Singer, songwriter, harp virtuoso, flutist, record producer: Lori Pappajohn has excelled in many roles during her 25-year tenure as leader of Vancouver’s Winter Harp, best known for its annual celebrations of Christmas and the solstice season. And with the release of the band’s 14th CD, Call of the Sea, she’s added yet another accomplishment to her résumé: swimsuit model.
But it’s no ordinary bathing costume that she’s wearing on the cover of the new record, shot on a pristine Hawaiian beach. Instead, it’s a scarlet mermaid’s tail, as elegant as a ball gown and a whole lot more practical. If, that is, you’re a swimmer.
“Have you ever tried a monofin?” Pappajohn says from her home in New Westminster, referring to the sleek fishtails worn by competitive free divers. “They’re fantastic. Instead of just snorkelling on the surface, you can go right down so fast. And you get down there, and you’re just swimming face to face with the little fish and the octopus and the turtles and everything. And ’cause we had these monofins, I said ‘Well, why don’t we have a mermaid tail?’ And when I Googled ‘mermaid’, I was just amazed.”
Pappajohn was pleased to discover that she wasn’t alone in her undersea fantasy, and set about making herself a set of more elegant diving costumes, in red, magenta, and emerald green. And once she started spending more time underwater—singing and playing flute, she notes, help her to hold her breath for up to two-and-a-half minutes—she discovered that she needed a soundtrack. Thus Call of the Sea: of Sailors, Sirens and Sea Maidens was born, after an almost five-year gestation.
“I had to keep putting it aside, because I was always doing Christmas CDs,” she allows. “So we’d put it aside, and we’d put it aside, and then this year I said ‘Okay, we’re finishing this up.’ ”
The end product, a collection of Celtic-styled songs, is suitably immersive—and as romantic as that cover shot of Pappajohn on the Maui sand, if not quite as otherworldly as the CD’s gatefold spread of the musician swimming with a pod of Hawaiian spinner dolphins.
“Usually the dolphins are in one area, and you can just go hang with them,” she says. “But not that day: they were on the move. And by move, I mean move. But when we finally found them, at one point there were probably 20 dolphins, I would say, about 20 feet below me, and one dolphin left the pod and came right up to me. He stopped—he was upright in the water—and looked me right in the eye, and in that moment, I swear to God, he said ‘What the heck are you?’ And then he went back down and rejoined his pod.”
In part, Call of the Sea is Pappajohn’s attempt to summon the magic of that oceanic encounter. Several tracks draw on what the Winter Harp bandleader calls the “pre-Raphaelite poetry” of Thomas Moore, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the appropriately named Walter de la Mare, while three of the melodies are sourced from Celtic music, another of her abiding interests.
As to how this new material will fit in with what she has planned for Winter Harp’s 25th-anniversary concerts, which will be held across the Lower Mainland through December, Pappajohn says, plainly, that it won’t. The seasonal concerts will rely on Winter Harp’s well-loved blend of original material, medieval rarities, and familiar carols, played by an ensemble that includes both Irish and concert harps, flute, hurdy-gurdy, violin, and percussion. But there is a link between aquatic adventure and winter, however unlikely that might seem.
The connection, Pappajohn says, is that both involve diving deep, tapping one’s inner resources, and then emerging triumphantly into the light.
“Taking a breath [before diving] is like filling a storehouse with all the food you’ll need for winter,” she explains. “And then diving is like going into winter—you go into the depths of the water, and then there’s a point where you have to come out, and that’s spring. And the further you go into the water the darker it is, and when you’re down there, it’s another world.
“And, you know, if you don’t come up for air…” she adds, laughing. “So, yeah, I can see the analogy between the two, absolutely.”
Not everyone’s going to be able to swim with the dolphins over Christmas, but there are few better ways to plunge into the solstice season than with Winter Harp.
Winter Harp plays the Blueshore Financial Performing Arts Centre on Wednesday and Thursday (December 12 and 13), and St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church on Saturday (December 15).