It's fairly easy to classify most harpists within the musical Dewey Decimal system. You find Lori Andrews - under "J" for "jazz harpist"; Jana Bouskova - in the "C" section for`classical harpist"; and file ShruDeLi Ownby - under "T" for teaching harpist. But there are others, like Bay Area harpist Michelle Sell, that don't fit neatly into one category. Some might call Sell a recording harpist, given all of the albums she has to her credit. Others might call her a jazz harpist after all the shows she played with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. Or maybe she's a classical harpist because she studied at the San Francisco Conservatory or perhaps a healing harpist from her work with sonic therapy. When pressed, Sell calls herself a theater harpist. But as we found out from our conversation with this one-of-a-kind harpist, there might not be a category broad enough to define Michelle Sell.
HC: After you graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory you started working with big bands and recording artists. How did you get started in that? Was that something you set out to do?
MS: No, not at all. I actually took a leave of absence from the Conservatory, and then I got a call to play Ann-Margret's show in Tahoe. Let me backtrack for a minute and say that when I was choosing where to go to school, I had applied and been accepted at the New England Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory, Hartt School of Music, and North Texas State. I went to North Texas State my first year of school because my dad thought California was too wild for an Iowa girl to come to right away - kind of comical. But the reason I chose to study with Marcella (DeCray), among other things, was that I appreciated very much that she was not only a phenomenal harpist, but that she had broadened her vision, in my mind, of what the harp could do. It seemed like at the time that I was making these choices, acoustic jazz hadn't started so much, there just wasn't this diversity in harp music. So I thought, my gosh, what else can a harp do? Well, if a harp can play modern music by someone who has had all this classical training, well then, that's the person I want to study with. For me, that was really influential. So when I took a leave of absence from the Conservatory, I got this call to go play Ann-Margret's show. I thought, well that's just something that makes sense to me; because I don't think the harp should be narrow in its expression. And the fun thing about that show was not only did I play with her for a long time, but I was just thrown right into it. So the first time you open the music for a show-and all harpists that have ever played a book that another harpist has looked at know-there's just chicken scratches all over it. So I had this conservatory training, and it still influences me, where I take this big green eraser and erase all this extra stuff. But the joke was that the conductor looked up and even Ann-Margret made a very endearing comment to some friends of hers after the show one night that our harpist is always correcting our music and working so hard. To me, there was this kind of dichotomy between the way my classical music looked and the way this book looks. So I thought, OK, if you want to do something really different, this is really different.
I was really fortunate because at the time that I was in Tahoe a few shows came in. I played Neil Sedaka's show and his conductor's wife at that time was a harpist. They both said to me, you know there's not a lot of harpists in Las Vegas. Why don't you come down there and play our show and move down there? I was still following this attitude that the harp can do anything, so I moved to Las Vegas and had the great fortune of having my playing liked enough to become the harpist at Caesar's where Sinatra was all the time. I was really young; gosh, I was only about 23. I know so many harpists have played with (Sinatra) and with Frank Sinatra Junior. But because I was so young, it was a big wow, and it was also really exciting for me because after the first year he just used big band and harp. So I was not only the only woman on stage - which that part didn't matter - but also all of the string parts were condensed to the harp, so I just had beautiful parts.
HC: How do you think your experience playing with Sinatra influenced you musically and personally?
MS: It influenced me a lot musically because I felt like-and it's such a cliche to say-but his phrasing is just so beautiful that to listen to him so many times at such a formative time really stuck with me. If you take my classical training with Marcella and then truly throw me into Nelson Riddle arrangements and Don Costa arrangements - these great arrangements - and then hear Frank Sinatra sing, I feel like I had this other extreme of excellence at a time when my ears and my style development were at a formative time. With Sinatra it was special because there were parts that were arranged specifically for the harp because I was working with one of the arrangers. And there were other people that I played with that influenced me. There was a time where the orchestra at Caesar's backed up Count Basie. What was formative about that was all the space between the notes where you think about what you're playing, and so you make these intelligent choices about what you're playing. You're not just playing this rapid stream of consciousness. You're thinking. I feel like Sinatra phrased that way. I think playing with Sinatra helped me have the confidence that it was OK to do things differently, not that I play that differently from hundreds of other harpists, but that you can have a difference in your style from one song to another. It was great at a formative time when you're learning confidence. It was very big for me to be introduced by him, and the thing was, he'd never remember my last name. and I try not to stand out as the only harpist who ever worked with him because there are so many harpists who worked with him, but for me it was that I was so young and it formed my confidence because I'd have these big harp parts and he would have me stand up every night and take a bow. So I think because I was so young it really meant a lot. I think I've learned something from every singer I've ever played behind in an orchestra. But working with him and his phrasing and the harmonies, I think that was a great blessing and very fateful thing for me.
HC: You've mentioned some pretty big names. Who have you most enjoyed working with?
