To call harpist, singer, and songwriter Erin Hill a multi-dimensional musician is an understatement. Hill sings, she writes, she composes, and then plays harp, guitar, saxophone, flute, drums, bass and piano. She began taking piano lessons at age eight in her native Kentuckiana, Indiana, and fell in love with a harp at the same age. (Kentuckiana includes counties in both Indiana and Kentucky, near Louisville.)
Hill continued her lessons with harp and piano until she got to college, but along the way, taught herself bass, guitar, violin, and drums. After studying music and theater at Syracuse University she relocated to New York City to pursue a career in acting.
She is often referred to on concert posters as “the psychedelic harp girl.” “Officially, my rock band is known as Erin Hill and Her Psychedelic Harp,’” she says in a phone interview while on a visit back home to check up on her father, who taught chemistry at the University of Indiana. Her mother is a school teacher in Queens, NY, which Hill also calls home.
“When people hear the word ‘harp,’ 95 percent of the time, they think of it in the classical music context,” Hill says, “so I decided I needed to put something in front of ‘harpist’ to let people know I am not playing Debussy. This is something different.
“I guess my music is kind of Beatle-esque, because they’ve been such a huge influence on me,” she says. She leads a five-piece rock band with the harp as the center point, as opposed to electric guitar. The band performs a Celtic Christmas show on Friday, December 17, at the Record Collector in Bordentown. Aside from playing a multitude of instruments, Hill also acts, and has done screenwriting and voice-over work for commercials.
How did Hill become infatuated with the harp? “I was eight years old and went to my piano teacher’s house, and there it was, sitting in the living room. It was just love at first sight,” she says. “I was drawn to it like I later was to a set of drums, or like I was to every instrument I play, but let’s face it, the harp is the coolest.”
Since settling in New York City after college, Hill has shared stages and recording studios with Enya, Cyndi Lauper, Kanye West, Joan Osborne, Randy Newman, Marshall Crenshaw, Duncan Sheik, the Smithereens, Lenny Pickett, and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band, among dozens of others. She has been part of Glen Burtnik’s Christmas Extravaganza the last four years and contributes a different Christmas song, rendered on harp and vocals, each year.
Hill also played Sandra Mescal in the Tim Robbins film, “Cradle Will Rock,” and appears on that film’s soundtrack alongside P.J. Harvey and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
Until recently, she served a multi-year tenure at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park South, where she could be heard rendering rock ‘n’ roll arrangements on solo harp, playing and singing everything from David Bowie, the Beatles, and Neil Young, to the Police, Roxy Music, Prince, and Stevie Wonder. Her voice-over work has been heard on commercials for Coca-Cola, Match.com, Wal-Mart, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Interestingly, her parents weren’t musical, but her grandmother was, and she had a piano at her house. “There is a picture of me at six months, playing a little Shroeder toy piano. At my grandmother’s house, I would reach up to play the keys on the piano before I could even sit on the piano bench,” she says.
She came to a crossroads with her love for acting and music some time after moving to New York. She was offered the lead role in an off-Broadway production at the very same time she was offered the chance to go on the road with the Fab Faux, the Beatles tribute band led by Jimmy Vivino, Will Lee, and others.
“Initially I was doing Broadway shows, and when you’re doing Broadway shows, you’re doing that six days a week, eight shows a week,” she says, which leaves time for little else. “You can’t really do gigs. The only night you have off is Monday night. So there was a turning point when I was offered this lead role in a show at the same time I got asked to play with the Fab Faux,” she says, adding drummer Rich Pagano wanted her to become a regular part of the touring band. Hill would not reveal what the off-Broadway show was, but would only say it was the workshop for a show that very well might have gone to Broadway.
“When you’re an actor and you’re offered the lead part, you usually jump at the chance,” she says, but then adds she decided to go out on the road with the Fab Faux, “because my heart is in rock ’n’ roll.”
Not surprisingly for such an accomplished musician, Hill also has a healthy interest in blues and jazz and bluegrass of her native Kentucky, and she knows her way around the violin, too. She spent several years in New York working as a jazz singer but ultimately found it less satisfying than performing her own arrangements of classic rock and roll tunes and her originals on harp, while singing. Hill has a healthy respect for the ladies of blues and jazz who have come before her, especially Ella Fitzgerald, she says.
“Improvisation is a big part of what I do. Even when I was playing at the Ritz Carlton regularly, I just kind of played tunes out of my head, yet they never sounded the same way twice,” she says. “There was a period when I concentrated on doing a whole lot of jazz singing, and I love it, but my heart remains always in rock ’n’ roll.”
At her Celtic Christmas Show at the Record Collector on December 17, the repertoire will not be limited to Christmas tunes performed on harp. She will be accompanied by a pedal steel player, likely Mike Nolan, and cello player and backup singer Meena Cho.
“There will be some Christmas music for sure, but I’m going to try to make this Christmas show mainly Celtic and mainly Christmas, with a little bit of my original psychedelic sci-fi rock thrown in there.”
Erin Hill, the Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Friday, December 17, 7:30 p.m. “A Celtic Christmas.” $18. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.