Celestial and elegant, attached to an angel’s hip, the harp is an instrument of the ether.
Until Ella Dawn Jenkins brings it right back down to earth.
The Bay Area harpist, who prefers the name EllaHarp, or just Ella, did Debussy and the rest of the standard harp canon, playing at countless weddings, before she decided to forgo classical and embrace a more “folksy, bluesy, pop” sound.
“It’s not what you’re expecting,” Ella said.
She sings, too. The resulting plucks paired with her low-key voice sound more like a singer-songwriter strumming on a guitar, but with a harp-y heavenly tinge. Ella, who released her 10-years-in-the-making debut album Who Asked You Back in February, will play a concert on Saturday, Aug. 11, at Ojai Underground Exchange.
Ella herself is a down-to-earth person.
She makes all her own clothes, until recently lived in a tiny house she built herself, and plays an aluminum-frame harp that she and her boyfriend designed so she could travel with it more easily.
Ella, who grew up in Malibu and Frazier Park, comes from strong musical stock: Her paternal grandparents were composer-arranger Gordon Jenkins and singer Beverly Mahr; her maternal grandfather was saxophonist Bill Ulyate.
Ella, who started playing harp at age 8, said she wishes she had “a better story” for why it became her instrument, “but basically, my mom chose it,” Ella said. “She was looking through a catalog and thought it was cute. It was cheaply made, nothing more than a toy, and she wanted us to be exposed to different instruments.”
She also learned to play piano, but said she preferred the harp because “It’s just more pleasant. To have it resting on you, and the vibrations going throughout your body, it’s such a healing instrument to play.”
Ella has traveled many miles to learn how to play the harp. When she first started taking lessons, her mom drove Ella more than 100 miles each week to her teacher. As a teenager she went abroad to study the instrument in a less traditional way at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow.
“I realized I learned music best by ear,” Ella said, “and in traditional Scottish music, everything is taught by ear.”
Ella studied both harp and song in college. “Who Asked You Back,” she said, “is the culmination of 10 years of songwriting in Scotland and California: a little bluesy, a little sassy and mostly miserable.”
Until recently, Ella and her boyfriend lived in a DIY tiny house. Ella said that she built the tiny house (which she refers to affectionately by female pronouns) after graduating from college “to be a musician and not die from rent.”
She dubbed the 120-square-foot house “Little Yellow” because of its bright yellow door.
She and her boyfriend lived together in it, with a dog, for five years until October, when they put a down payment on a big(ger) house in Half Moon Bay, and now rent out the tiny house. She’s even worked as a presenter for the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.
“I built my tiny house to make my life easier, and for many years she did exactly that,” Ella wrote on her blog, littleyellowdoor.wordpress.com. “At some point when I quit my ‘day job’ and my home also became my workspace, and my workspace suddenly involved a bunch more harps and a sewing machine and hundreds of yards of fabric and the need for office space and reliable Internet, this gradually became less and less the case.”
Ella, who has always been crafty, started making her own clothing and jewelry in 2015.
Her sewing process is similar to her approach to songwriting and playing music: “I don’t use patterns. I make things up as I go.”
Ella said she has never performed in Ojai, but visited the area many times while growing up.
“We used to drive down there on [Highway] 33 for special occasions like birthdays, and get dinner at Boccali’s,” she said.
She’s looking forward to returning.
“I just want to see any water in the Sespe and put my toes in it,” she said.
So she’s down to earth and water.
EllaHarp performs on Saturday, Aug. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at Ojai Underground Exchange, 1016 W. Ojai Ave., Ojai. For tickets and more information, call 805-340-7893 or visit www.ojaiartsexchange.com.