Finding a classical harp in a Nashville honky tonk is about as likely as hearing Arthur Marx speak in a movie. But while the slapstick mime known as Harpo successfully brought the instrument some well-deserved respect and a touch of class to classic comedy as one of the fab four Marx Brothers, Natalie Lurie is dead serious about getting the harp heard in more of the Music City's popular music venues. With some strings attached, of course.
Based in Nashville since the fall of 2013, the 25-year-old pop singer-songwriter who grew up in Boston will release her gorgeous debut EP No Mercy in the Night on March 25, officially introducing the world to the glory of her stunning sound.
She's confident that her classical background will find a home in a rich, diverse music scene that continues to grow while those in the know turn out for occasional appearances by avant-garde artists like Joanna Newsom.
"Playing a unique instrument makes me stand out amongst others, but I think it's to my advantage," Lurie said in response to a series of recent email questions. "It certainly helps garner a little attention in a sea of singer/songwriters. That being said, that's all it will get you if the music can't carry itself. No one is going to listen to my record because I play the harp if they don't like the music. I don't see the harp as a gimmick. If people appreciate and resonate with the lyrics and are moved by the music, they will enjoy the record. I don't think it will be difficult for a harpist to succeed in the pop world, particularly the indie or singer/songwriter scene, if the music is good."
Lurie, who started studying the harp when she was 7 years old and planned to become a classical soloist after college, also is using this space as a personal meet-and-greet while presenting the video premiere of the album's title track today at The Huffington Post.
The "No Mercy in the Night" video was shot and directed last May in Nashville's Germantown neighborhood by Ben Krebs, Lurie's friend who also has worked with Bon Iver and country heavyweights Garth Brooks and The Band Perry.
" 'No Mercy in the Night' is already an emotionally charged song, and it was important to me that the video captured the emotion without seeming overwrought and melodramatic," Lurie said. "Ben came up with the concept of using dancers. I love combining different mediums of art, and music and dance complement each other so well."
During the planning stages, Lurie said she "serendipitously" met Laura Valentine, a dancer/choreographer who founded the dance company Numinous Flux, and assistant director Amanda Jack, also one of the company's principal dancers. Valentine choreographed the dance in the video, and Jack was one of the participants.
"Night" moves are a constant theme throughout the four-song EP, and the video helps convey that. The majority of the disc was inspired by "a serious, yet unhealthy, relationship a year ago which placed a major strain on my relationship with my friends," Lurie said.
The orchestration on the album is remarkably luscious, especially considering the only players are Lurie (harp and vocals), Eleonore Denig (violin), Adam Bokesch (echoplex) and multi-instrumentalist Dustin Ransom, who played everything else and assisted on background vocals while also handling producing, engineering and mixing chores.
"We spent a lot of time experimenting with instrumentation, so that we achieved a sound that complemented the harp rather than drown it out," said Lurie, who started from scratch after she was unhappy with her first attempt with two other producers. "I definitely plan on working with Dustin in the future."
Regarding how the video relates to the song, Lurie offered: "There's an inherent vulnerability, impulsivity, and intimacy of the night, which can feel at once terrifying and liberating. Amanda dancing alone in a large, empty and abandoned space, clearly distraught, paired with myself playing the harp in a nightgown illustrates that vulnerability. When the male dancer (Caleb Marshall) comes in at the pivotal and most intimate part of the song, the spirit changes from despair to hope. Now that 'love flows through these veins,' there is a soaring sense of uplift, both figuratively and literally when he lifts her up."
The audience for this video will undoubtedly share in that feeling as Lurie plans "to expose the harp to the pop world and find a place for it in popular music." So without further delay, check out the 24-hour video premiere of "No Mercy in the Night," then follow her remarkable journey in the "Artist You Need to Know" section.
NATALIE LURIE: AN ARTIST YOU NEED TO KNOW ...
When Lurie began playing the harp, she practiced 20 to 30 minutes a day, moving with her family to Israel when she was 16, then focusing more on the instrument as a senior at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. While attending Indiana University "for the sole purpose of studying with world-renowned harpist Susann McDonald," that practice regimen increased to 4 to 8 hours a day, boosting her confidence and command.
Lurie's dreams of playing in an orchestra were stopped two months short of graduating while she was working on her senior recital and developed "crippling tendinitis in my left arm from over-practicing."
It may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Lurie eventually recovered and began writing songs, singing and performing "non-classical, original music" at open mics in New York City.
"It was unfamiliar and terrifying, yet exhilarating and rewarding," Lurie said. "I felt like I could connect with an audience in ways I never had in the past. I love performing classical music, but there was an intimacy and immediacy when I sung and played my own music and compositions. I decided that if I wanted to pursue this seriously, now was the time."
Natalie Lurie on life as a musician: "I enjoy the challenge of finding ways to play non-harp music on the harp. It forces me to be innovative and explore new ways to approach the instrument. I think that's one of the most satisfying parts of it all." (Photo by Todd Roeth)
So how is a classically trained artist with a harp welcomed in Nashville?
"Since I moved here 2 1/2 years ago, there's been an influx of non-country and indie artists," Lurie said. "Obviously, the harp still stands out but I feel that it has been well received. For the most part, people are intrigued when they hear or see it. I think people also appreciate the diversity in a city that is so heavily concentrated with singer/songwriters on guitars."
While still practicing 3 to 4 hours a day and continuing to write in hopes of releasing an album in the upcoming year, Lurie will resume her education in September when she attends graduate school at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Where she goes from there is anybody's guess, but this cosmopolitan comet isn't afraid of adventure.
"I've been experimenting recently a lot with delay, effect and looping pedals on the harp and feel my music heading in that direction," Lurie said. "I'm excited to see what organically comes from this new palette of colors and tones."
... AND HERE ARE FIVE MORE THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW
1. Family background: "I was born in Boston on Oct. 29, 1990 to parents Andrew and Batsheva Salzman. My dad is from Boston and an intensive-care pediatrician. My mom was born in Morocco and moved to Israel when she was 3 and is a homemaker. I have one older sister and one younger brother."
2. What made her decide to play the harp: "When I was 7 years old, I went to a music shop one day with my mom and sister to fix her violin. By chance, the store had a small lever harp for rent in the windowsill. I ran up to it and immediately started plucking, trying to figure out songs I knew on the piano. I sat there for at least an hour until the shop owner told us he was closing and had to go home. I told my mom I wasn't leaving the store unless we took the harp home. So she agreed to let me take it home for the weekend and said we'd bring it back on Monday. We never brought it back and it's been my passion since."
3. Other instruments: "I started out on the piano when I was 5. I picked up the ukulele and guitar along the way. ... I have had a strong desire to go crazy on an electric guitar, but arranging electric guitar solos on the harp always seemed more instinctive. In high school, I arranged the guitar solos in 'Freebird' and Led Zeppelin's 'The Rain Song' and 'Stairway to Heaven' on the harp."
4. Musical influences and icons: "When I was younger, I loved Enya. They used to play Enya at my preschool during nap time. One day when my mom picked me up, I refused to go home without the Enya cassette tape. The teachers lent it to her and I played that tape on repeat for weeks. I think there's something grandiose and cinematic about her melodic lines and layers of harmonies that gives her music a transcendent and shimmering quality. I also listened to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Patty Griffin. Bon Iver had a huge impact on me. I remember hearing their first CD in high school and was moved to tears by the sheer innocence, beauty, and raw honesty of their music."
5. Previous examples of her work: Recording under her surname after moving to Nashville, Natalie Salzman released the seven-song digital album Ebb & Flow on Jan. 5, 2014, that included Muscle Shoals session musicians such as Spooner Oldham and David Hood (the father of the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood). ... Accompanied by Avi Levi on cello, her instrumental rendition of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" on the harp has received more than 328,000 views on YouTube since it was uploaded in 2011. ... She also played harp on All For You, a 2015 country record released by Emily West (America's Got Talent).
Natalie Lurie's EP is available for preorder on iTunes.