Harp Column Article

by Kim Robertson

I first met Lisa many years ago in Tucson, Ariz., at the Lyon & Healy Jazz and Pop Harpfest. She competed in the lever harp competition and I was on the judging panel. She reminded me of a young Cher with a wild head of hair and edgy stage presence, and she played original tunes with an unorthodox harp technique. She didn’t place in the competition, but I sought her out afterward to encourage her. She confessed to me that she was a bass player in a heavy metal band and was new to the harp. Although she didn’t fit in the pop and jazz mold, she had a special charisma and the steadiest left hand I had ever heard.
She kept in touch with me through the years, and I witnessed her transformation from a rock goddess into a harp goddess. Self-taught and on the fringe of the “harp world,” she has dauntlessly forged a name for herself in the “real world.” She became a prolific performer, recording artist, and entrepreneur. She reaches a wide audience with her concerts and lectures and is the best- selling Celtic (lever) harpist in the U.S., reaching as high as number six on the Billboard charts. Combining hard work, perseverance, and integrity, Lisa managed to create her own successful niche, and she shares her story with me here.

HC: So Lisa, you got started in harp relatively late in life. How did you start on the harp?

LL: I was already 21, and I was working profes- sionally as a bassist at the time. Although I grew up playing guitar and mandolin, and a lot of different type stringed instruments, it was my first exposure to the folk harp at a Renaissance fair in Los Angeles, about 20 years ago or so, and like everyone else I had that first experience of…you know how the harp is so forgiving to the beginner—I just sat down and some- thing really special happened. And I felt it, like we all feel it, and I was quite obsessed with getting a harp. It took me, like, another year until I could get one, because I was a starving musician, but I did get one.

HC: You told me you played in an all-girl rock band. LL: That’s right! Actually, I made my living play- ing primarily biker music and dance club music with a couple of different groups, but I had one group for about 10 years that was pretty successful—all female, sort of classic rock blues band. We played at biker bars, military bases, those kinds of gigs.

HC: And you still did that while you played the harp?

LL: I did. The reason I became proficient on the harp was because I was thinking in guitar chords. I had played guitar since I was a kid, so I was thinking in guitar chords and transferring my love of groups like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin to the chord pro- gressions I was doing on the harp. So to me it seemed like a natural progression to bring the harp not only into my life, but into my heavy metal band—that’s what I was into at the time. So I would open a song in the last set with the harp, and sure enough, it was very effective, very profound, actually. I was able to integrate it immediately; I didn’t think twice about integrating it into everything I was doing at the time. And then when I would go into the biker bars, I’d have my harp in the van, and on the breaks people would congregate in the back alley, and I’d be play- ing for the bikers and even getting the bikers to play too. And it was really, really special; I knew that this instrument had a lot of magic, a lot of power, because it transcended all lines, all varieties of peo- ple. Everyone was interested and loved playing the harp and loved the sound that came from it.

HC: What did you wear in these rock bands while you were playing the harp?

LL: [Laughs] The traditional rock band uniform I believe was spandex, and leather, and those kinds of things. It was pretty standard attire, yes, I have to say.

HC: So your first gig on the harp was in leather. I love it.

LL: Yeah; yeah, I think there are some photos to prove it somewhere. [Laughs]
HC: Did you grow up in a musical family?

LL: I actually was adopted, so I don’t know if my birth parents were musical. However, the family that I grew up in—they were not musicians; however, they loved music so much there was always music in the house, and I just grew up having it a part of every day, really. When I got my hands on a guitar, I was only about 7 or 8, and they were very pleased, very supportive. So I’ve had so much support over all my musical endeavors and styles over all the years. So it’s been wonderful.

HC: You actually play harp with your fingernails, don’t you, with more of a guitar style?
LL: Yeah; I think since I came up with the harp sort of street performing, I needed that punctuation as far as being able to be brighter and louder in an outdoor situation, and it just stuck. I didn’t have any formal training, so I was totally on my own, making up my own technique, which, in retrospect, I would have liked to have had maybe some guidance in the early years. However, it was working for me. I use my nails in my right hand more like I would use a guitar pick in my right hand.

HC: So you were completely self-taught?

LL: I was. I had no idea what I was doing; I was just sitting in my room, playing along with Pink Floyd records and doing the best I could based on the guitar knowledge I had accumulated. I didn’t know anyone who had done it yet to get some guidance from, so I was definitely making it up as I went along.

