Jo Ann Smith, Autoharpist
Tell us about yourself and your music
I’m an average person, married with grown children and now grandchildren, so I guess that puts me at the upper end of the age scale when it comes to getting started with music production. Although I grew up with lots of music around me, took piano lessons, etc., I didn’t take up any particular instrument seriously until I discovered the autoharp in my mid-thirties. Since then it’s taken a couple of decades to hone my skills as a musician and reach the point where I’m confident in my abilities. For some reason, when I picked up the autoharp something just clicked. My tendency has always been to play by ear and I guess the autoharp provided exactly the vehicle I needed to release the music I was hearing in my head.
I played a standard, off-the-shelf chromatic autoharp for the first three years or so, and began entering contests to build my skills. When I won my first competition, the prize was a custom autoharp tuned diatonically — meaning it was tuned to play in only one key. Playing that diatonic autoharp affected me so profoundly that I never went back to playing standard chromatic autoharps. The diatonic autoharp opened up a whole new set of techniques that are specific to this instrument, and for the past two decades, I have pushed the envelope more and more, finding new ways to make the type of music I knew was possible with this little box of strings. I now have several diatonic autoharps, each tuned to a single key. If I hear a song that moves me, I will find a way to play it on my diatonic autoharps and put my own spin on it. That seems to be where I shine — taking music that people know and love (and that *I* love) — and using creative arrangements to make it my own.
I love the diatonic autoharp, and I feel that it has enormous potential that’s only beginning to be discovered: Both in its incredible ability to blend beautifully with other acoustic instruments, but also its undeniable ability to stand on its own as a solo instrument. However, autoharps, in general, tend to have an unsavory reputation so it’s been hard to get people to take it seriously. It’s frustrating to see doors begin to close once the word ‘autoharp’ is mentioned. Once they hear me play however, all bets are off! Getting past the autoharp stigma will take time, but I believe that if enough people hear one played well that stigma will begin to fade. I plan to be a big part of that process.
Talk to us more about your latest release
This album is a selection of 12 traditional Christmas songs and contemporary covers. It’s purely instrumental — pleasant, inspirational, beautiful music that makes a perfect backdrop to almost any Holiday gathering. These songs are among my favorites and those that I play again and again during the Christmas season. The music of Christmas has always moved me, and playing these songs is a real privilege. Jesse Smith (no relation), a good friend and phenomenal fingerstyle guitarist, provides a wonderful baseline and counter-melody accompaniment throughout. Walt Bowers (who also recorded, mixed and mastered this record) added some incredible creative piano tracks that took many of the songs far beyond what I imagined. And Robert Mays’ soulful, expressive violin was the perfect addition to two of the songs. The hard part was deciding which songs to include for this release. I guess that means there will most likely be a volume 2 in the future!
What inspired you to write this release?
I love Christmas music, and I wanted to offer people a fresh take on some of the traditional favorites. In addition, I’ve often been told that I should record a Christmas album. The music I play seems to make people happy, and that — more than anything else — is what inspires me. I didn’t want to release an “autoharp album”, I wanted to release an album of beautiful Christmas music. The fact that it features diatonic autoharp is (or should be) irrelevant. I wanted to make something that people will listen to because they like it, it makes them happy, and — because it’s GOOD.
Describe the writing and recording process
Recording an autoharp is difficult if the goal is to capture the best sound from one of these instruments. They have sound coming out of them from all directions and can create some really funky harmonics. Thankfully, I was able to rely on the expertise of Walt Bowers (ARC Studios, Broken Arrow, OK) who also recorded my previous album, ‘Lyrical’. We used a matched pair of Shure SM81’s panned at 90 degrees, aimed to the right and left of the lower half of the autoharp, at a distance of about 18 inches. We also pulled in the signal from a passive magnetic pickup under the full width of the string bed, which we ran through an LR Baggs Align Active DI. But the main mic that captured the true essence of the autoharp sound was a Neumann U-87 positioned slightly above the middle of the autoharp and about 8-12 inches away. When I recorded these songs, I played them exactly as I would if I was performing solo — with all the phrasing, push/pull, dynamics, etc. that is one of the hallmarks of my playing style. I can’t begin to express the awe and appreciation I have for Jesse Smith, Walt Bowers, and Robert Mays who not only came up with incredible backup tracks to my lead but who also managed to keep pace with my ad-libbing. I can’t thank them enough!
Any plans to release a video?
Any plans to hit the road?
I don’t have any live concerts booked at the moment, but I regularly post videos to YouTube and I’m exploring the potential of doing some live-feed concerts.
As an indie artist, how do you brand yourself and your music to stand out from the rest of the artists out there?
The old saying, “Be so good that you can’t be ignored” comes to mind. I’m driven to improve not only my technique and skills as a musician but to produce seriously beautiful music that rivals that of professional musicians.
Who have you been listening to lately?
I’m drawn to acoustic musicians of exceptional skill. Tim O’Brien, Ron Block, Michael Cleveland, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Becky Buller. I’ve been a fan of Phil Keaggy for years. Butch Baldassari, Bryan Sutton, Jim Van Cleve… I could go on and on!
Who are your biggest influences?
My faith and my family.
Tell us about your passions
I’m passionate about the autoharp and would love to see more people take it up as a serious instrument. I would also love to see the autoharp become more mainstream in contemporary music and for people to start expanding the possibilities of not only playing style but also to go beyond acoustic into electronic and find out what this thing is capable of. I strongly believe that in order for that to happen, there needs to be better availability of GOOD quality, affordable instruments. Right now, it’s difficult to find even a new manufactured instrument that’s set up to play optimally and is in a price range that most could afford.
What else is happening next in your world?
I’ve been working closely with a luthier in Indiana, and we developed an entry-level luthier (custom) autoharp model that meets my specifications for sound and playability. This model, the “Heartland” (by Ken Ellis of Whippoorwill Acoustics) was released in September of 2018 and has been well-received. I give lessons and video consults online and will continue to do so, in addition to documenting my discoveries with the autoharp over the past 20 years or so. I plan to do more YouTube videos and tutorials. But more than anything else, I believe my focus on what’s next needs to be getting out there and playing for people. I just need to find a way to make that happen on a regular basis.
Thanks for an awesome interview, [email protected]
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