Vocalist, harpist comes home for release events in area
By Denny Dyroff, Staff Writer, The Times
Gillian Grassie likes to forge her own trails — as a person and as a musician.
Grassie graduated from Unionville High a decade ago. Then, a few years later, she graduated cum laude from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in Comparative Literature.
She is a vocalist and harpist who traveled over 25,000 miles back in 2009 as she trekked around the globe on a musical exploration.
Now living in Berlin, Germany — and occasionally back in the Delaware Valley — Grassie is an accomplished musician with several highly-acclaimed albums to her credit. She also seems to have a lot of gypsy running through her DNA.
“I’ve lived in Berlin on and off for the last three years,” said Grassie, during a phone interview Tuesday morning. “Since I graduated from Bryn Mawr, I lived in 16 countries — and never in one place for more than three months. For now, I really love the nomadic life. Maybe I’ll be looking for more stability when I’m in my late 30s and 40s.
“Berlin is my creative home and America is more my business home. Berlin is where I go for the creative nurturing. People gravitate there because it’s so affordable. And, there is a different pace out there.”
Grassie recently returned from Europe so that she can perform two “CD Release Shows” for her new EP “The Woodlands Sessions.” The first show is March 23 at MilkBoy Philly (1100 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, 215- 925-6455, www.milkboyphilly.com) and the second show is March 24at Gramercy House in New York City.
“The EP just dropped today,” said Grassie, who grew up in Southern Chester County. “I already got my first blurb — and they called it ‘ravishing.’ I’ll be here until April 10 and then I’ll be back in June. I’m playing some shows in Scotland and then I’ll get the EP launched in Berlin in April.”
The EP is more than ravishing. It is a spellbinding combination of warm, engaging songs, brilliant harp playing, soothing vocals, standout musicianship from all the players and smart, insightful lyrics about one of songwriters’ favorite subjects — love.
From track to track, “The Woodland Sessions” chronicles a relationship from giddy inception to quiet breakdown to final acceptance. One subject of Gillian’s writing is her former boyfriend, comedian Zach Anner, with whom she maintains a robust friendship and artistic collaboration.
Grassie worked closely with Anner on his first memoir, “If At Birth You Don’t Succeed,” which also debuted this year to rave reviews from Lena Dunham, Patton Oswalt, and others. Gillian has several tracks featured on the audiobook, including “Quiet Kinda” from “The Woodland Sessions,” — a pensive pop number which is specifically about the former couple’s long-distance relationship at the time.
“The songs sort of chart the course of falling in love, angst, and dealing with travel,” said Grassie. “The last song is a slightly meditative piece ‘Quiet Kind’ is a song I wrote about Zach.”
The songs on “The Woodland Sessions” are different from Grassie’s previous compositions. One reason is a new harp she purchased in Scotland.
“I still have the harp I learned to play on,” said Grassie. “The new harp comes with a flight case and that makes a big difference if you travel as much as I do. The songs that I’m writing on the new harp are different. The instrument’s voice is different with the tones and timbres it has.”
Another reason the songs have a new vibe is the mindset Grassie had when composing them.
According to Grassie, “Harpists are often solitary creatures and it can, at times, be a lonely instrument to partner yourself with. My harp’s been my travel companion through 16 countries and counting.
“But over the years I’ve become increasingly interested in figuring out how it fits into the context of a band and a lot of this material was written with a band in mind — to the extent that some of the songs don’t even function as a solo harp and vocal performance.
“I’ve known these guys for years and we’ve worked together in various formats before, but this was the first time I really took a firm grip on the wheel as a true band leader. I came to them with a confidence and clarity of vision that was new to me.”
Grassie recorded the new EP with an all-star band of Philadelphia legends. Guitarist Ross Bellenoit has toured with Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello. Drummer Matt Scarano plays with Chris Brubeck, Time For Three and Johnny Neel. Bassist Ryan Kuhns teaches bass at the University of the Arts.
Trombone player Ernest Stuart tours with Red Baraat and founded the Center City Jazz Festival in Philadelphia. Saxophonist Korey Riker is the recipient of the 2016 Kimmel Center Jazz Composer Residency Grant and has performed with The Roots, John Legend and Mary J. Blige.
“This new batch of songs I wrote specifically for a band,” said Grassie. “It meant creating more space in the arrangements and that’s been really exciting. And, I wrote them for this band which includes some of my oldest collaborators in Philly — some whom I’ve worked with since 2009.
“It’s really exciting to re-connect with them — and to come to them with so much more clarity of vision. I’ve gained more experience with band leadership over the last five years. This time, I was writing with these musicians in mind. Ross has a tone on guitar that I adore.
“What sets these guys apart is that they are so accomplished with their instruments. And, what is so harder to find, they are players who know when enough is enough — just enough. They appreciate the value of sparseness — right notes and fewer notes.
“Prior to recording the EP, we had minimal rehearsals. I wanted the recordings to be live. There is a different energy that comes out when you’re all in the same room together. I wanted a live organic feeling. We did it in two sessions and that kept it really fresh.”
The EP was recorded live at the historic Woodlands Mansion in West Philadelphia. It was engineered and mixed by Sam Nuttle in Philadelphia, and mastered by Al Creedon in Philadelphia.
