Featured Interview – Anne Harris

imageSo talented, so beautiful, so much fun to watch! Those are the thoughts that will come to mind when you witness Anne Harris performing. In addition to being a superb violinist she also creates stunning visual imagery with her flying hair, colorful outfits (including the occasional tutu), and dance moves that are both graceful and athletic. If that combination sounds unusual, it would not be surprising.

“I’ve never been good at blending into the background. As a kid, I felt that I never could quite align with ‘normal,’ ever. It wasn’t that I didn’t fit in. I lived, and continue live, outside what might be called normal. I have a wild imagination. I’m the person that can see faces in things, and see the angel in the branches of trees.

“Luckily, I was blessed to be raised in Yellow Springs, Ohio—a small, extremely liberal and diverse college town where the arts and music were priorities in the public school system. And my parents were always supportive of my passions. So, music, dance, theater, art were literally how I shaped my vision of the world around me and who I am. I was given an unmitigated avenue of expression through which to interpret the world.”

Harris noted that her mother told her the story of how she had taken Anne to see the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof, which started Harris’ passion for the violin.

“I have a vague memory of seeing the silhouette of Isaac Stern on top of a roof playing the overture, his violin filling my whole body up with the emotion of the music, and that moment would change the course of my life.” Her mother told her that she pointed at the screen and said “Mommy, that’s what I want to do!”

She then continued to beg for a violin for the next several years, “and around age eight my persistence won its case, and I began studying formally with a private Suzuki instructor for the next ten years. This method emphasizes starting at a very young age, learning to play by ear, and the importance of environment being saturated in a musical community. It was also around this age that I began taking ballet lessons and became obsessed with dance, so dance and movement have always been a really important part of how I express myself. I have an instrument that I play, and the other instrument is my body. I remember as a kid my violin teacher would say, ‘you need to not move around so much!’”

Harris grew up listening to a varied and eclectic collection of music, as her parents loved all kinds of genres.

“My Dad had a big vinyl collection. I heard everything from jazz, funk, blues, country and gospel to classical folk, rock, pop, musical theater and beyond. As a result, I grew up without a filter in a sense, about what I found relatable across many genres. I liked what I liked simply because it resonated somewhere emotionally. This is something that I’ve carried with me my whole life—an extremely diverse and eclectic taste in music and seeing the through-lines and connections across genres. I feel the emotional base that connects them all for me.”

While she plays in many genres, blues appears to be one of the primary ones for Harris. The violin may not be the first instrument visualized when one thinks of the blues; however, Harris noted that while earning her BFA in Musical Theater from the University of Michigan’s School of Music, and then moving to Chicago with its incredibly diverse music scene, she learned more about how the African American fiddle tradition had a significant role in early blues music.

“Early blues music emerged from the black string band traditions of the 19th century where fiddles and banjos were the predominant voices and guitars a rarity. Slave fiddling was documented as early as the 1690s, and by the 1700s, Black fiddlers were as prevalent as black banjo players. New Orleans was known as the center of Black fiddle music, and slaves in the region were often sent there to learn the instrument, returning as trained entertainers to their home plantations. Following emancipation, many former slave musicians continued to play professionally locally as well as traveling musicians. The fiddle remained hugely popular due in part to its low cost and portablility.”

image“My personal indoctrination into the Blues as an artist began with a nine and one-half-year stint of touring internationally and recording with Trance Blues innovator Otis Taylor. It began with a chance encounter at Buddy Guy’s Legends, when he heard me playing at a Chicago Blues Fest event.”

Since leaving Taylor’s band, Harris has worked primarily in the Blues genre, and has shared the stage with such greats as Guy Davis, Billy Branch, Shemekia Copeland, Corey Harris, Cedric Burnside, Mud Morganfield, Anders Osborne, Terrence Simien, and Bubby Rush. Harris is frequently seen at the Big Blues Bender as an individual artist where she joins numerous other musicians in spontaneous collaborations. However, she also recently began two very interesting projects.

“Gumbo, Grits and Gravy” is an acoustic Blues/American Roots trio comprised of Harris, Guy Davis and Marcella Simien. They released an eponymous EP and are looking forward to regaining their tour momentum as soon as possible.

