From the very beginning, music has evolved by virtue of creative people taking interesting chances and making unexpected choices. In the modern age, musicians routinely use the chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter paradigm to push their lyrical/instrumental/compositional boundaries and arrive at new and exciting answers to endless self-posed questions.
In that context, violinist/lyricist Jordana Greenberg and her Harpeth Rising comrades, cellist Maria Di Meglio and banjoist Michelle Younger, are following time-tested methods for crafting new sounds based on their musical training and diverse influences, particularly on their latest album, last year’s Against All Tides. In Harpeth Rising’s case, there are fairly straight lines that connect British and American Folk traditions and Appalachian Bluegrass, including their gorgeous three-part harmonies, but the trio’s wild card is the Classical training that underpins their sound.
“All three of us have Classical music backgrounds and were connected by the Classical music world even though we were in very different parts of the world,” says Greenberg, a Cincinnati resident who works with local youth orchestra MYCincinnati.
Greenberg and Di Meglio met in Bloomington, Ind. when Greenberg returned to visit family after graduate school in Boston and a walkabout that included time in Hawaii. Di Meglio was finishing her master’s degree from Indiana University, also Greenberg’s alma mater, and mutual friends arranged a meeting, which sparked a serious musical connection. They played as a duo for a time before relocating to Nashville in 2010, where they officially became Harpeth Rising (named after a nearby river), adding additional members and recording a trio of albums.
“I think we were young enough at the time that we just expected that where we landed was where we would stay permanently, not understanding that it would take a lot of different moves to find the right place for us personally and as a band,” says Greenberg, who now lives in Price Hill. “So we didn’t end up staying in Nashville, but we always liked the word ‘Harpeth.’ It sounds kind of mystical; some people think it sounds a little Olde English or Celtic, but we don’t necessarily mean for that to be the impression.”
After a few personnel shifts and the recording of 2015’s Shifted, Greenberg and Di Meglio sent out the word that they were seeking someone with, as Liam Neeson would describe, “a very particular set of skills.” They were introduced to Younger, a masterful banjo player and also a direct descendant of Cole Younger, the notorious compatriot of Jesse James, which launched the latest version of Harpeth Rising; last year’s Against All Tides was Younger’s studio debut with the band.
“We put out the call for someone who didn’t have to be classically trained but was comfortable using Classical language to talk about non-Classical music,” Greenberg says. “What we do has strong roots in the oral tradition and improvisation, but our language is all very Classical and nerdy, and we wanted a bandmate who shares that. So we sent some e-mails to guitar teachers at some music schools around the country and Stephen Aron at Oberlin (College & Conservatory) responded, ‘Unbelievably, I think I have the perfect person for this position.’ ”
The band’s three members come from very diverse backgrounds. Greenberg was born in Canada and then subsequently raised in Indiana, Di Meglio is a native New Yorker and Younger hails from Charlottesville, Va. All three were classically trained in some of the country’s most prestigious music programs, and they all found a passion for singing after their studies. But Greenberg notes that it’s the diversity within Harpeth Rising that most clearly defines the group’s unique sound.
“Our sound is the result of the differences in our backgrounds,” she says. “When I first started playing with Maria, I loved her sense of rhythm with the cello. She had a lot of bass-player sensibility and syncopation, and the syncopation particularly is built in because her family has Balkan and Serbian traditions, and there’s just a strong rhythmic element to a lot of the music from those cultures.
“I grew up in Canada and a lot of the music I grew up with, besides Classical, which was a strong part of my childhood, were the traditional Canadian songwriters — Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Stan Rogers, one of my personal heroes. So I’ve always been obsessed with the written word and lyricism. And Michelle is really steeped in traditional, old-time banjo playing, which is a genre that sprung out of a variety of other genres, but it adds that Appalachian feel to everything.
“There are more influences than that, but if you add Classical to that mix, you have singer/songwriter-meets-Eastern-European-meets-Appalachia-meets-Classical, and those are our major categorical influences.”
The band itself was amazed at the sonic intersection of their educational, cultural and musical diversity, but ultimately those differences fueled the trio’s songwriting and performing creativity.
“We were surprised at how well it came together, but when you look deeper into it, you realize that all of this music stems from Folk traditions of other cultures,” Greenberg says. “Our American tradition of Folk music is actually an amalgamation of the music of hundreds of other cultures, and we think of that as having its own natural sound, so there’s no reason that something that’s a different part of the spectrum of those cultures wouldn’t also sound natural, and we hope that it does.”
Greenberg notes that Shifted was written over a greater expanse of time, as opposed to Against All Tides, which came together relatively quickly. The major difference between the two is the addition of guitar to Harpeth Rising’s instrumental array, thanks to Younger’s skills.
“I never felt that not having a guitar necessarily defined our sound, and I don’t think that having one makes us not sound like ourselves,” Greenberg says with a laugh. “We like to experiment with percussive sounds, and I think we did that a little more on this album, using the wood of our instruments and our hands. We have a bass drum that we use with a drum pad, and tambourine and cowbell that we take on the road. I like having a percussive groove. It’s just important for us to find new ways to incorporate that while retaining the natural sound of the string instruments.”