Instrumental: Sarah Pagé’s Otherworldly Harp Dreams

October 11, 2019

Sarah Pagé. Photo By: Matt Williams.

By: Matt Williams

When I sit down to go over the automated transcription of my chat with Sarah Pagé, I notice a funny glitch that befell the robots who transcribed it—almost every instance of the word ‘harp’ has been replaced by ‘heart.’ Throughout this machine-imagined interview, Pagé tells me about pulling music out of her heart, showing audiences what her heart can do, and what it’s like to play her whole heart. At first, it seems funny, then it starts getting annoying changing them all back, and then I realize something. Recalling one of the first things Pagé told me about the instrument at her apartment in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, I can think of few more appropriate comparisons than the one gifted us by the transcription robots. Once you choose your harp, she explained, it’s with you for life. Its soundboard changes over time and with use, hitting a peak period after about seven years of playing, and then its resonance continues to grow, until eventually, its capacity for sound becomes too massive for typical playing. Unless you sell it or something tragic happens to it, the harp evolves alongside you, and you are the sole player who it offers its years to. In the case of the artist, it’s akin to a vital organ.

“Mine is in its prime state right now,” Pagé said, sitting across from her main instrument, among many others strewn around the apartment. “I’ve had it for about 10 years. But after about 20 years, the sound gets so open and resonant that you start to lose clarity and brightness. It just becomes like this, ‘WOOOOO.’ It’s intense. It’s a beautiful, beautiful sound, but it’s not as useful anymore. And so a harp will basically last the span of your career.

“It’s beautiful to think of it that way,” she continued. “You get your instrument and it’s yours. It’s not necessarily going to have a life after.”

Pagé’s path to actually getting into the same room as a harp was a long one. She grew up enamoured by Harpo Marx’s harp solos, fantasizing from around four or five years old about one day being able to sit down with one herself. She played piano, but wouldn’t end up sitting down with a harp until she was 19. She couldn’t afford her own harp at the time, but a teacher at McGill allowed her to play the school’s instrument. She would head to the university when it opened around 5 a.m. and spend 10 hours a day playing for the first couple years, anxious to catch up to the skill level she thought she should be at.

The McGill harp was the same model she would eventually buy for herself, though far past its prime. Buying a harp, by the way, is not a simple endeavour. There’s only one harp maker in North America, and that’s Lyon & Healy in Chicago. “I really prefer their harps, generally,” Pagé said. “They have more power. You can pull a lot more music out of their harps. And so it’s a little bit of a wilder force to try to tame.” She chose the harp she did because of its wide soundboard and lack of decoration—the biggest sound with the least amount of ornament. Then she had to order it, and because they make a bunch of the same type at the same time, she had to wait 10 months for it to be done. Then she went to Chicago, where she was set up in a room with four or five of the same model. All Lyon & Healy employees are harpists, so they sit down and play each one as the customer listens. Then the customer plays. And Pagé ended up with hers for a simple reason: “I knew, basically, I could do anything with this instrument.”

“I’d had this very long, arcing dream of owning an instrument and playing the harp,” Pagé said. “And it was always Harpo’s solos and the colour this instrument is capable of that I fantasized about. Because it’s not just that it’s my harp—this harp is stuck with just me. This harp is never gonna have another harpist. And when I started playing, I was playing Debussy and Mozart and putting this harp through it. It was getting to have the most beautiful music in the world coming out of it. I love everything I’ve done with all the pop projects, but I felt a little bit, I don’t know… It’s like this incredible butterfly, sparkly, giant creature that you’re just sitting in the corner and putting a cover over it for years and years. It’s like, ‘Okay, you’re also stuck with me, so I really need to do something to treat you right.’ So I wrote the solo album to try to actually just say, ‘Look what the harp can do! Look what my harp can do!’”

Pagé’s harp has seen a lot more of the world than typical harps. Her extensive work with The Barr Brothers and Lhasa, as well as frequent collaborations with Leif Vollebekk, Patrick Watson, and Jerusalem In My Heart, among many others, have placed her and her harp in vans on the road and stages that harps don’t usually sit upon. It’s had beer spilled on it, been exposed to cigarette smoke when you could still light up in bars. David Letterman has even played it.

“When I got it, I’d had this dream of playing the harp and eventually owning a harp since I was four years old and I felt like I waited… I think I was 26 before I got this harp, maybe,” Pagé said. “Maybe older, like 27 or something, until I finally got my instrument. So it’s a lot of years of pressure and anticipation and I can remember I didn’t even want to sleep in a different room. I just wanted to stay with it all the time and I was so precious and careful about it. And then basically 10 years of rock and roll touring happened, and it feels really, really different now.”

Throughout her career, she’s developed a singular style with her instrument that she captures on her debut album Dose Curves. The record is a stunning exploration of that relationship that is by turns dreamy and transcendent, mysterious and tense, and consistently otherworldly, building sounds and textures that often do not seem like they could’ve possibly come from this grand instrument in her living room. But she hears the years of her work with the Barr Brothers in it—particularly in the complex arrangement of pedals and electronics that produce some of the spacier sounds—and her love of guitarist Freddy Koella’s slide playing in “Stasis” (Koella also collaborated with Lhasa). While Pagé is sought out for her specific sound, Dose Curves is the first time that sound has been given the space of its own entire artifact. And despite what you might think when you hear it, it’s entirely, exclusively harp. There are no other instruments on the record.

“It is a document,” Pagé said. “It’s a snapshot in time. And I think for me, there are a lot of years in there. It does feel like I can hear eight years of work in that record in a way I’m really happy with. And I still feel like there are things from long ago, the first feelings I had when I heard the harp. Those are so old and there’s still something to be explored there, this really primal connection that can keep being worked at.”

One sentiment Pagé returned to a couple of times during our conversation was that she feels the need to work constantly on many different things in order to create anything, which comes out not only in her actual playing—the looping and delay effects and the other myriad pedals she employs create a definite feeling of multiple players, even though it’s only her—but also in her desire to learn. On one end of the living room, there’s a koto, which she’s gone to Japan to study. On the floor, in its case, lies a sarangi, which is a very difficult-to-learn, bowed string instrument from the Indian subcontinent. There’s a small harp off in one corner that she built herself. And she speaks about all of these instruments, and the many different styles of music she’s engaged in, with the passion of a lifelong student. Still, her harp remains the heart at the centre of her musical practice. “That really is my life partner,” she said. “Everything else, they’re just kind of cool friends.”

“I just feel like the enormity of what I would like to do makes life feel like it’s moving in slow motion,” Pagé said about her predilection for keeping so many balls in the air all at once. “But you can look around and think, ‘Actually, life is quite long.’ I can look at all of these instruments and feel like I’ve had a lot of adventures already.”

About the Author

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer. Born and raised on the Prairies in Winnipeg, he’s slowly made his way farther and farther east, spending a few years covering music in Toronto before running clear out of country and ending up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In between, he’s made numerous detours, interviewing and photographing countless artists across North America and beyond. He heads up Amplify’s Instrumental series, where he talks with musicians about the relationships they’ve formed with their most important tools.

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