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    Erin Hill emerges from the kitchen with a stainless-steel bowl filled with folded strips of paper. “You watched ‘Nick of Time’?” she asks. She’s referring to the 1960 Twilight Zone episode that features a couple whose car breaks down in rural Ohio during a honeymoon road trip to New York. While waiting for a replacement fuel pump, they discover a fortune-telling napkin dispenser, the Mystic Seer, inside a small cafe. The Mystic Seer has a devil’s head on a spring, a mischievous smile and a glinting rhinestone for an eyeball. The superstitious husband, played by William Shatner, asks it questions (“If we don’t stay in here until three o’clock, something bad will happen to us?”) and mostly receives cryptic non-answers on strips of paper (“Do you dare risk finding out?”). Last night, Hill sent an email urging me to watch the episode, writing, “All will be revealed tomorrow.”

    It’s a Sunday afternoon in early January, and we’re in the living room of her Jeffersonville, Indiana, house, a green-sided split-story with a knob in the center of the front door. This place has been home since Hill was about two, and for the past year or so she has been splitting time between here and Queens, New York, where she was living with her husband, mother and sister. The living room has a white leather sectional and a matching recliner with wood arms, but Hill sits cross-legged on the carpet, which has mod stripes of burgundy, cream and avocado-green. She has decorated the walls with framed issues of the sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories — planets, oversized ants. A print of the Dutch Renaissance painting The Hunters in the Snow has been hanging since she was little. A silver aluminum Christmas tree stands in one corner and remains year-round. She likes to say she’ll take it down the day it stops making her happy. “And that never happens,” she says. Her Westie, MacLeod (named after the Highlander character), lies near her, a long line of stitches from a tumor-removal surgery snaking up his leg. At 16, MacLeod has officially earned “old man status,” meaning he’s prone to biting. As Hill pets him, he snaps at her several times. “In fact, if he bites you, he’s even more your dog,” she says. “Then you’re family.”

    "The harp was like a universe of its own. I remember being immediately fascinated by it." // by Danny Alexander

    Hill seems to be an ageless clone from her early days on Broadway, 20 years ago. Her makeup-free skin is consistent and pale, and her thin red hair nearly reaches her waist. A self-described third-generation Chicago Cubs fan, she wears a different Cubs top nearly every time we meet, unless she’s in a performance outfit. “The first line of the article is going to be, ‘How many Cubs shirts does Erin have?’” she says. This time, it’s a navy V-neck.

    Hill says she loved “Nick of Time” as a girl. “When I was a teenager, I made my own game,” she says. Like a claw machine, she lifts and drops a handful of paper slips. On each one she has written, in neat print, the same responses Shatner’s character received. “This is the Mystic Seer,” she says. “You can ask frivolous questions or serious questions, which can be scary to ask — like how Cloudy’s test results are going to come back.” We ask if it will snow this winter. The response: “Your chances are good.” (Score one for the Mystic Seer.) Hill asks, “Will I get a song or music placement on a TV show, movie or commercial in 2019?” Not an unusual prospect for Hill, who recorded a version of the Game of Thrones theme on the harp for an HBO promo. Response: “If that’s what you really want.” She laughs, rolls her eyes. “I’ve thought a lot about it,” she says. “That’s what I really want.”

    Though she might be known in certain New York music and theater circles, Hill remains, almost bafflingly, an unknown locally, even though she performed on Chappelle’s Show and toured with Kanye West. (My discovery of her was circumstantial. I Googled “Louisville Pumpkin Lady” for a separate article, and somehow Hill’s website was among the results.) Her childhood friend, Julie James, says, “We know she has the talent (and) we know she has the people skills. It’s just one of those mysteries — sometimes you’re just not at the right place at the right time or there’s something else going on in the world.” The two have been friends since middle school, when James heard a beautiful melody reverberating off the mess hall walls at camp. Turning her head, she discovered a tiny Erin Hill delicately tapping away at the piano keys.

    “Career-wise, I’d really love to have a steady creative gig that involves music. I don’t really care about being recognized in the street. I’d just like to be able to spend more time doing the creative part,” Hill says. “Normally, I’m looking for work and doing the business part every single day. I can’t take a day off or ever just leave my phone at home, because I might lose a gig.”

