Gillian Grassie
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Gillian Grassie

Berlin, Berlin, Germany | Established. Jan 01, 2007 | SELF

Berlin, Berlin, Germany | SELF
Established on Jan, 2007
Solo Folk Avant-garde





Gillian Grassie is describing the inspiration for “Silken String,” the tune that landed her among the finalists in the prestigious New York Songwriter’s Circle Contest: “I actually dreamed it,” she says, in a faint phone transmission from a rest stop in South Carolina.

“I had this apartment in West Philadelphia, and I woke up one morning with this image – “I’m in love with a man from the North Country…” – and the melody. “I wasn’t in school at the time,” says the 22-year old junior at Bryn Mawr College, “but playing music full time, so I had the luxury of going right to my harp and working on it for two hours.”

You read that right. Grassie’s chosen instrument and writing tool is not the piano or the guitar, but the harp, which she’s been playing for 10 years. It would have been even longer if she had had her way.

“ I had my heart set on the harp since I was 3 years old,” says the songwriter, who grew up in Germantown, near Coatesville. “I can’t for the life of me remember what it was that drew me to it.”

One of the striking qualities of “Silken String,” which is on Grassie’s debut ablum, 2007’s Serpentine, is its ethereal harp solo.

“I am completely in love with her,” says Tina Shafer, artistic director of the New York Songwriters Circle. “Shey’s a classy, confident, and quirky musician. The fact that she plays the harp really separates her from numerous other female singer-songwriters.”

The contest is designed to recognize and reward emerging songwriting talent. The competition drew more than 40,000 entrants in this, its third year.

Eric Bazilian, who along with his songwriting partner in the Hooters, Rob Hyman, has a stellar track record as a hitmaker, has called the contest, “the real American Idol.”

Grassie and the other 11 finalists will perform Nov. 5 at the venerable Bitter End in Manhattan before a panel of judges that includes producer Russ Titelman, critic Neil Rossen, and cartoonist Garry Trudeau.

The following evening in the same venue, the top five will be announced, and later the first-, second- and third-place finishers will be revealed.

The winner will get a $5,000 honorarium, radio play in New York, an opening slot for a major concert at Jones Beach on Long Island (headliner to be determined), and 10 hours of studio time, as well as other prizes.

“It’s a hugely important competition,” says Grassie, who learned of her selection only five days ago. “There’s a lot of wonderful exposure. It’s run by a great, incredibly supportive community of people who really are very interested in giving a leg up to emerging songwriters.”

Grassie has taken an unlikely path to pop prominence. She was classically trained, with a background in opera. As a teen, she became proficient on the Celtic harp and began playing at international festivals. Later she began experimenting with jazz and Latin idioms.

Her first performing experience as a singer-songwriter came at an open mike night at the now shuttered Point in Bryn Mawr.

“I had been in a lot of competitions and had never been nervous performing,” she says. “And here I was at an open mike in Bryn Mawr, shaking in my boots.”

As she became a regular on the East Coast club circuit, critics struggled to describe her voice.

“I get Regina Spektor a lot, which is great because I love her,” Grassie says. “Sometimes I get Joni Mitchell. Sometimes I get Norah Jones, depending on the song. Sometimes I get Tori Amos.”

Obviously, it’s the harp that gets her the most attention.

“People associate it with churches and weddings and other formal settings,” she says. “My goal is to bring the harp to people who wouldn’t have otherwise heard it, to test some of the boundaries. It’s so much more versatile than people give it credit for.”

Well, at least in the right hands it may be.
- Philadelphia Inquirer

"A Harpist's Songs Are Her Travel Agents"

This is part of CP's Music issue — check out our other profiles of Philadelphia musicians like queer hip-hop duo , Cinderella's hair-metal comeback kid , London-born bassist and , who keep getting shows shut down due to drunk teenagers.

Gillian Grassie’s keen, harp-driven songs are moving. And so is she — all the way to Europe.

The Hinterhaus, released in January on Grassie’s Harp Power imprint, is named for the kind of home she lived in while staying in Berlin. A hinterhaus is a house in the back courtyard of another house, hidden from the street. But for Grassie, the title’s meaning is deeper.

