The harp is normally relegated to the concert hall. It’s physically large and imposing, yet, sonically pristine and delicate. It’s hard to move (especially in heels) and sometimes hard to hear, if improperly balanced amidst the other 80-some-odd members of an orchestra.
But for all the things this multi-octave stringed instrument can be, the harp is not often heard in folk music. It’s not normally found amidst the working class or minorities, heard near the coal mines or the within the Appalachians.
And another thing the harp is not: For Lizzie Quinlan, the harp is not a gimmick.
Quinlan, who performs under the name Lizzie No, started playing the harp at 10 years old. The daughter of an African-American singer/church organist with a day job and an Irish-American Spanish teacher, she took to this weird, stringed oddity because, “it was the most outlandish option within the category that I was given,” she says. It was, she remembers, “the weirdest one that you can imagine.”
Sixteen years later, the harp plays a prominent role on her debut album, Hard Won. The 10-song independently released collection came out at the end of March and through its buzz, Quinlan is figuring out her—and her harp’s—places within the wider scope of Americana music today.
Sitting in our Paste studio in Manhattan, Quinlan becomes defiant in her instrumental choices. Even as a kid, she realized that it was hard to play radio-friendly songs on her instrument of choice. She recalls, “I guess there’s an amount of jealousy that happens when you become a teenager and you realize that you have friends that play guitar and they can play and sing at the same time and they can play music that they would be listening to anyway.”
In grade school, she taught herself covers by The Cranberries and Bob Dylan on the harp to make up for the disconnect. Later, in high school and in college at Stanford, she jammed with others, playing songs by The Dixie Chicks and The Avett Brothers. By the time she moved to Brooklyn in 2015 and started playing with local folk group Devil in the Deep Blue Sea, she began writing even more of her own songs.
“I started to feel like there was music I was writing [for Devil in the Deep Blue Sea] that didn’t fit into that sound,” she says. “And even though what I’m doing is still folky, it’s a little bit more personal and I have to be accountable for every song.”
“And even though what I’m doing is still folky, it’s a little bit more personal and I have to be accountable for every song.”
Eventually those songs she saved became the body of Hard Won. And while harpists like Alice Coltrane and Joanna Newsom served as musical influences, she never tried to emulate them. Quinlan’s interpretation of folk music on a decidedly un-folksy instrument was all hers.
In fact, the harp’s timber reveals itself in a few ways throughout the record. On the gorgeous, pastoral single “The Mountaineer,” the harp opens the track with arpeggiated triplets. Later on “Outlaws,” a track that won American Songwriter Magazine’s Lyrics Contest in 2016, simple plucked chords introduce the song before a swaying guitar strum takes control. On “The Killing Season,” the rhythmic broken chords lay the entire foundation for her most lyrically poignant song on the record.
But Quinlan explains that there’s a distinct musical struggle in integrating the harp in a natural-sounding way. “There’s some tension there because there are a couple different avenues you can go down,” she says. “You can do the riffy, you’re-specifically-hearing-a-harp avenue—some of which I do. And then there’s the other avenue, which is like, basically-this-is-a-bass-in-a-band, and you’re just playing open chords. I think both have their place.”
Yet, so much of the focus on Quinlan’s admittedly cool primary instrument, threatens to overshadow her smooth vocals and heartfelt lyrics. She smears emotions like fear, frustration, love and loss all over Hard Won, each affecting in its own right. In particular, Quinlan grapples with racial and social issues that still plague America, most apparent on the aforementioned “The Killing Season.” She sings in honor of the men, women and children of color who have recently lost their lives in a rash of racially-based police violence, “There’s no telling our shapes apart when the killing season comes.”
The fact that Quinlan uses an instrument that’s pegged as so pompous and pretentious to connect with the people—the folk—serves as one of her greatest accomplishments on Hard Won.
Translating the harp’s role, especially as a person of color, certainly wasn’t easy, though. “I give credit to my parents for wanting to put my sister and me in places that they hadn’t been,” she says earnestly. “They wanted us to go to great schools in Princeton, even though we didn’t live there, yet. We lived on the outskirts then. [They wanted] to put in in the position of doing the things that maybe, in terms of class or race, weren’t expected of us. And they just thought that we should get to do that if possible. And of course, they really value music and really value literature.”
Though she’s received “funny looks” throughout her life for playing this instrument and manipulating it in her own way, Quinlan’s either been unaware or hyper conscious of the skepticism. “I’m definitely more aware of [it] now, and maybe even more aware than I should be….I get nervous that people think this is a gimmick. I never want it to appear that I’m making choices that are marketable, because really, I’m just playing what I like. Pleasure is the starting point.”
Watch Lizzie No’s Full Paste Studio Session here.