    The “jammed with…” list on Hill’s website includes 103 names (A-ha, Enya, Cyndi Lauper, Randy Newman, Moby, Mavis Staples), and she says she hasn’t updated that list in a long time. During our first meeting in the early fall, I asked what Kanye West was like. Her response: “What do you think Kanye would be like?” She toured with him for three years in the early-to-mid-2000s, playing harp in his backing orchestra during everything from stadium concerts to the BET TV special The Education of Kanye West (during which she appears at the edges of the screen). “Offstage, we’d be standing like this close to each other,” she said that day in the fall, moving about three inches away from me. “In three years, he never said one word to me. Basically, anybody else, I’ve had better experiences with.” Lauper? “I love her.” Scandal actress Bellamy Young? “A real sweetheart.” Scott Pilgrim vs. the World actress Alison Pill? “MacLeod and her are best friends.”

    Hill refers to herself on her website as a “rock harpist, pop harpist, jazz harpist, Celtic harpist, and singing harpist.” “It’s a double-edged sword because, on one hand, I don’t know anyone else who plays the styles that I do on the harp and sings,” she says. “The other part of it is: Nobody thinks there exists a harpist singer.” Her New York gig harp is called V’ger. “I don’t want to tell you more about it in case there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen the first Star Trek movie,” she says. “I don’t want to give anything away.” Ruby and Hazel are her two Celtic harps, named after family members. Her stainless-steel studio harp is Klaatu (from The Day the Earth Stood Still). “She looks like Gort, but I made her Klaatu,” she says. Her harp in Louisville is Ylla. “When my dad was sick and in the hospital, he was basically in a coma and they didn’t think he would come out, (but) he did,” she says. “I brought Ray Bradbury and I was reading him our favorite stories. And Dad would tell me ‘Ylla,’ so I thought Ylla would be a good name for her.”

    Her love of science fiction is part of her DNA, a primordial ooze in her veins inherited from her father, who would take breaks from poker with friends to watch The Twilight Zone. Hill’s father, a chemistry professor at Indiana University Southeast who was known as “Superfecta Hill” at Churchill Downs, kept meticulous bookshelves crammed with old sci-fi monthlies. Before Hill could read, her father would retell her these tales, and always did so in the car. “My dad’s memory was like a steel trap,” she says. “He was my Memory Alpha.” (A Star Trek reference, if you’re not in the know.)

    As a child, Hill would sit in her father’s office and pull titles from the bookshelves’ tightly packed rows and create her own stories from the cover images — aliens with ray guns, classic flying saucers crushing antique cars on the highway. She still does this when writing songs. “Giant Mushrooms,” off 2012’s Girl Inventor, is an almost Bowie-esque psychedelic rock song with the added mysticism of the harp, and it’s a direct nod to the obscure Bradbury story “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!” Songs will also come to Hill while she dreams. She says “Meredith Moon,” also from Girl Inventor, is the result of waking up in the middle of the night and recording a melody onto her phone. The lyrics came later: “Last night I dreamed an undiscovered Twilight Zone.” (Hill financed Girl Inventor through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $35,000 from 303 donors.)

    One story Hill shares is of her dad’s retelling of Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope.” Astronauts float away from each other after debris or an explosion shreds their rocket into metal confetti. One astronaut falls toward Earth and, upon entering the atmosphere and incinerating, appears as a shooting star. “As Dad told it, back on Earth (the astronaut’s) wife and little boy (see) a shooting star,” she says, her voice shaking and her eyes reddening. She drags her fingertips across her eyes, wipes away a tear. “Sorry, I just miss him so much,” she says.

    Her father died in 2013 at 80. Hill purchased this home not long after. Each corner holds memories: fresh strawberries dipped in powdered sugar each May for Derby; her dad mixing Grog rum drinks for guests with mint from the garden; learning pool on the green-felt table, next to the television where she’d watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the couch next to her dad. Her parents divorced when she was seven, and Hill’s younger sister, Heather Arielle, lived with their mom. “It was just me and my dad,” she says.