HC: Well, when I first met you, you were just start– ing out, and it seemed like your career accelerated quite quickly from being a basic gypsy street per- former to somebody who had a contract on Windham Hill! How did you do that?

LL: Gosh—it was a series of events; it was a lot of diligence as far as patience and stamina, but a couple of lucky things happened. I was so naive at the beginning; I just started sending out a homemade cassette of playing harp to various record labels, particularly Windham Hill, because I thought I would fit perfectly at the time, and ended up getting nothing
but reject letters. So then I sent a copy overseas, to an overseas record label, and they took it right up. The next thing I knew, I was in Germany recording a couple albums—it was a huge learning experience. Part of the learning experience was both the music, how it sounded got a little out of my hands and out of my control, and the way it looked, the covers were all, you know, a little bit out there. The music ended up with saxophones and drums, and it was quite the experience of not trusting my own gut about the music and letting other people take the reins. So I came back from that and started performing on Venice Beach, and ended up very successful selling cassettes there. Then taking it around the country, playing in malls, playing at colleges, I went all the way up to Canada and ended up on a TV show, which really helped the record at the time do very well, so I was able to set up distribution and under- stand about how the retail works here in the States. So I gathered a lot of knowledge simply by trial and error and what happened, and things came along that I dealt with, as opposed to me actually knowing what I was doing. I was fortunate that something about the music at the time was speaking to people—it was simple, harps and recorders. And something about the simplicity, I was so adamant about playing music that was real for me that it connected with people in a way that I hadn’t done with the German experi- ence. And so from then I learned the lesson of you have to love the music that you’re doing, and you can’t try to tailor it to other people. You have to sincerely love it with your heart, and people will connect to that.

HC: And that was the beginning of the folk New Age music. LL: Yeah, it was; exactly. At the time it was New Age, and a lot of ground was being broken with instrumental artists, thanks to Windham Hill primarily. I had tried Windham Hill, and not made it. They had a new harpist named Therese Schroeder-Sheker—you know her. So I sort of gave up on that and commenced doing my own label. I didn’t know that that was actually very wise to do at the time, because I ended up making sever- al recordings and just stockpiling this back catalog. I was so successful just being this intense performer. I mean, I played six days a week, all week, in malls all around the country. I was on the beach, in every kind of street performing festival I could get into, I was working full time all the time just putting out records, putting out music. And I was so successful with that that I actually got the of Windham Hill— Windham Hill contacted me. Within a week, I had a manager and a record contract and I was getting to meet and tour with the most incredible artists on Windham Hill who were legendary performers. And after many, many years of slugging it out, really hard stuff, suddenly the picture changed, and I just couldn’t believe it.

HC: It’s ironic, isn’t it?

LL: Yeah, and record contracts you think are really a great deal, but really they’re basically loans from record companies that believe you will sell records. Fortunately I had this back catalog that I had amassed that I was able to ride on the coattails of all the new interest and promotion that was happening with Windham Hill. So the fact that I did not get a record deal early on was actually a blessing, because I wouldn’t have had this back catalog that I owned completely, and that’s how I learned. You have to own your music, you have to own your records; the more you can do by yourself, without the help or the money of anyone else, the better off you are in the long run, especially now, with the changing land- scape of how the music industry is. You have to own it, you should write it, protect it, and put it out. The tools are all there for all of us, and they enable us to reach worldwide with our music.

HC: And you still tour with the Women of Windham Hill group; that’s still going on?

LL: Yeah. The record label itself has pretty much, you know, demised, like many of the record situations have now. However, the Solstice tours—Winter Solstice, Summer Solstice—have been so strong that those artists are still touring and filling up perform- ing arts centers.

HC: Now you are pretty much constantly on the road. Has it taken a toll on your health?

