Tracy K: Canada's First Lady Of The Blues Harp
AAJ: You were classically trained, weren't you? On what instrument did you receive formal training, or was it in voice that you were trained? Was this prior to, or before your absence from music?
TK: I had formal piano lessons growing up, but that ended when I was fourteen years old. While I was living in Toronto, I studied with Micah Barnes of The Nylons fame for one year, in 1988. He was a vocal coach, and these weekly sessions proved invaluable. I never lost my voice again after being trained properly, and am able to sing through colds. I even performed with a nasty type of laryngitis one New Years Eve in Winnipeg, 2001that was truly amazing. I could hardly talk, but I was able to sing for the duration of the evening.
AAJ: When did you first pick up the harmonica? With so few women, even outside of the blues, playing harmonica, how did this start for you?
TK: I first picked up harmonica in 1982, while backpacking Europe. It was from a Canadian soldier based in Lahr, Germany. He was a guitarist, and we were staying at his apartment while working for the Canadian army flipping burgers for the soldiers. When we [my traveling partner and girlfriend from back home] decided to continue on our travels to the south, he gave me the harmonica that I was so often picking up and tooting and said to me "When you come back this way on your way to London, you better know how to play this thing!" I drove my friend nuts for the first month with "Oh Susannah" and "When the Saints Come Marching In."
However, on the trek back up from North Africa and the Mediterranean, we did stop in Lahr, and buddy was pretty impressed with what I had taught myself to that point. He let me keep the harp, and that was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the harmonica for me.
AAJ: Your earliest influences were the country blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. What was your first introduction to their music? What was it about their music that you liked?
TK: When I was in my mid-teens, I hung out with an eclectic group of friends. We were on the fringe. A bunch of old and young hippies if you will; the only ones of that kind in our tiny prairie town. They were into some real great stuff, like progressive rock and jazz, but blues was the main element and most revered. Half the time I never knew who the heck we were listening to, but I recall hearing Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee doing "Bring it On Home" and having it hit me hard enough to find out who they were, and hear more of the same. It just sounded like a whole lot of down to earth good fun, and what's not to like about that.
AAJ: Have your tastes since changed?
TK: I wouldn't say that my tastes have changed, but I sure went full circle and ended up right back where I started fromat the blues. Even as a child, my favorite songs had a swing element, or harmonica, or a horn section in them, like Blood, Sweat, & Tears, or Chicago. Hurricane Smith's "Babe What Would You Say" was one of those tunes that gave me that indescribable feeling that completely stole my undivided attention. I was way young then, and when I hear that song today, I can still smell my mother's house, and see the back yard from that kitchen seat next to the window where the radio was.
I grew up on hit radio of the sixties, so that influence is indelible. I have a brother who is nine years older than I, and his musical tastes were shared by methe British invasion, American psychedelia, Canadian folk rock. I'm still a devoted Zeppelin and Who fan.
AAJ: Talking harmonica: why do you think so few women play harp?
TK: I think it's because most women are drawn to singing. I was a singer long before I was a harmonica player. Most female singers play either guitar or piano if they choose an instrument. As for why the non-singers don't pick harmonica as their instrument of choicebeats me. Maybe it's not perceived as lady-like or sexy? Ruins the lipstick? I dunno.
But if ya wanna get all psychological, I think it's the whole gun thing. It's like a gun [sorta] in size, shape, weight, and you can just whip it outta your pocket any ol' time. Guys had the ability and freedom to blow a harp whilst being cowboys and such. I think women and their hands were just too busy in the kitchen. It's evolution, man. How's that for a story on the spot?
AAJ: Okay, ask a question, get an answer. Are there any female harmonicists that you really admire? What is it about their music that you like?
TK: Well, I haven't really listened to any female harmonicists in any great length or detail.
Stating that, Annie Raines is the first to come to mind, because she is the most well known. Since it is only with the dawn of internet and especially MySpace that I have found any other female players, we are just now creating history and credibility. A couple to note are Cheryl Arena and Octavia in the U.S.
AAJ: As for gear, what kind of equipment do you use?
TK:As for gear, well, I play both Hohner and Lee Oskar harmonicas. I love the way Lee Oskars feel against my lips. They have a nice smooth surface, easy to glide along. The Hohner Special 20s have the same feature, and the Marine Bands have that classic sound and tone that only Marine Bands have, but I wish they would smooth off the cover plates.
I have developed a real bond with the Lee Oskars over the last seven or eight years, and like the way they respond for me. They have the replaceable reed plates, which was very attractive to me both financially and environmentally. Instead of throwing away an entire harmonica, you can just replace the plates.
John Sebastien asked me once what I do to compensate for the slightly flat Oskars. I never really thought about it, and therefore must have been adjusting my embouchure accordingly. I have been switching back and forth to Hohners again, and have found that I do have to play the two brands with a slightly different approach. It presents another one of the challenges that I so embrace.
The Hohners are a little more sensitive and require a gentler and dedicated breaking-in. They need to be well broken in before honkin' on them to preserve the life of the reeds. Once broken in though, they sure do play nice, and have a very quick response.
The Lee Oskars seem a little more forgiving, less fragile, and tend to outlast the Hohners. I have the Lee Oskar tool kit, and have done adjusting when a reed is flat or sharp, as well.
Hohners are tuned to A440, but Lee Oskars are significantly loweraround the 430 mark. They are both excellent performing harmonicas. I am happy to use either.
I play both acoustic harp (without a harp mic and amp), and amplified harp. In my blues duo which is primarily Piedmont and Delta rags and country blues, I go acoustic, singing and playing harp through a vocal mic, usually a Shure [SM] 58. I use a harp rack occasionally, when I am playing guitar on a song and want to throw some harp into it. I call it "chewing gum and walking." I go amplified when I play with my band, and change my tone throughout a performance as per the song's feel.
As for amps, I prefer the Fender Blues Deluxe, and own a Blues Junior. Settings vary from amp to amp, but I find less treble and more mid and bass are the standard for harp amplification. The rest of the settings are personal taste.
I used a Hohner Blues Blaster harp mic for years. It broke down, and at that point I treated myself to a Shure Green Bullet. It is the new bullet, the reissue, and doesn't hold a candle to the original vintage bullet, but it still performs as a great harp mic. It fits nice in the hand and all.
I would love to get my hands on an old Astatic. I find that so much of your tone is manipulated in your mouth and throat, so the mic and amp are to the player what formal attire is to the person. A good player can make a guitar sing without any pedals or Marshall stacks.
Same said for harp players. Nice gear can make nice sound, but an accomplished player comes with good sound built in. That is the beauty of acoustic harp playing. All of the tone and technique is man-made.
The mark of a true harmonica great can be witnessed in this format. Doctor Ross is a fine example of this sort of achievement. He didn't even have to use his hands to help with his acoustic tone as he played harp in a rack while he accompanied himself on guitar, and his tone and technique are astounding.