    Hill and the harp she named Ylla // by Danny Alexander

    Hill was sitting at a piano before she could walk. An over-exposed photo shows a six-month-old Hill in white tights and a white dress, open-mouth singing with her right hand on the keys of a baby-sized teal piano. Her dad gifted her a wooden recorder, and, unlike basically every other fourth-grader, she has not abandoned the instrument; she still plays it during performances of the Beatles song “The Fool on the Hill.” “It’s fun to bend notes and do vibrato,” she says.

    Hill can play the flute, upright bass, electric bass, fiddle, hammered dulcimer, mandolin, banjo, trumpet, clarinet, all matters of percussion (tambourine, cowbell — anything you shake to make noise). She picked up the saxophone at 15 to replace the synthesizer her teenage band had been using and learned the guitar for a role at Walden Theatre. When asked at an audition if she played drums, she said yes — and immediately booked drum lessons. She played the duduk, a double-reed instrument, until MacLeod got ahold of it. “It apparently tasted quite delicious,” she says. “And that, my friend, was the end of my duduk-playing days.”

    But for Hill, none of these compares to the harp. At her piano teacher’s house when she was eight, her eyes jumped away from her head like cartoon hearts at the first sight of a harp. “The harp was like a universe of its own,” she says. “I remember being immediately fascinated with it — how does this work?” Hill’s mom worked seemingly endless hours at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers, and a large chunk of each paycheck went toward harp payments. Hill says she was gigging as a harpist by age 10 and, not long after, played in the Louisville Orchestra. “I was crazy-young when I did that,” she says. “In my memory, I was like 12.” She remembers her father sitting her in front of his vast record collection — everything from Woody Guthrie to every Depeche Mode album — and quizzing her about lyrics. One time, he asked her to explain the meaning of the song “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane.” Her answer: “This lady who does bad things and is scandalous.” Wrong. The near-naked person kissing married men is an infant. “You can’t just listen to one line and think you know what the song’s about,” she says. “That really struck me.”

    At her grandmother’s house in Gridley, Illinois, Hill, her sister and their cousins would put on bi-annual theater productions, including A Christmas Carol, a play she’d see every year with her father in the second row of the balcony at Actors Theatre. (They had season tickets until she left for New York.) “I remember Marley’s chains were cut out of paper,” Hill says of the performances at her grandmother’s. “We’d use a bedspread with fringes (for a cloak).” Hill says she skipped fourth grade and graduated high school early at 16. (This is one of the only times she mentions her age to me. As I try to construct the timeline of her life, she responds, “A timeline that does not reveal my age is the challenge.”) Around the time Hill earned her driver’s license, her sister, Heather Arielle, recalls heading down a dark road toward a brick wall. Hill turned off the headlights, and her sister let out a horror-movie wail. “She didn’t turn those lights on until she felt like it,” Heather Arielle says. When she did, the wall was a few feet away. “She is a little wild,” Heather Arielle says. “She does push boundaries.”

    Hill began studying theater and music at Syracuse University, where she earned her Actors’ Equity Association card — proof, she says, that you’ve “made it” as an actress — for her role as Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew before touring with Randy Newman’s Faust. When Titanic premiered on Broadway in 1997, she had the role of Kate Mullins (no, not that Kate), and she performed in the 1998 revival of Cabaret, both of which led to performances at the Tony Awards. She has a way of skipping to the next achievement without further comment. In early November, she postponed an interview for this story because she landed a spot in Josh Groban’s orchestra in New York. On harp, she once played an Aretha Franklin song for Aretha Franklin, and Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” at an event for Hillary Clinton. She made enough money on post-Regis Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to buy a $30,000 vintage soundboard. (She says the $120,000 question she missed is “extremely painful” for her. “I will tell you that it concerned an event that took place in 1845,” she says. “If it had been a Civil War question, I would have aced it.”) Oh, and she doesn’t need six degrees of separation to get to Kevin Bacon. Hill was in the 1999 movie Cradle Will Rock, which was directed by Tim Robbins, who starred in Mystic River with Bacon. Bill Murray, who was also in Cradle Will Rock, once gave Hill a pair of wax lips. Right before this piece was published, Hill forwarded a link to a story on People’s website about the New York baby shower for Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s wife. It included a picture of Hill wheeling her harp into the venue. She says, “Can’t say anything about it.”