“I really loved it as an idea, like a metaphor for public and private space, and the presentation versus the experience in our everyday lives,” she says. “And also what that means for a performer, for someone like a singer-songwriter who’s on stage and sometimes has a certain degree of emotional exhibitionism.”
Grassie’s been playing harp for more than half of her 26 years, and she’s written lyrics to process her feelings for nearly as long. But she’s conscious of how much she shares. Performing is “a very controlled sort of format,” she says. “It’s not necessarily as revealing as I think sometimes people think it is.”

After releasing Serpentine in 2007 and graduating from Bryn Mawr in 2009, she spent a year traveling around Europe and Asia on a Watson Fellowship. Along the way, she had her harp broken by an Indian airline, played in a hastily arranged folk quartet on a State Department-sponsored tour of Russia and lost her travel documents.

After returning to the U.S., she launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising $14,000 in a month. Grassie and Todd Sickafoose, who’d produced Anaïs Mitchell’s masterful Hadestown, set out to make a record that emphasized her agile voice and fingers.

“I’d sort of buried the harp a bit more on Serpentine,” Grassie says. “There was a lot more pop production and a lot more layers.”

The Hinterhaus feels more sophisticated, with upright bass, marimba and clarinet adding depth. The only electric instrument is the keyboard on “Dust & Wax,” a contribution from Janis Ian, who volunteered her services after contributing to Grassie’s Kickstarter campaign.

“She’s been a really wonderful supporter and mentor,” Grassie says of the Grammy winner — though the two haven’t actually met. Ian recorded her part in Nashville, with Sickafoose producing via Skype.

In many ways, The Hinterhaus is a traveling record. On the flirty “Back to Your Flat,” Grassie savors a one-night stand in a foreign land, while on the wistful “Borrowed or Begged,” she dreams of home while on a long train ride.

But it’s “The Canonization of Margot Price” that has the deepest roots in Europe. As a tween visiting Italy, Grassie was horrified by stories of sainted women who’d given up their lives rather than their chastity. Years later, a friend’s struggle with bulimia shed light on the ways in which women continue to be tortured by and for their bodies. Those experiences come together in the song.

“I saw her there/ Through the bathroom door,” Grassie sings, “Purging herself/ Of the shame that rotted in her gut/ Until she was no more than a relic.”

Grassie kept The Hinterhaus to herself for three seasons. “It’s sort of a dark record,” she says, “and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to wait and release it in winter.” But now that it’s finally here, she’s going away, leaving for a tour of Italy in March, then heading back to Berlin, where she plans to set up a home base. It’s been easier to gain traction overseas, she says, so it makes sense to spend more time there, but it’s not without a cost: “I just seem to earn more when I tour there. I lose a lot of that when I fly back and forth.”

Though she hopes to return to Philadelphia in September, international plans have many moving parts. If anyone knows that, it’s Grassie. - Philadelphia CityPaper

"Lever to Heaven"

How would a kid from Germantown get her heart set on playing the harp? Gillian Grassie doesn't remember when she first saw the instrument, but by 4 she'd persuaded her parents to get it for her.

"The store had one of those terrible plywood lap-harps with like 12 strings on it, and my arms were too short for me to reach the bottom string," she says over e-mail, "so the owner sweetly suggested that I wait a few years before taking lessons."

Before her arms grew, Grassie's family moved to a farm in Chester County; when she was 12, a harp and flute concert at the local Quaker meeting rekindled her interest. She soon started taking private lessons, and two years later she performed at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival.

"One of the main advantages of playing an uncommon instrument is that you get to meet your heroes," she says. Three years of attending the festival exposed her to a variety of traditions and techniques. "My uncle gave me a compilation CD from the PBS Celtic Harpistry when I first started playing, and by the time I was 18, I'd met, studied or performed with almost all the artists on the disc."

A semester in Switzerland at 15 freed her from a busy social schedule, giving her more time to explore the lever harp. While trying to cover John Mayer's "Sucker," she hit upon the idea of making it sound as percussive as a guitar. That same fall, after discovering Philip Larkin's work in class and beginning to write poems of her own, Grassie wrote her first song, and an EP followed in 2005, before she started college.

Now 21, she's celebrating the release of her first full-length. For pop fans with a craving for something a little different, Serpentine is a treat. Grassie gives as much respect to singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco as she does to such harpists as Catriona McKay and Rüdiger Oppermann, and she wants to counter the preconception that her instrument's for putting people to sleep.

