Brandee Younger is the Grammy-nominated harpist, composer and educator who’s about to release her new album Brand New Life on Impulse! Records. The combination of influences is profound: Jazz, classical, soul and more are all represented through Younger’s musical vision.
She joined us to talk about the new album and the musical icon who inspired it.
You started playing the harp at a very young age. Did you choose the harp or did the harp choose you?
It chose me, but through an avenue called these parents of mine. They brought me to one of my father’s co-worker’s homes, who played harp. I played flute, we did little duets. The woman says, “You know, if she learned harp, she could probably get a scholarship.” That’s all my parents needed to hear.
You were open to that?
Yeah, I was like sure, why not, seems cool.
Brand New Life is such a fresh and optimistic title. Tell me a bit about that.
It’s taken on so many different meanings. Part of it is we’re breathing new life into this older music of Dorothy Ashby that hasn’t been recorded to my knowledge, so we’re literally approaching it with fresh eyes and ears. We didn’t have a reference. You know, when you do a cover, you have the original to reference. But without having audible references, we really just went into it with fresh ears, trying to not reproduce what we thought she would have created in the ‘60s. And then we’re also creating new music. The title track, Mumu Fresh wrote the most beautiful lyrics, and that’s how I came up with the title. But also, my personal life transitions, this album is literally now, 2023 in every way.
Dorothy Ashby is the person you’re honouring with this new recording. For people who don’t know about this incredible musician, tell us a little bit about Dorothy.
Dorothy Ashby was one of the premier harpists — not just jazz harpists, but harpists. She was really out of the box with playing popular music and jazz in a way that no one else was doing it. She was really undersung because, I mean, Black with a harp, woman in jazz, harp in jazz… it’s like three strikes. But she had 11 albums as a leader, and as a session musician she’s on so many classic recordings from the ‘70s that we listen to all the time. What’s really cool is that later on in the early ‘90s, hip-hop producers started to sample her music. Sometimes I think about how I wish she was alive to experience it, because it created a whole new lane for so many producers: Pete Rock, 9th Wonder, DJ Premier, Kanye West, Flying Lotus, they all sampled her stuff. She was just so ahead of her time.
When you talk about her openness to different forms of music and not exactly a jazz purist, that seems to align with your philosophy.
Absolutely. It took me a minute to realize, oh my goodness, she’s literally playing the music of her time. She recorded “Little Sunflower.” That was popular. “Windmills of Your Mind,” everyone was recording that that year. So yeah, she was keeping the harp current.
You said creating this album was a lifelong dream, but you also said you had a lot of living to do before you were able to execute it. What did you mean by that?
I played so many Dorothy Ashby tributes, Alice Coltrane tributes. In 2022, I did Wax & Wane, which was an indirect tribute to Dorothy Ashby. Half the record is her originals. I just feel like there was some experience that I needed in order to pull something like this off. Getting the right producer to work with me and then having the nerve to approach someone who I’ve looked up to forever like Pete Rock. It’s one of the ways I’ve changed into Dorothy Ashby.
So, it was out of respect. You didn’t want to dive into this until you were fortified with all the ingredients you needed to do it properly.
I just needed to be more of a mature musician, you know?
One of the tunes is from a musical that Dorothy and her husband wrote called The Choice. You had said that it had never been recorded before. What is your reference point? Is it sheet music you’re bringing into the studio? How do you know what that tune is all about?
Yeah, so mostly visual references. There were no recordings. A lot of these plays that she produced are still relevant today. The same issues that we’re dealing with today, she was dealing with. Just having that theatre company at that time in Detroit was a huge deal. Some of the music she actually recorded. The song “Games,” that’s part of one of her plays as well.
I also saw a photo of you having a chance to play Dorothy’s harp as well. I know so little about the harp. Does each harp have its own quality and characteristics? What’s the experience of playing a harp you’ve never played before, especially with all that history?
I always say this: Every tree is different, so every harp sounds different. Our strings are made from cow intestines. These are all natural things, so they’re all going to vary. Right away, just because it’s a different instrument, it’s going to have a specific sound. If you looked in, you could see “DA” written [on it] three to four times. Inside the soundboard of the harp, you can see that Dorothy would keep stuff inside of the harp to dampen the sound and keep it from resonating too much, which is something you need for jazz because of the quick-changing harmonies. Just to see the initials, see what was stuffed in there, it’s like being in a time capsule. The fact that it is working and sounding resonant, warm and beautiful, it’s really a special feeling.
The harp is almost like acoustic bass in that once you choose to play this instrument, you’re committing to something even more, because of the physicality of it. It’s a weightier choice than if you played, say, flute, or something more mobile. There’s so much heft to it that makes it different than another instrument.
If I had a dime for every time someone said, “Don’t ya wish ya played the flute,” I would be so loaded right now. I will say there is something about the size, other than the weight. When you play the instrument, it literally vibrates through your whole body. Not to sound all otherworldly, but there’s this oneness with the instrument because not only is it vibrating through your body, this is probably one of the only instruments where you’re creating the sound by making direct contact with the strings. With a piano, you hit the key but then a hammer hits the string. There’s always something in between the direct source and the sound. You don’t have that with the harp.
I see that you have a relative that won a couple of Grey Cups with our very own Toronto Argonauts. I wanted to ask you this hard-hitting question: Who is this gentleman? Let’s celebrate him.
The last name may give it away but it’s Jordan Younger. He’s my first cousin — my dad’s brother’s son. He grew up in Trenton, N.J. We were sad because he loves Canada. We were like, “Come back home,” and he’s like, “No.” You guys have him. You took him.