SINGER MANDY HARVEY: LOSING HER HEARING, FINDING HER PATH IN LIFE|
The “America’s Got Talent” Sensation Inspires Audiences
By Paul Freeman [January 2018 Interview]
When Mandy Harvey steps onto the stage, audiences can savor a pleasure that she has long since been denied. They can hear her sing. Harvey cannot. She has been profoundly deaf in both ears from the age of 18.
Even more remarkably, Harvey, who was a semifinalist on “America’s Got Talent” in 2017, shunned the spotlight before losing her hearing. She was aiming at a career in music education. We reached the Florida-based Harvey by phone in Colorado, where she was raised and was now rehearsing. She used closed captions to enable her to converse.
“I didn’t want the attention. The idea of performance made me want to die,” Harvey said. “That didn’t come until much, much later, when I didn’t have too many other options.”
Singing was vital to her emotional development, during childhood and adolescence. “I was a very shy child. I had a lot of anxiety. I didn’t talk well to other people. Music was an outlet for me to be able to express myself and communicate without feeling the pressure.
“So for me, it was my escape from all of my internal fears. I was a kid who used to cry when they had to give a presentation or vomit on everybody and pass out,” Harvey said, with a little laugh. “Singing as part of a choir and being part of a team was always my focus. And it was beautiful for me, because it was my ability to be able to create dreams with other people.”
But as a child, hearing problems plagued her and she underwent several surgeries. “It was always a monkey that was chasing me down. When you have a progressive issue, you just kind of hope that the progression slows down long enough that it’s not as bad. But I’ve always had a great fear of losing my hearing. And in my gut, I always knew that it was going to happen. I was just hoping that it would happen when I was 50 and not when I was 18.”
As a college freshman, majoring in music education, Harvey’s connective tissue disorder suddenly wiped out her hearing. “I am profoundly deaf in both ears. So it has to be extremely loud, like a jet engine, for me to hear it. But you feel sound far before you actually hear it. You can feel motorcyclists as they go by. You’re not entire sure what that sound was, but you can feel the sound smack into you. Or when you go into a concert, the bass replaces your heartbeat. There’s sound everywhere. It’s inescapable. But it’s been 10 years since I’ve been able to hear somebody’s voice… including my own.”
She was devastated and spent a year feeling lost. “I wish that I could say that I charged forward and I had a smile on my face the whole time and I never lacked hope. But that’s really not true. I gave up. And I made the mistake of associating my entire identity with one single dream. And when that dream died, I felt very much like I died. And I didn’t know what to do with myself anymore.
“And so I had to relearn life again. I had to relearn a brand new world of dealing with things without sound, figuring out how to not be afraid in the dark, because you can’t hear people coming up behind you. Or closing doors and feeling like they’re never latching, because you can’t hear that audible click. I had to relearn life before I could even think about figuring out myself.”
Taking ASL classes proved to be a turning point. “Getting involved with that community gave me a sense of — I’m not broken; I’m just different. And that gave me the ability to say yes to things. It made me feel like a human again. And I did give up on my music dream. I never expected to get involved with music again. I was content, at some point, just because I was finally feeling like I could breathe again and it wasn’t a serious struggle. And walking out the door was not the most painful thing. So I was happy with the progress I was making, just living.
“And then it was other people pushing me and other people encouraging me and other people challenging me that got me back into music. It wasn’t on my own volition. It was because of others. I lost a lot of friends, mostly because communication broke down. But I had my family and some really close friends who are there for you, regardless. They helped me up.”
For 10 hours, she sat with sheet music and a guitar tuner. “I didn’t get up. I went from one note to the other, making sure that the note turned green, that it was the correct note. Anytime I made a mistake, I would start the whole song over again. And eventually my dad came home and I sang him the song. And I didn’t think it was going to be anything but crap.”
Deeply moved, her father told her that she had sung it accurately. “That started a whirlwind of everything changing all at the same time. That led me to getting back with my vocal coach, which led me to singing a song at a jazz club for the first time. That led to me coming back and singing three songs, and then all night long, and having my own concerts, making my own album, going on tour, making another album. It was like a snowball effect, out of my control. I’ve just been running.”