LL: Well, you learn how to do better with your health as you go, but it’s been for me, seriously about 15 years of touring, 40 weeks a year. Literally; I may take off one week in the month, but I’m on the road all the time. Probably about half or more is actual festivals—folk festivals, street festivals, art festivals, any kind of festivals, and the other half is probably a combination of fine concerts in fine places, any kind of workshops or speaking engagements, and miscellaneous this or that or recording that I would be doing. So the schedule has remained full, and as a result I was going so hard for so many years I ended up having this health experience where I caught West Nile virus on the East Coast, and it caused me to be laid out. I had some hemorrhages in my brain, actually, and then blood clots in my legs, and blah, blah, blah; all the traveling has aggravated these blood clots in my legs, so I’ve had surgery, I’ve had treatment over the years. And so I have this added consideration on top of health. So over the last couple of years I have really turned it around, and make sure I’m traveling bet- ter, eating right, sleeping enough, and really try to be on top of it with all the health things, because it can really take a lot out of you, and I’ve already paid a price for having done so much without much regard to that. Now I’m much better as far as taking care of myself on the road.

HC: You told me once you traveled with a crock pot. Do you still? You’re actually the gadget queen, aren’t you?
LL: [Laughs] Yeah, sometimes festival or conference food is not so good, so yes, I have been known to bring a crock pot and make soup on the road. But otherwise I’m pretty much a traveling gadget girl; I have my laptop, always online, always available, I have recording devices, video players, uploads, things to upload, backup batteries for the airplane, so I can have enough batteries to go across the whole country—because I actually fly to the East Coast from L.A. three or four times a month, so I have work to do on the plane—I have it all together and I have an abundance of ways to record for my blogs and put information on my Web site going at all times. I guess I’m kind of obsessed with it.

HC: Being on the plane is like being in your office for you, then.
LL: It is; exactly. If I’m lucky enough to
get upgraded to first class especially, I can really spread out. But otherwise I’ve got it all together. And people say, “How can you fly so much? That’s so awful,” when really, in fact, it’s my Zen time that I get caught up on so much work. Most of the time it’s work, sometimes it’s fun stuff, but I’m just working the whole time, uninter- rupted, no phone, no one talks to me, and I can actually really get into whatever project I’m shaping at the time: listening to tracks, organizing stuff, the list goes on. And the time goes by quickly, so I actually look forward to that private, cubicle time in the airplane seat. As long as there’s not some large man’s leg in my space, it’s great. [Laughs]
HC: That’s funny. There you are, kind of an organic, high-tech hippie sitting in first class! LL: That’s right. I don’t look like I fit there, but because I have so many miles on the airplanes, I often get to sit there with all the suits and businessmen, and I don’t really look like I fit in.
HC: So you started a groundbreaking program at the City of Hope Cancer Research Center in L.A. area. Do you want to talk about that?
LL: Sure; that came about in a round- about way, actually. Long story short, I was just kind of doing my thing as a recording artist when the Columbine situ- ation happened that we remember from quite a while ago now.
HC: The Columbine shooting?
LL: Yeah, the Columbine shootings. And I got a call from Sylvia Woods Harp Center that said one of the families was using my Love and Peace CD and it was really helpful for their student—she had been critically wounded—and I was blown away. I actually was scheduled to perform in Denver, so went to the hospital and met with the family—it was an incredible experience. It really shifted what I was thinking about how useful music can be. When I got back from there, I put it online that I had met this family, and all the harpists pitched in and got Anne Marie Hochhalter her own harp. And she was paralyzed from the waist down, but she learned to play the harp during her recov- ery, and that was awesome to be a part of—all the harpists were a part of it, actually. And so I was inspired by that, that it’s not just about playing harp for people that are, you know, suffering, it’s about giving them a harp, and let them play. It’s so empowering. So I ended up writing a letter to some hospitals saying, “I’ve got these seven harps I want to bring; I could do a concert and do a workshop,” and City of Hope just grabbed it right up, they loved it, we built a program, we had funding. It’s now been going six years, where we have two parts to the pro- gram: one is simply bringing in incredible performers to do house concerts in the main lobby, and the cancer patients come down and get to enjoy all the best players! You’ve been there a couple times.
HC: Yes.
LL: You know, the list is endless of the incredible performers that have played there. And then the other half is workshops, pass out the harps—now I’ve got 17 harps, thanks to so many donations—that patients play, and it’s really remark- able, it’s groundbreaking. So we kept getting grants and grants; it’s been going strong. In addition to that, we
have harp music in the daytimes, other harpists come in and play, and it has now expanded to six hospitals in the L.A. area, where I’m moving music and harp players around, and basically just chang- ing the vibration of what’s normally a scary place.

