Q and A with Jessica Browning

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Jessica Browning is making waves for her diverse career performing on a sailboat. Her journey began in 2018 when she and her husband Pierre bought a 33foot sailboat and prepared it for safe travel with two harps. They set sail for Martinique from France while she was six months pregnant and she gave birth to her son just 20 days after arriving in Martinique! During her travels, she wrote the album Into Me Sea, which reflects on her lifechanging journey on the boat. The album will be released in March 2021 through Virtually Atomic records. We caught up with Browning to hear more about the album and her incredible journey across the sea with two harps.

“My harps are the heartbeat throughout the whole experience,” Browning says.

Tell us more about the album. How did the idea for this project come about?

Into Me Sea is an album whose seed began to grow while I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean with my two harps while six months pregnant. My harps are the heartbeat through the whole experience. The music became a celebration of motherhood itself. The album is filled with my harp, my voice, ocean sounds, the voices of my son and husband, sailing sounds, and heart beats. It was a liberating album to create.

Do you always write your own music for your CDs?

Yes, I write my own music for my CD’s. However, I feel that the music flows through me . For this album, I was lucky enough to have it released under the label Virtually Atomic, and I worked with producer Ross Owen. Ross was a phenomenal and deeply intuitive music partner in the final production of the album.

“Life becomes much more basic on the boat.”

What is life like on the boat? How do you fit two harps on a sailboat? How does the climate affect the strings?

Life on a sailboat is both amazing and challenging. The harps have done surprisingly well. As we prepared the boat for ocean crossings, a carpenter built a wooden brace underneath the mast so that my pedal harp would rest immobile during rough sailing and the weight of the boat would not be off balance. My husband Pierre installed a hefty electric solar system so that my sound system would function for concerts. Both harps held up well during the sailing. I worried about the impact of salt water since it destroys and rusts almost everything. Luckily, it has not affected my harps. They are wrapped up in their cases when I do not play them. My concert harp is in the middle of our boat under the mast. My electric harp is stowed safely in her case in one of the cabin’s berths. We have also installed wind ventilation systems all around the boat to help with humidity and protect the harps. The strings break no more on the sea than they do on land, which has been a pleasant surprise. I actually find the boat to be a perfect place for harps. Symbolically, the sail looks like a harp itself.

“Life on a sailboat is both amazing and challenging,” Browning says. “The harps have done suprisingly well.”

What are some of the challenges associated with living and performing on a boat?

Life becomes much more basic on the boat. Our electricity is solar, so when there is no sun, we have limited power. Fresh water is limited to what our small tanks can carry.  When it rains, we go outside to take showers and catch rain in buckets. This becomes a big, magical adventure for my son. Our small space is made even smaller by my harps and sound equipment.  Keeping my very active and curious baby happy, safe, and not sunburned is especially challenging. These challenges are well worth the exchange for the amazing experiences we have in boat life.

How often do you give performances?

I try to give performances once a week or once every two weeks. I must confess that right after my son was born, it took me awhile to emerge from the baby bubble. I knew that having a child would change my life, but I was not expecting the vast impact it would have on my career and capacity to practice. The first five months of Rumi’s life, I was completely immersed in motherhood. Releasing Into Me Sea is, in many ways, me coming up for air a bit.

How do you spread the word about your performances while at sea?

We spread the word about performances through Facebook, sailing groups, marinas, and sometimes we even travel from boat to boat with a little flyer as a family.

Do you have a favorite song on the album?

I have perhaps two favorite songs, although I genuinely love them all. I love the song “Wild.” It is roaringly introspective and I channeled what I was feeling during the actual labor of my son, Rumi Sol. The song captures the power of birth for me. The song “Sweet Water Eyes” provides some comic relief because we used my son’s voice looped to become the percussion for the song. It is meant to be fresh and playful.

What is work/family life balance like on the boat?

Work and family life balance on board was a bit of a struggle initially. It was hard to find time to practice with a baby who doesn’t take many naps during the day. I also really struggled to do concerts with my son on our boat, who was able to hear and cry out for mama if he woke up from sleeping. In about four of the concerts, I’ve finished the concert breastfeeding my son in one arm and playing the harp with a free arm while singing. We are a creative work in progress!  I am learning how to have this new balance of being a professional harpist and also being a very present mother.

“I am learning how to balance being a professional harpist and a very present mother.”

Where can we find your album when it’s released?

The album will be available on Deezer, Spotify, Amazon music,  Apple music, and iTunes on March 26, 2021.  

Anything else you’d like us to know?

Into Me Sea is a play on the word intimacy. The idea was planted in the ocean, the music and our actual baby grew within me, and when the time was right, the music came out. We as harpists have a special musical gift to give that is deeply needed in the world in this time of great fear, chaos, and change. I invite each one of you, dear harpist friends and colleagues, to listen to that  powerful voice inside you. Listen to what you Sea within You. Please follow that voice and follow your inner dream.

To learn more about Browning and keep up to date with her journey, visit her website. Tune in for an album release concert on Jessica’s boat in Guadeloupe at 4:00 p.m. on March 27. 

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About Author

Hannah Palmquist is a freelance harpist and teacher based in Saint Paul, Minn. She is the associate editor at Harp Column. Hannah earned her doctorate from the University of Minnesota and is passionate about chamber music.

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