Experimental harpist Sun Riah takes to the road after a period of personal reflection 

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M. Bailey Stephenson, also known as experimental local harp act Sun Riah, pulled over somewhere in the vast altitudes between Denver, Colorado, and Bozeman, Montana.

Stopping for a phone interview with Oklahoma Gazette, the artist said she is on a journey to the Pacific Northwest, her first visit to the region. People have always said her music would do well in Seattle. She also has friends who recently moved to Oregon, and tour stops often double as great excuses to catch up with old acquaintances.

Stephenson does not travel alone. She affectionately calls her boyfriend her “roadie,” as he sells merch at shows and picks up the slack Stephenson admits she leaves in self-promotion. Another friend, Carla, has joined her on tour for the last five or six years, but her age is catching up with her.

“She’s been pretty reliable in my life so far,” Stephenson said. “I’m pretty nervous this trip because this is the biggest trip she’s ever been on.”

“Carla” is the name Stephenson gave to her worn-out Chevy Astro van that has hauled the musician and her harp to shows across the country for years. The merry gang concludes this tour with a homecoming show 8 p.m. Oct. 12 at Power House, 1228 SW Second St. The So Help Me’s, Magnificent Bird and Young Readers also will perform.

Traveling with Stephenson’s harp is literally no small task. Aside from the instrument’s height, it must be kept in a temperature-controlled setting to maintain its tuning.

“The van does a pretty good job of keeping it at a good temperature, but it’s pretty nerve-racking too, just traveling with the harp,” she said. “It’s a fragile instrument.”

Lost connections

The last Sun Riah album, 2015’s Firefly Night Light, is an eclectic and, at points, eerie mesh of avant-garde sound that defies clear categorical definition. It’s thoughtful music, which should not come as a surprise. Anyone willing to learn the harp in the age of electric guitars and synthesizers must be introspective to some degree.

Similarly, Stephenson has spent much of the year since its release in deep, personal thought.

“It’s been a period of reflection and growth for me,” she said.

Stephenson’s time in thought helped spur several new songs and an album’s worth of new material that might be released sometime in early 2017. Her new project is inspired by a small Oklahoma town, or more specifically, by one small house in that one small town.

“There’s a lot of different layers of storytelling in this album,” she said, “but what inspired me to write it was losing somebody in my family and realizing that my relationship to this particular place was going to change dramatically.”

Stephenson’s parents are divorced, and she spent her childhood growing up in several different spots across the state. She never felt like she had a true home. Often, Stephenson found herself staying with her grandmother, who lived in the same house in the same town her entire life. Her death greatly impacted Stephenson.

“[My grandparents] offered this stability in my life,” she said. “They were really important to me and, in ways, had a really huge hand in bringing me up.”

Her grandmother was just one of three people Stephenson lost during the last year. It has forced the artist to meditate on the value of relationships and what it means to have a place to call home.

Finding home

Stephenson said she is excited for her return home from tour, especially for the Power House show. Though her interview came just three days into her tour, she admits to being homesick.

When she does get home, Stephenson will refocus her attention from doing shows to concentrating on finishing her album. Though she still loves to travel, she might take some time to appreciate a place that feels familiar.

“At this point in my life, I just love to hang out with my cats and play my harp at home,” she said. “I feel like I have more grounding, and coming home is like this great feeling.”

Print headline: Eternal shine, Experimental harp act Sun Riah uses travel and loss as a way to appreciate home.

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