Grammy Award-nominated harpist Deborah Henson-Conant comes to Rockport on Saturday, bringing to the stage the evolution of an itinerant childhood steeped in musical traditions that she has transformed into a dynamic show, featuring music from classical to flamenco.
She performs on an instrument designed for her by the Camac instrument company in France, named after her — the DHC Light. Her instrument weighs 11 pounds, and has 32 strings.
"I often say to people that the concert harp is built out of wood like a beautiful boat and my harp is built out of carbon fiber like a racing bike," she said in a phone interview this week. "I like to be an explorer like Lewis and Clark. I start the show playing in a classical style and then we go on an adventure as to what this instrument can do."
Compared to a concert harp that weighs 75 to 80 pounds, her lightweight harp allows her to move freely around the stage, playing, singing and telling stories.
She wanted to tour internationally, but she would have had to make arrangements to have a concert harp at each stop. Now, with her "hip harp," she travels with it wherever she wants.
"To develop my own style I needed the consistency of my own instrument," she said. "The seed had been planted when I was a kid. My father gave me a book about ancient Egypt and in it were pictures of women with harps strapped to them, and I saw a picture of King David who also appeared wearing a harp and walking around playing it. It's not like it isn't possible. But finding a company to build it for me was more difficult."
The first version Camac built weighed 18 pounds. But she said the new 11-pound version has been a big hit and is now the top-selling harp.
Henson-Conant has jammed with the likes of Bobby McFerrin, Steven Tyler and the Boston Pops. She just returned from a five-week U.S. tour that included symphony stages, arts series and vintage vaudeville theaters.
Unlike artists who focus on a specific genre, she explores genres to expose different aspects of the new instrument, and she uses a story to put each genre in context. She can create delicate arpeggios as well as Hendrix-inspired sound clusters.
"Deborah Henson-Conant is a lively entertainer," said Gregg Sorensen, a Rockport Music spokesman. "She's also a wonderful singer in addition to being a mesmerizing storyteller. Audiences will be on the edges of their seats."
As a child, every summer Henson-Conant moved to a different town, and went to a different school every year, with stops in California, Oregon, British Columbia, and then eastward to North Carolina. Fortunately, she was undaunted such changes.
"It was fun for me and I think it set me up to be a performer, learning to go into new environments and be comfortable," she said. "I got to see a lot of people and different ways of life and learn about different kinds of music as well. But I was very influenced by the music in my own family. My mother was an opera singer, as is my aunt. I really grew up in the middle of two operatic divas. My father played banjo and sang."
Her mother died at the age of 54.
"I found in many ways I was able to integrate her more after her death," she said. "I do one song about her and her singing, called 'The Nightingale.' It's a song many people have recorded on YouTube. I think one of the reasons it is so simple and beautiful is because it's from a child's view. It's me listening to my mother singing a lullaby.
"I aspire to be a diva in the best of all possible ways, of letting that bigger-than-life element take over," she added.
As a child, she started on a concert harp to learn technique but she was resistant to lessons although she loved music. Now as an adult, she continues her studies with all kinds of artists including a mime and a dancer.
"These are people who give me perspective on what I'm doing," said Henson-Conant, who is taking an online class for electric guitar with Boston's Berklee School of Music. "It helps me expands the voice of my instrument."
She has studied the history of the harp and has blogged about it.
"There is a huge tradition of harp playing in Latin American countries. One interesting thing is becoming aware of all the cultures that harp is a part of. It's not just the national instrument of Ireland and Veracruz, Mexico, but there is also a different kind of harp in Senegal. It has a very robust and very intense life in many different folk or world cultures," said Henson-Conant, who know makes Arlington, Mass., her home.
She said she's excited to perform at the Shalin Liu, home of Rockport Music.
"It seems to bring the outside inside and that's a very unusual experience for concert-goers," she said. "I know many people who often come to the Shalin Liu are focused on classical music and it made me start thinking about my classical roots and how a classical audience would perceive what I'm doing. They would find a lot of it familiar as well as different. I'm a composer and I write for symphony orchestra."
Her Grammy nomination came in the category of classical cross over.
"It's interesting for classical people to observe what I do. The styles of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Prokofiev have really influenced me," she said. "Those who like blues and jazz become aware of how I'm improvising, and those familiar with world and folk music see how I utilize the instrument in different ways."
Gail McCarthy may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3445 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Who and what: Electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant on conert.
What: Saturday, April 21, at 8 p.m.
Where: Shalin Liu Performance Center, 37 Main St, in Rockport,
How much: Tickets start at $19. For information and tickets, visit www.rockportmusic.org or call 978-546-7391.