Julie Cunningham’s hands dance expertly across the strings of her harp. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)

Victoria harpist releases ‘old school’ jazz album, makes singing debut

Musician ‘blown away’ by reactions to her seventh album Songs From the Harp

After 20 years of playing the harp and creating original albums, harpist Julia Cunningham decided it was time to realize her dream of creating a jazz-harp cover album. She also decided it was time to sing.

After months of planning, arranging music and recording, the Greater Victoria harpist released her seventh album Songs From the Harp in November.

Cunningham’s family and friends were surprised to hear her voice on all 14 tracks – covers of her favourite songs. She’d been encouraged to try singing in the past, but was shy about taking the mic until now.

The album was created with local producer Joby Baker. Cunningham said he challenged her to take her music to new places and brought in “amazing” musicians to back her up. The result was what Cunningham calls an “old school swing” album – unique from her previous work which focused mostly on relaxation and healing sounds.

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Cunningham, often referred to as The Soul Harpist, lights up when she talks about sharing her newest music with listeners. She’s been “blown away” by the reactions from folks of all ages.

Cunningham was born in Saskatoon, Sask. and her passion for music began at a young age. She wanted to be a famous pianist when she grew up – that is until a harpist playing with the Saskatoon Symphony stopped by the hotel where Cunningham’s mother worked.

Regina Timmins wanted to make so extra money while in town and offered to teach local youngsters to play the harp. Cunningham’s mother knew she’d be interested. After just one lesson, she was hooked. Her piano skills lent themselves to the harp and her fingers danced across the strings. Timmins told her early on that with her skill, she could be a professional harpist.

Cunningham said the trajectory of her life shifted after that first lesson and everything fell into place.

After finishing high school, she came to the Island to attend the University of Victoria. Upon getting her degree in harp, she went to France to learn from expert harpists before finding her way to Yale University to complete a master’s degree.

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Cunningham feels she’s been on a “magic carpet” ride for her whole career. Because she’s always open to new opportunities and travel, she has found herself playing at Carnegie Hall, opening for the Rolling Stones with Solomon “King of Rock and Soul” Burke, meeting Brian Adams after playing at the Vatican and even doing a concert at Oprah’s home.

“I have lived a life beyond my wildest dreams,” she said with a smile.

While she loves playing for big crowds and meeting exciting people, some of the performances that stand out to her are the intimate ones. One time, she played for a man in intensive care at a hospital in Los Angeles. His wife was happy to see him perk up. Cunningham then played at his funeral about a week later.

“If I can touch someone, that’s everything.”

With her seventh album released, Cunningham said she’s taking a breather before setting her sights on a live tour and her next album – for which she already has a running list of songs to cover.


@devonscarlett
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devon.bidal@saanichnews.com

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