Carol Kleyn and the return of the harp

Sjimon Gompers

Between the harp strings with Carol Kleyn. (photo by Gary Faye, alt photo by Tom Upton)

Before Drag City began reissuing Carol Kleyn's catalog from Love Has Made Me Stronger, Takin' The Time to the recent reissue of Return of the Silkie; the transcendental harp folk of Carol Kleyn was next to impossible to find. She was known previously to typically old school psych heads, and fringe folks artists who constantly name checked Sibylle Baier amongst sacred heroes. Kleyn's story ventures into the ethereal realms around 1970, when she dropped out of University of Santa Barbara after completing a course taught by Kenneth Rexroth called Poetry and Song. Living the free life, a gift of the harp from Bobby 'One Man Orchestra' Brown (who would make the cult album The Enlightening Beam of Axonda in 1972 with Carol assistance of juggling 50 instruments into a 12-channel mixer), that would begin a series of festival appearances, brushes with success, while remaining somewhat of an obscure figure. The recent re-release of Return of the Silkie presents Kleyn playing harp as a healing natural force (stemming from her volunteer work nursing baby sea lions and elephant seals back to good health in Laguna Canyon while recording their voices as well) that has an eco meditative quality where strings the strings connect the earth to the celestial skies. Over the winter break, I had the pleasure to correspond with one of folk music's rediscovered legend of stage and strings.

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How do you feel that the folk revolutions of the 60s challenged the norms of how traditional steeped elements and instruments were seen and used?

Instruments like the Appalachian dulcimer, the hammer dulcimer, the sitar, even the use of the acoustic guitar all seemed to take on a new flair during the 60’s and early 70’s. The songs were progressive, moving into that folk/rock vein with descriptive lyrics reflecting the current times, while the traditional instruments being rediscovered and added to the mix were like lost treasures that had long been kept, perhaps forgotten, in cobwebbed attics, dusty music stores or cluttered pawn shops. Discovering one of these treasures, especially unexpectedly, was like a great find. They added an element of curiosity to your stage or recording performance, and brought with them a sparkle of sounds that were usually new to both the musician’s ear as well as the listener’s. Challenges included learning how to play the instrument-which was often self taught, without books, and self stylized. It was also important to know when, where and how often to include these instruments (excluding the guitar, as that was usually your mainstay) into your act. It seemed it was a delicate weave that was most successful, allowing the songs themselves, rather than the instruments, to take center stage….unless, of course, your mainstay happened to be a harp!

How did the 60s singer-songwriter movement inform your work in the 70s and onward?

Though I’d sometimes dreamed of playing the oboe in the symphony, I’d never planned or thought about becoming a singer/songwriter when I was young. Thus, when I dropped out of college, following a class I’d taken called Poetry and Song taught by poet Kenneth Rexroth, where I wrote and performed my first two songs on a borrowed guitar, I really wasn’t sure where I was going except that it would be somewhere new, for me, in the world of music. At the time, I was happily making pick-ups for Bobby Brown’s soon to be Universal One Man Orchestra and learning to be his soundman. Bob’s vision for his music was both captivating and amazing to me. He had no aspirations to be another Bob Dylan, but instead brought to the stage what might be called a sort of pure light music that was definitely one of a kind. It stopped people in their tracks and held them on the edge of their seats until his performances were over. In the early days, Bob’s music was all that I really heard at home. Consequently, I’m sure it was the primary influence that brought to me a new way of thinking about my own classical music foundations and where they might take me into this new world it appeared I was moving into: that of becoming a singer/songwriter.

(photo by Gary Faye)

Though I’d sometimes hear and would love the folk/rock music of the day, at friends’ homes, or on the car radio, or the occasional concert, I didn’t think of doing those songs or something like them in terms of my own music. I definitely wanted to have my own sound. Of course there’s an influence that occurs, by the very nature of listening to someone else’s music. Yet, I knew there could only be one Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins and to try to replicate them or others of their stature, would be taking the wrong path.

Over the years, I believe I succeeded in creating a style and sound I can call my own. Hopefully it’s a sound that will continue to find new audiences, not because it falls into a 'folk' category, but because it’s a sound that catches your ear and makes you want to hear it again.

Thoughts on the way the entire music industry has evolved since those days, and do you feel it is a better climate for independent musicians or not?

I’m not sure that I understand the current music industry design well enough to comment on that. The Internet has certainly changed the marketing strategy. It has also often allowed songs to be downloaded without any form of payment to the artist or the record company. At the same time, it’s allowed all kinds of music to be heard all around the world.

It was never an easy industry to approach when I was young, but it seems even more challenging today. The on-line volume of singer/songwriters/recording artists seems incredible. Relatively inexpensive electronic equipment has allowed musicians to post their songs from home. They often set up their own web pages and try to market themselves. In the process, it seems a great deal of music is being given away for free, in the musician’s hope of being discovered. Perhaps that’s the nature of the art. I used to play for free on the hoot night stage, and other small venues or street corners, in the hopes of being discovered. I guess it’s always been an industry where only the lucky few, for one reason or another, make it to the top. Perhaps the Internet at least allows the musician to feel that his or her music has been delivered to the world, rather than to just a few friends down the block, and that alone can bring a great deal of satisfaction.

