Big Harp
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Big Harp

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Band Rock Folk

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Filled with the rich intensity and raw delivery that are birthed from a natural connection, L.A. duo Big Harp effortlessly channel their experiences as husband and wife into their strum-filled musings on love, life and the brushed-over things that create our experiences. The duo's debut record, White Hat, is scheduled for release September 13 via Saddle Creek, but you can download their single "Everybody Pays" in exchange for your email address below. The song richly blends delicate instrumentation along with singer Chris Senseney's Matt Berninger reminiscent baritone vocals. - Paste


Husband and wife duo Chris Senseney and Stefanie Drootin-Senseney have banded together to form Big Harp, a country-punk-folk outfit from Los Angeles, newly signed to Saddle Creek. Stefanie is a sometimes touring member of Bright Eyes, The Good Life, and She & Him, while Chris has logged time in Art in Manila. The two met when Art in Manila were opening for The Good Life ? how's that for kismet? We asked Big Harp about the origins of their band name, getting along on the road and in the studio, and the Omaha Girls Rock! Camp, which Stef founded and directs. Take a listen to their excellent debut album, White Hat, before it hits stores September 13, below. How'd you get your band name? Chris: The Harp brothers were a pair of notorious bandits and killers who operated in the late eighteenth century. Their names were Micajah and Wiley, but they were known as Big Harp and Little Harp. The story is fascinating and the name rolls off the tongue, plus it has the musical connotations. How do you approach the songwriting and arranging in the band? Chris: I usually bring in songs with lyrics and melodies, and then we sit down and work on them together. Stefanie always has a lot of ideas for things like tempo, feel and structure ? she pulls things out of the songs I didn't know were there. You're a husband and wife duo. How do you deal with inter-band disagreements? Both: Avoid them. Do you approach them differently than you do in your interpersonal life? Both: Not really. We're both pretty willing to compromise. You recorded the album in three days. Was that liberating? Stef: It was for me! When you're in the studio, your mind can get scrambled until you don't know what you're hearing anymore. Doing it quickly made it impossible to second -guess yourself. We're huge fans of Conor Oberst. Tell us something about him that might surprise people. Stef: I can't think of anything that would be too surprising. He's an extremely generous, giving person and a good friend. How are things going with the Omaha Girls Camp that you run? Stef: Things are amazing! We just finished our first camp, and it exceeded all our expectations. We're already planning for next year. Who are some of your lyrical influences? Chris: You know, I'm not sure. I love all the old standbys ? Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits ? but it's hard for me to gauge what impact any of them have on the lyrics. I think everything factors in. Things I read, things people say, it all filters through. I suppose someone looking in from the outside might have an easier time figuring these things out. - American Songwriter


Big Harp, 'Everybody Pays' -- Video of the Day Artist: Big Harp Video: 'Everybody Pays' Highlight: "The video was shot in and around Yermo, Calif. in the middle of the Mojave desert," bassist/singer Stefanie Drootin-Senseney tells Spinner. "The town is right next to an old ghost town, Calico, that's been converted into a theme park. It was interesting that Calico, the 'fake' town, was restored and bustling with tourists while Yermo, the 'real' one, was filled with derelict buildings and abandoned furniture and seemed to be on the verge of becoming a ghost town itself. Walking through the ruins of old gas stations and stores was eerie, but the atmosphere in the '50s diner couldn't have been more different. Everyone there was warm and friendly, and they made a mean ham and cheese." - Spinner.com


