Musician Gillian Grassie ’09 wins Watson Fellowship

Posted March 27th, 2009 at 11:42 am.

grassie22Ask your average record-company executive about the market for a pop musician who plays the harp, and a blank stare is probably as much enthusiasm as you can expect. Luckily for singer-songwriter Gillian Grassie ’09, musicians are no longer dependent on record-company executives to introduce them to their audiences.

During her years at Bryn Mawr, Grassie has recorded and marketed a full-length CD and established a national reputation and a solid fan base: she plays as many as four dates a week along the New York-to-DC corridor and has toured the Southeast during the summer months. A few years ago, Grassie says, her career would have been impossible for a full-time college student with limited resources, but increasingly accessible information technologies—including recording software, digital distribution, and online communities—have profoundly altered the music industry in the United States.

Listen to Gillian Grassie’s music at
  • http://www.myspace.com/harppower
  • the Bryn Mawr Art Club’s Arnecliffe studio opening on Friday, March 27, 7-10 p.m.
  • the Bryn Mawr Campus Center series on Friday, April 3, 8 p.m.
  • the Modern Times Coffee House/Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C., Saturday, April 11, with Scott Pryor
  • Bryn Mawr’s May Day celebration, Sunday, May 3, at 1 p.m.
  • the Tin Angel, Philadelphia, on Saturday, June 6

Have new technologies had a similar effect abroad? Grassie will spend next year finding out, thanks to a Watson Fellowship, which will fund the independent study she has titled “Artist 2.0: The Impact of New Technology on Independent Music.” Grassie will travel to Germany, France, India, Indonesia, China, and Japan (in that order) to learn how new recording and distribution technologies have interacted with tradition to change the making and appreciation of music.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a musician in the United States and United Kingdom,” Grassie says. “New technologies that diminish artists’ reliance on major labels have given us unprecedented creative control over what we produce. As a result, musicians have become bolder and more innovative, generating new genres and experimenting with both electronics and unusual instrumentation. What’s more, listeners have embraced these avant-garde musicians, excited by the opportunity to browse under-the-radar music in search of ‘the next big thing.’”

“But what’s happening beyond these English-speaking music powerhouses?” Grassie asks in her proposal. “How accessible is new recording software, and how compatible are these programs with non-Western music? Has the destabilization of major record labels emboldened non-English artists to challenge English music’s radio dominance, or has the Internet’s ability to transcend national borders put pressure on artists to write English lyrics in order to compete in the new global digital markets? What types of musicians and what types of music are being left behind? Which instruments and styles are being revitalized? What is fan culture like abroad?”

Starting in July, Grassie will leave her stateside fans behind for a year as she investigates those questions and discovers new ones. She is likely to keep in touch, however, through her MySpace blog, a prime example of the kind of technology that enables independent musicians to do their own financing, marketing, organizing, booking, and promotion.

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation funds a year of independent study and travel abroad for 40 “college graduates of unusual promise” from about 60 participating liberal-arts colleges.

A host of fans, a number of admiring music critics, and the judges of the prestigious New York Songwriter’s Circle Competition (in which her “Silken String” took second place last November) would likely agree that Grassie is both promising and unusual. She rarely chooses the path that is trodden smooth, but her keen ability to analyze the terrain and her tireless persistence guide her surely toward her destination.

The Celtic harp is an unusual choice of instrument, and then there’s the way she plays it. Although she does draw on a repertoire of traditional Celtic tunes and classical training in both harp and voice, Grassie ventures far afield of those starting points, producing a range of sounds that seem perfectly at home in her jazz- and rock-flavored arrangements.

Grassie deviated from another traditional path by declining several music-school acceptances, preferring to make her own way in the thriving Philadelphia singer-songwriter scene. After a year of successes during which she recorded her first EP, she surprised some of her fans by slowing her career down enough to become a full-time student at Bryn Mawr, where she has majored in comparative literature and honed her lyric-writing skills in Bryn Mawr’s creative-writing program.

“I didn’t want to be too narrowly focused on music and my career,” Grassie explains. “I wanted to be educated in a humanistic way, to broaden my understanding of the world around me. I’ve always loved reading, loved challenging myself intellectually, and I missed it when I was doing music full-time.”

“Here at Bryn Mawr, I’ve I have had some professors whose courses have been quite literally life-changing,” Grassie continues. “These professors are brilliant in their fields, and I’ve been so appreciative of how invested they are in their students and how accessible they’ve made themselves to me both inside and outside the classroom.”

Equally important, Grassie says, is the intellectual stimulation provided by her fellow students: “I wanted to come to a place where I’d be challenged by my peers instead of being one of two students in a classroom of 30 who’d done the reading. At Bryn Mawr, I’m not just challenged by my peers, I’m dazzled by them.”

Grassie will bring both her musical and her academic experience to bear on her Watson project. Having studied comparative literature, she says, can help point her toward an analytical framework for the many musical traditions and practices she will encounter during her Watson year.

“In many ways,” she writes in her proposal,  “this project uses the medium of music and its modes of production to address much larger questions about globalization and our ability as a community of nations to interact healthfully and productively as a whole, while preserving that which makes us culturally unique.”

She expects her comp-lit training to inform her insights about those questions. But, she notes,  “jamming with other musicians in diverse genres around the world will be an important part of my research methodology.”

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