Singer-songwriter Mandy Harvey will present Together We Rise, a free virtual concert on Thursday, March 25, 2021 at 6:30 pm ET as part of a State Theatre New Jersey collaboration with Bristol Myers Squibb and additional support from EY and Accenture. The pop and jazz singer is best known for her appearances on Season 12 of America’s Got Talent.
Mandy Harvey was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1988. Spending her younger years in Florida, she experienced hearing problems and underwent several surgeries to try to correct them. Despite her hearing difficulties, she sang throughout her childhood, and after moving to Colorado, was recognized for her musical talent in high school.
At the age of 18, as a Vocal Music Education major at Colorado State University, she lost her remaining hearing as a result of the connective tissues disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and quit music. With the aid of muscle memory, visual tuners, and extensive practice, however, Harvey learned how to produce the correct pitches when singing. She began to perform in clubs and lounges in Denver and even recorded three jazz albums.
In 2017, Harvey appeared on America’s Got Talent where she performed her original song, “Try,” while accompanying herself on the ukulele. Judge Simon Cowell was so moved by her performance that he awarded her the “Golden Buzzer,” sending her automatically to the nationally-broadcast live shows to compete. Ultimately, she took fourth place in the competition.
These days, Harvey appears in concerts and does speaking engagements, in addition to serving as an ambassador to the nonprofit organization, No Barriers, to help people with disabilities overcome obstacles. She is the author of Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound, a book which is designed to inspire readers to pursue their dreams. Her latest CD is Nice to Meet You, and her newly-released single is entitled “Masterpiece.”
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Harvey and asked her about her childhood musical experiences, her time on America’s Got Talent, in addition to Together We Rise, her upcoming March 25 virtual concert presented by the State Theater New Jersey.
Spotlight Central: Do you come from a musical family?
Mandy Harvey: Kind of. My dad’s been playing guitar since I can remember, so I wouldn’t say that I came from a musical family, in the sense that there weren’t always people around playing music other than my dad. But that was his way of expressing himself — it was always just, kind of, to himself, but I do have some really beautiful memories of him singing lullabies and stuff to us when we were kids.
Spotlight Central: When you were a child, you were able to hear music. What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Mandy Harvey: There was a progression. I first got involved with music in choir, so there was a lot of choral music, a lot of classical, and a lot of jazz. When I was in elementary school, it was mostly doo-wop and ’50s and ’60s music. Then when I got to middle school, it was ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s music, and in high school, it was music from the ’60s and ’70s.
Spotlight Central: And do you still have all this music in your head?
Mandy Harvey: [Laughs] Locked and loaded! It’s quite hard to get rid of some of it sometimes and actually “clean up shop,” you know? I just remember stuff. I’ve always had a unique memory of being able to not forget music, because it just imprints on my brain.
Spotlight Central: You’re known for playing the ukulele. What got you interested in playing it?
Mandy Harvey: I got started with ukulele because of guitar. I was playing guitar because of my dad. And because of my Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, it became more and more difficult to play the guitar, because my fingers dislocate, and I was only able to really play for five or ten minutes before I couldn’t physically push down the strings anymore without causing damage to my hand.
I was really upset and frustrated, and my friend Meg Reidy lent me her ukulele at the time. She loved playing it, and she was like, “Well, try this. For certain chords you only have to use one finger or two, and so even if you can’t play everything that you want, you can really still play a lot of things with minimal strain on your hand.”
And I just fell in love with it. I love the ease of being able to play it anywhere. But I also like how it feels. I like being able to hold the whole thing against my skin and really feel the vibrations of the instrument. I just really love it.
Spotlight Central: After losing your residual hearing in college, what was it that inspired you to want to perform and record music as a professional?
Mandy Harvey: After losing my hearing, it was because of people asking me to do it. Initially, I was singing at a jazz lounge in Fort Collins, Colorado called Jay’s Bistro. I was doing it because I was pressured and pushed into it by my vocal coach, who was trying to get me to stop being so afraid and trust myself. Sometimes the best way of doing that is by jumping into the deep end of the pool and really taking to it.