Harris also joined forces with Alt bluesman Markus James for an American Roots duo dubbed “Harris James”. She recently released a single and video from that project entitled “Over” that is available digitally. Harris described Davis as such a historian.

“He comes from royalty. He’s got an incredible life story and a fascinating perspective on things. He is such a great storyteller.” She noted that in this trio, “I play fiddle and sing, Marcella plays accordion and sings, and Guy plays banjo and sings”.

Additionally, one of the favorite surprises at a recent Blues Bender was the opportunity to see Harris join Jason Ricci and JP Soar’s incredible band (including Chris Peet and Frederick Cleveland) for the “JP Soars’ Gypsy Blues Revue”. Harris remembered when she and Jason Ricci, (known for his astounding ability to produce sounds on the harmonica that one would think are physically impossible to achieve), joined JP Soars at the Bender.

“There are moments with an artist that are just the gems. They are the reasons that you play. Those are moments of connection. There is this effortless journey, and you feel completely safe to do whatever crazy thing that comes in your head.”

Of Ricci, she stated “He’s an incredible musician because he is 100 percent honest when he approaches music. There is a sense of vulnerability and there is something really compelling about that.”

When asked about his experience of working with Harris, Ricci stated, “Playing with Anne is always fun. She’s always right in the moment, listening and respectfully reacting. What she’s doing is always new, even if she’s played the same song night after night. She becomes physically, emotionally and spiritually dedicated to every vibration she hears and makes.”

Harris was also extremely excited about working with JP Soars.

“I’ve been a fan of JP ever since I met him on the Blues Cruise. I am a huge admirer of artists that take something very traditional, like the gypsy jazz genre, and completely make it their own, the way JP does. He has developed a sound that is truly original. He is a genius technically and a masterful musician and he has taken gypsy jazz and his love of that genre with such a devotion and respect but pushed the boundaries and made it this other thing.”

Soars has equal admiration of Harris noting “I love working with Anne Harris. Not only is she an amazing musician, but she’s an amazing person who always brings this uplifting positive, joyful energy and exuberance.”

That joyful positivity which clearly emanates from Harris prompted a question about her spirituality. She noted that she was not raised in a church.

“I’m not a religious person. I didn’t adopt any specific tradition. I have always felt a deep connected sense of spirituality. It’s just not one that falls in alignment with a certain practice. She described how she believes in “energy, vibration, and in the animate force in all natural objects that makes everything alive.”

imageHowever, she also added that “magic is simply the conscious application of directing energy. Everything is energy, is vibration. That’s a quantum physics thing. Magic is simply recognizing the vibrational energy that binds all things and directing the forces of thought and intention along with working with natural cycles.

“For me it is not picking up a wand and going through some ritual. Magic is making dinner happen on time. Magic is like the crocuses I saw yesterday when a week ago it was thirty below zero, and now the earth has revealed itself. Magic is everywhere. I think some things that are so apparent become invisible when we take them for granted. If we walk out and look at the sunset that is going to be waiting for us in a couple of hours and know that there is never going to be another one just like it – that’s magic! We have this limited bandwidth with our traditional five senses.

“What we experience in our human form is a fraction of what is possible. Hawks can see more than we can, and dogs can hear more than we can, so there is nothing silly about thinking there are other forms of consciousness within this huge spectrum.”

Harris’ joyful positivity remained even when talking about the pandemic, which others find fairly bleak.

“I’ve been so blessed—my family and I are healthy and we have a roof over my head and food to eat. I just can’t stress enough what a type of gratitude this past year has brought. As difficult as this transition is, and as painful as it is, it’s getting us to a better place ultimately if we are to survive. I’m talking global survival for humans. We have been running a game that is unsustainable. This is the time that we can turn it around, where we can write a new narrative for ourselves.

“It starts with self-love and with compassion and empathy and with an open heart and mind to learn and a desire to be better, to do better. We can uplift and evolve and it will have a viral effect. We can connect and heal in ways that we never knew.”

She acknowledged that it’s been a tough year.

“Certainly my career, along with the careers of everybody who was sustaining themselves with live music completely had the rug taken out from under our feet. But it also was an opportunity to spend a year at home with my kid and my husband, and to up my game and be of service to the world.”

One way Harris was of service was her spontaneous benefit for the homeless of Chicago.