The Woodlands is a National Historic Landmark District on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. It includes a Federal-style mansion, a matching carriage house and stable, and a garden landscape that in 1840 was transformed into a Victorian rural cemetery with an arboretum of over 1,000 trees.
“I also wanted to film all these sessions,” said Grassie. “I wanted to share with people how amazing this is so I wanted a visual component. The Woodlands Mansion is a very historical site. It is a place with atmosphere and vibes — and a place with a lot of natural light.
“The room we used also has a lot of atmosphere. There is history in the walls. We recorded two tracks there in February 2015 and three more tracks in January 2016.”
Grassie’s international travels began just under seven years ago.
“I left on my trip on July 30, 2009 and returned home on July 30, 2010,” said Grassie. “When I was finishing my degree at Bryn Mawr College, I applied for the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. I got it and that’s what made the trip possible.”
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship offers college graduates of “unusual promise” a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel — in international settings new to them — to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community. The stipend for the fellowship year is $25,000.
“There were very few rules,” said Grassie, who holds a dual citizenship (United States and Switzerland). “It’s completely independent. The main rule is that you can’t return to your home country so I couldn’t come back here or go to Switzerland.”
Grassie started in France and spent time in Paris and Normandy. In Germany, she lived for awhile in Berlin, visited Freiburg and did a concert tour with Joseph Parsons. Then, it was off to Mumbai, India where she did musical collaborations with a number of top Indian musicians including Mithavan and Ranjit Barot.
A variety of adventures greeted Grassie when she was in Djakarta, Indonesia including having to deal with a broken harp, performing at a jazz festival, being exposed to gamelan music and recovering from rabies shots after being bitten by a stray cat.
“After Indonesia, I went to Hong Kong,” said Grassie. “Then, I traveled to China and spent time in Shanghai and Beijing. When I crossed the border into Russia, I had my bag confiscated in Krasnoyarsk. Finally, I just got on the Trans-Siberian Express and traveled on without it.”
Grassie travelled around Russia teaching kids English through traditional American folk music as a part of the ESL Folk Project. At the tail end of her trip, her wallet and passport were stolen in St. Petersburg. She finally got an exit visa, took a bus to Helsinki (Finland) and a two-day ferry ride to Rostock (Germany). Then, she headed back to Berlin.
The versatile musician/world traveler began playing Celtic harp when she was 12 and started as a singer-songwriter a few years later.
“When I was in high school, I spent a semester in Switzerland,” said Grassie. “I had all this free time so I decided to start writing songs. Once I started, I knew that was the way I wanted to go. I found it much more fulfilling.”
Grassie released an EP titled “To an Unwitting Muse” in 2005 and followed two years later with her first album — “Serpentine”. Her song “Silken String” took second place in the 2008 New York Songwriters Circle Competition. Her third release was an album titled “The Hinterhaus,” which came out in 2013.
“I recorded ‘The Hinterhaus’in Oakland (California),” said Grassie, who in recent years has toured South American and done two U.S. State Department tours in Russia. “I did a Kickstarter campaign that overfunded. I had planned on D.I.Y. but with the extra money. I looked at who I wanted to work with.
“I really liked the work Todd Sickafoose did as a producer — especially the ‘Hadestown’ album by Anaïs Mitchell and the albums he made with Ani DiFranco. I asked him if he would produce my record and he agreed. So, I went to Oakland to work with him.”
Grassie explained why she has released just two LPs and two EPs over the course of 10 years.
“The main thing about making an album is that it’s expensive,” said Grassie. “It takes some funding. Making the record is only half the job. Getting the word out is a Herculean task. I don’t think I did a good job with letting people know about ‘The Hinterhaus.’ It takes a lot of planning.”
Grassie’s energy is directed more to being an artist than being a manager, promoter or publicist. She is happiest when she is performing for people.
“I’ve been touring a lot in Europe — especially all over Italy,” said Grassie. “Italian audiences really respond to what I’m doing. I also play a lot in Scotland — the country where I got my new harp. In Berlin, sometimes I just play on the street. I’m a perfectionist and busking is a great way to test drive new songs.
“For the show at Milkboy, I’ll be playing all the songs from the new EP and a lot from ‘The Hinterhaus’ and ‘Serpentine.’ The doors open at 7 p.m. The opening band goes on at 8 p.m. and I’ll play with my band at 9 p.m. The Dove and the Wolf are a super cool duo –and fellow Trans-Atlantic musicians — who are opening the show.”
The Dove & the Wolf consists of Paloma and Lou, two girls raised on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean — one in Paris and the other on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. They started playing together in 2004 and formed The Dove & the Wolf in 2012. Six months after creating the band, they released their self-produced and self-distributed debut album.
Video link for The Dove and the Wolf — https://youtu.be/PK2xcIm4TeY.
Video link for Gillain Grassie — https://youtu.be/yUa6DbWoUiY.
Link for “The Woodland Sessions” — https://gilliangrassie.bandcamp.com/album/the-woodlands-sessions.
Tickets for the show at Milkboy are $10 and it is a 21-and-older show.