BAY AREA ARTISTS SING OUT (BAASO)
Journey of inspiration – the music of Nomi Harper
June 11, 2008
By Jean Bartlett, Managing Editor
As a music reviewer, I have attended a Nomi Harper performance more than once. The first time I didn’t know what to expect. The next time(s) I knew what to expect from this singer, songwriter, guitarist and my foot was on the gas pedal to be there when her voice hit the microphone. Nomi’s got a clear vocal, articulate and sweet, that has a maturity to it that offers memory and comfort. She can turn a note into a gentle yodel or hold it like a quiet nod between old friends. Her words matter and her guitar playing and rhythm create a nice little jolt for the body electric. But just who is this lady who in a short matter of time has become the buzz name for music aficionados along the San Francisco and San Mateo County Coasts?
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Located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and built on the far northwestern slopes of Mount Carmel, Haifa is the third largest city in Israel. This city, this Mediterranean wonder of terraced landscapes, can be found mentioned in the pages of Talmudic literature as far back as the 3rd century CE – and it was here in Haifa, that musician Nomi Harper was born in the spring of 1954.
“My mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, moved to Israel after World War II. Because of her experiences in a concentration camp she became a Zionist. I mention this because I believe to really understand someone; you need to understand their history. My mother’s history is intense and amazing and if you visit www.mem.com and type her last name ‘Duering’ in the search window, you will find her biography. To know who my mother is, is to know me a bit as well.”
Harper’s mother reports that before her daughter was even born, she detected Nomi was dancing. The music would play and the little miracle would move inside of Renée – and though music would always weave in and around the patterns of Nomi’s life, it wasn’t until the musician turned 52 that she found the self faith to present her songs to a room full of temporary strangers. Maybe that’s why her songs have such immediate resonance.
“I’ve been married twice and I just fell out of a long-term relationship and suddenly I don’t answer to anybody anymore,” said Harper. “No more step children, no more husbands. My two beautiful sons, both musicians, are more than grown. Gabe is 32 and Ben is 26. For a while I didn’t even have a job. It seems the universe took everything away from me that I was nurturing and left me to nurture myself – and so I turned to music and now, all these things are happening to me.”
The history of Nomi Harper is not etched on her face or in her wide-brimmed smile; it is etched in her lyrics. Her first CD, released in May of 2008 is aptly titled: Remembering to Live.
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Nomi’s first language was German and because her mother also spoke French, Dutch and English and Hebrew – the singer was exposed to a lot of languages from birth on. This, Nomi said, gave her a good basis for a trained musical ear. When Harper was 2½, she and her mom moved to her mother’s hometown of Cologne, Germany. In February of 1958, Nomi and her mother arrived in San Francisco and the Bay Area became home.
“Apparently I used to sing a lot as a really young child,” said Harper. “But I didn’t really know I had a voice that people would appreciate until about the 7th grade when I was in my glee club in junior high school and I heard some nice comments. Up until then I knew music was very important to me.”
“My mom played classical music on the piano and she taught me Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ which I learned by ear when I was very young. I remember I hated reading notes. I also remember the moment when I really realized I was hearing something very, very cool in a song. My mother and I were sitting in a restaurant in Pacifica, The Muffin Mine, and suddenly the Beatles’ tune ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ came over the loud speaker. That and the Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 1964 – both these events were extremely influential to my development as a musician.”
In 5th grade, Harper had her first official music lessons when she took up snare drum at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Elementary School in Daly City, CA. “No one else took up the instrument and they needed some percussion,” said Harper. “That gave me my basis for rhythm and timing.”
At Serramonte High School in Daly City, students had scheduled classes and college-like free time and some of the kids would bring their guitars to school and play their music during breaks. “We did not have a music department or a choir and I decided in order to continue singing, I needed to learn to play guitar,” said Harper. “My mom bought me a nylon string guitar and I learned to play three-chord songs so I could accompany my vocals. Singing was so joyful to me. It was my passion.”
When Harper was 16, one of the girls in the drama club heard Nomi singing and playing her guitar in between classes. She asked the musician to come perform in the club’s drama shows. These shows consisted of a variety of different skits that had a common theme. At the end of the skits, Nomi would play her music and to her unexpected delight, she found she was very well received. By that time, Nomi was writing her own tunes.
When Nomi was 17 she bought herself a Martin D28 acoustic guitar. She practiced three hours a day. Her photography teacher Jim Christensen introduced her to bottleneck blues and taught the eager student bottleneck guitar. He also introduced her to the music of John Prine and Harper was hooked on the singer-songwriter genre. “I wanted to be the next Bonnie Raitt in 1971 and 72,” said Harper. “She is still one of my idols. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills and Nash – these were all life changing influences.”
Harper also discovered hip music at the library: Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘How High The Moon;’ Leonard Bernstein conducting ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ from the Peer Gynt suites by Edvard Grieg.
The musician started playing weddings in high school. “My high school art teacher had me sing at her wedding. It was in the days when things were really organic and I sang what they wanted and I loved it.”
At one point Harper thought she had hit upon that musical yellow brick road when she worked as a babysitter for Joan Baez’s family. “Here I was babysitting Joan Baez’s son, Gabriel, which was a pretty great little job, but I was too timid to even mention that I played guitar and sang.”
She met her first husband at Skyline College in San Bruno, CA. “Carl Grantham was a musician and by then I was even more into playing guitar and writing songs and performing covers. Back then I was playing in some gigs in San Francisco. Our son Gabriel was born in 1976 and Carl and I married in 1977. I stopped performing when Gabe was about 2½. I chose to be a full-time mother though I still played for my own pleasure and for my son.”