    During the early 2000s, Hill transitioned back to music and, she says, turned down an opportunity to be in the ensemble of Thoroughly Modern Millie’s 2002 Broadway debut. “I still can’t believe I did that,” she says, wide-eyed. “I was thinking: I love singing and playing the harp; I’d rather be doing that than eight shows a week.” She had started playing with a Beatles cover band called the Fab Faux, founded by Late Show with David Letterman bassist Will Lee. The band needed a harpist for the Sgt. Pepper’s song “She’s Leaving Home.” “The first person who sets the tone and the tempo for the whole song is the harp,” Lee says. “I think she must have a perfect metronome in her body or something, because as soon as she starts to play, it is the exact right tempo. I started thinking to myself, ‘Where did this person come from?’

    “She’s truly a renaissance human.”

    Hill as the "Pretty White Girl" on Chappelle's Show in 2003.

    Hill started her own label, Gridley Records, with her husband Mike Nolan, whom she met during a show he wrote the music for and she was acting in. (Nolan moonlights as an architecture professor at the New York Institute of Technology.) In 2002, she released Frost as Desired, her first album of originals. The cover shows a tween redhead girl cutting a cake shaped like a pile of LPs for a younger, brown-haired girl modeled after Hill’s sister. The soft, unabashed feminist anthem “Favorite Girl” is the closer. “If you want something done right,” she sings in her clear soprano, “you’ve got to do it yourself.” Frost as Desired doesn’t feature much harp. In fact, Hill says the first song she wrote on harp, “I’m So Glad,” was the result of laziness — she didn’t want to go over to the piano, and the harp was right there. The song’s opening lines are from a poem she wrote when she was six: “The birds are flying all around. They hop on a leaf and then hop down. The birds are flying in a sky of lace. They’re almost as pretty as your face.” She soon had a realization: Everyone uses a guitar, but when was the last time you even saw a harp on any stage, let alone a pop one?

    In New York, during winter 2003, Hill was sitting in a room full of white women waiting to audition to be on the second episode of Chappelle’s Show, the Comedy Central sketch show from stand-up comedian Dave Chappelle. Hill was confident. Had been from the moment her agent handed her the lines for the audition. The bit, called “Pretty White Girl Sings Dave’s Thoughts,” would feature a mostly silent Chappelle handing notecards to, well, a pretty white girl, who would read them to herself and then sing the lines. For instance: “O.J. didn’t do it.” Next notecard: “On second thought, yeah, he did.” Through a door, Hill could hear the other women performing jokes like “Fuck the police” or “What ever happened to that recount in Florida?” in unorganized singsong or to public-domain tunes like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Hill had sat at her piano and scored music to the lines. “I had to decide: What would be the funniest?” she says. She landed on a “faux-opera” voice.

    She remembers the audition room being like a storage closet, piled with boxes. In addition to the casting director behind the camera, she thinks producers were there too. But it’s hard to know for sure. “(Auditioning) is like an out-of-body experience,” she says. She got the part and within a week was sitting on a cramped backstage sofa-turned-coat-rack with Chappelle. Minutes before the single-take live performance, Chappelle was still tweaking the lines. Notecard: “And now it’s time to collect ad revenue for Comedy Central!” Next notecard: “Revenue they don’t share with my black ass.” “No one knew it was going to happen except me and Dave,” Hill says.

     

    I can hear Hill’s voice from behind the door, the one with the knob smack-dab in the center.

    “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift,” she sings, her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I push open the door and — chaos. A barking MacLeod bolts up and ruins the take.

    It’s mid-November and Hill and her friend M.N.Kinski (Hill calls her “Missy”) are in the beginning stages of filming a music video for “Hallelujah,” from Hill’s 2016 covers album called Harp Town. The album is one of two she has released with Cleopatra Records, the other being a Christmas album. Unlike Girl Inventor, which featured a full backing band, these albums are more harp-dependent, the plucked strings clear and standing alone on some tracks, or above a soft drum beat on others.

