Arts and CultureSF Bay Area

The Bay Area’s Tiny Harpest: EllaHarp

Updated: Jun 30, 2022 10:19
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BY NAVYA POTHAMSETTY

After getting my most recent rent increase notice, I began to look for ways to make living in the Bay Area more affordable. Harpist and singer/songwriter EllaHarp’s solution was building a tiny home. Even if you can barely cobble together an IKEA chair, EllaHarp’s story will convince you that you don’t need much experience to get started crafting your new abode: her construction experience prior to her tiny house, Little Yellow, was years of half-assed arts and crafts and one handmade dress. Successfully creating a dress after almost two decades of failed sewing attempts shifted the way the artist handles challenges. So when people told her building a house was nothing like sewing a dress, she replied: “They are the same, because I’m not going to stop until it works.”

Empowered with the success of building her own tiny home, EllaHarp turned her attention to her next challenge: building a tiny harp. If a tiny harp seems like less of a big deal than a tiny house, you’re probably not a professional harpist. 

“With a traditional harp, you have to make all these concessions and plans,” EllaHarp explained. “You can’t just pick it up and go somewhere.” Though traveling with her custom harp isn’t always a breeze (picture a girl struggling to balance a black carrying-case while riding a bicycle), it’s better than having to wheel it around or risk damage during shipping. The latter happened when she was twelve: the sight of broken wood and tangled string where her harp used to be wasn’t an easy image to forget.

Fast-forward a few years, and her custom harp fits comfortably in most airplanes’ overhead compartments. Having your instrument at the ready when the inspiration to write strikes is game-changing, she explains, as she relates a moment of songwriting on a trip to Oahu. 

Even before EllaHarp had a travel-friendly harp, her music took her halfway across the world, to Scotland. She was always interested in folk music, which led her to seek a different program than the classical and jazz-based degrees in the States.

“I really identify with the misery of folk music, let’s put it that way,” the artist said with a laugh. She explained that studying traditional Scottish music entailed a lot of ballads, something that influenced her work structurally and thematically. I mentioned that the harp is an instrument that already has an air of mystery and somberness to it. “Yeah, that’s my favorite part,” she replies. “Miserable music with the undercurrent of the spooky and mysterious—that’s the happiest I can get.” 

When I first saw EllaHarp play at the Sports Basement in the Presidio, she did two things I’d never seen an artist do before: pluck the strings of a tiny harp and denounce the Algorithmic Gods. The latter was done with a song that satirized the dependence of artistic success on digital virality, followed by a more practical guide to supporting local musicians. Sharing, liking, and adding songs to playlists makes more of a difference than people think, she explained, especially when it’s done by large groups of people. 

“As much as being directly supported helps, the algorithms are a large part of what makes things work or not work these days,” the artist said. Though nothing is a direct substitute for showing up for shows, digital engagement is an important factor in a modern musician’s success. EllaHarp shares this information during her shows because she wants listeners, especially those who can’t financially support an artist, to know they can make a difference.


EllaHarp’s next performance is on Jul 2, 2022 in San Francisco. You can find more information about her latest shows here

@ellaharp

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