Harvey has demonstrated amazing perseverance. “I work on music and singing and pronouncing words 40 to 70 hours a week, every week and have for 10 years. So I put in a crap-ton of work,” she said, laughing. “Happily though. But it’s a lot of labor. There’s a lot of muscle memory that’s involved with the actual forming of words and singing them. I use a lot of visual tuners. I do a lot of speech therapy. I sing into balloons and control my dynamics. There’s many different tools and pieces and parts that create everything as it works together.”
She does have memories of how certain things sound. “ But it’s been such a long time now, I would guesstimate that they’re not accurate at all. When I’m around other people and I’m lipreading or engaging in a conversation, even when there’s ASL interpretation, I create a voice for them in my head. And so my version of my voice is for everybody. Depending on who you are. If you’re like Shaq, then it would be my voice, just a little lower,” Harvey said with a chuckle. “But in my head, everybody sounds like what I remember my voice sounding like 10 years ago, which, again, is probably nowhere near accurate at this point. But it’s a ghost voice that I call home.”
For the courageous Harvey, the fear of performing melted away. “It’s the best perk of not being able to hear. I can’t hear myself to judge myself. So I don’t. Also, losing my hearing was always my biggest fear. So what’s the worst that can happen? They don’t like it? It’s not going to destroy me. I thought that losing my hearing was going to destroy the very core of who I was. And I’m still standing. And not only standing — I’m a better person for it. I love people more. I pay more attention. I’ve grown stronger. They can’t hurt me just because I can’t sing every note perfect or they don’t like the songs that I’m singing. It’s not the worst thing. The worst thing already happened.”
But people do like to hear Harvey sing. Blessed with nearly perfect pitch, she interprets songs beautifully and expressively, with emotional honesty. Response to her recent album, “All of Me,” was enthusiastic, not only for the jazz/pop standards, but for Harvey’s lovely, uplifting original tune, “Try.”
“People have been very kind and very sweet. And I think that’s because it’s very earnest. And it’s very me. I think people can feel that it’s very straight-forward and it was written with a lot of heart. And they can feel it. The fact that people are identifying with it and finding motivation from it or just feeling that they can express themselves with it — that’s a songwriter’s dream. And I’m blessed and very thankful that they even listened in the first place.”
It was Erik Weihenmayer who encouraged Harvey to pen some of her own material. His is the co-founder of the non-profit No Barriers USA, an organization empowering people facing challenges to reach their full potential. Though is blind, Weihenmayer has climbed Mount Everest. Harvey had been fearful of writing songs.
“It’s kind of a silly thing to say, that you’re going to perform a song that no one’s ever heard before,” Harvey said. “It’s not just I’ve never heard it before, but no one’s ever heard it before. And so it’s always been something I’ve convinced myself I’m not good at and that I would never be good at. And Erik sat down with me and said, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Here I was again, faced with that question that I couldn’t have a better answer to than — ‘I guess nothing.’ So I had to get over it.
“Erik is such an inspiring person. He’s faced adversity. He had vision when he was young and he lost it around middle school and through the beginning of high school. So we have very similar feelings and experiences. He doesn’t let things stop him. So it’s very difficult to have an honest conversation about why you’re not doing something that you’re afraid of, when you evaluate it and you realize that what you’re afraid of is so small in comparison with what other people are dealing with.
“You look at these children who are dealing with cancer and they’re fighting for their lives. And that’s very real. For me, what I was telling myself that I was too afraid to be able to conquer was just writing a song. Lives are not on the line. And what’s the worst that could happen? Really not much. If people don’t like the song, they don’t have to listen to it. But at least I’m expressing myself. At least I’m telling my stories and maybe encouraging people and maybe making people smile. The benefit is amazing. And the only thing that’s been holding me back is fear. And why do I constantly allow fear to control my life?”
“Try” was one of the songs she sang on “America’s Got Talent.” Simon Cowell rewarded her by hitting the “golden buzzer,” moving her onward in the competition.
What was the most challenging part of her stint on the TV series? “The whole thing,” Harvey said, laughing. “It was weird. The whole thing was very bizarre. Like I said, performing is something that I’ve always had to really work hard to work past. And now you’re performing in front of 14-plus million people on a weekly basis. That’s quite a thing. And I had set goals of what I wanted to do in my life and what I wanted to do was encourage as many people as possible. It wasn’t any intention to necessarily do well on the show. I just wanted to sing one song and maybe make people smile. The fact that they liked it and I got to sing a second song and a third song and a fourth song, that was just amazing. But the biggest challenge was showing up.