HC: Well, the big difference between that and the harp therapy programs is that you teach the patients to play the harp, or the families of the patients. It’s a hands-on thing, right?
LL: Exactly; it’s a hands-on, interactive thing. It’s simply just shifting the feeling and the environment by having music. So, you know, some of the players have been trained, but it hasn’t been an issue at all in the hospitals. We just go in and we just play in the main areas and the stations. And of course we get paid, heck yes, it’s a business like anything else, and we provide the service. And it’s really growing, because there’s such a need for it. So I’m sitting on top of what feels like this horse that needs to take off, but I don’t have the manpower and the time to real- lydoitlikeI’dliketodoit.SoI’mmanagingitasI can, as time permits, but all this happens in the three days I’m home a week. And so I’m constantly trying to manage all this with the hospitals, and it’s defi- nitely a challenge.
HC: Have you ever thought of doing that full- time?
LL: Maybe in my old age. [Laughs] But I’m not quite ready.
HC: Define “old age.” [Laughs]
LL: I’m not quite ready for that now, but I have a feeling as I get to branch out, it will grow into some- thing, and I’ll try to always juggle both, because I really am half and half: all about the art, the music, making new music, and half about what I consider as serving with music however we choose to serve. As soon as we make that a real part of our thing now, I just feel like the universe steps in and gives you a lift, you know? And what I’ve taken away from this expe- rience of being involved with the hospitals, is that it has just gifted me with so many things beyond what I could have imagined. We all think, “Oh, when I’ve made it, I want to do this, and I have this idea.” Just start it now, and you’ll make it sooner, you know, because something about the universe will come in and help you out in some way when your intention is right and you’re coming right from the heart. That’s just how it works, I believe.
HC: Just “dare to give back.”
LL: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. As harpists, we all have this really special gift, and the more places we can find, especially the unusual and unexpected places, are the ones where we’re going to do the most good work.
HC: Well, you’re probably a mystery to many harpists who’ve worked so hard to build technique, and what you play is—not to take offense—what you play is actually quite simple. It’s very beautiful, slow music, most of it, right?
LL: Yeah, I think so, but I think the reason that I am able to play the way I do is because I do have actual great strength. I came up playing all that bass for so many years that I ended up being real strong in my hands, so I think laying down the low-end pat- tern so strong, and to be so certain of your power in the time that you could play so sparsely, that you could play less, but yet it is so solid that everything that lays over it transcends that. And so I’ve been able to create a sound by playing so simply but so strong. And on top of that, even more important is the simplest thing in the world, and that is melody. I care so much about the melody. And the melodies seem to come pretty easy, and they’re so deceptively simple, too. Every time I try to teach someone one of my songs, the common comment is that that is really deceptive, because it’s quite clever or quite intricate compared to how the overall sound is. So I don’t know really how to explain it, but I do know that somehow it opens peo- ple’s hearts in the mainstream, and it goes in and inspires them or soothes them or something. And I really believe it’s a combination of my background, coming up from rock—I loved Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis—combined with my love for Renaissance and Medieval music and my naiveness from having no formal study has created something that transcends every genre. And people of all ages—old, young, every cultural background—are connecting and making my music a part of their life because of its simplicity and its melody.
HC: It’s accessible; it’s very accessible to people.
LL: Yeah, it’s accessible somehow, and yet the rhythm is so solid that it really
allows people to rest. I’ve seen so many magnificent players who are just striking, incredibly talented, but less attention is paid to how solid the actual pulse is with- in the deepest part of the music. And that’s where a lot of people skim over, when in fact that is number one, is that you have to create this thick, reliable mattress so that people can actually lay on it and take in what you’re going to feed them next.
HC: Nice metaphor! I like that.
LL: Yeah.
HC: So what’s next for you? What are some future projects you’re working on?

