A natural storyteller who studied comparative literature and creative writing at Bryn Mawr, Gillian Grassie ’09 is a singer-songwriter with a twist. Her chosen instrument—the Celtic harp—may be an unusual choice on the contemporary music scene, but it makes the perfect complement to her soulful voice and sophisticated lyrics. With a new EP on the way, we reached out to Grassie at her perch in Berlin to talk about her music, her year on the Thomas J. Watson award, and her time at Bryn Mawr.
When did you get into music?
Music’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I used to get sent out into the hall in kindergarten because I’d be singing at my desk and causing a distraction to the other kids. My teacher would ask me to stop and I would, but then I’d start back up again without realizing it. I’d seen The Sound of Music and Into the Woods and thought that’s how life was: you have a big emotion and start spontaneously singing about it and suddenly everyone around you joins in and breaks into choreographed dance routines. My earliest compositions were mostly in praise of the muse that was my childhood dog, Tuffy.
What are your songwriting influences?
Like many things humans like (movies, books, sex), music is, at its most basic, just another narrative form of tension and release, so I try to cast as wide a net as possible in terms of influence. I’ve always been partial to storytelling in song and am influenced by many, many artists (Patty Griffin, Joni Mitchell, Björk, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Catriona McKay, Nina Simone, Portishead, Gillian Welch) as well as non-musicians (Phillip Larkin’s poetry, Alan Rickman’s vocal delivery).
How did you choose the Celtic harp?
I’ve wanted to play the harp since I was maybe three or four, but my parents tried to get me to study piano and guitar first. I somehow thought that if I committed to any other instrument, I’d never get the harp lessons, so I was a terrible student and never practiced (a strategy I now regret).
When I did finally begin to study the harp, I was active in the Scottish harp competition circuit, which led to an opportunity to study and perform at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival when I was 14. I went over there thinking I’d be going deep into the distinctions between Irish and Scottish ornamentation styles or something.
Instead I was introduced to some of the most interesting and innovative harpists working at that time—Deborah Henson-Conant, who was radical for performing in cowboy boots and a mini skirt with her harp strapped across her torso, and Park Stickney, a trail-blazing jazz harpist. From that point onwards I was interested in propelling the harp forward and exploring its role in contemporary music.
How did the Woodlands Sessions come about?
During one of my visits back home, I called up some old friends and collaborators (Ross Bellenoit, Ryan Kuhns, Matt Scarano, and Tom Bendel) and asked if they might be interested in doing a quick, one-off live video shoot. When they said yes, I started hunting for locations with a bit of vibe and lots of natural light. The Woodlands Historic Mansion in West Philly was perfect. We had a single rehearsal to learn and arrange the songs and then shot Quiet Kinda and Borrowed or Begged. The response on my YouTube channel was so strong I thought, why not explore this sound further and expand the project into a five-track EP?
It was thrilling to get the opportunity to capture the energy of a live performance. When we met up for the second shoot and did the first take of The Knee—well, it’s hard to talk about without sounding like a total loon. But having all those people there—the band, the film crew, even the staff at The Woodlands—created an intensity and atmosphere that I’ve never experienced in a sound booth.
How did you end up in Berlin?
My parents lived in Berlin for a few years in the early eighties doing nuclear disarmament work with the Friends Peace Commission, so there’s some family history, but I first fell in love with the city while I was living there for a couple months during my Watson year in 2009. Since I graduated from Bryn Mawr, my harp and I have been in something like 15 countries, so it’s hard to think of myself really “living” anywhere. I still sort of split my time bouncing back between the U.S. and Germany.
Tell me about your Watson.
My proposal was all about looking at ways in which the internet had changed the game for non-Western and/or non-English music scenes. Basically, I sought out engaging conversations with as many different people from as many different areas of the industry as I could find and tried to find common threads in their stories.
In France, I talked to many young artists who were writing their lyrics in English because they recognized the internet as a global music market and felt their songs would have more reach than if they were to sing them in their mother tongue.
India was interesting because in many ways their music industry had been insulated from the post-Napster fallout because it was never really driven by physical CD sales, but rather the Bollywood film industry. The story there turned out to be about a burgeoning live music scene for contemporary, non-Classical Indian music.
The Watson was one of the most luxurious years of my life because for an entire year I had the explicit directive to follow my nose and pursue anything that seemed intriguing, and the funding to support that pursuit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was also one of the most productive creative periods of my life. I wrote most of my second album, The Hinterhaus, while on my Watson.
What was your experience at Bryn Mawr?
I spent most of my high school years preparing for a conservatory education. But when it became clear to me that the types of harp programs I wanted didn’t exist yet, I decided that I’d do best by getting as broad an education as I could.
I was looking for schools where I could get a rigorous liberal arts education, where the student/teacher ratio was small, and where I would be geographically located for relatively convenient musical excursions on the weekends. Bryn Mawr fit all of those bills. Plus it had a really, really pretty campus.
I wasn’t fussed about the women’s college aspect one way or the other, but, after my first semester, I was surprised to find that there was a tangible difference in a female-dominated campus. My three years at Bryn Mawr were special for many reasons, but in no small part because it’s difficult to imagine any other time in my life when I might again find myself in a place where women are the definitive majority.
What were your favorite things about Bryn Mawr?
My fondest memories are of English House, the big copper beech tree, working for the bookshop (especially selling books when visiting authors came for the Reading Series), and skinny-dipping in the Cloisters fountain with the rugby team during finals week.
I had many amazing teachers and courses at Bryn Mawr, but the two professors who stand out most to me in terms of mentorship are Dan Torday and Karl Kirchwey. Bryn Mawr is spoiled for riches in its Creative Writing department, and I feel immensely grateful to have studied with Dan and Karl, who are not only tremendous literary talents in their own rights but also exceptional teachers. Also, shouts-out to the magnificent Azade Seyhan and Pim Higginson in the Comp Lit department!