And then I did it week after week after week after week, and people kept asking me to make a CD. I didn’t think that it was going to work out well, but I took it on as a challenge and made my album, Smile. I named it that, and also featured the song “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin, because that was the song I sang to myself every day when I was losing my hearing at school — because if I was going to forget every song I’d ever heard, I was going to keep one! And, at the time, when I just couldn’t think of anything else, that was the first thing that popped into my brain — so it wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice, but it then became kind of my anthem.
And I loved how the song progressed. When I first started singing it, it was very “I’m not happy and I’m not going to smile, but maybe someday.” But then, with time and with acceptance, and with love for myself and who I am and who I’ve become, it became more of “I’m not smiling now, but I know I will smile in the future.” And then to who I am today and how happy I am with who I am and my circumstances, it’s “I’m smiling and I’m trying to help you to also smile.”
So it’s a song that really evolves with you. And I did that song and it became kind of “Well, if tomorrow I can’t figure this out and I can’t do this anymore, at least I have this as proof that I figured it out once, and it’ll hopefully give me the encouragement to figure it out again.”
And then after making the first album, I charged myself with this idea of “I want to record five albums before I’m 30,” which I haven’t done; I did four, but I also did other stuff. I’m 33 now, but I wanted to record five albums before I was 30, just to charge myself with the challenge of doing it and pushing myself to express myself in that way.
Spotlight Central: Speaking about “Smile,” you’ve made a lot of people smile — and some cry — when you were on America’s Got Talent. Your audition clip has been viewed by millions of people all over the world. How did you enjoy appearing on the show?
Mandy Harvey: It was scary! I don’t know if I enjoyed it as much as I was petrified, but I really do enjoy it now, after the fact. I’m very proud that I was brave enough to do it. And everybody on that show was just really lovely. It was a really fun time, but it was so wildly different than my norm. You know, you go from being a shy, anxious, socially awkward person to having millions of people staring at you on TV — good, bad, or indifferent — judging you. It’s a lot of pressure.
And I was one of the only people on that show who hadn’t been on a show before. Like you walk into the room, and I’m the underdog. Even the six-year-olds had been on five different programs and they’re just like [in upper-crust British accent] “Yes, I am here!” And you’re just like, “Woah! What is going on?” They’re telling me, Why aren’t you using Boomerang?” — which was big at the time. And I was “What the heck is a Boomerang?” And they’re just like, “You know, it’s for your Instagram,” and I was, like, “OK.” [Laughs] It was so unbelievable; I had to learn a lot very fast!
Spotlight Central: And you did! Now, in addition to being a singer, you’re also known as a songwriter. You’ve written a number of original songs including “Try,” which you did on America’s Got Talent. What is your process for writing songs and, then, sharing them with your band?
Mandy Harvey: For a lot of the songs — and this seems to be frustrating to some people, but it’s just the way it is — I write a lot of the music, meaning the melody and the lyrics, at the same time. I just kind of sit down on the floor and hit record on my phone and dump! I don’t even think — I don’t write stuff out, initially — I just start singing stuff out loud. And however I feel, I just kind of shut my brain off and let myself ooze whatever comes out naturally. And then sometimes I’ll start with a lyric that’ll just pop into my brain. I’ll make a note of it and then write out something intentionally later.
But all of that stuff — all of those audio files, and stuff like that — have to be transcribed for me later so I can see what they are. I’ll get help from other people to chart it for me, so that I can visually see everything, and then I’ll present it to the band and play it for them and explain how I want things to feel — like where I want swells to be, and how the rhythm should feel, and the importance of analyzing the lyrics; that’s something that’s very important to me for everybody I work with because you’re not just playing a song, you’re telling a story. And that’s true with every musician on the stage — they’re all a part of telling the story — and I want them to know what I was feeling, so when they’re playing it, they can be respectful and, also, to feel it, as well.
