Blues on the harp at Natick arts center

Deborah Henson-Conant, unhappy with its size and weight, developed a harp that is both portable and electric.
Jake Jacobson
Deborah Henson-Conant, unhappy with its size and weight, developed a harp that is both portable and electric.

From a musical perspective, opposition to the status quo has been a driving force in Deborah Henson-Conant’s art and in her career.

Though raised by musicians, she didn’t like taking lessons as a child, preferring to improvise and compose rather than practice scales and exercises.

Settling eventually on the harp as her instrument of choice, she disliked the fact that it was so hard to transport her harp from one performance venue to the next, so she eventually developed a version of the massive classical instrument that is both portable and electric.


And when a boyfriend told her that it was definitely not possible to play jazz on the harp, she immediately set out to develop a jazz repertoire for herself.

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These days, Henson-Conant is well known regionally and even internationally for her innovative electric harp performances. And this month she takes it a step farther by playing her second annual “Lose Your Blues” show, developed when she set out to prove that the harp was an ideal instrument for playing the blues as well as classical and jazz.

For the performance at The Center for Arts in Natick, Henson-Conant will play her iconic 32-string electric harp with strings that light up. This is the instrument that engineers at the French company Camac Harps custom-designed for her when she went to them with her fantasy of a harp that she could strap on like an electric guitar and walk around the stage with while she performed.

The lighted strings, however, are a more recent innovation, developed just last year while she was on tour with rock musician Steve Vai.

“Steve and his team helped me build a pedal board, so I could play my harp with more of a guitar sound, and they added the LED lights just because there were times during their performances that I couldn’t see my strings,” she said. “It’s really exciting for me to be collaborating with people who are interested just as I am in pushing the instrument to places it wasn’t originally conceived of going.”


After the Vai tour, Henson-Conant began homing in on her ongoing interest in playing and singing the blues.

“Every style of music releases a different part of your voice, when you are a performing artist,” she said. “There are things I’ll sing about or play about when I’m playing the blues that don’t work in any other style. Initially, I started adding just one or two blues songs to my concerts, and then a year ago I decided for the first time to do a whole show devoted to the blues. It sold out, so I’m delighted to be doing it again this year.”

Henson-Conant enjoys exercising the part of her voice that sings the blues, but she admits that writing the songs is half the fun.

“There are things you can say only in a song,” she said. “For example, I really appreciate the fact that the garbage man comes to pick up the garbage. That doesn’t sound interesting on its own, but it sounds great in a song. Or, for example, I really love cooking with my husband. I can express that by saying to him, ‘I really like cooking together!’ But it’s more fun to sing ‘I’ll be your sous-chef, baby, I’m gonna slice and dice and chop for you.’ So often, the songs come out of an everyday need to express on a deeper or higher or more ridiculous level the feeling I’m having.”

Henson-Conant likes surprising her audience, whether it’s with an 11-pound electric harp with strings that light up or with a song about the garbage collector, but she takes seriously the fact that she is expanding people’s understanding of what music is and can be.


“Some people come to my concerts with preconceptions about the harp. They say, ‘I didn’t know you could make it sound like a guitar or like steel drums. I didn’t know you could get that much sound out of a harp.’ ”

And she has come to believe those surprises can have a profound effect on her audience.

“On a metaphorical level, any time people are surprised to see that something they had a stereotype about is richer and larger and more unlimited than they realized, it affects their understanding of themselves. If you go to a concert and see an instrument you’ve always thought was a fuddy-duddy played in an aggressive, fun way, you start thinking about your own life. You ask, ‘In what areas have I been unnecessarily limiting myself? What have I been saying about myself that doesn’t need to be the case?’

“I love it when that’s what people take away: not just that they loved the show and the music and songs, but were left thinking about what one person can do with one idea and how far they take it.”

Henson-Conant performs “Lose Your Blues” Saturday at 8 p.m. at The Center for Arts in Natick, 14 Summer St., Natick. Tickets are $24 for members, $26 non-members, discounts available for seniors and students. To buy tickets or find more information, call 508.647.0097 or go to www.natickarts.org.

THE TWAIN SHALL MEET: With his ensemble that plays both fretless and fretted guitars, a lute-like instrument called an oud, piano, acoustic bass, and percussion, composer and instrumentalist Jussi Reijonen previews his new CD, a fusion of the many Eastern and Western cultural and musical influences with which he was raised, at a concert on Friday at the Acton Jazz Café, 103 Nagog Park, Acton., at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12.50 at the door. For tickets, call 978-263-6161 or go to www.actonjazzcafe.com.

COFFEEHOUSE ROCK: Southern Rail’s music features high-energy exuberance, riveting harmonies, and sparkling banjo and mandolin solo work. The group performs at the Homegrown Coffeehouse in Needham on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the First Parish Church of Needham, 23 Dedham Ave., Needham. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 students and seniors, and can be purchased in advance at www.uuneedham.org/Coffeehouse. Remaining tickets will be available at the door. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 781-444-7478.

MOON MOVIES: Belmont World Film, which has presented the best in international films from around the globe for children and adults since 2001, will hold a “Full Moon Festival” for families on Saturday, at the Studio Cinema, 376 Trapelo Road, Belmont. The festival features two films: “Lotte and the Moonstone Secret” at 10:30 a.m. and “Moon Man” at 1 p.m., which will be followed by a discussion of phases of the moon led by an astronomer from the Museum of Science. Tickets are $5 for children, $8 for adults, and $7 for seniors, students, and Belmont World Film members, or both films for $8 for children and $12 for adults. Purchase tickets online at www.mktix.com/bwf or in person at the Studio Cinema box office. For more information, visit www.belmontworldfilm.org or call 617-484-3980.

FROM ROMANIA WITH MUSIC: LiveARTS Sunday Concert Series presents Romanian-born Boston Symphony Orchestra cellist Mihail Jojatu on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at the Meetinghouse of the First Universalist Society in Franklin, 262 Chestnut St. He will perform the music of Bach, Suites No. 4, 5, and 6 for Unaccompanied Cello, and is dedicating this recital to the memory of the Newtown, Conn., victims. Tickets, available at the door, are $18 , $12 seniors age 60 or older, $12 youth ages 13-19) music students $7; children age 12 and younger are admitted free of charge. (Not recommended for children under age 6.) For more information, go to www.liveartsfranklin.org, or call 508-520-9238.

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.