Live, Grassie recently started playing with Chris Coyle on upright bass and Mark Dryberg on drums, and she plans to eventually add a guitarist and someone on the Rhodes organ. But for Serpentine, she returned to MilkBoy to work again with Townhall's Tim Sonnefeld, who contributes drums, guitars, banjo, bass and keys. Her wordy, imaginative tunes are all about growing up, whether confronting destructive behavior (the trip-hop-tinged "Tell Me") or accepting a lover's silence ("No Answer").

Subtly evoking the government's shameful responses to Iraq and Katrina, the folky "Sweet Metallic" casts America as a teenager who makes you proud and exasperates you at the same time. "I tried to write something musically that didn't sound like a political song, that sounded pretty upbeat, friendly, innocuous, something you could listen to a few times and not notice was talking about men in their coffins," she says.

She doesn't have as much time for writing and playing now that she's majoring in comparative literature, but she's betting her studies will pay off in the long run. "I want a lot to pull from when I write songs and I want my perspective to be broad and mature, something that Bryn Mawr is pushing me toward," she says. Choosing a school without a music program was intentional. "I want to be a whole person, and it's not that you can't be an intellectual without a degree or that you can't be whole without being academic; it's just that academics works for me, they're stimulating. ... I think in the end my songs will be richer for my education."

( - Philadelphia CityPaper

"Gillian Grassie is Wandering the World, Harp-Sack on her Back"

There are pros and cons to playing a cumbersome Celtic folk instrument like the pedal harp, but 23-year-old Gillian Grassie takes them in stride — she’s been through a lot with this curvy, wooden companion.

From the age of 12, Grassie studied Celtic harp and voice intently, letting her love and ambition carry her all the way to festivals in the “old country” — Edinburgh, Scotland to be precise. There, she attended performances by some of her favorite harpist heroes, brazenly joining them on stage as a spunky teenager from the States.

But she didn’t stop there. While she was in high school, Grassie’s parents separated about the same time she discovered Ani DiFranco (sound familiar?). Like the ground-breaker she is, Grassie took her angst and her harp to Switzerland for a year, and started writing folk music that would win over local hearts upon her return to home, sweet Philadelphia.

Eager to start her music career, Grassie finished high school a year early and started gigging — landing her first show at the suburban Philly singer-songwriter haven, the Point. She attended nearby Bryn Mawr College (again, polishing off her degree in three short years), and continued charming and surprising audiences around the Northeast with her lively curls, spirited giggle, and folk-pop ballads “about one-night stands.”

For an instrument that is largely seen as orchestral, calling to mind formal settings and religious traditions, this has been new territory for the artist and her fans. “There’s a set of pre-conceptions, and there’s also a propriety that’s associated with the harp,” Grassie explains. “When you see harpist-singer-songwriters like Joanna Newsom or myself … bringing these things into smoky little clubs, it is a little bit of a shock.”

Earlier this year, Grassie’s uncommon music and her award-winning songwriting (not to mention her success in booking all her own shows and publicity, her broad and supportive network of musicians in Philadelphia, and her international experiences) caught the attention of the prestigious Watson Foundation. Grassie’s 2008 proposal, entitled “Artist 2.0: The Impact Of New Technology On Independent Music” was granted by the foundation, and she is set to commence on a 12-month, round-the-world research trip at the end of July.

During the year, her work will encompass both performance and first-hand research, interviewing and playing with musicians in Germany, France, India, China, Japan, and Indonesia. Using her own career experience to-date as a guide, Grassie will examine the effects of recording and promotional technology on independent music around the world, looking particularly at non-Western music and seeking out traditions that are at risk of being “left behind.”

“I kind of feel like I won the lottery,” she declares. “I can put together a tour that’s prioritized around where I’m gonna find cool musicians and people to work with instead of where I’m going to make the most money, which is unbelievably liberating.”

Grassie has certainly set herself quite a task — how (we were certainly wondering) will she possibly transport her harp to six different countries in 12 months? As we could have expected, Grassie has already thought the entire thing through in agonizing detail. Clothes will be packed in with her harp and the backpack, all inside a larger, fiberglass, airplane-safe container. Upon arrival (each of the six times), the shatter-proof contraption will be stored, the harp slipped into the backpack, the clothes zipped up in a duffle, and her laptop tucked snugly under her arm. Amazing.

