Just as some visual artists use music for inspiration while they draw, paint or sculpt, Jesse Autumn uses visual art as inspiration for her music. When she enters the recording studio, the local harpist/pianist/vocalist adorns her piano with images that fuel her imagination. “I bring little tiny postcards of paintings that I’m really into, or art from [home],” she explains. “I have a huge art collection, because I’m very lucky to have all my neighbors be artists.”
Further inspiration for songs comes from books piled up around Jesse’s piano. The works of writers like Henry Miller and Richard Brautigan have served as grist for her lyrics, as have nonfiction books about creative people. “I read a lot about artists and artist communities in different eras,” she says. “I’m really obsessed with that. I get a lot out of their dramas and their [efforts] to create things. I’ll read a lot about the Dada artists all living together. They were friends with [pianist] Erik Satie, and they were all intermingling. Their work really excites me. I won’t notice it until later, but I’ll steal little phrases or images that I know have come from reading about these people that are now almost like [fictional] characters.”
Autumn’s original chamber pop music, which draws frequent comparisons to the work of Tori Amos and Regina Spektor, can be heard on her new live album Bright Stars, scheduled for online release in December. The album documents a live vocal and piano performance she gave at the Kuumbwa in April 2014, backed by renowned local cellist Barry Phillips and violinist/violist Timb Harris (Estradasphere/Secret Chiefs 3).
Whereas the instrumentation of Jesse’s last collection of original songs—a live EP that she released in 2010—consisted mainly of piano and cello, Bright Stars spotlights her harp skills as well. Her go-to instrument on the album was an almost 100-year-old classical harp. “It’s got gold on it that’s peeling off,” she notes. “It looks antique and really cool, and it’s got the lower, bass-y notes that are really nice.”
While Autumn’s song “The Time Jumper” appeared on her 2010 EP, she re-recorded the song for Bright Stars with a new arrangement for string ensemble. The new version of the tune also features a harp part that she overdubbed in post-production, as opposed to attempting to play two instruments at once during the Kuumbwa gig. “I have done piano and harp at the same time, but it looks funny, like I’m trapped in some sort of circus contraption,” she chuckles.
Autumn explains that “The Time Jumper” is rooted in sci-fi literature. “It’s a love song,” she notes. “It’s about a pair of beings that are meeting each other again and again in different eras. I like the time-jumping idea: when you travel through time with just yourself, not in a machine.”
The creator of Bright Stars’ cover art is local painter Sarah Bianco, one of Jesse’s close friends from the Tannery Arts Center, where the musician lives and teaches piano and harp four days a week. This is one of many ways in which Autumn collaborates with visual artists: in the last two years, she has put on about seven art shows at the Tannery with two other women. “I’m an amateur visual artist and a professional musician, but visual art is so exciting to me,” she says. “So I spend a lot of time with visual artists and get all juiced up from what they’re doing, and then I go turn it into what I’m doing.”
Along with performing her own material, Autumn adapts instrumental world music for all different types of harp—especially the double-strung harp, a rare instrument with two sets of identical strings. Her work in this genre can be heard on such albums as Black Rose, California Celt and Uisce (Water).
Jesse Autumn is also the artistic director of the Santa Cruz Harp Festival, whose 11th annual concert will take place on Jan. 3 at a venue soon to be announced. The concert features an orchestra of local harp students of all ages and skill levels, as well as soloists demonstrating several different styles of harp, including African, electric, classical and Irish.
For more about Jesse Autumn, go to Facebook.com/jesseautumnsongs.