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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation With Ron Korb, May. 2005
A Conversation with Ken Bonfield, Mar. 2005
A Conversation with Johannes Linstead, Mar. 2005
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation With Peter Sterling
August 2004
Peter Sterling has definitely had an incredible journey to date. From his days as a ski instructor in Colorado, to his recent performance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Peter has accomplished a tremendous amount in a relatively short time.

His debut album, Harp Magic, was recorded less than year after he picked up the harp, and the record went on to be nominated for a Naird Indie Award for Best String Album of '94.

Harp Dreams, Peter's most recent release, reached #1 on the NewAgeReporter charts and in addition to Peter's great harp, keyboard, vocal and percussion playing, the album features performances from Richard Hardy (woodwinds), Robin Miller (electric guitar and bass), Eddie Baratini (percussion), Fits-Hugh Jenkins (nylon and steel string guitar), Brad Buley (drums), Dov (violin and viola), Ani Williams (vocals) and Celia Farran (vocals).

You can learn more about Peter, by visiting his web site.

NAR Editor Note:

Check out RJ Lannan's review of
Harp Dreams

Peter Sterling
Playing the harp is really a musical journey of my soul..." - Peter Sterling
Jamie: Sometimes an instrument just clicks for a musician. The feel of the instrument in your hands, the sound it produces and the possibilities that it presents, lets a musician know that: "This is the one." I started out on piano at a really young age, but I was always drawn to the guitar -- the guitar just seemed "right" to me. And truthfully, it still does!

You've played a number of instruments over the years including the piano, the flute and the guitar, but harp is the instrument that appeared to have had the most affect on you. On your web site, you talk fairly extensively about how you came to play the harp and it's a pretty amazing story! Does the harp still play the central (and life changing) role for you that it did in the past?
Peter: Yes Jamie, the harp still has a hold on my soul the way it did when I first began to play. There is a natural instinct and ease of playing that I feel with the harp that I don't with other instruments. It really seems to me that I must have played this instrument before in some long ago time. Perhaps in the Renaissance or early Celtic times. Each time I sit and play it's as if a musical story line unfolds and a little bit more of the history of my soul is revealed. I know this may sound a bit supernatural, but truly this is the way it is for me. Considering the long and glorious history of the harp throughout many ancient cultures of the world it is no surprise that so much imagery comes with the music. This is what has captivated me so much.

The harp is really a very easy instrument to play and I think that is also what drew me to it. I can remember before I played the harp, I would often listen to the music of Andreas Vollenweider and Hilary Stagg for years. And as I would listen, I would naturally play the "air harp" as I would be driving along somewhere. I loved the sound of the harp and the way it would make me feel. But never did I imagine myself playing. When I began to get the feeling that I was to play as well, I resisted for a long time until a series of life changing events happened to me in Sedona. Then there was no doubt that the harp was to be a part of my life in a bigger way.

From ancient Greece and Egypt to modern harp therapy programs taught at universities through out the world now, the harp has had a major role in the evolution and inspiration of music. I am really excited and honored to be part of this ancient lineage.
"There is a natural instinct and ease of playing that I feel with the harp that I don't with other instruments." - Peter Sterling
Jamie: I was just back on your site and checking out the harps on your photos page. I've never seen a harp like the blue one pictured in your Angel Studio (great recording space, BTW!). Is that primarily an electro-acoustic harp? I'm not sure if you use that instrument just for recording or also in a live setting, but I would imagine that it would be easier to transport from gig to gig than a "traditional" harp.
Peter: Ah yes! The electric blue. This harp is a Camac solid body electric harp. It is a really unique instrument. It doesn't make any sound unless it is plugged in similar to an electric guitar. Generally, I use this harp in the studio. It gives me a really direct sound without any of the traditional reverberations of an acoustic harp. The only way to play this harp is to have a monitor pointing right at me. I love the sleek lines and look of this harp.

But I'm really excited about the new harp that is being built for me right now. Lyon and Healy harps out of Chicago is making me a custom made one of a kind electro-acoustic Troubadour. This is the harp that I've been waiting for along time. It is ebony black with 24k gold platted tuning pins. It is a very striking instrument. And the sound will be fantastic. A mix of electric and acoustic sound. This is the harp that I will play at Carnegie Hall some day!
Jamie: I bet it'll be a happy day when your new harp arrives!