The logistics are a no-brainer for this one. And if she’s true to her word, Grassie has promised a West Coast tour upon her return to the States, plus a full-length album by next fall. If she’s true to form, it’ll be sooner — stay tuned. - Venus Zine

"Concert Review: Dischordian + Gillian Grassie - Cafe Goa"

The opening act was by Gillian Grassie, a harpist from Philadelphia on a year-long tour of several countries including India to study the relationships between new technologies and independent music scenes around the globe. I managed to catch only the last few minutes of her act and what little I saw was quite mesmerizing. The harp carries associations of white-clad angels and an otherworldy, semi-religious feel of music. Gillian's music was none of those things but managed to bring a sweet freshness to instantly hummable tunes. Her fingers seemed to be feather-touching, almost dancing on the strings of the harp (which was almost as big as her..and here I thought the harp would be a much smaller instrument). The harp provided only a very soft background to the songs which primarily rode on her voice. It's quite impressive to create a song purely from one's voice, virtually unassisted by the grandeur of an orchestra and Gillian pulled it off, holding the audience spellbound. I do wish I had made it to the venue earlier to catch her entire performance. -

"BMC Student Harpist Releases Second Album"

Gillian Grassie is a professional harpist and singer/songwriter. She has just released an album that fuses pop and jazz on an instrument that musicians rarely attempt to employ in either genre. But perhaps what is most remarkable about Gillian Grassie is that in addition to all these accomplishments, she is also a sophomore at Bryn Mawr.

Grassie performed at her release party for her new album, Serpentine, at the Milkboy in Ardmore last Friday night to a full house. Her music draws on artists like Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, Debussy, and Billy Holliday. The nontraditional use of a harp as the main instrument, in addition to her distinctive voice, makes the music brilliantly original.

"I feel that the harp has a place in mainstream music," Grassie says, and her new album certainly forges the way for the instrument. Both the harp and her voice have a wide range, and the light quality of the harp's sound and Grassie's strong soprano are ideally suited to each other.

For as long as she can remember, Grassie, a Philadelphia native, had been interested in learning how to play the harp. Because lessons were not readily available, she tried guitar and piano before meeting her harp teacher at age twelve. She started learning the Celtic style, moved on to classical, and ultimately to her signature style, a combination of alternative pop and jazz.

While studying in Switzerland, Grassie had time off from her many commitments in high school and "started messing around with the harp more, trying to cover John Mayer songs, goofing around." She also started writing poetry again, and then lyrics, after being introduced in an English class to the poet Philip Larkin. Her unique brand of music was beginning to emerge.

Graduating early from high school, Grassie spent a year as a part-time Temple student before enrolling as a freshman at Bryn Mawr last year. Now she maintains a rigorous schedule of alternating days of music and classes, touring some weekends.

The set at her release concert last Friday included all of the songs from Grassie's first full-length release, Serpentine, in addition to several songs off her previously released EP, To an Unwitting Muse. The new album is about coming of age, touching on various themes.

"Serpentine is an album about growing up," Grassie says. "It celebrates the process rather than the arrival, the often snake-like shape life takes in getting from point A to point B, and emphasizes the importance of questions rather than answers." Grassie worked on the album over the last year at Milkboy with the help of her co-producer, Tim Sonnefeld.

The live instrumentation behind the harp and Grassie's vocals included Mike Dryberg on drums, Rick Sorkin on guitar and Chris Coyle on upright bass. The bass especially complemented the harp as another relatively unusual instrument not often encountered in the realm of pop music.

Most of Grassie's songs started out with her playing a short harp solo, which was a subtle way of drawing in the audience. The diversity of inspiration for her songs demonstrates an impressive level of artistic maturity. She described her song "Tell Me" as being about "losing self-control" upon coming to college and the people who helped her find her footing at that time and throughout her life, including her sister and mom. "Sweet Metallic" was inspired by time Grassie spent working as a nanny for children whose father was an officer in Iraq and also by the latent racial tensions raised in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This "somber" song, as she described it, actually sounded as upbeat as most of her others, which was a conscious choice on her part. "Protest songs as a genre suffer from tiresome stereotyping and I wanted to write something that was sonically innocuous, so that people wouldn't immediately write off what I was saying in the lyrics." Grassie's passion and virtuosity were evident just by watching her as she plucked the strings and sang.