“It wasn’t anything premeditated or organized. It was the beginning of February and I saw this intense cold on its way to Chicago. A couple of years ago I had spontaneously taken up a drive for clothing and blankets and supplies for this tent community in Chicago and we asked them what they needed, and they said propane for heat to stay alive, because the shelters were already overflowing. I made a plea to my friends and fans for anyone who wanted to join me, and I would buy all the propane that I can afford and deliver it to the tent community. I was overwhelmed by the response. We were able to raise over $3,000 in three days. I bought out the supplies of propane in three different Menards stores and eight actual camping heaters and met people in the cloak of darkness. The gratitude was truly overwhelming and to be able to instill a sense of hope to someone that is in a pretty hopeless situation was truly humbling.”

Harris also found a way to point out a positive aspect when discussing the recent increase in openly racist statements and hate crimes.

“How wonderful that we are finally having this dialogue, though. We wouldn’t have had it in 2019. The year 2020 had a bigger reveal, and as painful as it is for us, it is a huge part of our potential transformation. For this country to evolve, it’s going to be only with complete inclusiveness of all marginalized groups. We have to completely heal in a deep way, and that comes from painful reveals. There’s nothing wrong with pain. Pain is part of the process. There’s a tendency in this country—we try not to see ugly stuff. We want to move past it, but this is not the time for that. To do that kind of shadow work takes a lot of courage and patience and forgiveness of yourself and things around you that you can’t control.

image“But I’m an eternal optimist. I constantly remind myself that the greatest gift we have as humans is our creativity. We are all artists innately, whether you are an artist by profession or not. Humans are creators by nature and our ability to create new things is all based in our mind. Until there is complete healing, you can’t cover a gash with a Band-Aid. We have to completely heal in a deep way.”

Harris has recently started a skin care business.

“For years I had been playing around, making my own body products like lip balms and lotions and tinted moisturizers, because I love doing that. I got obsessed this past Fall with perfecting a whipped body butter. I stumbled on this great recipe and it is all organically sourced and fair-trade produced. I’m getting the shea butter from an organization in Ghana. I love the idea of me being able to support that—supporting other Black women who are creating this product that I use and believe in. Whenever I find something really cool, I want to share it, so there is a link on my website with the story of it and how to purchase it.”

Additionally, Harris has scored and starred in a short independent film called “The Musician” which was written and directed by Mark Schimmel. This beautiful film touches on forgiveness and unlikely opportunities to inspire others. Harris explained how she got connected to the director through the lead singer of Jefferson Starship.

“I had never done a film before, but he was a very generous director, and he kind of let this part be shaped by me. Originally it was going to be a male cellist. I was lucky enough to have my music score the film. It was just a joyous experience. Reese Harley is the little girl that stars in the film with me. She is just a sweetheart, and it was really wonderful to work with her. She had just turned eight at the time. I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s been floating around for several years, as it was entered into a lot of short film festivals. It enjoyed a long run on the Indie film fest circuit, picking up numerous accolades over the last two years. It was just released to the general public and is available free on my website.”

When asked what advice she could give to others who feel as if they don’t fit in, Harris replied, “That’s your diamond in the rough. You’ll realize that nobody fits in. There is this illusion that is built for us about what is supposed to be a normal experience. The sequence of events that we’re supposed to do in life, but the things that make you different are always our greatest gifts. There is nobody else that will look at something the way you do. You take a risk when you invest in your own uniqueness on behalf of yourself, and it’s not always going to be applauded when you do it with honesty. It’s really hard, but that’s how you find your way. That’s when you realize how important you are to the bigger picture. You’ll empower others to stand up for what is right, or where you’ll articulate something in a way that it was never articulated before. And your community might be one person. It might be only yourself.

“Brene Brown talks extensively in her book Braving the Wilderness about being in a metaphorical wilderness. It’s about being alone, standing alone in our own authenticity, in our own experience, and holding fast to the truth of that and who you are. Then you discover you are not really by yourself, and people who get you and are excited by your presence are the connections that will support and heal you.”

Harris’ music and uplifting, positive personality have been, and will continue to be very healing to many of us. You can find links to Anne Harris’ tour, to watch the short Independent film, “The Musician,” listen to and watch her new single “Over”, or to purchase her body butter at her website: www.anneharris.com.

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