Your new album Harp Dreams was recorded at your Sedona Shadows Studio and not only features you on harp but also on keyboards, vocals and percussion. Pretty impressive! But you also enlisted the help of a number of excellent sidemen (and women) to create this disc. What did these players bring to Harp Dreams? Is Sedona Shadows Studio the same studio as Angel Studio or do you have two (?!?!) different studios?
Peter: Yes, I feel blessed that I have been able to work with such talented musicians on Harp Dreams. From the beginning I have tried to have the best and most talented musicians play along side me on my recordings. Harp Dreams is no exception. On track #1, I have guitar master Bruce Becvar playing along and offering his distinctive heartfelt guitar stylings, which help to bring to life "Carousel". For years I listened to Bruce's CD's and now I feel honored to have him on one of mine. He is a great brother and real friend. The woman singing on this track is best selling angel book author Terry Lynn Taylor, who hadn't sang in some time, but I knew she had just the right energy for the song .

On flutes and woodwinds I have Richard Hardy lending a hand. Richard played with Carol King for 12 years and recently can be heard on over 200 recordings from various artists including Higher Octave's "3rd Force" and Hilary Stagg's "Sweet Return". Richard often performs with me all over the country and I consider him my right hand man. Talented harpist and vocalist Ani Williams brings in the voice of the goddess on "Lady of the Lake" . She is a Celtic goddess who has traveled all over the world performing her music. She gave me my first harp lesson when I was just starting out on this journey. These are a few of the highlights.

When we do a session in the studio, I share the vision for the song with the player and give them some sort of an idea of what I'm looking for, and then I let then interpret the song for themselves. I try not to tell them what to play and we never read from charts. One quality that all these players have is that they have beautiful hearts and spirits which are expressed so beautifully through their playing. This all happens in my Sedona Shadow Studio in my home (which is the same as the Angel Studio)…
"From the beginning I have tried to have the best and most talented musicians play along side me on my recordings." - Peter Sterling
Jamie: You're so lucky to have a group of musicians like this -- it can be such a challenge finding like-minded players! I know you said that Richard Hardy plays live with you, but do any of the other musicians on Harp Dreams also come out on the road with you? And as a secondary question, you have a pretty deep catalogue of material (I counted seven albums on your web site), how do you decide which pieces to perform live?
Peter: Richard is my right hand man and will show up most places I play out West. On occasion my violinist "Dov" will sit in and make a trio. I often play with backing tracks from Harp Dreams and that really helps fill out the sound. In different cities I know other players that can sit in for fun and help out. I like to bring in musicians that I don't know from time to time that have been recommended by friends when I play in out of the way towns. It always adds a nice touch to have other players along side to add to the mix. It is more entertaining for the audience and more fun for me as well.

I most often play what is current and add in a couple of older pieces that have been favorites from the beginning. I like to think that there is some overriding spirit that helps out in the inspiration dept. to help me decide what to play. I was a Deadhead for many years back in the eighties and was always amazed at how the Dead could get on stage before 10,000 people and not know what they were going to play. They would just open up to the inspiration of the moment and let the energy of the audience decide what to play. I try to do that as well. It is risky sometimes, but always works out in the end…
Jamie: I think you're right, a certain degree of risk is good for both the performer and the audience -- it keeps the music fresh and alive! I don't know how much improv you do, but for me, changing up the solos and approaching pieces differently from gig to gig is really important. I like to feel that my music is a living, breathing thing!

You talk about inspiration and spirit in your last answer. In many ways, I feel that inspiration and spirit are connected. I'm definitely inspired by my surroundings and music in general, but non-musical elements have played an increasingly important role for me. How does philosophy and spirituality, in particular, affect your music?
Peter: Great Question. Now you are really starting to get to the meat of the issue! Improvisation is really the heart of what I do. Often at performances I will spontaneously create a piece in the moment thru improvisation. I love to open myself up to the inspiration of the moment. Tuning into the people in the audience and letting spirit guide my hands on the strings. This can be a bit scary but it always turns out wonderful. I think this approach from time to time really creates a special "on the edge" type of musical experience that the audience can feel and participate in as it is the audience's feedback and energy that drives the whole thing.

The musicians I often play with are familiar with this type of open format and are really great at navigating all the twists and turns I can throw their way. There is a moment when it all clicks and the music comes alive and everyone can hear and feel it. It's exciting when that happens. It's what Jerry Garcia called "The X factor". That mysterious force that drops by from time to time. You can't pursue it as it will allude you. You must open yourself up to receive it and then let it flow through you. This has really been my approach to music from the beginning.

Like you, I often change things up in my regular pieces to keep it fresh and alive. As a matter of fact, I have a hard time playing a piece the same as I did before. I have to play "Out of the box", so to speak. This is what brings in the element of the sacred to the music for me. Like East Indian ragas that are played around a traditional framework of musical progressions, there is always a space where the musician can improvise and let his/her spirit speak through those moments, where you open up to something greater than the personal ego. This is when music can be a truly transcendent experience. This is what I have always tried my best to do.

