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INTERVIEW WITH SHARON ISBIN
By John Davenport
JOHN: First of all, I would like to thank you for joining us on Coolgrrrls, we really appreciate this opportunity.
SHARON: I’m glad to do it.
JOHN: Coolgrrrls is a website dedicated to female musicians and promoting their talents.
JOHN: What did it mean to you to be the first and only female classical guitarist to win a Grammy?
SHARON: I honestly never thought about that until now. When I received my first Grammy, it was in 2001 for a solo CD called Dreams of a World. It was the first time in 28 years that a classical guitarist had received the award. It was a surreal and thrilling experience. My focus was on the award’s importance for the guitar, but you’re right, I’m the only female classical guitarist to have received a Grammy.
JOHN: Tell us a little about your experience working with Joan Baez?
SHARON: It was wonderful! She’s a very warm and generous person. When she heard me perform the “Joan Baez Suite” written for me by British composer John Duarte – the centerpiece of my Journey to the New World (Sony) — she offered to sing on the album. She’s an amazing musician! On the CD we do two songs: “Go ‘Way from My Window” and “Wayfaring Stranger”. It was great to be able to perform with someone I’ve admired for so many years. When we got together to rehearse, she asked me to play something and positioned her chair about four feet in front of mine. Soon after I began, she had tears streaming down her face. It was a moving experience to know that the person who has made me feel so deeply about her music was responding in kind to mine.
JOHN: How was your experience playing at the White House?
SHARON: In November 2009, I was asked to perform in the first classical music event as part of the music series Michelle Obama created. I felt honored to be at the White House to play for the Obamas and 300 of their closest friends. You can watch that and other videos of mine on my website http://www.sharonisbin.com
JOHN: Since classical music often takes a back seat to pop and rock, do you have any suggestions of how we could promote classical music more?
SHARON: I think if you are trolling about where people have no familiarity with classical music then you’ll experience a bit of a vacuum of knowledge even of greats such as Beethoven and Bach. For classical music to have a larger reach, the media has to be more supportive. And it’s helpful to get exposure within different genres of music. For classical music to have a larger reach, the media has to be more supportive. And it’s helpful to get exposure within different genres of music. For example, my latest CD, Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions (Sony), features icons from the rock, pop, and jazz world including Nancy Wilson from Heart, Steve Vai the guru in the rock guitar instrumental world, and Stanley Jordan who created the tapping technique for jazz guitar. He’s remarkable. So when these artists and others on the album get together, we explore different styles of music in new ways that people really love to hear.
JOHN: I was actually going to ask you about that. I’m a big Steve Vai fan!
JOHN: Yes, a real BIG Steve Vai fan!!
SHARON: He’s an amazing guy and has been a wonderful friend for years. Our performances together include the premiere in Paris of a suite he wrote for the two of us. A couple of years ago, when we were hanging out at his house in L.A., I started to play a work by Agustin Barrios Mangoré from Paraguay. Steve picked up his electric guitar and began improvising. We loved what emerged and included that on Guitar Passions.
Stanley Jordan and I toured back in 1998. He was one of the first names, along with Steve Vai, that came to mind when I was putting this album together. The title Guitar Passions refers to the performers’ passion for the instrument and for discovery. What you hear is a real fusion of different styles coming together – classical, rock, pop, jazz – and in ways no one has done before. I think that listeners who don’t have a familiarity with classical music will love this kind of music because it crosses boundaries in creative ways. Nancy Wilson, for example, of Heart, is a wonderful guitarist as well as songwriter and singer. When we were discussing something to do for the album, I suggested “Dreamboat Annie” because it is very ballad-like and was one of my favorite songs from her early work. She arranged the new version we play together.
JOHN: I listened to the pieces you have online from Guitar Passions and on Guitar TV. That is how I first discovered you, though Guitar TV.
SHARON: Aha, I see!
JOHN: I just thought it was incredible and I can’t wait to purchase the whole album.
SHARON: In fact, GuitarTV.com just filmed a new segment with me that will be on their website soon. It includes interview, lessons, and performance excerpts.
