Photographs by Erin Patrice O’Brien.
The Grammy-nominated harpist Brandee Younger has always been at the center of some of your favorite tunes, even if you didn’t know she was there. Whether it's her work with the award-winning artist John Legend or the rap lyricist Common, she’s always put her stamp on the music in question, all while setting a new course for what classical music can entail.
No longer satisfied wtih lingering in the background of other artists songs, with her major-label debut, Somewhere Different, she’s now putting her artistry with the classical instrument in the forefront. The result can best be described as a captivating music combo of angelic strings, spiritual jazz, a touch of 90s R&B with a mix of fervent grit. “It was important for me to thrust the harp forward in a non-traditional setting,” Younger says of her new album. “I made a conscious effort to make sure that the harp was a bit more present in this recording. It’s important for the instrument.”
“I hope it is enjoyable to listen to,” she says of her latest effort. “Not hard to listen to, nothing to be analyzed or overanalyzed, but that people will just enjoy it. Everything has a groove, and that’s me.”
Below, EBONY chatted with the contemporary harpist on her musical journey, what inspires her, and why it's important for musicians in every genre to stay versatile.
EBONY: How did you get started in music, and what led you to the harp?
Brandee Younger: Like so many artists, I started singing in my church choir at Union Baptist Church in Hempstead, NY. I eventually started playing band instruments in elementary school and approaching junior high school, my parents introduced me to a woman who played harp as a hobby. This is how I was led to the instrument.
Were there any challenges you faced in your musical journey, particularly as a Black female artist?
As in many fields, there are always challenges, including not being taken seriously as a woman in a male dominated industry. It's almost as if you've got to posture in a certain manner in order to navigate the world. That comes with its costs. In terms of being Black in the harp world, it's definitely one of the most isolating experiences I've ever had, but the harp is becoming more visible and available in our schools these days, so I'm hoping the next generation won't feel that isolation.
What inspires you and your creativity?
I'm inspired mostly by nature and old recordings. I love the stories behind classic recordings and the artists. I love history.
How do you seek inspiration?
When I come across an old bootleg—I recently heard a Dorothy Ashby bootleg that immediately sent me to my harp to practice. I practice best, and most, when inspired, so I seek it by finding vintage gems to listen to while on walks in Central Park.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
Always be prepared. Learn every style of music that you can and not just what's in your wheelhouse. Stay ready, because you never know what kind of work will come your way and get you where you want to be!
Do you have a creative routine?
I just developed one as I began to compose more music, and that routine is: listening to classic, soul music. That's always my launchpoint before sitting down at the harp and composing. Curtis Mayfield is always on repeat.
Why is sharing your voice important?
I've learned that sharing my voice is important so that young Black boys and girls can see and know that this too is for them. All too often, the harp has an image that our kids don't see themselves in and our representation is important.
What excites you most about what's happening in the music industry right now?
Well, I couldn't be happier for Jon Batiste. I am always really happy when a multi-faceted musician (and friend) wins Album of the Year at the Grammy's. And to witness it—that’s truly a win for all of us instrumentalists.
A new record, of course! I am really excited to collaborate with some of my favorite artists and friends on my next project. I just want literally everyone to listen to the harp!