Living in Sedona, I am constantly inspired by the majestic surroundings of the red rocks. They are always looking different to me and are a constant reminder of forces at work that are greater than what I might know or be able to comprehend. I feel blessed that I can walk in the silence of the ancient canyons that are right out my door. Literally a few minutes walk behind my home and I'm on an amazing overlook that has 360 degree views of the towering red rock formations that are a constant source of inspiration and creative energy. Sedona is home to many artists and musicians that have heard the "call of the canyons" and have made their home here, to work and play in Mother Nature's splendor. I have had many, what I would call supernatural, experiences here that have had a profound impact on me personally, spiritually and also creatively.

There are all sorts of phenomena happening here everyday. Sedona has been known as a sacred site for 1000's of years. Many people have been inspired by the natural beauty of this special place to create art and music that reflects a sense of the sacred. We come here like modern day pilgrims seeking to touch the divine. And like shamans of days gone past, we create our own special musical magic that heals, uplifts and inspires our community and the world...
"Improvisation is really the heart of what I do." - Peter Sterling

"Living in Sedona, I am constantly inspired by the majestic surroundings of the red rocks." - Peter Sterling

Jamie: "The X Factor"... I've never heard that before -- that's a great description! If you can't pursue it (and I agree with you that it definitely will allude you if you do), how do you "open yourself up to receive it and then let it flow through you"? Have you found any way to better (or more frequently) allow the "X factor" to occur?
Peter: Jerry Garcia coined that term and of course we all know how the Grateful Dead facilitated more encounters with the X factor. Psychedelics played a huge role in their music and the scene as a whole. Imagine 10,000 people all on LSD together at a concert. This created an environment where all most anything could happen and usually did. Drugs like LSD played a pivotal part in the music from that era which is still having an effect on pop culture today. So certainly that is one way to court the X factor.

But leaving all illegal ways behind us, I'd have to say that for me what has really helped is some sort of contemplative practice like Yoga and meditation. For myself, this has helped immensely in allowing my mind to quiet down, so that I can hear more clearly the subtle impressions that come from a higher source. It's almost like I can tune my radio receiver, my brain, into a celestial frequency and allow this to be communicated to my nervous system and relayed to my fingertips, which pluck the strings in different patterns, which form melodies and other musical structures. This is what I believe the greatest composers of all times have done so successfully.

Hopefully more and more of us will seek to tap into something greater. Something larger than our own ego and allow this force to flow through us collectively as a whole, thereby creating a unified field of harmony and peace that we can broadcast to the world through our music. Hopefully, if more of us can do this, we might be able to turn the tide of the unfolding of events in the world, and be a force of healing and positive change and transformation.
"Hopefully more and more of us will seek to tap into something greater." - Peter Sterling
Jamie: I think this is one of the real powers of music -- the transformation of the listener. And as a listener, certain records present a world unto themselves to me. I can put the headphones, sit back and immerse myself in the music. And I _feel_ different, and usually better, after listening to the music.

I know this is somewhat contentious, but I feel all styles of music can be healing and transforming. It depends on the medicine that you need. For me, the surface structure of the music isn't what solely defines it -- I just don't listen in that way. Of course, some people feel that I'm simply wrong (wouldn't be the first time!), and that style and underlying emotional/spiritual components are intrinsically intertwined. How important is musical style/genre to you as an artist?
Peter: I love to explore different musical styles on the harp. After all the harp was played all over the world and can be found in many cultures expressing its own unique voice cross culturally. It's always a surprise and exciting to me to hear my harp playing in different styles that most people don't relate to the harp. On my CD's you can hear Celtic, Caribbean, Asian, Latin, Jazz, Native American, Gypsy and Classical influences to name a few. Playing the harp is really a musical journey of my soul that I have been exploring from the beginning.

As new songs and styles appear for me, it's like they all bring a story and vivid imagery with them. The songs that come with the strongest impression are the ones that usually end up on my recordings. As I record the songs, I try my best to infuse the song with the imagery that I see in my imagination. When other players come into my studio to record, I always share the vision of the song with them so they might better "see" the picture which we are creating.

For instance on the song "In Monet's Garden" on Harp Dreams we looked at a beautiful coffee table book of Monet's paintings of his Water Lilies, before we recorded. I really think this helped to imprint this vision of beauty, harmony and color into the song. When you listen, especially with headphones, you can see in your mind's eye the whole panorama of Monet's garden open up to you.

Now you were saying that all musical styles can be healing depending on the medicine you need. I agree to some extent. Although for me there are some styles of music which I find create more confusion and dis-harmony in the listener, and I believe that is what the composer is trying to do. Music is geometry and structure and some composers are better builders than others.

Some use higher principles of harmony and some don't. I believe that a lot of the popular music of today is built with dis-harmonious components and discordant structures that effect the listener in unhealthful ways. Many people enjoy this music because they feel the energy in it. They say that it is giving voice to a part of us that needs to be heard. In particular, I am speaking of a lot of the Heavy Metal music and some of the Rap music as well.