JOHN: When did you first decide to study guitar?
SHARON: I started by accident when I was nine. My family moved to Italy for a sabbatical year, and my older brother asked for guitar lessons. When he discovered the teacher taught classical instead of rock, he opted out and I volunteered to take his place.
JOHN: Who was your first musical influence?
SHARON: My first musical influence? Wow! It was my mother! She had a lovely voice and sang lullabies – that’ll do the trick!
JOHN: Tell us about some of the musicians that you worked with in the past and who you would like to work with in the future?
SHARON: Well, the future project I am excited about is a documentary for public television about my work that was filmed over the last three years and which is being completed now. It includes collaborators as diverse as Joan Baez, country fiddler Mark O’Connor, Steve Vai, Stanley Jordan, Nancy Wilson, as well as many great composers of our time who have written for me like Tan Dun, John Corigliano, Chris Rouse, Howard Shore, Joan Tower…. Martina Navratilova even makes an appearance discussing the similarities of discipline between tennis and music. Performances are taken from the Grammys, the White House, Showtime’s The L Word, tours in Europe and the U.S. It explores my teaching at The Juilliard School where I created their guitar department. The documentary shows how the landscape of an instrument can change through new directions and collaborations.
JOHN: When it will be out?
SHARON: It will be out sometime in 2012. Updates will be on my website newsletter, Facebook, etc.
JOHN: Let’s talk a little bit about your guitars.
SHARON: I play an instrument made in Germany by Toni Mueller. It’s a beautiful guitar that uses a cedar double top for fast response and great projection. I also have a Michael O’Leary from Ireland. I used both in Guitar Passions. In previous years, I played guitars by the American maker, Thomas Humphrey.
JOHN: Are these guitars given to you and do you have any input in the process of actually building with the luthier?
SHARON: I do actually work with the builder to explore the timbres and touch that I’m looking for. Another important component is the tuner. I use signature model tuners designed for me by the brilliant innovator Jorge Graf.
JOHN: Are these tuners available to the general public?
SHARON: Oh sure! Check out his website: http://www.graftuners.com
JOHN: So basically, all the guitars you have are signature guitars.
SHARON: No not really. Signature means that my name is associated with a specific model, as it is with the tuners. In terms of the instruments, they were made for me and had my input for various design features, but are not signatures. It’s a little different.
JOHN: Any plans of working with a manufacturer?
SHARON: I’m more drawn to one-of-a-kind handmade instruments with specially selected woods that are specifically crafted for a player. The non-acoustic instrument that I endorse, however, that rock, pop and other styles of musicians would be interested in is the SoloEtte Travel Guitar. It’s a lightweight neck with three removable aluminum tubes which form the exact shape of a normal guitar. You listen through earphones powered by a battery, or plug into a sound system. When disassembled, it takes up little space and travels easily. I’ve even taken on vacation to the Amazon Rain Forest!
JOHN: On your website, it states that you can actually amplify the guitar as well.
SHARON: That’s right. I’ve played it in concerts with electric guitarists because it blends so well amplified through a hall’s house system or plugged into an amp.
JOHN: Now let’s get to our last question. As you know, Coolgrrrls is a website dedicated to promoting female musicians. Do you have any advice for young ladies wanting to have a career in music?
SHARON: I think that what authentically draws someone to a career in music is the desire to be expressive, to create beauty. Whether songwriter, singer, composer, or instrumentalist, you have to have a genuine love for the art. It’s important to find a good teacher along the way. If you really feel motivated, you will want to put in the many hours needed to perfect your skills.
JOHN: Yes, it is a discipline that is for sure.
SHARON: I was fortunate to have good guides and mentors. That is why I love working with students. I created and direct the guitar program at The Juilliard School. I also head the guitar program at the Aspen Music Festival, the largest summer music festival in North America. The key is to encourage students to find their own inner voice and to make artistic contributions that no one else has done before.
JOHN: Thank you so much for your time.
SHARON: Thank you!
To find out more about Sharon Isbin you can visit her website at www.sharonisbin.com.
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Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions