Classically trained harpists and pals Gracie Sprout and Liska Yamada have found non-traditional paths to success with touring artists. We caught up with them to find out more about life on the road.
Tell us about who you have been performing with. How did you get the gig?
Sprout: I have been playing with Grammy nominated R&B singer Jhené Aiko since Nov. 2016. I was referred by my friend and amazing harpist/singer/producer Low Leaf for a show that Jhené was headlining. This was a one-time gig in an acoustic setting that Jhené was trying out for this show. Little did I know that they would end up calling me back for every show after that for four years now.
Yamada: I started performing with Melanie Martinez in 2019 for the K–12 Tour. Melanie’s music director reached out to Gracie Sprout about the opportunity, but since Gracie is already well established performing on harp with Jhené Aiko, she very generously referred me for an audition. I was surprised by the laid-back setting of the audition which was refreshing after years of participating in strict orchestral auditions. At the audition, I played a few of Melanie’s songs while she sang along and afterward we talked about how much she loves the harp.
What drew you to this line of work?
Sprout: I’ve always been interested in helping to broaden the harp’s reach to contemporary audiences. I think that all music should have harp in it! After I graduated from Cal State Long Beach with my master’s degree, I joined a band with my friends from college, Soular System, and started going to and playing in jam sessions around Los Angeles and Long Beach. Doing that helped me learn to play in a band setting, build relationships with other musicians in the scene, get better at improv, and ultimately prepared me for working with bigger artists. The fact that I now get to travel the world and expose huge audiences to the harp has fulfilled one of my biggest goals I set as a young harpist.
Yamada: I spent the majority of my life playing and studying classical music, but my heart was never set on the idea of becoming a symphonic harpist. When I moved to Los Angeles five years ago, I found new opportunities for performing in various genres and settings with the harp I never thought possible. I loved hearing Gracie Sprout’s amazing stories from touring with Jhené Aiko, and I was excited by the opportunity to join a pop music tour.
Tell us about the music you play. Do you create it? Is it improvised? Are there written parts?
Sprout: Unlike playing solo or orchestral music, there are no written parts. I had to learn every song by ear. This was so hard at first, but the more I did, the easier it got. I make up my own parts working around what’s in the track and what the other musicians play. I write pedal diagrams on my setlists, but other than that, everything is memorized.
Yamada: The majority of the songs performed on the K–12 Tour were from Melanie’s K–12 album as well as a few songs from her first album Crybaby. Only one song we performed on the tour already had harp on it so for the rest of the songs it was up to me to help write my own parts. I worked closely with my band mates and the music director to make sure my parts complimented the existing music, and ultimately Melanie approved all of the music. The tour was unique because the album was a soundtrack to a feature film Melanie created. On the tour, the show had interludes between almost every song for set changes and costume changes for Melanie and the dancers. All of the interludes had a simple backing track that was looped and the keyboard player and I would take turns improvising over them every show. There was never sheet music provided, which was an adjustment for me at first. I had to work hard to develop my aural skills to learn all of the songs by ear, sometimes on a very short timeline.
What are rehearsals like? How many hours per week would you say you are playing with these artists?
Sprout: Rehearsals are usually about four hours. The first few hours are just the band working out the arrangement and making sure everything is ready, and then the last hour or two is with the artist. Hours depend on the performance schedule. We don’t rehearse unless we’re preparing for something. Unless it’s a tour, almost every show is going to have a slightly different set list, so we have to prepare accordingly.
Yamada: The band started rehearsing about a month before the tour started. Since we had just three musicians (drums, harp, and keyboard), we got to know each other quickly and worked well together from the start. Some of our early band rehearsals would last 8–10 hours per day. It was a lot of repetition to make sure we locked in our parts. Melanie would typically join our band rehearsals in Los Angeles a couple of hours a week. All of the separate components of the show came together during the production rehearsals on the east coast. The dancers, band, sets, costumes, lighting, video, and the artist worked intensely together for 10 days prior to our first show.
What is life like with the harp on tour? Can you tell us about any memorable or funny harp moments?
Sprout: Touring is so fun, exhausting, and rewarding. For the USA leg of Jhené Aiko’s tour in 2017–2018, I brought my harp on the road. I borrowed my first harp teacher Ellie Choate’s harp trunk, which is one of those old style wooden harp cases. Almost every time we unloaded, the crew at the venue would ask if it was a coffin. And it was funny, the first couple of times 🙂
Yamada: We used my personal harp and it was shipped all over the USA and Europe. I only saw my harp on show days during the soundcheck and the show, and it was weird to be separated from it for days at a time, always hoping it would make it safely to the next city. It is a wildly different experience performing for pop concert audiences. At the first show I remember taking out my in–ear monitors at the end of the concert and I was blown away by how loud the crowd was.There are a lot of props and dancers moving around the stage during the show so it can be hard adjusting to the different stage sizes. In the song “Nurse’s Office,” the dancers pretend to cut off a piece of Melanie’s braid and toss it to the back of the stage. One night, on a particularly small stage, I was hit in the face with the flying prop braid while playing. Needless to say, you get really good at not reacting to little mishaps like that in the moment, but we definitely laughed about it after the show.
What has been the most enjoyable part of the gig? The most stressful?
Sprout: My favorite part of the gig is performing and getting to travel. I think my favorite place we got to travel to was New Zealand. It was so beautiful! The most stressful part of the gig is transporting the harp and making sure it’s in tune. It hasn’t happened yet, but one of my biggest fears is a string breaking mid performance. I plug my harp into a venue’s sound system through a Dusty Strings pedal harp pickup and Rupert Neve DI. In order for crowds up to 20,000 people to hear me, the harp is gained up to a pretty high volume, so it would be quite a startling sound if a string broke during a performance! Luckily this hasn’t happened yet, and I make it a point to change strings that look like they’re on their way out ahead of time.
Yamada: The tour took us to over 15 different countries in Europe, most of which I never would have been able to visit on my own. While there is a lot of time spent traveling from place to place, during days off or in the morning before shows I had the chance to explore all of the amazing cities we performed in. One of the most stressful parts for me was having my harp shipped around the world and handled by someone other than me. We had a fantastic stage tech who took great care of my harp on the road. Plus he was extremely patient with me hovering around in the beginning when he would move and tune my harp.
Tell us about your wardrobe! Do you have a specific “uniform” you wear or does it vary by concert?
Sprout: I usually wear all black, but there are occasions when the band wears different color schemes depending on the gig. We often play outdoor festivals or venues that require a lot of walking on dirt or uneven ground. For these gigs, I trade in my gowns and harp heels for a flowy top, tight pants, and combat boots, and I love it!
Yamada: Yes, we did have show outfits. The band was originally going to wear teacher costumes from the K-12 film, but they had wanted the keyboard player and me to wear a dress with 10 inch tall triangular shoulder pads. Once it became obvious neither of us could reach or play in the wild shoulder pad outfits, we adjusted to pastel colored pant suits.
Gracie, you recently performed for NPR’s Tiny Desk series. Tell us about that performance during the pandemic. How did it feel to perform in a mask?
It was such a major achievement for me being on NPR’s Tiny Desk. I’ve been watching the series since I was in high school. Although we didn’t get to perform at the actual “tiny desk” in D.C., it was still such a huge honor. I don’t mind performing in a mask at all. I think it’s important that we normalize mask wearing as a sign of compassion for others’ safety during this pandemic.
Liska, how has the pandemic affected your performances? Have many been cancelled? Does the artist know when they will resume their tour?
Sadly, in March when the lockdowns began we had to postpone the next portion of the tour that was set to run through the summer in the US. We don’t know when it will be safe to reschedule yet, but hopefully live shows can come back soon.
If you could give one piece of advice to young harpists wanting to enter this type of field, what would it be?
Sprout: Write music, collaborate with other musicians, and go for it! Pre–pandemic, I would suggest getting out to jam sessions and meeting people in the music community, but you can totally do that virtually through social media. Work on your ear by learning popular songs by ear and find music that you like to play! You never get better if you don’t try.