The marriage did not last long and in 1979 she married her second husband. Their son Ben was born in 1982. “My second husband was not a musician and he didn’t really understand my passion for music,” said Harper. “I did not pick up my guitar for over seven years and I missed it.”
In 1986, Nomi split from her second husband. “I had to support myself and my family and I didn’t really have time to entertain the thought of picking up a guitar.”
In 1987, Harper moved to Pacifica and bought herself a piano. “I played piano and my kids loved it. I’d play my own compositions.”
Though Harper played her music for friends and family, she kept her music aspirations to herself. But over the past five years, friends really stepped up to the plate and nudged this exceptionally gifted singer to get under the stage lights. People like Bay Area musician and record producer John Hall and his artist wife Ryckje Wagner would listen to the sounds of Nomi Harper and tell the singer: ‘The world needs to hear your voice.’ After she sang at John and Ryckje’s 25th wedding anniversary, the surrounding crowd, nearly all musicians, let this singer-songwriter know they wanted to hear more. In April of 07 she was invited to gig with the local folk-nuanced barn stompers, The Montara Mountain Boys. Harper gigged with them a number of times and began to find a comfort level on stage.
When Harper split up with her long-time boyfriend, she signed up to sing in musician Nancy Hall’s singing class.
“It was a very hard time for me and when I was suddenly singing with this ‘sisterhood’ it was just so healing,” said Harper.
One night the ‘sisterhood’ all went to hear a couple of local favorites performing on the legendary Bruce Latimer Show, presented on Pacifica Community Television (Channel 26.) The performers were: The Montara Mountain Boys and singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (choir leader) Nancy Hall. The show was a blast and to Nomi’s surprise, her name was brought up several times to the show’s host. Harper would be invited by the very selective Latimer to be his singing guest in January of 08 and the doors just continue to open.
“I used to think musician was just too good of a word for me,” said Harper. “It just blows me away that people are responding so well to my music; that they like my singing and my guitar playing.”
Harper is not only on the right road but she is on the most prolific road of her life; everything is inspiring her to write music, good music.
“Anything can be an inspiration,” said Harper. “I’m not kidding! One time I was singing at an open mike and it was hot and there was no air in the room and a friend of mine said: ‘Hey, have a sip of my beer!’ I don’t drink much anyway and not at all at gigs but I decided I’d have a sip. ‘Damn that’s good,’ I told him, ‘I should a had a beer.’ Phrase, inspiration and the next thing you know – Harper penned a song.”
Harper’s son Ben told his mom how great and understanding his girlfriend is – Harper told him: ‘Benny, you can’t buy love like that’ which became the instant inspiration for one of the singer, songwriter’s most requested songs.
“The journeys and the paths that we all go through in life, things that anyone can relate to; these are the things that inspire me,” said Harper. “In such a short span of time in my own life, I’m in such a different place.”
Harper usually writes the lyrics first because she said they have a huge impact. Once the lyrics are down, she figures out the mood of the song, picks up her guitar and it just happens. Sometimes she composes on piano and converts it to guitar – but always she is thrilled when she plays a song and an audience member tells her how it touched them, how they found in her words a connection.
“I know I am not the only one going through the things I write about,” said the singer. “If I can help anyone feel that they are not so alone; if I can help anyone validate their feelings – I feel a lot of gratitude.”
Her first CD has had a lot of help from her friends. John Hall produced and engineered it and sings backup on a couple of songs. Nick Evanson (acoustic guitar/slide guitar) and Phil Hartman (fretless electric bass), both from the The Montara Mountain Boys, added their instrumental voices to the mix. Percussionist Bruce Herbold played hand drums on “Honey, this is your time.” Singer-songwriter Ben Harper weighed in on harmony vocals.
“I am overwhelmed by the reaction and the support and love that I receive and all the new friends. I needed this validation. I get insecure and to know that there is a mutual response from so many people – it’s so affirming to me and that’s what has been the catalyst for me to believe in myself.”
Harper added that she: “Totally, one hundred percent believes in the old adage, follow your dreams. First of all, if people have a passion of doing something they are usually going to excel in it. A lot of times we don’t give ourselves the right to nourish and nurture our passions, but if we did, we would really find that that is where our calling is. It’s just like anything. If you give eight hours of your day to a job you’re going to get good at it, whether you like it or not. Just think if you loved it. So many of us are not granted the freedom and time to do that because life gets in the way. We have responsibilities, children, marriages and parents – and these are good things, I wouldn’t take anything back. Everything has taken me to where I am today. After all it is pain from which we grow. I think pain motivates change. It isn’t until we become so uncomfortable in life that we are willing to move forward into the unknown because the fear of the unknown becomes less painful than the status quo and that’s why I say, pain generates change.”
“So certainly I believe and I say to anyone who reads this, follow your dreams. It may not be possible early. I’m 54 and now this is happening. I wanted to be a good mother. I said that when I was a small child and I meant it and I am so proud of my children. My first choice was my sons. Music was always there then and now – and you know what, it’s here to stay.”
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Expect a lot when you pull up a seat to a Nomi Harper performance and expect the ticket price will soon take a leap. (Song samples and notes by the singer can be found at: http://profile.myspace.com/nomiharper. The singer can be contacted through email@example.com.)
Jean Bartlett is the Managing Editor of Jean’s Magazine. She is also Arts Correspondent for the Pacifica Tribune and additionally writes for Bay Area Business Woman, The San Mateo Times and The Oakland Tribune. The author of the award-winning children’s book “IndiAsia And The Dragon,” Ms. Bartlett is also a private biographer and can be contacted through her website: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos of Ms. Harper for Bay Area Artists Sing Out (BAASO) were taken by Jean Bartlett.