In November, Grassie will be making her New York debut at The Living Room. She is considering expanding her touring schedule to include more of the U.S. and possibly Germany next summer. She hopes to tour more regularly in the future, especially at colleges. - The Bi-College News

"Gillian Grassie Places Second in New York Songwriting Competition"

Gillian Grassie, harpist, songwriter and Bryn Mawr junior, placed second in the New York Songwriters Circle (NYSC) contest in New York City on November 5. NYSC is an organization dedicated to discovering and supporting young songwriters and musicians. NYSC has helped launch the careers of many musicians, including Norah Jones and Gavin DeGraw. Grassie and the 11 other finalists in this prestigious competition performed at the Bitter End in Manhattan for a panel of judges composed of respected musicians in the industry, including David Barnes and Grammy award-winner Marc Cohn.

“I submitted my songs shortly before the deadline and thought it was a bit of a long shot,” says Grassie. “I got the call saying I was a finalist while I was doing some recording in Florida during fall break, and it’s been a bit of a whirlwind since then. The competition has given me a chance to perform in front of and connect with people to whom I wouldn’t otherwise have access, and that’s the most valuable part of this competition for me.”

Grassie’s prizes for winning second place included $3,000, a free session in a recording studio, and the opportunity to perform in NYSC’s showcase series. Her song “Silken String” will appear on the next NYSC compilation album.

Grassie, a comparative literature major, describes her sound as “jazz-minded indie folk/pop.” She finds inspiration in many people and places, especially poets like Philip Larkin. “Silken String” came to her subconsciously. “I actually dreamed the whole pre-chorus and chorus and then built the rest of the song around a guy I met at a gas station once. Usually I have to work a bit harder to get the songs out.”

Grassie, who wants to pursue a career in the music industry, has had many years to perfect her writing process, in addition to her technical skill. “I have wanted to play the harp for as long as I can remember…My family had trouble finding a harp teacher for a long time, and so I didn’t actually get to start taking lessons until I was twelve. A wonderful harpist and Curtis Institute graduate, Janet Witman, played a concert at my Quaker meeting and she became my teacher for the next eight years. I studied classical pedal harp and Celtic harp with her and she has been incredibly supportive,” says Grassie.

According to Grassie, it is an exciting time to be a harpist, with the harp finding its way into the sounds of popular contemporary artists such as Joanna Newsom, Björk and John Legend, with whom she recently had the opportunity to work.

In addition to performing live and collaborating with other artists, Grassie released an EP in 2005 and a debut album, Serpentine, in 2007, her sophomore year.

In writing the album, she focused on consistency. “An album is a much more cohesive undertaking and I wanted there to be a relationship between the songs, with common themes lyrically and sonically.” With the album completed, Grassie has had the opportunity to share her music further. “It feels good to have a full-length recording under my belt. The songs have continued to evolve as I play them in live settings, and it was great taking them out on the road for a proper tour in June."

Grassie boasts an impressive musical résumé, with a highly praised debut recording and numerous live shows under her belt, but the NYSC contest was her first songwriting competition. “There was a time in my life when I was heavily involved in the Scottish harp competition circuit, although I haven’t been very active in that scene for a while now. [But] I really enjoy performing and don’t really get nervous, which is nice. It was a very exciting evening,”

For Grassie, music is all about communication and making a connection. “Songwriting has sort of become the way that I process and make sense of my life and the world at large. Sometimes I’ll have an experience or memory or image that keeps nagging at me, but I can’t make sense of, and I can work out the big picture through the songwriting process…[and] performing is something I’ve loved for a long, long time. I love the feeling of being on stage, and on those nights when you make a real connection with the audience – it’s amazing, it’s like falling in love, hard, with a hundred people, in the same moment.”
- The Bi-College News

"Musician Gillian Grassie '09 Wins Watson Fellowship"

Ask your average record-company executive about the market for a pop musician who plays the harp, and a blank stare is probably as much enthusiasm as you can expect. Luckily for singer-songwriter Gillian Grassie ’09, musicians are no longer dependent on record-company executives to introduce them to their audiences.

During her years at Bryn Mawr, Grassie has recorded and marketed a full-length CD and established a national reputation and a solid fan base: she plays as many as four dates a week along the New York-to-DC corridor and has toured the Southeast during the summer months. A few years ago, Grassie says, her career would have been impossible for a full-time college student with limited resources, but increasingly accessible information technologies—including recording software, digital distribution, and online communities—have profoundly altered the music industry in the United States.