I am glad to see the number of indie music companies, such as Drag City, out there, as it seems they’ve gone into this business more for the challenge and the love of it, than just for the dollars. It’s no surprise to me that they’ve discovered their own share of talented artists and have been a big part of those artists’ success.

What do you make of where folk has evolved to today?

Again, I’m not really sure where folk music has evolved today. Is rap the new folk?? Was rap preceded by reggae? Was reggae considered folk?? Is country a closer companion? I’m not sure. It seems most music is a hybrid these days, lots of crossovers. I guess I believe that good music will always be good music and a talented performing artist, given the right opportunities, and a lot of luck, might just be able to take that music to the top.

Thinking of the political tides from then and now, what are some of the struggles do you think these days in making resonating songs of protest, songs of experience and songs of nature?

More than anything, I wonder why such music isn’t being done more often. Music has always been a way of unifying people. Lyrics are written to give us strength and keep us on that path of working toward a better world for all. World peace, civil rights, environmental issues…people need leaders… and songs…to help them think about and solve the many problems of the world and, hopefully, to then rejoice in their accomplishments.

Who some of your favorite artists beyond Joan Baez back then?

It’s hard to make a list as it includes so many. That was a great time for music. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues, Crosby, Stills and Nash…and Young, the Allman Brothers, Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, The Mamas and the Papas, Carol King, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens….the list and the beat goes on….and on….

(Carol Kleyn at The Ortega Hot Springs with dogs Mom and Kai, photo courtesy of Alice Graves)What artists do you enjoy now?

I’m fairly nostalgic when it comes to music. Most of the time I still listen to my favorite albums from the 60’s and 70’s, maybe the 80’s. I’ve added a few new artists from the 90’s, like Sting or harpist Loreena McKennitt, but I continue to purchase new music from older artists such as Dylan or Paul McCartney. I also pick up older CD’s, on occasion, by people like Ray Charles: artists I’ve loved and want to keep in my collection but just never had the opportunity to purchase when I was younger. One recent addition I love is an album done in 2001 by a group called Bryndle. The band members include the talents of 70’s solo artists Wendy Waldman, Andrew Gold and Karla Bonoff. And though I’m fairly new to the 'indie' world, I always try to listen to some of the current artists out there. I definitely enjoy the music of Joanna Newsom and Bill Callahan and recently discovered a talented, young woman in my community named Cami Lundeen.

What brought you to discover and take affinity for the harp?

The harp was an unexpected gift from my friend Bobby Brown. I don’t believe I ever would have picked it up on my own had he not given it to me. When I received it, I was determined to teach myself, without books or listening to other harpists, rather than opt for the free lessons being offered. And early on, I decided the music I played would either be of my own writing, or not at all. And for about six months, it was not at all, as I really wasn’t sure just what I was going to do with this new instrument. Then, one day, someone asked if I might play at a faire coming up. I told them I had no songs, but they offered me $5 for one song and I agreed to play. The morning of the faire, I finally wrote that song, playing it again and again, until I performed it later that afternoon. I had to smile when the audience called for an encore and I told them it was the only song I knew. So, much to their enjoyment, I played it again and thus began my career as a musician.

What are your thoughts on the harp in today's current culture, like with Joanna Newsom's re-popularizing of the instrument?

Joanna’s done exceptionally well. She’s talented, both as a writer and a performer. I’ve also been a fan of Loreena McKennitt since the late 90’s and of Andreas Vollenweider in the 80’s. They, like Joanna, added new designs to their music performed on the harp, keeping it fresh and accessible to new audiences. There does seem to be quite a renaissance of the folk harp these days. What once was relatively rare has become surprisingly familiar, especially on the island where I currently reside.

Your music has this tranquil narrative of wandering about nature from oceanic waters, to rivers, drifters down orchard paths, storms over paradise; all through this organic, soothing nature song. With the action of returning like seasons and other elemental patterns of air, earth, fire, wind and such; did you have this kind of a narrative guideline in mind when recording this album?

Thank you for your interpretation. I did have that narrative in mind, though my hope was also to encourage the listener to think about the world we live in and the changes that are going on, especially environmentally, which appear to be much worse today than thirty years ago. My hope is that it’s still possible to save the beauty and the magnificence of this world for future generations, but my concern is that we’re growing quite close to that point of no return.

What did the recording process of Return of the Silkie mean to you creatively and personally back in 1983, and what does it means to you now in 2013?

I was proud of this album back in 1983, most especially because of the message I hoped I was conveying. Everything seemed to fit. I loved the cover and the story and the time I spent with the sea lions recording their voices and placing those voices in the songs. I also thought I’d finally made the album my audience was looking for and that they might eventually keep it tucked up in their attics somewhere, to long store those memories shared.

Thoughts on hearing Return of the Silkie, returning 30 years later?

Thirty years later, it’s been rewarding to see it reissued and well received. It would be lovely to think that my music could touch the hearts of people around the world and just maybe that that message would take hold and make a difference.

Return of the Silkie is available now from Drag City.

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