Big Harp is the husband and wife duo of Chris Senseney (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Stefanie Drootin Senseney (bass, vocals). Stefanie has toured with bands including Bright Eyes, The Good Life, and She & Him, and Chris has played in Art in Manila. The Los Angeles-based act's brand new record, White Hat, is a fantastic mix of indie, pop, folk, and classic country. The album has just been released this week by Saddle Creek Records. I recently had the opportunity to correspond with the duo regarding their musical experiences, biggest influences, sources of inspiration, and their creative process as a married couple and as parents. Let's start by discussing each of your musical biographies. What compelled each of you to first learn an instrument and play music? Stefanie: I remember going to see my great-uncle Buzzy Drootin play drums when I was little. He was a great dixieland jazz drummer, and his brother, including my grandpa, were all musicians as well. My mom's dad was a jazz drummer too. We have his old Wurlitzer in our house. I guess with all those drummers it makes sense that I ended up in the rhythm section. I started playing bass when I was 15. My older brother took me to a Firehose concert and Mike Watt blew my mind. I went out and bought a flannel shirt and a bass the next day. Chris: I started playing piano when I was four. My mom, my dad and my sister could all play this one song. It was called "From a Wigwam". It was this weird pseudo-Native American thing from the Teaching Little Fingers to Play lesson book. I couldn't stand being the only one who couldn't do it, so I begged my dad to teach me. He did, and then I started taking lessons. After that I started making up my own little pieces of music, but I didn't start writing songs with lyrics until I was about twelve, and no good ones until I was about twenty-five. How and when did you each meet and then get married? Chris: The first time I met Stefanie was in a bar in Omaha. She'd had a few too many and was inviting people over for late-night cheeseburgers. I declined the invite. The second time we hung out I was passed out in the backseat of my car and she drove me home. We've settled down a lot since then. Stefanie: A few weeks after all that were on a tour with my other band, the Good Life. Chris was in the opening band. We ended up talking until the sun came up almost every night. Eight months later we were married and I was six months pregnant. How and when did you decide to start playing together and writing music together? Chris: I don't think it was a conscious decision. It just made sense. I think we would have had to try pretty hard to avoid playing together. Which artists, and/ or records inspired you and influenced you the most musically? Stefanie: Tom Waits is a big one for me. When I was in junior high I picked up a copy of Rain Dogs at a record store having no idea who he was. I love the way he takes classic songwriting and puts his own strange touches on it. Lyrically? Chris: It's a hard thing for me to get a handle on. When I was a junior high kid first starting out writing songs I was just trying on hats. I'd write a bad version of a Dylan song one week, then write a bad version of a Nirvana song the next. I grew up hearing a lot of country and folk stuff. I had three cassette tapes when I was probably four or five, all greatest hits collections: Marty Robbins, Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. I suppose whatever other influences I've picked up along the way still get strained through that filter. Why the name Big Harp? Chris: The Harp brothers (one Big and one Little) were a pair of murderous bandits who operated around Kentucky and Illinois in the late eighteenth century. At one time I was working on a song about the older brother, Micajah. I never did much with it, but the names and the story stuck in my mind. When we were tossing around names for the band I threw it out there and it seemed to fit. Can you discuss your writing and recording process for White Hat? Stefanie: We didn't really have anything worked up until about a week before we went into the studio. We sat down in the living room and Chris played me about forty songs. About fifteen of them got rehearsed and arranged, and then once it was time to record we trimmed it down to the eleven that ended up on the album. We had one practice with Chris Phillips, who played drums on the record, and then we recorded it in a few days with our friend Pierre de Reeder. Chris: Even though I bring the songs in with chords and lyrics, they change a lot once we start working together. Like the song "Goodbye Crazy City"; when I first played it for Stef I played it way slower, with this kind of over-serious, ponderous dirge feel, and it only had two verses. I thought it was a throwaway song, but Stef heard something in it she liked. She said, "That'll sound better if we play it like a country song." She was right. I may have brought in the corn, but sh - No Depression


In love with the instrument from the start, Stefanie Drootin has been unwaveringly focused on all things bass.

She was never a guitar player first. She didn’t take on the bass because no one else would. Drootin’s brother took her to see fIREHOSE when she was a lass of 15 and bassist Mike Watt simply blew her away.

Currently holding down the low end for Big Harp, a duo that includes her husband Chris Senseney on guitar and lead vocals, Drootin has toured and recorded with acts such as Bright Eyes, She & Him and Azure Ray and is a member of The Good Life. The pair is signed to Saddle Creek Records and released White Hat last year. Big Harp dishes out earnest, head-thumping alternative tracks with a bit of grit and a lot of heart.

I first became aware of Drootin when I randomly dropped in at the Saddle Creek Records showcase at SXSW and Big Harp was up. Wow! So much energy from such a small body, and technique up the wazoo! Drootin impressed with her movement, musicality and just a sense that she belonged right where she was.

I caught up with Drootin as she was heading up to Omaha with her husband and two kids in tow. Here’s what she had to say.

I understand you started playing at age 15. Did you take lessons? How did you develop that style? You have so much movement.

I did take a few lessons, not too many. But I feel like it definitely helped me learn how to hold the bass. And Mike Watt played with his fingers, so I never have played with a pick, only with my fingers. So I kind of learned how to hold my hands and stuff like that at lessons. And then I was in an all-girl band and just played by ear, you know? No one even knew chords or anything, we just listen to each other and played. I was in three different bands that were just like that.

And then, my friend Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes had me come play on tour with them about 10 years ago. I went to practice with them, and they started shouting out chords, and I was like, “Whoa, my god!” I knew what they were, but I really had to like look at the string and go up the fret board like, “E, F, F-sharp, G, okay, there’s the A.” And then I just kind of got used to that. I caught on by doing that. I started playing for hire, with bands like Bright Eyes and She & Him.

The bands I played in more by ear were a lot more similar style to how I’m playing now, more of like a play-by-feel kind of thing. And then I started playing with more folk and pop bands for hire and I played a lot more tame. If that makes sense … more by the book.

Yeah, you kind of have to lay back a little more in a situation where you are hired to play their music.

Yeah, I did lay back a little bit. And then even on our first album, I was a little more laid back than I’m playing now, I didn’t have the pedals. The pedals are a new thing. My whole set up is actually pretty new.

Now that you’re playing with your husband and doing your own music, I’m assuming that this is the way you really want to play. This is what you love.

Yeah, I felt like I was really playing like myself back when I was 15, 16, 17, you know? It feels pretty good to be carefree about it, I guess.

Do you and Chris write the music collaboratively?

Actually both records we did the same way. Chris comes in with the vocal melodies, the lyrics and the chords. And then, without a drummer, the two of us get together and kind of go through all the songs and completely write them and do tempos, and find the feeling of the song.

