Duologue: A conversation with Lara Somogyi

Born in Hawaii to Hungarian parents, Lara Somogyi’s introduction to harp-playing skewed toward the traditional until she began to lean into an improvisational approach while studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London and composing to color schemes and visuals. Another sensory layer emerged in her work after a series of chance meetings with Brian Eno that had a profound impact on her view of the world and its relationship to sound. Having worked with a wide range of artists from Bonobo and Ben Lukas Boysen to Ariana Grande and being called upon to record harp textures for numerous soundtracks including Hans Zimmer’s ‘Blue Planet II featuring Radiohead, Lara is poised to release her first solo album on Mercury KX this month. Many thanks to her for taking some time to chat with us about her new record “!” (pronounced “Exclamation”) and her fascinating musical journey.

Before talking about the new album, maybe you can tell us about your musical journey up to this point. The harp is such a singular instrument. What drew you to it in the first place?

I really loved the elegance, the beauty of the harp. The resonance, reverberations, and the sonority was unlike I’d ever heard before. I felt drawn to its round and resonant timbre instantly. Feeling the vibrations in your chest as you pluck the strings is really special, you truly become a part of the instrument.

I learned to play the harp in a very classical tradition, playing in symphonies, and as a soloist. This led me to London, studying at the Royal Academy of Music, where I also was drawn in to other types of expression on the instrument, including improvisation and contemporary studies. I found I could retell the story of the instrument in my own voice by improvising, based purely on a concept or feeling, and found myself composing. I also began to experiment with electronics in the recording studio there which really laid the foundation for greater pedal experimentation and exploration later on.

I understand your creative approach has evolved significantly over time. How would you describe the journey from your early days playing the harp to where you are now?

Once I began experimenting with loop pedals, fx, and electronics using the electro-acoustic harp, it was a very fluid process. It felt absolutely invigorating to dive into contemporary approaches and I found myself really leaning in to discover and expand how I played the instrument.

I became fascinated with sonic freedom of experimentation and improvisation in using the harp to its full sonic capacity. It really started to feel like the harp’s capabilities were limitless and led me to the gateway for my compositions and developing my own personal voice.

Once fully emerged in the wonderland of exploration, I couldn’t stop and continued to push the sounds I was making and music I was writing. There’s always a different perspective to approaching a sound or note and I’m dedicated to expressing those intricacies as that’s where I find most inspiration.

Having the entire album come directly from the harp challenges the perception of how listeners experience the instrument.”

So, let’s talk about the new album now. You’ve stated that every single sound on the record comes directly from the harp. How do you think listener’s perceptions of the instrument might change when they hear it?

Yes! I’ve been really passionate about the harp’s range of possibilities – it’s been my muse for everything. I always felt the harp belongs to spaces that it’s not typically seen and bending the perceptions of where and how you experience the instrument interests me deeply. It can be expansive, textural, passionate, euphoric, and blissfully tranquil all depending on the way you approach creating and manipulating sound on the harp. This sometimes can be translated in a very physical sense as well, on the soundboard or strings themselves. To capture a wide array of sounds, a symphony of new harp timbres, I used things like Blue-Tac on the strings, milk frothers, the soundboard for percussion, and a wide variety of pedal fx and vintage tape delays. Having the entire album come directly from the harp challenges the perception of how listeners experience the instrument.

Since your process involves so much improvisation and experimentation, I am curious about the process you used to develop the songs on “!”;. Did you have specific melodic or narrative ideas that you built around or was it more of an evolutionary process?

This album was crafted over the last few years, so in a way, it’s a travelogue of my journey of that time and the songs are these sonic markers of what I was feeling. For example, “self.seed” derives its title from one of my first improvisations on a particular fx pedal. I was completely enchanted, free, in my studio and finding so much joy in planting new beginnings through sound.

Many of the feature tracks and singles were made in that way, creating improvisations during or for live performances, so they were always rooted in that live and exploratory mindset. The interludes sprinkled throughout the album are another sonic joy, made in an opposite way, experimenting with pedals and glitchy software with my producer, Cyrus Reynolds. Tracks like interior gardens and aviary, were made in a single session of pedal experimentation with Cyrus, and we recorded it all through a vintage tape echo, along with a wild pedal array with the help of our friend and engineer MJ B.

In the video for “hundred00”, I was struck by the presence and physicality of the harp in rugged, wide-open spaces in way I don’t think I would appreciate seeing it in a more traditional stage or studio setting. Is that part of what you sought to achieve?

Yes! The desert inspires me endlessly as it also can be exclamatory in the fact that it might feel a little different to what one might be used to experiencing as it definitely evokes a strong feeling and a change. It feels very limitless in the wide-open landscapes, just like how I like to feel musically without bounds. There is definitely a relation there, placing the harp in the desert, because it’s immediately full of stark contrasts; the ruggedness of the landscape against the lush craftsmanship and elegance of the instrument. But there’s also a strong commonality between them, the endless expanse of sound, the randomness of the shapes in the rocks and glitch sounds, and the poetic curves and colors of the horizon. To me, the desert is a very strong exclamation from nature, it’s extremely striking and beautiful, and does have natural elements of geometric shapes and flowing lines like the structure of the harp. These extremely vibrant and rich colors feel so exuberant and also feel very special. The video itself paints a visual story reflective of my journey on the instrument.

You have engaged in a pretty dazzling array of projects and collaborations already at this point in your career. Do any of them stand out as particularly impactful to your development as a musician or as an artist in general?

I feel so lucky to have been a part of some really special projects and collaborations and they have definitely shaped my journey significantly. Working with Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea, and Dave Flemming on the BBC Blue Planet II score, which also featured Radiohead, was a really poignant moment for me years ago, as it was one of the first times I was called to add in some of the contemporary tools and electronics I was developing in my sound. I brought in two different large guitar FX pedalboards and separated them into two different live rooms to create a wildly contrasting sound world. Playing to picture and diving into shimmery textures that reflected the beautiful oceans and marine wildlife was really thrilling. That very much shaped how I approached playing the harp on film scores going forward.

Also very recently working with Bonobo on his latest record “Fragments” was also very formative. At that point in his Fragments record, there were no chords or set ideas yet, he was quite happy to just have me improvise, and he would call out certain ideas that really resonated with him. It was truly thrilling to see how Simon works and creates his art and so wonderful to hear how the sounds we created together were used in his music. Really beautiful to create with him in that way.

At this point would you say are you pretty well settled on the gear and pedals that you like to use or is that something you are constantly exploring?

I’m constantly expanding on the sound world and pallet of pedals and hope this never stops. I’m always exploring, re-organizing my board and starting something completely fresh. I love discovering a new pedal that totally changes my perspective. I am really intrigued by some of the ones I’ve discovered most recently that really play with a natural randomness of sound, almost like broken loopers. There can be such a beauty in this perfect random unpredictability and also the space in-between the notes which really interests me.

What is on the horizon for you in the near term? Once the record is out, do you have any shows and/or new projects planned?

Yes! Definitely planning on performing the record out and am really looking forward to that. Playing live is so special and I can’t wait to share these pieces with a live audience. I also have some other versions of some of the songs on the record planned. I am so happy and elated to have this record out with MercuryKX in such a loving home and I hope this record evokes expanse for the listener or perhaps stirs a shift and change of feeling.

Links: Lara Somogyi | Mercury KX Store