Sharon Isbin is truly a one-of-a-kind talent. The first female classical guitarist to win a Grammy and the founder and director of the guitar department at Juilliard, Isbin’s career is as impressive as her fingers flying across her guitar strings. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Isbin about her latest album and her remarkable career.

Isbin’s newest offering, Alma Española, is a collection of Spanish art songs in collaboration with Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. Their first collaborative performance was in 2014 at the Aspen Music Festival (where Isbin is the director of the guitar department), and they have since taken this collaboration to such places as the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. I asked Isbin about the creative process:

“In the beginning, one of the composers we zeroed in on was Frederico García Lorca, who of course is known as a poet and less so as a musician, and interestingly enough, he never wrote down his music. So our only access to it is from early recordings he made in the 1930s with another Argentinian singer, La Argentinita, and that gives me the freedom to really explore arranging for guitar in a way that is even greater than it might be had it been committed to paper.”

Isbin and Leonard worked closely together throughout the creative and recording process, each using her respective talents to form a harmonious collection that fully utilized the strengths of both the guitar and the voice.

“We really wanted to present this in a way that explored the resources of the instrument and the songs in a much bigger capacity, so Isabel and I, when we first began rehearsing, would spend a lot of time looking at the lyrics and the meaning of the songs and what she wanted to communicate in each of the stanzas, and finding ways to make the guitar part support that. And that was a really special collaboration and a unique approach to setting music on the guitar from another instrument, and I really appreciated having her input in all of that.”

Another aspect that makes Alma Española a special collaboration is that the last major recording of Spanish art songs featuring a guitarist and a native Spanish speaker was made over four decades ago. Isabel Leonard is of Argentinian background and grew up speaking Spanish, so this collaboration is the first of its kind in over forty years. Isbin described why having a native Spanish speaking singer is so important for this type of repertoire, explaining that “it needed for someone like Isabel, with a spectacular voice, to come along…and it is rare to find someone who has the gift of opera and recital work, and the kind of voice that can be adapted to both. So by pairing guitar with voice, it creates an intimacy for the listening audience that is quite rarified.”

Part of what makes Isbin so remarkable is simply the fact that she’s a woman. Classical guitar, especially in the US, is largely a male-dominated instrument. As the founder and head of guitar at Juilliard, she has a unique insight into this gender gap.

“I think that in the United States, it’s just a little bit different in that most women who come to the guitar, in general, are coming from other countries, whereas in the US, it’s often people who have been involved in rock music and hear a classical song, and think ‘oh that’s cool, that’s where I’m going to go to.’ So in Europe there are definitely more women who play the instrument, and in the United States, fewer. Having headed and created the guitar department at Juilliard now since 1989, it’s still odd to me that, in all these years, I’ve not yet once had a female player from the United States. From other countries, yes. So it still has some growing to do.”

Isbin’s career has taken her many places and allowed her to collaborate with a variety of artists and composers. As she said, “I never know quite what’s around the corner.” This season she will be premiering a concerto written for her by the Spanish composer Enric Palomar, and she is also doing an all Italian program on tour both this season and next with the Pacifica Quartet. She also performs with Guitar Passions, a trio including the jazz player Stanley Jordan, and the Brazilian bossa nova player Romero Lubambo. She speaks with enthusiasm and excitement when she describes the collaborations she has been a part of.

“….it’s just fun to see where the most unexpected unifications end up taking me, to be able to play and record with Mark O’Connor, his country fiddle pieces that he wrote for us, to record with Joan Baez, both together on an album that explored American folk music and [music] from the British Isles called Journey to the New World, to play with somebody like Steve Vai. That happened by chance as well when we were brought together for an event, and he joined me later on in Paris and then on this recording, Guitar Passions, which features a lot of my guitar heroes, even Nancy Wilson from Heart. So I think being open-minded and really loving music and not seeing it with any boundaries is something that has guided me for many years.”

Her interests extend beyond music. She has been practicing transcendental meditation since her teens and has played for the David Lynch Foundation, an organization bringing transcendental meditation to underserved communities. When playing at the Kennedy Center in June for a David Lynch Foundation benefit, she was able to meet two of her favorite comedians, Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld (both fellow benefit performers and meditators), an experience she described as “really quite special.” The previous year at a benefit at Carnegie Hall, she performed “Shape of My Heart” with Sting, one of her favorite Sting songs.

Isbin’s career has been a series of firsts and unique accomplishments. I asked her what her advice is for someone who is pursuing an up-hill career. She said it is important to “be always searching for something that you can provide that no one else has ever done before….I think the guiding principle here is to be true to your craft, your heart, and to create something new.”

Having commissioned more concerti works for classical guitar than any other living guitarist, and creating her own guitar arrangements of pieces, I wondered if Isbin has plans to write her own music in the future. Isbin explained that she prefers to partner with composers “and let them face that blank white page and figure out how to put the little black notes on it, and for me to then guide them through that process so that it sounds idiomatic on the instrument. That, I think, is where my skill lies.”

This excerpt from the 2014 documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour provides fantastic insight into her talent and tenacity for partnering with composers.

As a Music Designer, I spend my days curating playlists for people to listen to, so I had to ask her what music she loves listening to and what she has been listening to lately. “My musical tastes are all over the map and it’s hard for me to even think of just one right now, because I think that changes every day. I’m always reading magazines and noting people who are doing fascinating interviews and I become curious and want to hear their music.” She specifically named Heart and Joan Baez as favorites, noting that being able to record with both of them “was a dream come true.”

Speaking with Sharon Isbin was inspiring, as her passion, drive, and talent were apparent in everything she said. It is no surprise that her remarkable career is only continuing to get better and better. With a career as impressive as Isbin’s, it’s hard for her to narrow down a highlight, but one performance that stands out to her as an “incredibly empowering and moving experience” was playing at the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

“I was asked to play in the first year anniversary in 2002 at Ground Zero for 40,000 family members and survivors during the reading of the names. And walking out on that stage, looking into their eyes, because they were right up against the stage, many of them were holding up posters of their lost loved ones, it was so powerful. It made me realize this is why I’m on the planet. I’m here to be part of that healing process and share music in the most meaningful way possible.”

– Submitted by Erin Yousef, Music Design