    Today’s plan was to make a video for Hill’s version of the Alicia Keys song “Fallin’,” complete with falling fall leaves. But the trees are already naked, so plan B: “Hallelujah.” The twin spotlights and Hill’s bright red lipstick make her teeth look ultra-white, radiant as a toothpaste model. She taps her black, toeless heels to the beat. After only a couple hours, the soles are inexplicably falling away from the shoes, creating flapping alligator mouths that, in turn, keep her from tapping. She’s wearing a floor-length black dress emblazoned with bright red roses, a full face of makeup and a $3,000 wig color-matched to her real hair. Hill says the wig saves her the hassle of styling her oily locks. Plus, as someone who suffers from insomnia (from worrying, from asking herself silly questions like: Would I rather be chased by a mummy or the Wolf Man?), she likes to sleep in and style the wig beforehand. “You don’t have to add all that extra time before you start shooting,” she says. Even though this is the fourth or fifth time I’ve met her, I don’t notice or see the hairline fracture along her scalp until she tells me — and even then I have to search for it. During a break, Hill fills a small bowl with ground turkey, lima beans and oats for MacLeod. The kitchen table holds the haphazard remnants of her makeup application — tubes of lipstick and mascara, an unfolded towel dusted with powder.

    They film the opening shot over and over and over. Nearly 40 minutes pass before they’re to the point of “getting one for safety.” Missy pans from a sleeping MacLeod to Hill’s shoes and up the path of roses on the dress, before landing on Hill’s plucking fingers and face for the song’s opening eight measures. (I am in charge of pressing play and loudly counting out the beats, so the camera sweep finishes at the exact right moment. “I’m so glad you are musical,” Hill says to me.) At 6 p.m., three hours in, I have to leave. Though they both seem to be rushing to preserve the sunlight — and though much of the footage seems simple, with just Hill and her harp — they don’t wrap until 1 a.m.

    The following evening in the Highlands, Hill is playing her harp in the back of the Irish pub Molly Malone’s. Most of her gigs are private — weddings (like for Bill Murray’s son Luke, now an assistant coach for U of L’s men’s basketball team), funerals, corporate events — but tonight she’s playing the likes of “American Boy,” by Estelle featuring Kanye West, and the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” for a small crowd of mostly family and friends. One of her former grade-school teachers, Pat Elzy, says, “I loved (teaching) her. I wanted to take her home.”

    “Hi, Cara! Hi, Gill!” Hill says as a couple takes a table in the back of the restaurant. “Is Richard coming?”

    A couple strangers from Nashville request Carly Simon, and Hill plays “You’re So Vain.” She’s mainly doing requests, most made by an obnoxious guy sitting at the bar. Midway through her set, somebody (possibly that guy) shouts, “Pretty white girl!”

    “Yep, that’s me,” Hill says with a laugh. “I get recognized for that all the time.”

    She knows how to work the space, how to perform, playing the complicated mess of seven pedals, with three positions that change the key of the 47 strings. She switches between balancing the harp on her right shoulder and squeezing it between her knees, her body twisted. Her callused fingertips pluck away. All of this coordination while also singing, bopping, grooving — less technical, more “rock harpist.”

    After the gig, she only trusts herself to re-coil the expensive wires and return them to their gallon-sized Ziploc bags. Outside, the freezing rain is drizzling. She has wrapped the harp in its padded cover and has borrowed a bar floor mat without permission to protect its base. She places the harp a practiced distance away from her Volkswagen station wagon, then tilts it into the trunk, just clearing the edge that an unseasoned attempt might thunk. She fits in her amp, new $350 harp dolly, cords and music stand. If it were Tetris, she’d clear the board.

    It never mattered to Hill that this show would be in the furthest corner of a bar on a Wednesday night. “I’ve never seen Erin not care,” says Melissa Errico, Hill’s longtime friend who was a co-star in Randy Newman’s Faust. “(Whether) it’s Carnegie Hall or a charity event, she’s going to bring her magic with the full potency of her soul.”