Have new technologies had a similar effect abroad? Grassie will spend next year finding out, thanks to a Watson Fellowship, which will fund the independent study she has titled “Artist 2.0: The Impact of New Technology on Independent Music.” Grassie will travel to Germany, France, India, Indonesia, China, and Japan (in that order) to learn how new recording and distribution technologies have interacted with tradition to change the making and appreciation of music.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a musician in the United States and United Kingdom,” Grassie says. “New technologies that diminish artists’ reliance on major labels have given us unprecedented creative control over what we produce. As a result, musicians have become bolder and more innovative, generating new genres and experimenting with both electronics and unusual instrumentation. What’s more, listeners have embraced these avant-garde musicians, excited by the opportunity to browse under-the-radar music in search of ‘the next big thing.’”

“But what’s happening beyond these English-speaking music powerhouses?” Grassie asks in her proposal. “How accessible is new recording software, and how compatible are these programs with non-Western music? Has the destabilization of major record labels emboldened non-English artists to challenge English music’s radio dominance, or has the Internet’s ability to transcend national borders put pressure on artists to write English lyrics in order to compete in the new global digital markets? What types of musicians and what types of music are being left behind? Which instruments and styles are being revitalized? What is fan culture like abroad?”

Starting in July, Grassie will leave her stateside fans behind for a year as she investigates those questions and discovers new ones. She is likely to keep in touch, however, through her MySpace blog, a prime example of the kind of technology that enables independent musicians to do their own financing, marketing, organizing, booking, and promotion.

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation funds a year of independent study and travel abroad for 40 “college graduates of unusual promise” from about 60 participating liberal-arts colleges.

A host of fans, a number of admiring music critics, and the judges of the prestigious New York Songwriter’s Circle Competition (in which her “Silken String” took second place last November) would likely agree that Grassie is both promising and unusual. She rarely chooses the path that is trodden smooth, but her keen ability to analyze the terrain and her tireless persistence guide her surely toward her destination.

The Celtic harp is an unusual choice of instrument, and then there’s the way she plays it. Although she does draw on a repertoire of traditional Celtic tunes and classical training in both harp and voice, Grassie ventures far afield of those starting points, producing a range of sounds that seem perfectly at home in her jazz- and rock-flavored arrangements.

Grassie deviated from another traditional path by declining several music-school acceptances, preferring to make her own way in the thriving Philadelphia singer-songwriter scene. After a year of successes during which she recorded her first EP, she surprised some of her fans by slowing her career down enough to become a full-time student at Bryn Mawr, where she has majored in comparative literature and honed her lyric-writing skills in Bryn Mawr’s creative-writing program.

“I didn’t want to be too narrowly focused on music and my career,” Grassie explains. “I wanted to be educated in a humanistic way, to broaden my understanding of the world around me. I’ve always loved reading, loved challenging myself intellectually, and I missed it when I was doing music full-time.”

“Here at Bryn Mawr, I’ve I have had some professors whose courses have been quite literally life-changing,” Grassie continues. “These professors are brilliant in their fields, and I’ve been so appreciative of how invested they are in their students and how accessible they’ve made themselves to - Bryn Mawr Now

"Environment of the Arts: Gillian Grassie"

In a way, Gillian Grassie '09 was halfway into her second career before she was a freshman at Bryn Mawr.

Grassie, a Philadelphia native, began studying the harp when she was very young. By high school she was winning awards in major harp festivals around the country and, eventually, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

She was well on her way to becoming a professional Celtic harpist when, at age 18, Grassie decided to switch tracks and try her hand at writing her own folk-and-pop inspired tunes and working the Philadelphia singer-songwriter circuit.

"Up to that point, my goal was to be the best Celtic harpist in the world," says Grassie. "Competing at festivals was very encouraging, but since the world of Celtic harp is very small, by the time I was 18 I'd gotten to perform with all of my musical heroes. Competition started to seem beside the point. I wanted to find a way to contribute in a more meaningful way."

Grassie, who was used to performing in front of hundreds at international festivals, started over from the beginning. She took some time off after high school, moved to a West Philadelphia apartment, and started composing in her living room, playing at open mic nights at coffeeshops and small venues. "It was a humbling experience," she says. "I was used to being this hotshot in the world of Celtic harp, and here I was saying, ‘Please allow me to play your free show.' I was back at the bottom of the barrel."