“It’s been an overwhelming experience. When I sang ‘Try,’ I just didn’t want to suck,” Harvey said, laughing. “You know? I was confident that there was always a possibility that you could fall on your face and not do a great job. But I was hopeful that someone would hear me and that I would encourage one person. And through the experience, that video’s been seen half a billion times, collectively. And I’ve been receiving messages every day, en masse, from people who are dealing with struggle and loss… or victories and happy moments. And they’re telling me, ‘Thank you for pushing forward, because you’re encouraging me to push forward.’ Or ‘My family member’s dealing with this.’ And ‘You changed my perspective of what disabled people look like.’ There has been an overwhelming outpouring from people, from all directions and all walks of life. My goal was to encourage one person and I feel like the result of overcoming that fear and putting myself out there has been tenfold, if not many, many more.”
Her memoir, “Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound,” has also inspired people. “I wrote the book, because I had a lot of experiences and a lot stories and a lot of lessons that I learned that I was hoping that maybe somebody would find helpful. So again, I wasn’t trying to be like the next great novel or anything. I just wanted to have an honest conversation about loss that I’ve been dealing with and maybe it would be helpful to somebody who’s dealing with similar struggles — I was also frustrated. I was also broken. I also got dark thoughts, the same as they did. And they can see how I kept walking forward, because of this and this and this, how it’s changed my heart, how it’s made me grow and me a better person. Maybe they can become better people or just embrace what is happening in their own lives and find some form of beauty in it.”
Harvey is constantly working on beautiful new music. “I have a fourth album of all original music ready to share. So I’m just going through the process of figuring out the best way to get it out there. There will be some uplifting, positive, encouraging songs, for sure. But that’s just one emotion. I want to express myself and talk about different emotions that I deal with. It’s going to be an album that describes and showcases, kind of, me. So it’ll have some really encouraging songs, but also maybe songs that will make you think a little bit. Not any deep, politically rooted things, but not every song needs to be happy.”
Harvey is currently touring. With her band and her moving voice, she makes people happy. “I hope that people leave jazzed. I hope that they leave encouraged, that they have a lot of fun. We tend to have a good, high energy level at my concerts. The musicianship is breathtaking. I’m very fortunate that I get to be surrounded by amazing musicians who are just absolutely brilliant. But I want people to be encouraged. I want people to be uplifted. I want people to disconnect from their worries for a moment and go on a journey as a group. We’re all on a journey together, through a whole concert.
“And it goes through a span of emotions. And it is very much like its own little ride. And they see me sign as I’m singing and then the songs that I have ukulele playing, there’s an interpreter signing, as well. So even if you didn’t understand ASL, it’s a very beautiful visual language that has a lot of connections and makes a lot of sense. And so it’s also educational. It opens an avenue and a window to seeing a different way of communication.”
Harvey’s resilience in now firmly in place. “It’s a lot of things. It’s partially my faith. It’s partially my friends and my team, my core people who never give up on me, even when sometimes I give up on myself. I also think it’s a stubbornness, a need to not be stagnant. I don’t necessarily have to have things figured out. But I’m not going to stand still and just let life pass me by and do nothing.”
She welcomes new challenges. “They’re going to find you anyway. You might as well be like, ‘All right, if they’re going to smack me in the face, at least it can be partially my idea,” Harvey said, laughing.
An ambassador for No Barriers, this summer Harvey will join a group of that organization’s leaders, including Weihenmayer, which will take students — with and without disabilities — to hike in Nepal.
“The idea is to explore ourselves and to further ourselves and to have an adventure that proves that what’s within us is truly stronger than what’s in our way,” Harvey said. “We’ll work as a team. And, oh my gosh, I’m so excited. I’m just pumped.”
Overcoming all that has stood in her way has made Harvey stronger. “It’s made me a different person. I’m not scared to talk to people anymore. I’m not scared to sing songs. I’m not scared to walk out the front door and make a mistake. I don’t live my life based on fear of failure. I live my life with an understanding of failure and saying, ‘You know what? I’m embracing it, because every time I fail, I learn something new. I get up again and I keep walking forward. Then I fall down again, I learn something new. I get up and keep moving forward. And every time, I get a little bit farther.”
For more on this extraordinary artist, visit www.mandyharveymusic.com.