MS: Well, I've probably most enjoyed working with Sinatra. I also very much enjoyed working with Ann-Margret. She's a very gracious and humble woman for being a huge star. I also toured with Linda Ronstadt, which was fabulous.
HC: Yes, tell me about touring with her.
MS: Well, I had an album called "Circle 'Round the Moon," and she was going to do a lullaby album and was looking for a harpist to do most of the songs. I do some of the movie scores at Skywalker Ranch and one of my friends who is a violinist gave Linda Ronstadt my CD saying, well, maybe you'd like to use Michelle on your album. She was out there working on the other tracks, and she heard my album and I got this call to come out and basically play for her. So we went into this small isolation room, and she sat behind me and put her foot up on my harp bench, and I sight read this music. I thought, well, I am going to have a heart attack now because I wanted to play well, and we all know how sight-reading is on the harp.
Anyway, it went great and I played on a lot of the tracks. While we were working on it, I remember going in by the mixing board where she was listening, and she said something like, I think we should just go on tour. Now I had been around her a little bit by that time, and we had been out to lunch and dinner a couple times, and she is just very normal to me-whatever normal is-very accessible. I said, well I'd love to Linda, but I never imagined something like that would happen. So about three weeks later, I got a call from her manager saying Linda wants you to go on tour with her to promote this album. Her manager said, well, you'll be playing these small venues like Borders bookstores because it's a lullaby album. So Electra Records will ship your harp around for you, and you two will show up and do these shows. So I thought, well this is just fabulous and agreed to it. The next week I get FedExed the list of shows. The first show on the list was the Tonight Show.
HC: Just a little venue...
MS: Right! Then I proceeded to look down the list-we were in New York doing Good Morning America, and Rosie O'Donnell, and Regis and Kathie Lee. So I'm thinking, well, I guess we're not just doing little shows. The whole experience was so fun. By all accounts, she's my favorite celebrity to have worked with. She's just a lovely person and her voice is amazing.
HC: You've also recorded on some movie soundtracks?
MS: Yes, though I haven't for a while. The last one I did was Jurassic Park III out at Skywalker. I also did Soapdish and Predator II, oh, but that goes back a way.
HC: Was soundtrack recording something that you wanted to do or something you just fell into?
MS: Well, I've done many solo recordings, so one of the reasons I fell into soundtrack work was because people knew I had a lot of experience with recording. So it wasn't anything I pursued, but I love it. I'm one of those people who loves it when the red light goes on. But I also never wanted to live in L.A.
HC: That's interesting, because just from reading your bio and seeing what kind of work you've done someone would probably think you're an L.A. harpist, but you live in the Bay Area, right?
MS: Yes, I live in Marin County, which is north of the Golden Gate Bridge. My parents both died a really long time ago and my sister lived here in Marin County, and I went to school in San Francisco. So when I left Las Vegas, I decided to come here because my family was here and I had a lot of connections here. I don't know, sometimes I regret that I didn't move to L.A. but that's also presupposing that I would have been good enough to be in a studio there. But I think L.A. is just not me.
HC: What do you like about where you live, and it not being Hollywood?
MS: What I particularly like about where I lived is that there are a bunch of small towns in Marin County. Of course it's the most expensive place in the country to live, I think, that part is ridiculous. And the town I live in is 7,500 people and it's very progressive and very artistic. It's also very beautiful and very woodsy, but the big thing is that compared to San Francisco it is quiet. I play all of the Broadway shows that come into San Francisco, and I've been doing this for about 25 years. When I play eight shows a week, if I can't come back to quiet, I can't regenerate. I think a lot of musicians are that way. I don't think I could actually live in the city. If I didn't have that lack of stimulation when I come home to a quiet house at night, I don't think I'd play as well, and that's important. So I think it's part of my physical and mental health.
HC: Well, your versatility doesn't stop with just performing; you are a composer as well. What type of compositions have you done? Are you working on anything right now?
MS: I've done two CDs that were my own compositions, and then a record label came along and took its favorites from each CD to make a compilation album in 1994. So since 1994 I've been writing for Music Library in New York. In fact the other night I was watching the Home and Garden Network and I heard this song and it was me-that just killed me. The funny thing is that I feel that the royalty structure in this country is just crazy. I feel like anybody whose music is used in anything should be paid a lot more. So when I heard that, I thought, well I wonder how much I'll make, 45 cents? I have almost 15 songs in the music library. So this new album of mine that just came out is a collection of those songs. It just came out in June and I haven't had much time to do much promotion for it.
HC: You've collaborated with some musicians on several projects too-what kinds of projects do you find yourself drawn to?
MS: I worked with Margie Adam who is a real big figure in women's music. I worked on a number of her albums with her. Norton Buffalo-a really fabulous harmonica player who's played with Steve Miller Band for a while-and I decided we'd do an album together. He came up with the name "Harps Entwined" since people call harmonicas harps. We joke that we've been working on it for six years now. Who would think these two would sound good together, but for me it's very interesting.
