“Playing the harp..it's like plugging myself directly into nature”
Brighton-based singer-songwriter Tracy Jane Sullivan’s musical career stretches back over two decades and across several continents, from the Middle East to New Zealand, spanning performances with a range of established talents including Dub legend Mad Professor, Herbie Flowers, Ted Barnes, Geoffrey Richardson and Danny Cummings.
Her new love is the harp. Read more about it here in an interview with Katya Foreman:
KF: What is so unique about the harp for you?
TJS: Most certainly how directly and profoundly it affects those who experience it. It's a magical instrument. Interestingly, most people seem instinctively drawn to the harp in one way or another and their reaction when they touch it or hear it being played is very powerful indeed. Also, not only is the shape of the harp tremendously beautiful, it speaks volumes, just through the strings, with it's unique sound. It’s probably one of the purest sounds in the world.
KF: And when you play the harp, what effect does it have on you?
TJS: Intense joy and a feeling of excitement and connection – both to myself and to the world. When I play outside (I love playing outside by lakes or out in the woods by moonlight) it’s like plugging directly into nature. When I hear the wind through the trees, sometimes I feel like my harp is playing with the wind and sometimes it feels like the wind is playing with the harp. It's a beautiful feeling. Also, very importantly, the harp has a very calming effect. It's a great stress reliever!
KF: Where does your love of nature come from? Does it come from your childhood in Scotland?
Yes definitely, from my grandparents. They lived in Newton Stewart in the Dumfries and Galloway region in Scotland. Their home was a beautiful little cottage with three quarters of an acre of land and a river at the bottom of the garden. They grew all their own fruits and vegetables, from potatoes and gooseberries to fresh herbs and tomatoes. I still remember the smell of those ripe tomatoes in the greenhouse… My grandparents were big walkers and even when I was only four years old they’d take me out walking for miles and miles up into the hills to collect spring water and identify wild flowers. In the evenings, my grandfather would play the piano by the log fire and we would sing hymns. It was a magical time. A creative time.
KF: And to go back to the harp, what differentiates your harp playing from other harp players, would you say?
TJS: I would say my improvisational skills, with influences coming from Indian, Middle Eastern, Celtic and African music. This comes from my teacher-mentor Diana Rowan over in America, who continues to inspire and guide me. This strong improvisational streak means I can create bespoke soundscapes, unique to each situation, whether this is a beautiful wedding reception, a one-on-one harp relaxation session, an art installation, storytelling session or a new song. I always have a few tricks in my harp toolbox that I know give certain effects and sounds and the rest of it is simply about being connected and letting the music flow in that moment without judging the process. For me that’s the most exciting thing about music, when you don’t know exactly what’s coming and allowing those moments to unfold around you.
KF: What kind of performer are you?
TJS: A truthful performer I hope. A good performance comes from truth and vulnerability. Think about it. When you go to watch someone perform, you like to see them being vulnerable. I think you like to see them being truthful to their talent and being real. You know, people can sniff it out. If you go on stage and you’re fake in any way, if you are not feeling that feeling, if you’re trying to present yourself as something that you are not, the audience can sniff that out. And there is nothing better, when you go and watch/listen to music, you want to feel relaxed, you want to feel that you’re really in the capable arms of the person that’s performing. People are very much voyeurs and like seeing into somebody else’s inner being and when somebody is really performing from the heart and soul, you are being vulnerable and you’re letting people in.
KF: Would you say that you’re a storyteller, a raconteur?
TJS: Definitely. Going back to my background as a singer-songwriter on guitar, my songs normally have some kind of autobiographical edge to them, however, even my instrumental harp compositions still tell a story and take the listener on a journey.
Conveying a mood, that just in itself is telling a story. For example, when I am feeling quiet and meditative playing for meditation or yoga sessions the harp reflects this and tells the story of the moment. Of course, when I work with storytellers like Fleur Shorthouse, the story telling aspect is totally there and upfront.
In other situations, I am much more physical with the harp. So I will strum it and hit it and people can be quite surprised by that I think. So in these instances, there is much more of a visual performance but however the music is presented there will always, always, be a story.
KF: Going back to the outdoors, what are some examples of places you’ve played at?
TJS: Wow. There are so many. I guess one of my favourites would have been the time I travelled deep into the hills of Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, where my mum is buried now, to play by the waterfalls in the ancient Wood of Cree. I’ve also played on quite a few boats, the cliffs in West Penwith - Cornwall, riversides in Dartmoor, and a rather stunning amphitheatre in Sussex.
KF: Tell us more about the soundscapes, or, as you call them, 'harpscapes'
TJS: I like to improvise on the harp and combine this music with photos, paintings, words and occasions. The combination of visuals and 'harpscapes' is probably where I get my biggest kick as this marriage of mediums moves me in a very different way to when I experience them separately. Together, they join the inner dots of a universe that before felt vividly compelling but somewhat incomplete. The other night, I sat down in the dark with my laptop and just started playing while looking at one of my photos I had manipulated to look like a painting. It's called 'Musings in Blue". I just concentrated on the feeling from the picture and allowed the harp to channel a response without judgement. What came out was so interesting. Very minimalist, avant garde, timeless. Sometimes the improvisation, depending on the stimuli, is more direct, rhythmical or melodic, but whatever aural shape it takes, the resonance is pure and powerful in the way only a harp can sound.