This is part of CP's Music issue — check out our other profiles of Philadelphia musicians like queer hip-hop duo Sgt. Sass, Cinderella's hair-metal comeback kid Tom Keifer, London-born bassist Anthony Tidd and OCD: Moosh & Twist, who keep getting shows shut down due to drunk teenagers.
Gillian Grassie’s keen, harp-driven songs are moving. And so is she — all the way to Europe.
The Hinterhaus, released in January on Grassie’s Harp Power imprint, is named for the kind of home she lived in while staying in Berlin. A hinterhaus is a house in the back courtyard of another house, hidden from the street. But for Grassie, the title’s meaning is deeper.
“I really loved it as an idea, like a metaphor for public and private space, and the presentation versus the experience in our everyday lives,” she says. “And also what that means for a performer, for someone like a singer-songwriter who’s on stage and sometimes has a certain degree of emotional exhibitionism.”
Grassie’s been playing harp for more than half of her 26 years, and she’s written lyrics to process her feelings for nearly as long. But she’s conscious of how much she shares. Performing is “a very controlled sort of format,” she says. “It’s not necessarily as revealing as I think sometimes people think it is.”
After releasing Serpentine in 2007 and graduating from Bryn Mawr in 2009, she spent a year traveling around Europe and Asia on a Watson Fellowship. Along the way, she had her harp broken by an Indian airline, played in a hastily arranged folk quartet on a State Department-sponsored tour of Russia and lost her travel documents.
After returning to the U.S., she launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising $14,000 in a month. Grassie and Todd Sickafoose, who’d produced Anaïs Mitchell’s masterful Hadestown, set out to make a record that emphasized her agile voice and fingers.
“I’d sort of buried the harp a bit more on Serpentine,” Grassie says. “There was a lot more pop production and a lot more layers.”
The Hinterhaus feels more sophisticated, with upright bass, marimba and clarinet adding depth. The only electric instrument is the keyboard on “Dust & Wax,” a contribution from Janis Ian, who volunteered her services after contributing to Grassie’s Kickstarter campaign.
“She’s been a really wonderful supporter and mentor,” Grassie says of the Grammy winner — though the two haven’t actually met. Ian recorded her part in Nashville, with Sickafoose producing via Skype.
In many ways, The Hinterhaus is a traveling record. On the flirty “Back to Your Flat,” Grassie savors a one-night stand in a foreign land, while on the wistful “Borrowed or Begged,” she dreams of home while on a long train ride.
But it’s “The Canonization of Margot Price” that has the deepest roots in Europe. As a tween visiting Italy, Grassie was horrified by stories of sainted women who’d given up their lives rather than their chastity. Years later, a friend’s struggle with bulimia shed light on the ways in which women continue to be tortured by and for their bodies. Those experiences come together in the song.
“I saw her there/ Through the bathroom door,” Grassie sings, “Purging herself/ Of the shame that rotted in her gut/ Until she was no more than a relic.”
Grassie kept The Hinterhaus to herself for three seasons. “It’s sort of a dark record,” she says, “and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to wait and release it in winter.” But now that it’s finally here, she’s going away, leaving for a tour of Italy in March, then heading back to Berlin, where she plans to set up a home base. It’s been easier to gain traction overseas, she says, so it makes sense to spend more time there, but it’s not without a cost: “I just seem to earn more when I tour there. I lose a lot of that when I fly back and forth.”
Though she hopes to return to Philadelphia in September, international plans have many moving parts. If anyone knows that, it’s Grassie.