Catrin Finch in Dubai

The former Official Harpist to the UK’s Prince of Wales tell Rob Garratt why she’d like to work with Florence and the Machine

Say the word harp and most people think of floating cherubs in a scene plucked straight out of Michelangelo. But while Welsh harpist Catrin Finch might have held the most traditional of positions when she served as the Official Harpist to the UK’s Prince of Wales, she’s on a personal crusade to reinvent the instrument for the 21st Century. She uses effects to create new sounds on an electric harp, is recording a heavily improvised album alongside Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita and says she’d like to work with Florence and the Machine. Ahead of a concert at Dubai’s Madinat Theatre on Monday March 25, where she’ll play both traditional classical pieces alongside more modern works, we found ten things you didn’t know about the 32-year-old musician.

Catrin started playing the harp at six-years-old.

‘I chose the instrument. I was inspired as a young child after hearing a harpist in a concert. You might not realise it, but growing up in Wales the harp is everywhere – it wasn’t very difficult to find a teacher.’

But it is more difficult to find material to play.

‘There’s not really much music written for the harp, so we do a lot of transcriptions – from Bach to Debussy. Sometimes it works very well, other times not so well. You have to think about whether the piece suits the instrument, but you can make a lot of music sound like it was made for the instrument.’

In Dubai she will play a new piece by UAE-based composer Joanna Marsh.

‘It’s based on Arabic scales and chords from regional folklore. It’s very edgy and uses a lot of effects, it uses the harp in a different way to traditional players – lots of harmonics and playing with nails. By being so different it makes it relevant.’

In 2000 she became the first Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales in more than 100 years.

‘It happened because it was the millennium and the royal family decided to reintroduce this traditional position. They wanted the harpist to be young and Welsh and up-and-coming. Prince Charles had heard me play at his 50th birthday party so he knew me. It made my career explode, all of a sudden people were interested in me not because I played the harp but because I had that position. It really gave me the position to push the harp to a new market.’

It meant she’s played to some pretty important people.

‘You can’t imagine. As part of the position you have to play for the Prince six-to-eight times a year, from small occasions to huge official bashes – Hollywood stars were at some of them, a lot of royal families. It was a bit of a double life: at the time I was a student living in student accommodation with a group of friends, and every so often I’d go off and find myself in this totally different world.’

But she wasn’t phased.

‘I’m kind of used to it, you have to deal with that pressure of performing at a certain time for an audience. When you talk to the Prince, he’s just like anybody. In public he has to behave in a certain way, but I remember just having a cup of tea with him like anybody else.’

She experiments with new sounds by using an electric harp.

‘It’s just a harp that’s been amplified, but it means you can play it into allsorts of effects pedals like an electric guitar. I use a lot of looping pedals to create layering.’

Such modernism is a rebuttal to preconceptions about the harp.

‘It’s always been a challenge. You come up against a lot of preconceived ideas about the instrument – people think of cherubs, and think the harp shouldn’t be on a solo concert stage, but should be in the corner of a hotel lobby. It’s frustrating when you play the instrument and know it can do a lot more. The reason I do more popular music is to show what it can do.’

She’s glad to see the harp embrace the mainstream.

‘It’s one of the oldest instruments in the world but the harp has never really been used in pop music before now. But now people like Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Ray are using it. It’s great for me and great for the instrument – it show it’s upped itself, that it’s new and different. I’d love to play with pop artists – Florence and the Machine are one of my favourites.’

Last year she collaborated on a tour with legendary Malian kora player Toumani Diabete.

‘I did five gigs with him last year, I love that when you can bring two different styles together. He’s like a master. You meet him and you can just tell he’s an incredible musician.’

Catrin Finch plays for The Score at Madinat Theatre at 7.45pm on Monday March 25. Tickets, Dhs185-250, from www.timeouttickets.com

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