As Grassie adjusted to her new life as an aspiring songwriter, she started applying to college. She decided to steer clear of conservatories or schools with intensive music programs. A longtime fan of the poet Philip Larkin, Grassie chose Bryn Mawr for its comparative literature department. "I wanted to have a whole world of reading and knowledge at my fingertips when I sat down to write songs," she explains. "As voracious a reader as I was before Bryn Mawr, I feel holistically enriched—and confident—in this new way here."

After her first open mic at the now-defunct Point in Bryn Mawr, Grassie started booking shows at bigger clubs around the East Coast. Right before starting Bryn Mawr, Grassie released her first full-length album, Serpentine. Critics have compared her style and her voice to Regina Spektor, Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell, but they also note that Grassie's harp sets her apart. "People think of the harp as something that puts you to sleep, and they only see it at church and weddings," says Grassie. "I want to reintroduce people to this incredible instrument."

It's clear that Grassie's unusual approach has struck a chord. In November, during the fall of her junior year, her song "Silken String" landed her in the finals at the prestigious New York Songwriters Circle contest out of 40,000 hopefuls. The contest encourages and recognizes young songwriting talents, and launched the careers of Norah Jones and Gavin DeGraw. Grassie won second place, which included a $3,000 prize and a free session in a recording studio.

Grassie says her studies as a comparative literature major have transformed her experience of writing songs. "I like the way comp. lit. looks at the world through the lenses of literature, anthropology, and history. I try to bring that complexity to my writing," she says. "I've never worked this hard in my life, and I think it's taking my songwriting to a deeper level."
- Bryn Mawr Alumae Bulletin

"2009 – XPoNential Music Festival – Gillian Grassie"

Day Three of the XPoNential Festival. The gates opened at noon and music enthusiasts started streaming in, settling on the grass in front of the Marina Stage for Sunday’s first act, the alt-folk harpist Gillian Grassie. With her delicate, haunting vocals and quick-moving fingers, Grassie plucks away aerial storied songs that have all of us intently leaning forward–I don’t want to miss one melodic word or one Celtic note.

Grassie is something of a local legend here in Philly–she’s just graduating from Bryn Mawr but she’s already gained international acclaim for her classically trained harp and vocal arrangements. Her smoky soprano has been heard in music halls as prestigious as Heinz Hall, Symphony Hall, and The National Cathedral. She’s played at Edinburgh’s International Harp Festival, and her releases (incredibly written and recorded before she had a diploma in hand) have critics calling her ‘an innovator par excellence’ and Philly’s very own ‘fearless freelance harpist’.

Gillian is pulling songs from her latest release on the Marina today, backed by an upright bass, guitar, percussion, and of course, her ethereal harpistry. As the last graceful notes of August die away and the crowd begins to cheer, I’m making mental notes to myself: when Grassie comes back from her year-long European trip next year, I’ve got to see her again–hopefully at next year’s XPoNential.

Excellent starter for this last day of fest. Thanks, XPN.

Silken String
The Canonization of Margot Price
No Answer
The Mark

Bekah Larsen
UPenn Intern
Class of 2012
- WXPN's All About the Music blog

"Sharp Notes"

Harpist Gillian Grassie has a dream job. Thanks to her Watson fellowship she has to travel through countries listening to music and interviewing people to present her findings on how technology is changing the face of music across the world. Add a harp to this picture, and Gillian gives you the impression of an angel who is travelling through the world, understanding what on earth mortal musicians are up to.

The award-winning harpist is currently in India flummoxed by the influence of Bollywood and getting her head around the unorganised music scene in the city. Her research however hasn't stopped her from bagging a gig or two. Tonight after a screening of Luc Besson's classic Nikita, Gillian will warm-up the audience for the headlining act, Dischordian.

Don't let the harp fool you. Her music is anything but classical. With tunes that are groovy and soulful, she describes her tracks as jazz-minded indie music. In fact, Gillian has unlearnt bits of her classical training. As a trained opera singer she found that her debut EP was overly dramatic. Unlearning this was one of the choices she had to make. As an 18-year-old after realising that strumming for an orchestra wasn't her thing, she decided to move-out and landed in Philadelphia.

She soon tapped into the ripe art scene and started building a fan-base. "Building a fan-base is what every indie artist has to do. You have to go and speak to the crowd so that they comeback for your gigs," says Gillian.