LL: Well, now that this Two Worlds One album with incredible harper, Aryeh Frankfurter, is completed, we’re doing some promotional things for that. And next on the burner coming up is the Goddess project, which you’re quite famil- iar with since you are my co-creator of that. We decided to put together a compi- lation CD of some of our tracks and some of our other favorite player tracks called Harp Goddess, or at least tentatively that. And it’s going to be a series of compilations showcasing all kinds of harp goddesses. And note, though, harp goddess is a frame of mind. So it’s not limited to only women, it’s limited to all those who know the power and the magic of this instru- ment and want to share their music with, so I think we’re on to something pretty cool with it, and you can look for that in the coming months. Other projects that I’m doing: I am just working with the video stuff that I’ve been doing, trying to create some sort of a fun travel show based on the adventures that we’ve been having all around from the viewpoint of a street performer. I’m just constantly look- ing for opportunities to use this great tech- nology that we have for promotion, as well. I’ve just done a whole upgrade of my Web site, and just trying to stay on top of it. It’s really a wonderful time now: with the Internet, it sort of levels the playing field and allows us all to share all of our creativity in bigger ways than we would have ever had time to do or ability to do before, so I’m really excited. I have so many ideas I could be working forever and not even get through my list. I made a CD just for babies last year, and I play in these neonatal care units, and my inten- tion was just to give it only to families of the babies I meet. And it ended up taking off, the hospital gives them to every baby born, so now I’m out promoting this baby CD! You know?
HC: It’s lullabies, right?
LL: It’s lullabies, yeah, it’s lullabies, and it’s baby and adult lullabies. But it was just an unexpected success, because the intention was not “Oh, I’m going to have a big-selling lullaby record,” I just wanted it to give to the babies I played for. But it ended up taking off, which again leads me back to my core belief is that you
do something with an honest intention, and you make innocent music that you truly is a part of you. People just pick up on that, and that’s how you will find the most success is being true to yourself. I’ve made so many records in my early days which I actually am embarrassed about now, because I let it get away from me, it wasn’t me. And now, as time goes on, I hone in and hone in on what is really me and what is my most honest offering I can, and with every record, there’s even more success, because there’s more truth andhonestyinit.IfIhadittodoover,I would have bypassed all those first years and just got straight to the real, honest music, and that’s what I recommend for anybody who’s starting to record, or you’re already recording. Just make it music that you love, and don’t try to make it to please anybody else, and you’ll be far more successful.
HC: But you also worked very, very hard at it!
LL: That, too! [Laughs]
HC: Yeah. So, I mean, do you think there’s a line between art and commerce? Is there a point when you just get tired of trying to market yourself and just want to play your harp?
LL: I do. I mean, I get tired of keeping track of it all. It shouldn’t be my job, but I’m doing it anyway. And I don’t do it that well. The traveling does get old; I’m tired a lot. But it just feels like a mission that’s so much bigger than all that, that I offer up the energy to do it easily and freely because of the bigger picture. I feel like it really is purposeful, it’s something I’ll do my whole life, and I’ve been so fortunate to be given the opportunity now for pretty much my whole adult life to play only music, and be free, and shape my own career, and be able to have all these choic- es. I just can’t get over this constant feel- ing, of being blessed. You know? So when times get challenging, I just keep going back to that. It’s like, how lucky am I to be free and to be doing what I love and hav- ing people actually take it in and use it and be useful at the same time, and be abundant. You know? I have great abundance from all this. Somehow I’ve learned enough over the years that I’m just rocking. I feel really, really fortunate.

HC: So what do you do to renew yourself when you’re not touring?
LL: I guess I don’t really! I try to lay easy one day a week. But again, it’s just trying to get sleep and trying to stay healthy and eat right. I love to cook; that actually is my favorite hobby. I love to cook, I love to make jewelry with beads when I have time to. But mostly I just try to sleep and hang around with people that are just good for my health. And pos- itive, good things happening all the time, and love from all directions, and I just try to be gentle on myself. As far as my thoughts go, not get negative or discour- aged; just those positive thoughts are probably the most healing of all in these crazy times.
HC: Yeah. Well, since this is for a harp magazine, how do you see yourself in the harp world? Or do you?
LL: That’s a very good question, because I’ve never struck out to be in the harp world. Not that I didn’t want to, but I was just always so in awe of what has been established so firmly already. Go to any harp conference and you just get blown away: one after another of these incredible musicians from all different countries. They just are so incredible it’s like I can’t even really go there. So I have sort of just cut my own path alongside of it, which I’m more immersed, not in the harp world, but in general, mainstream society world, and I’m just trying to share and promote the harp as best as I can, and I wouldn’t dare try to compare myself to all the virtuoso players. But I do feel what I bring to the party is maybe just some wisdom from that other path about how to express it yourself, what you’re doing, how to maximize your gifts and your skills. And I think that that’s the way that I am useful in the harp world, as far as demonstrating that this path has worked for this person. And otherwise, I really am not that connected, I’m not that involved in it, even though I admire so much about it. •