bold new direction for a harpist in the 1980s. Underneath the appearance though, is a skilled harpist and crowd pleasing performer.

Deborah Henson-Conant website:

However, it could be argued that image aside, Deborah’s music is more cabaret than rock or pop. While there is nothing wrong with that, we are currently looking for the seed’s of the harp’s current trendiness in the pop music industry. Deborah may have been an inspiration to other harpists, but she is surely not the harpist/singer/songwriter that made the music industry sit up and take note: that would have to be Joanna Newsom.

Joanna Newsom

Joanna’s debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, released in 2004 reveals her love ‘em or hate ‘em vocals accompanied by pedal harp, with some additional low-key instrumentation. Ys (2006) showed a maturing artist continuing to feature the harp as the main harmonic, rhythmic instrument, but now with orchestral backing. Interestingly, her latest album, Have One on Me (2010) shows a slight move away from the harp. Several tracks feature the harp as main accompaniment instrument, but other tracks do not have the harp playing at all. Has she taken the harp as far as it will go? Or is this merely the result of an artist looking for further ways to express herself? Only time will tell.

But what can be said for now about Joanna Newsom from the perspective of the harp? Some may argue that using a pedal harp for whimsical folky pop songs was a great publicity gimmick. Whilst the harp does seem to have helped to attract attention her way, she has clearly demonstrated a lifelong passion for the instrument, having started to learn at six years old: for her, the harp is more than just a way to sell records. Thanks to her, harpists have heard new ways of using the harp to accompany singing and no harpist is going to get away with using the same tired old arpeggio accompaniment ever again!

The Lucinda Belle Orchestra

The latest harpist/singer/songwriter to emerge is Lucinda Belle. Both the title and debut single from Lucinda’s forthcoming album – My Voice and My 45 Strings - sets out her stall as a singing harpist. (Lucinda explained on Breakfast TV that often one or two or her strings are broken, hence only 45 strings.) However, there is very little harp audible on the aforementioned track. The record company blurb tells us that she fuses the harp with “rootsy, gypsy, southern gospel, soul and jazz influences to produce an exciting new sound” so hopefully, the album itself will provide tracks with some interesting and exciting harp playing.

But where does all this leave us? Has the music industry, by making the harp fashionable, also set the seeds for the inevitable reversal of the coin. Rather than just being neglected, is the harp soon to be unfashionable and last year’s news? Was the Brit Awards spectacle the apex of the harp’s trendiness?

Probably yes, in the sense that merely having a harp is no longer going to guarantee wow factor. From now on, you are going to have to do something impressive with it. From a harpist’s point of view, this can only be a good thing. Harpists mentioned above, plus others such as Mia Theodoratus and Zeena Parkins, have introduced new harp sounds, new techniques of playing and arranging and have proved that the harp has a place in modern music. Harpists are appearing on Radio 1 and prime time television; they are selling out the Royal Albert Hall. The music industry and record-buying, concert-going public is finally listening: come on harpists, its up to you – let’s really give them something worth hearing!

Article from November 2011.