To me, it seems like it is giving voice to and empowering our lower natures which is all to apparent in our culture today. There have actually been studies on this type of music. When they play Heavy Metal for instance to plants, they all wilt and die as opposed to Classical music which inspires new growth. Imagine what this kind of music does to us on a subconscious and cellular level. All music is frequency and some of us are doing our best to broadcast higher frequencies, which heal and uplift rather than weaken and tear down.

There is a famous story of the last emperor of China. At that time, all music was regulated and only certain musical scales that were aligned with the heavens were allowed to be played in the kingdom, therefore keeping harmony and peace through out the land. Once he was presented as a gift a choir of Nubian singers from Africa. Although he was warned by his high console to reject the gift, because their music had discordant and unusual musical scales, he did not and the new music was brought into the kingdom. It wasn't long after that the empire fell. There are many examples of this through out history. So for myself, I feel a responsibility to create music that heals, uplifts and inspires our higher nature rather than the lower.
"All music is frequency and some of us are doing our best to broadcast higher frequencies..." - Peter Sterling
Jamie: That's a beautiful sentiment -- especially considering all that's going in the world today...

There seems to be (maybe there always has been) a huge number of barriers for musicians trying to create "good" music. The business is obviously going through some big changes right now, but artists have to (and will continue to) make the music they're going to make -- one way or another.

Along with being an artist, you're also a label owner and have to deal with the current business realities. Where do you see the business headed? What do see as the most effective means for promoting and ultimately selling your records? And what the heck, I'll add a third question in.... how does live music fit into the whole marketing/business picture for you?
Peter: When I first started out I got lucky, and through a synchronistic turn of events, I got connected with a small independent record label out of the Pacific Northwest that distributed my music internationally. It was a wonderful experience having 30 people all working on my behalf to market and promote my music. This allowed me to stay focused on the music and not the business. But unfortunately things changed in the business in the early 90's and this company went under. As a result my recordings got caught in the middle of litigation and lawsuits that tied them up for several years. That was a difficult time, as there wasn't much I could do but wait until things changes and got resolved. As a result, I was forced to learn more about the business end of things, so that I could keep moving forward with my career.

I formed my own label in 1998 and setup my own recording studio in my home. It was a monumental task that at times I wondered if I would be able to pull it off. But I did and all at once, I became a player, composer, producer, engineer, promoter and marketing person. It has been a lot to say the least. But I think I learned some valuable lessons along the way. I heard some one say years ago that it is called music "business" for a reason. It is business really on many levels and it is essential that aspiring superstars learn this part of the game, so that someone doesn't take advantage of them when fate comes a callin'.

Live performing is really where I make it happen for me. I feel really grateful that I have had, and continue to have, opportunities to perform live for all sorts of people, in many settings. I play at conferences, festivals, expos, trade shows, workshops and seminars, weddings and parties and concerts. This is really the bread and butter for me. If I don't take it out on the road and share my music directly with the people, I would probably be working another job to make ends meet. I'm always looking for opportunities to play. Always following my nose so to speak to make connections and network my music. As a result, my audience has grown considerably over the years, and my music continues to reach out to people all over the world.
"It is business really on many levels and it is essential that aspiring superstars learn this part of the game..." - Peter Sterling
Jamie: So many great points! I totally agree with you that artists should learn as much about the business as they possibly can -- and there _is_ a lot to learn. Independents have to be able to handle so much these days... music is just one part of the overall equation.

I know you've just released Harp Dreams, but do you have any other projects on the go? Any touring plans?
Peter: Yes, Yes. Always plans for new creations. I'm starting to conceptualize my new CD, which will be the follow up to Harp Dreams. I have just received a new electric Troubadour harp from Lyon and Healy out of Chicago, that will be used on my next recording. I'm sure this new harp will inspire some wonderful new sounds and textures. I never really know what's going to happen as far as the next recording, but I have a feeling that it's going to be good. I think it will have a taste of the Middle East and perhaps a dash of the Orient. And of course a brush stroke of the Celtic flavor as well.

I do have plans this summer to tour around southern California in July and them some conferences in August, where I will be performing. All in all, I'm very excited about new developments and connections that I've made recently. Harp Dreams has gotten a lot of exposure lately, so I'm feeling the pressure to follow up with something exceptional. It's gonna be good!...
"Harp Dreams has gotten a lot of exposure lately, so I'm feeling the pressure to follow up with something exceptional." - Peter Sterling
Jamie: That sounds great! And I don't think a little pressure is a bad thing at all... I'm sure your next record will be fantastic!

Thanks for taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation and please stay in touch!
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