This album was particularly funny, more of a rock record – this one we’re working on now. So it was just the two of us with no drums, working with our pedals and everything. We were like, “Wow, what’s going to happen when the drums come in? What’s it going to sound like?” But, then when our drummer came in, we worked with him in our practice space for about four days and really made the songs with the three of us. So it’s kind of a 3-step process, I guess. It becomes so different. Once you start working with other people, it’s nearly impossible for that not to happen, right?

But a lot of the time that’s a good thing! So let’s talk about your rig, because I was impressed by your guitar, which is almost bigger than you!

I know, it’s huge. It’s actually so much lighter than my old bass, which is funny, because it’s so much wider. It’s a big, hollow body. It’s all really new. I played the same bass and amp for about 16 years, and I just finally became a gear person. I’m super geeky over gear, like really into it. It’s pretty fun, I got my whole set up figured out, which is pretty awesome. The bass is a Gretsch Electromatic.

And what amp do you use?

My head is an Orange Terror Bass, it’s a 500-Watt head. And I have a Gallien-Krueger 212 cabinet. And really the reason for the small cabinet is that we tour in a mini-van. We don’t have very much room, so I got the smallest cabinet that would sound good.

What attracted you to that guitar?

I had an Aria bass for 1 - Guitar World


Discography

debut LP "White Hat" released fall 2011 on Saddle Creek
second LP "Chain Letters out January 2013 on Saddle Creek

Photos

Bio

Outside I can hear the palm rats scraping their way up the rough trunks of the Mexican Fans (Washingtonia Robusta) in the alley. Stef thought she heard one in the kitchen. It wasn't a rat. It was the automatic soap dispenser set off by the quivering limbs of a dying spider plant. We're sitting on our couch, our green couch stained with chocolate milk and bodily fluids, the same couch we wrote both of our records on. Different rooms though. For the first one, White Hat, the couch was in a well-lit, white-walled room, with a view of the San Gabriel mountains and the big Magnolia in the front yard. Now it's shoved in a dim corner of a dark room with old wood-paneled walls, somebody's idea of a little rustic paradise. Dead somebody, probably. The living like it too. 

We started the band in late 2010, but the roots go back to 2007, when Stef and I met. I was playing with Art in Manila as a hired gun opening for Stefanie's band The Good Life on the west coast. We started hanging out, binge-smoking and chain-drinking, and we never stopped. Never stopped hanging out I mean. Within a few months Stef had a gut full of baby, and the bender came to a quick and bloody end.

We got married, moved from L.A. to Omaha, had a kid, moved from Omaha back to L.A., and had another kid, all in about three years. Stef toured a bit, twice with The Good Life and once with She & Him, but we didn't play much at home. I got a job at an ad agency doing data entry. Strictly "call the number at the bottom of the screen in the next five minutes" kind of stuff. Male enhancement pills, beauty schools, etc. I quit that job and we made White Hat. We talked to the folks at Saddle Creek about putting it out. They did. Some people liked it and compared us to people like Nick Cave and Townes Van Zandt. Hey, they said it, not me. The record was straightforward, slightly twangy folk-rock with an undercurrent of dark humor, and by far the most conservative music we’d ever made. Stef cut her teeth in the L.A. punk scene, and my previous band was a noisy, lo-fi kind of thing. We wanted to sound like adults, and we wanted to make music that echoed the sounds of our childhood -- old country for me, ’70’s folk for Stef. I think we did that, but right away we started itching to scuff it up. When we packed up the kids and went on tour, the songs -- as is often the case -- got faster and faster, dirtier and dirtier.  

We figured we ought to make a record that reflected the live show a little better, so we moved the couch to its current home and started writing with that in mind. Stef runs a rock camp for girls in Omaha, and that was a big influence on the new record too. Seeing those kids pick up instruments for the first time and start writing was amazing. We wanted that kind of raw freedom for ourselves. We gave ourselves permission to get as dark or rough or loud as we wanted, and we ended up with Chain Letters.  

If our first album sounds a lot like where I'm from -- an isolated town of 2800 in rural Nebraska -- then this one is planted about halfway from there to Stefanie's hometown, Los Angeles. We built the record around Stef's crackling fuzz bass and lyrics that deal with with escape and surrender, and the places where they overlap. Hopefully we landed closer to mid-'70's Iggy Pop than Leonard Cohen this time. Really I'd like it to sound like Leonard Cohen fronting the Pixies. It doesn't though. Maybe a little. You tell us. We recorded the album partly at ARC in Omaha with engineer Ben Brodin, partly at our home in Los Angeles, and it was mixed by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk, etc.). Our friend John played the drums. I play messy, angular guitar and keyboards and sing alternately like a burned-out country crooner or a three-sheets gospel backslider. Stef plays raw, howling, fuzzed-out bass and sings like a ghost. Her bass playing was featured in Guitar World's "Best of SXSW 2012". Shit. It's one in the morning now. I gotta go to work today. See you if I see you.

Chris Senseney 
October 2012
I only had a little, I swear.