The explosion of social media is one of the focal points of her research. A comparative study will form the crux of her final presentation. "Musicians across the world use social media to promote themselves. But in countries like China with all the censorship involved, things might be different," she says. In India she has found that the trend of using samples instead of live musicians for TV commercials has affected the bread and butter of many.

However, for tonight she has the gig on her mind. In Berlin, she performed more than four days a week, in India this is her first gig since December. The difference can be overtly seen. “I can sense the changes in the music scene in this city. However, India is so big. It seems, more the people I interview , more the questions I have.
- Mumbai Mirror (The Hindustani Times)

"Philly Local Favorite Returns with "Quiet Kinda""

Singer/songwriter and harpist Gillian Grassie is back (well, kinda) with her latest single “Quiet Kinda.” It’s her first release since the 2013 studio album Hinterhaus, and the Philly native describes the new song as “a slow summer jam.” Enlisting the help of some Philly collaborators including Ross Bellenoit, Ryan Kuhns, and Tom Bendel, the harpist filmed the session at the Woodland Mansion in West Philly. Although she can be found in Philadelphia from time to time, Grassie has spent the past two years living across the pond in Berlin.

Dating back to a few years before she was born, Grassie’s parents had lived in Berlin working with the Friends Peace Commission. Her first experience in the city came in 2009, when she visited as part of her Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Flash forward a few years and Grassie is flying back and forth so much that she figures, “well, why don’t I just make Europe my home base for awhile?” In terms of affordability, Grassie compares Berlin to the likes of West Philly or Fishtown, but it has all the culture and vibrancy of a major capital city. Grassie says Berlin has become a European mecca for creatives of all stripes.

"I’ve always kind of liked living someplace where I’m a little bit of an alien. When you are constantly confronted with slight cultural differences – a foreign language, strange habits and customs, even things as little as the shapes of the light switches – it makes you really pay attention and be present. Being somewhere slightly foreign forces me to notice things about myself and where I come from, and that type of focused awareness can be very fruitful for finding the “telling details” and making art."

Grassie still makes it back to the U.S., and particularly Philly, a few times a year, and plans on returning in July. “I’m not sure if I’ll book a show in town in July because summer’s a tough time to get folks to stay indoors at clubs, but I might try and get those guys (Ross, Ryan, and Tom) together to track a new EP,” Grassie said. “I was really thrilled with the arrangements we put together for the video session – and that was just in one rehearsal!” - 88.5 WXPN - The Key


2013 - The Hinterhaus
2011 - "When The Nights Get Long" (XPN Holiday Single)
2007 - Serpentine
2005 - To An Unwitting Muse (EP)



"It's rare to hear a young singer with such control and understated soulfulness, and even more rare to hear a harp provide such a deep percussive groove. I was immediately captivated by her sound," gushed Grammy-winner Marc Cohn when he first heard Gillian Grassie perform. With her harp on her back and her heart on her sleeve, Gillian has toured across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, converting harp skeptics into devout followers with genre-bending songs that challenge the conventions of her instrument and connect with listeners across cultures.

A natural storyteller with a degree in comparative literature, Gillian pulls from a rich bricolage of influences, ranging from the soul and funk she was surrounded by as a child growing up in West Philadelphia, to traditional Celtic music (she debuted at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival at the tender age of 14) and ‘70s Folk she heard from her parents record collection, to the Jazz, contemporary Pop, and Americana that she discovered as a teenager. Although the harp demands attention, it is her expressive voice and sophisticated but accessible songwriting that reels in her listeners – hook, line, and sinker. This trifecta of talents has earned her grants from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation and the US State Department, a slew of awards, and the fervent support of her fans, who crowdfunded Gillian's second album, The Hinterhaus, produced by Todd Sickafoose (Anaïs Mitchell, Andrew Bird), and featuring special guest Janis Ian.

Although she’s sold out listening rooms from Philadelphia to Berlin to Siberia, Gillian delights in bringing the harp to unconventional places. She is equally comfortable performing at a private gala for HRH Prince Albert of Monaco as she is opening for Amanda Palmer in a repurposed barn in rural Germany, or even giving a concert on a moving train car in Mumbai, India. One fan described her show as "an awesome combination of Pippi Longstocking, drinking buddy, and the Mata Hari. Trust me, you never saw anything like this.” For fans of Bon Iver, Regina Spektor, and Feist.

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