HC: Now tell me a little about sonic therapy and how you're involved with it.
MS: I've been playing for about 20 years for an organization here in Marin County called Bread and Roses that was founded by Joan Baez's sister. What was great was when they needed to do big fundraisers, Huey Lewis and Bonnie Raitt and all these people that live around here would all do these fundraisers. So I became involved in some of these fundraisers, but what I've also done with them is play in convalescent homes, day treatment centers, psychiatric centers, AIDS wards, wherever it seems like the harp would work. What I discovered, which is not unknown to anyone who has played for someone who is ill, was that people who didn't seem coherent in the least would lift their head when I played a certain song. So what entered my little brain was not only was music influential, but that clearly, different pitches were provoking different people. At this point I hadn't found the harp therapy movement at all. So the next day I walked into the cleaners, and this woman said, did you see the show on Dateline last night about harp therapy? I thought, well, that's bizarre because I was just having these thoughts about it. So then I ran into this woman again in the doctor's office and she had ordered the transcript of the show for me. The story was about Ron Price in Chicago. I called Ron and talked with him a long time and he ended up directing me to Sarajane Williams and Mary Scovel. So I called Mary, and the way Mary taught me was that by analyzing a person's voice, you could tell where their body is not resonating. Everything is vibrations, so if you are a person who never hits the pitch of A very often, theoretically your body would be out of balance.
The whole thing made sense to me because I had all these experiences with people responding to different pitches. So she trained me how to analyze the voice, and I purchased some equipment similar to Mary's that, with my Camac electro-acoustic harp, I can put it into the mixing board. Then the mixing board goes right into this table that vibrates. I have a couple different approaches for people. I either analyze their voice, or you can set the table to vibrate at a certain pitch. The way that this equipment is, the table is a tactile response, there are glasses that are visual, and there are headphones that are auditory. You can program within all of those contexts with whatever pitch you've determined the person needs. The way I incorporate the harp is I usually take them into their session by playing the pitch on the harp, through the mixer, and vibrating the table. Then I bring them out of their session the same way. The point of doing that is I've discovered it's a more gentle way of going in and out of that state. The other thing that I've done is to compose a song in a certain key so that pitch is reinforced. But generally I don't incorporate the harp as much as people who are just doing harp therapy. So it's a real offshoot of seeing how much harp therapy is helping when I'm doing all these harp performances, but I feel like I took it not a step further, but a step in a different direction. I felt like I had observed this specific pitch response. So that is what sonic therapy is. One of my best success stories is this woman who had suffered a rare form of migraines for 18 years and when she came to me she had had a low-grade migraine for three years. She had tried everything, but by the third time she came to me, she said her headache was gone for the first time in three years, and she had tried to get it back by drinking red wine and eating chocolate and drinking coffee, you know, all the triggers, and she couldn't get it back.
HC: So are you still involved with sonic therapy?
MS: I am, but I've been so busy with this album, that I haven't focused on it for about six months. It's hard, even in the part of the country where I live where we are always thinking about the next thing to try, it's still a pretty far out idea. I've had a little bit of a hard time getting information out there about the practice. Hopefully after this CD gets out there I'll have more time to focus on it.
HC: Well, you seem to have done about everything there is to do as a professional musician. When people ask you what kind of musician you are, what do you tell them? Do you classify yourself as one type of musician? Oh, I'm a jazz musician or I'm a classical harpist?
MS: Well, I think that's a good question. I came to the (AHS) conference in Philadelphia and after hearing the concerto soloists, I walked away thinking I'm not a classical harpist.
HC:I think everybody there walked away from that concert thinking they weren't a classical harpist!
MS: Boy, I agree, they were all so amazing. Well, I think of myself as a theater harpist. I love playing in the theater and for me it's been a big accomplishment to have really established myself over 25 years, no matter which contractors are there or which shows are playing. So I'm proud of that-it's always something I've given my allegiance to. I just love the theater. I guess I also think of myself as some sort of a hybrid-a classical-jazz harpist.
HC: Do you think you'd get bored if you just did one thing?
MS: Yes, and I think what's been interesting to me is that I've realized, through teaching students who were dyslexic or have ADHD, that I also had some form of that as a kid. I think that I get bored really fast. I can see a project to the end, but I don't have the best ability to stay with one thing for a long time. To sit and memorize a concerto, you know, I had a time when I was doing that, but I guess it wasn't me.
HC: So is there anything left for you to do or to accomplish?
MS: Well, you know, I keep thinking that I want to tour. It's flattering because I'll run into a friend from the East Coast, and they're like, why don't you come do some concerts. So I guess if there's a next thing it's that. A friend also suggested that I actually write a full-fledged harp piece as opposed to what I've already written where harp is the melody instrument or melody and rhythm instrument in a group. So I'd like to do that. I'd also like to learn more about the recording software out there and really just continue to compose and record.
~ ©2016, Michelle Sell, Moon Circle Records ~