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Harpeth Rising to bring chamber-folk to Cleveland’s arts district

Summer has officially started, the Fourth of July holiday is right around the corner, and the weather’s been pitch-perfect in Cleveland. What better way to celebrate the season than to get out, explore the neighborhood, and take in some live music?

String trio Harpeth Rising will enchant visitors at Praxis Fiber Gallery in North Collinwood next Friday night with its unique blend of classical, medieval, and folk.

Sponsored by arts co-op Underground Classical, the free performance brings the all-female ensemble to the rock and roll capitol in support of its latest—and perhaps most engaging—album, Against All Tides.

Comprised of Maria Di Meglio (cello), Jordana Greenberg (violin), and Michelle Younger (banjo, guitar), the three-piece has a habit of shuffling the sinewy strings of Sibelius and Stravinsky with unplugged, fingerstyle guitar storytelling heft of Pete Seeger and Leonard Cohen. All three ladies sing, too—layering their voices to construct taut, intricate harmonies that hopscotch over the virtuosic instrumental passages.

Perhaps you’ve already seen Greenberg strain her bow without even knowing it: A video of the native Canadian practicing violin with a dancing parrot perched atop her head went viral a couple years back.

We spoke with Brooklyn-born Di Meglio earlier this week in advance of Harpeth Rising’s one-off show in C-Town. The chipper cellist discussed the group’s formation, explained the writing process, and talked about some of the musical influences that came to bear when crafting the songs on Against All Tides.

AXS: Where does Harpeth Rising get its name? It’s a river in the South, right?

MARIA DI MEGLIO: We performed as a band in Nashville, Tennessee. And the Harpeth River runs on the western side of town. It’s not as big as the Cumberland, but the Harpeth is a great place for kayaking and music. So it has a lot of meaning for us. It was there when we started out and just became part of our journey.

AXS: How’d the band form? Apparently you and Jordana were a duo before Michelle joined, making it a trio.

MD: I met Jordana while I was working on my master’s degree, wrapping that up. She was working on her master’s and was in town. We had a lot of mutual friends. So we started playing together and became this great fit. Michelle was going to school in Oberlin. We met her after that. But Jordana and I both studied at Indiana University, just at different times.

AXS: You also attended the Laguardia School of the Performing Arts—the school depicted in the movie Fame.

MD: That’s where I went to high school! My high school conductor was in the movie. He was very proud of that! It was his moment, his fifteen minutes!

AXS: You’ve been playing cello most of your life. How did you start? What was it that made you say, “Cello’s the instrument for me?”

MD: Well, my mother had asked me to play the violin for one year, and then we’d evaluate. I enjoyed the violin just fine, but I didn’t make a strong connection to it. At the end of the year my teacher told me there was this other instrument I could play that was different from violin, but I’d have to sit down to play it because it was bigger. It was just that thought of sitting down, of being so relaxed, that I said, “Sign me up!” So it was my inherent laziness that led me to the cello! It was a really good fit, and I stuck with it.

AXS: Harpeth Rising mixes a lot of musical genres together. The songs sound very timeless, like mountain songs or sea shanties from long ago, and yet there’s a very contemporary vibe. It’s been labelled “chamberfolk” and “newgrass.” Are those accurate descriptors?

MD: We came to this…our drive or main ambition was to write original music and to find a way to express ourselves. We all love multiple genres of music, so I guess what came out naturally was this fusion of all the things we love—classical music, folk, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin. It made sense to us, with our musical training and backgrounds. We all came from very different backgrounds, so when you put those together, this is what came out! We do think of ourselves as chamber music. We’re a string trio. It’s a quartet, minus one! But there’s definitely an element of chamber music, the connectedness of that. We like to include that in our writing and performances.

AXS: Your vocal harmonies are impressive. When I think of harmonies, my mind wanders to The Beach Boys, Beatles, and Bee Gees. Your harmonies are just as intricate, but the lyrics are verbose and polysyllabic. These aren’t simple oohs and ahhs and oh, baby verses.

MD: Exactly! I would say we got lucky in terms of our voicing. I happen to sing pretty high and squeaky, and Michelle has those low notes. So in that sense, with the things Mother Nature can’t really change, we got lucky. Our combined range is pretty wide. In terms of learning how to sing harmony, as a cellist I’ve been trained to listen to the other voices. It’s just something that came with the training, always listening and trying to blend. When you play in an ensemble, whether it’s instrumental or vocal, there’s this inherent drive to find harmony with one another. We all took voice lessons. We didn’t major in it in college; we just studied on our own. But I’d say three heads is better than one! We just worked on it, the same way you’d work at anything else.

AXS: Yes, the lyrics are very cerebral, very literate. It can’t be easy putting all that together.

MD: Well, we enjoy a challenge, whether it’s technical or not. Sometimes there’s songs where we’ll write something a little harder or more outside of what we can do. And in the process of learning it, we’ve gotten that skill set under our belts. The a cappella, that was something we did on our debut album. That was wonderful and exciting for us. And with the sophomore album that just came out, we built on it even more. So we’re always pushing the boundaries. We keep an open mind. There’s nothing that we wouldn’t want to try. I think that’s how you keep it fresh when you’re performing. We improvise instrumentally, but not vocally. You don’t want to mess with that! But we do take liberties in the moment, instrumentally, as a way to keep things exciting and new every time.

AXS: Is it strange to play a lower-register instrument but be responsible for the higher-pitch vocals on the harmony spectrum?

MD: I actually prefer and have come to love singing the high parts. I was always listening to the low notes for intonation. I have control over that, so it’s kind of neat. I feel like the bread in the sandwich, because then I’m both the lowest and the highest part in those moments! It’s a lot of fun.

AXS: Who write the lyrics in Harpeth Rising? Is it a shared effort?

MD: Jordana does the lyric writing 80 to 90 percent, and the remainder may be covers—like Joan Baez or The Beatles—or Jordana’s father sometimes comes up with lyrics. He’s an incredible singer / songwriter. He’s someone who’s always written, but doesn’t like to perform. So we get to bring his songs to life with our musical arrangements.

AXS: Speaking of covers, you do a version of Joan Baez’ “Prison Trilogy” on the new record. That’s still very topical.

MD: Joan Baez is a huge musical and social inspiration for us. Her songs just hit home. And that one was written so many years ago…and yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. If you look at the issues in that song, there’s the incarceration and police brutality….

AXS: The immigration issue, with the Mexican family in the second verse.

MD: Yeah! And it’s all either the same, or it’s gotten worse! It’s heartbreaking, and it’s uncertain what direction things are going to go. So we like to bring attention to it, and here’s this beautiful musical way to create some social awareness of the injustice of it.

Harpeth Rising. Friday, July 7, 2017 at Praxis Fiber Gallery (15301 Waterloo Road, Cleveland OH 44110). This event is FREE.

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