Tuesday, August 11, 2015
By Phillip Ludley
Exceptional musical skills aside, if you want to hear soulful sounds from the heart come listen to Heather Hardy.
The virtuoso violinist who has made blues her medium of choice may have developed the sound and sensibility of a Delta princess, but her early chops were forged in Westport, where she grew up.
“I was born in New Rochelle and my parents moved to Westport when I was around two,” said Hardy, a Tucson, Ariz., resident who was recently in the tri-state area for a series of shows, including a special visit to the Westport Center for Senior Activities.
Hardy’s skills with a bow are formidable, and they were forged not only in Westport public schools but on the New York City streets, where she earned her stripes for several years as a subway musician after college before ultimately embarking on various national and world tours with several bands and developing a considerable reputation in the southwest as blues powerhouse Heather “Lil’ Momma” Hardy.
It was just chance that Hardy grew up down the block from the Westport School of Music, where she was first introduced to a piano program at age six. “They taught you how to read and played games,” she remembered. “That was my first, ‘Oh, music is fun.’”
From there Hardy, who began with violin in fourth grade, found strong influence from her piano teacher Barbara Polk, as well as orchestra teacher John Hanulik and choral director George Weigel at Staples High School.
“Staples was amazing,” said Hardy, who seemed to know early on that this was her calling.
“She’s fabulous,” said keyboardist Wayne Sabella, who performed with Hardy at the senior center, along with guitarist T.J. Swan. “She’s great, talented, funny, and just fun to work with. She makes it fun.”
Sabella said it all sounds like clichés, but it’s true. “I just got the pleasure of playing on her last CD and she’s a fine musician. She’s a terrific singer and a nice lady. You can’t beat the combination.”
Priding a steady, strong vocal not unlike Bonnie Raitt, Hardy led a trio through an inviting variety of classic standards, including Sweet Georgia Brown, Diddy Wa Diddy, and a show-stopping solo instrumental version of Amazing Grace performed on her five-string electric violin.
“I love playing with Heather,” said guitarist Swan, who has worked with her since 1998. “We’re two peas in a pod. It’s very easy.”
“As friends we get along really well,” he said, “and we both love the same kind of music.”
“She’s a very sweet lady,” Swan said. “I love Heather. We have a lot of fun. With Heather it’s all right there in front of you.”
Hardy attended the Manhattan School of Music for a year, auditioning for both piano and violin but deciding on the practicality of the latter. “In New York City finding a piano to play on, you had to stand on a line at the school to get a room … The violin was way cooler and I could travel more.”
“I started playing in the subways and jamming with people, so that’s where the blues thing started,” said Hardy, whose training had focus on classical music up until that point. “It was amazing. It was so fun … I started meeting people and we’d just get together and jam.”
The more people she met and played with, the better she became. Ultimately this led to her first band—The Crunge—a Led Zeppelin cover band, which was followed by a punk rock group called The False Prophets.
“They were big,” she said. “We toured Canada and a good portion of the U.S. And then we toured Europe and that was it, and that became my new direction.”
But in the 1990’s Hardy met a legendary blues guitarist named Sam Taylor, who would become her valued mentor and band mate for over 20 years.
“That’s when it was like Blues,” she recalled. “I became the blues player.”
“We performed so much,” she said. “We were best of friends, but the thing with him was he had so much soul. He was a great singer and he had so much groove. You couldn’t help but to dance, and his songs got you right in your gut.”
“And that’s what he loved about me,” she said of the man who dubbed her Lil’ Momma. “If nothing else, I played from the heart, and every night if I didn’t learn something or he didn’t bring me to tears, I would have left, but there was never a night when I wasn’t like, ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’”
Taylor also encouraged Hardy to start singing. “I had never sang. Sam got me singing too, so that was a big influence.”
In the end, after Taylor passed on, Hardy formed The Lil’ Mama Band, “because that was the nickname that Sam had given me, so it was an homage to my mentor … so now I call myself Heather Lil’ Mama Hardy, and that’s kind of the band name.”
Taylor also moved Hardy to start writing her own songs—something she hadn’t had the inkling to try. “Working with him got me to start,” she said, noting, “I will feel moved, or I’ll just be jamming on piano and something will stick in my head. I’ve been doing it a lot of years and developed a little bit of a library.”
“I love it all,” she said. “The draw for me is it’s a spiritual expression. It’s the language I am most comfortable with. When I’m playing I feel authentic, I feel that that’s where I should be and I always have, always. It’s just my happy place.”
“The professional side of it is I can express anything in my playing—frustration, rage or passion, and it turns into a smile in front of me in my audience,” she said. “The payoff is way higher for me than my audience.”
As for the future, Hardy will continue to play and record. And while she is a gifted pianist as well, her work remains with the violin.
“It’s such a beast of an instrument,” she said, “I’m good just spending my life trying to get better with it.”
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