    Hill featured her dog, MacLeod, in the artwork for Girl Inventor. // by Robert A. Ripps

    “I kind of go overboard,” Hill says. This is how she dresses for a walk in the woods: black jacket over a Cubs shirt; black gloves that expose only the top knuckles; wide-billed hat covering her braided hair. She mentions how she once got a sunburn at the Sundance Theatre Program. “We went up a ski lift, and I had bare skin (near my wrists),” she says. “Just from that little five-minute ride, there was a bright red ring around both my arms.”

     It’s a balmy 50 degrees in early January, and she ventures across the backyard to a nearly 10-acre swath of undeveloped woods stretching from her house and across Utica Pike to the Ohio River. “I can’t believe this is mine,” she says. She bought the land a couple years ago, matching a developer’s offer. “Just to think what they would have done,” she says. “There wouldn’t be a twig left.” Crunching through leaves, Hill shows off a mask tacked to a tree trunk. It has a grinning red face and feathers for hair. “Nice, right?” she says. “I think he’s going to make an appearance in a music video.” The forest has always been there, right next door. Traipsing through the trees is as much a part of her childhood as the tall stalks of Silver Queen corn that grew in her backyard garden, or the downstairs den. “I want the TV to be where it always was, where Dad and I would watch old movies,” she says. “That’s nonnegotiable.”

    Hill still imagines spending plenty of time in New York. “I’d like to have enough gigs down here that I can just fly back to New York when I have a big gig,” she says. For now, she mostly drives the 12-plus hours, one way, between here and New York. “If I get a call for something in Louisville and I don’t have anything that weekend, I say yes,” Hill says. “I’m so excited and determined in moving here. I’m kind of losing money to do some of (the gigs), but I will fly back to do one, just to get the ball rolling.” Her mom has moved to Louisville and her sister has moved out of the house in Queens, which is where Hill kept a studio. Hill doesn’t have recording plans in the works but says she already has enough material for another album of originals, and has ideas for albums of ’60s and ’70s covers.

    Hill’s sister describes their time in Queens together as “a very creative household. I’d be rehearsing my play in the living room, she’d be downstairs in the studio with her husband perfecting a song, and my mom would be editing something upstairs. My sister is an electrifying presence in my life, and I’m an electrifying presence in her life. We push each other to reach our highest levels of creativity.” The two collaborated on an adaptation of Macbeth, reimagined for a solitary actor. Heather Arielle co-wrote the script and Hill composed musical flourishes for each character, to be played when the sole actor switched roles. “I wasn’t really getting what I was wanting out of some of the composers, (so) I went to my sister,” Heather Arielle says. “There’s a gift of collaborating with a sibling. She knew exactly what I wanted.”

    Slight panic sets in as we reach what Hill calls the “witch houses” — a couple of old wooden barns, yet unexplored. A tree fell and damaged one of them weeks after her purchase. Fittingly, a cat emerges and attracts like a magnet to Hill, who is allergic. As I corral the cat, Hill is still marveling at the land — her land. “When I was kid, there was this huge dilapidated house right over here,” she says. “The city had to demolish it because of complaints. I came so close to owning the haunted house!”

    We cross a long pad of concrete and venture back to the house. Somewhere in the forest, her husband wields a chainsaw, attempting to remove creeping vines on trees. It sounds like a horror film. A barn with corrugated metal siding takes up maybe a third of the pad. Hill says this used to be an airplane hangar from the 1930s, which stood until about a decade ago. She remembers her dad calling her to tell her, dramatically, “Well, the big barn is burning down, and the smoke is wafting toward my house.” She still has the voicemail saved. “I worked really hard to be able to keep this place,” she says. “Now it’s mine, but it will forever be called Dad’s. I was showing pictures of home to somebody in New York. He looked at me and said, ‘Why are you here?’ This is my little paradise. This house is my heart. It’s my dad. I feel like this house just gives me a big hug.”

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Welcome to Hill House." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo by Danny Alexander, dannyalexanderphoto.com

    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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