Spotlight Central: You have a brand-new single — a very catchy one — called “Masterpiece.” Can you tell us what was the inspiration for that song?
Mandy Harvey: I was at home and I was really kind of analyzing this whole 2020 fiasco that seems to have hit everyone. And there were a couple of moments when I really did say out loud, “Gosh, I wish this year had never happened!” and I kept seeing people saying “On to 2021!” when we were only in April, and I was thinking, “You know, this year isn’t over yet!”
And that wave hit me and then I kind of planted my feet firmly to say, “No. This is the year — this is how it is this year.” You can’t just cherry-pick your best moments, because sometimes the hardest moments and the struggles that you deal with make you stronger and make you a better person. Think about all of the things you’ve been through in your life — if you only remember the really beautiful moments, you wouldn’t appreciate them without having survived through some of the difficulties. And so the song was initiated with this idea of “I want to love all of who I am, including the broken pieces that I wish people didn’t know about, or that I could throw away. I want those to be celebrated because I’m becoming a better person — a better version of myself having gone through them.”
Spotlight Central: We’ve seen you in concert and we know that you like to perform cover versions of classic songs that we really love, such as The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” How do you pick the cover songs that you present in concert?
Mandy Harvey: Some of them are ones that people have requested, and some of them are songs that I just really love to play. When you grow up listening to ’60s and ’70s music, you have songs that stick with you — and I like to share my passions with other people. I think that when you sing songs that you feel, people can feel them with you. And it might not be the most popular song in the world, but if you sing it in earnest, I think that is really what people will come to want to see and feel in a concert, because they want to feel that it’s real.
Spotlight Central: And you do such a good job of connecting with your audiences when you’re performing live. Are there any special techniques or strategies that you use — or is it just a matter of putting yourself out there?
Mandy Harvey: No, it’s just kind of me! I really do pay attention to the people I’m looking at. I’m also not seeing it as “I am performing for you. You are in the audience — and there’s a distance between us.” I really do like to think of it as, “We’re a team at this moment, and we’re feeding each other energy, and we’re going on a little journey together.” And for the hour or two hours that we get to be together, all of the worry and all of the stress of everything that goes outside of those doors dissipates for just a small moment, and we get to focus on something else. And I’m happy to be able to put a smile on someone’s face or have them feel an emotion just so they know they’re not alone.
Spotlight Central: Speaking of concerts, you have a virtual concert coming up called Together We Rise, which is a free streaming performance presented by the State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick. Can you tell us more about that?
Mandy Harvey: Yes. We wanted to celebrate inclusion and togetherness. This year has been so hard for everybody — it really doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. Even if you’re thriving and doing super-well and are successful, because of this Covid situation, it’s put a strain mentally and physically on everybody. And we wanted to celebrate the innovation and the steps that are being made to be inclusive, but also to recognize that we all kind of needed a moment to breathe.
So we wanted to remind people that they weren’t alone, and that we are so much stronger together than we are apart, and that we can find creative solutions to make the world better, while at the same time just having an evening that’s casual and celebratory and not political or fearsome or negative, you know? So it’s something that the entire family can be part of without any struggle of not being able to understand, or not having access, or not having captions or American Sign Language, because it’s all there — whoever you are, you should be able to experience the same situation.
Spotlight Central: Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything you’d like to say to folks who might be interested in tuning in to the concert on March 25?
Mandy Harvey: Of course. It’s a free virtual concert with a full band, and I am featuring my new single “Masterpiece” inside that concert, as well as a couple of songs I’ve never performed before. Also, it’s connected with several different companies that are working really hard to push inclusion and accessibility — not just for their customers but also for their staff members. So you’ll get to have a concert experience while we’re still trying to remain safe, and have the fun of having a full band concert that’s been captured beautifully, but also know that the people who worked really hard to make it are the people who are working really hard to make the world better anyway, so it’s a win-win for everybody!
Mandy Harvey will present Together We Rise, a free virtual concert for State Theater New Jersey on Thursday, March 25, 2021 at 6:30 pm ET. To register for this free event, please click here.
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