Singer-Songwriter Mandy Harvey Relearns Craft After Losing Hearing
Growing up, Mandy Harvey knew she wanted to be a musician. But in 2006, when she was 18, her greatest fear came true: she lost her hearing as a result of a connective tissue disorder that deteriorated her nerves. She was dropped from the music program at her college, forcing her to completely re-evaluate her dreams and her life path, right at the beginning of her adult life. Now, Harvey is an accomplished musician who has released several albums, and she is performing tonight at the Musical Instrument Museum. She did the interview with The Show's Sarah Ventre by lip reading.
MANDY: Within nine months, I went from knowing what I wanted to do and having a passion and having a dream to being completely lost and having no identity anymore.
SARAH: I think the thing you just mentioned the idea of actually losing a piece of your identity is pretty important.
MANDY: Well it’s a dangerous game to play. I had associated my dream, this one singular dream with my entire identity. I didn’t know who I was outside of accomplishing this one dream — this one goal. Besides vocal music education I … I was nobody. And when that went away, I was nobody. And I didn’t know where to go from there.
You’re made up of so many different dreams, so many different talents that you will accomplish in your life — big and tiny. And so, I couldn’t see past this one pain to look at all these other gifts, and all these other talents, and all these other passions that I had still. I just myself die. And I mourned my death for a very long time.
SARAH: How do you being to pull yourself of that and move forward from that?
MANDY: I left college and I moved back home, which is — when you’re 18 and 19 years old your first taste of independence pushed back to living with your family again — that’s another shot in the heart, in the confidence, but it was what I needed to do. I started trying to piece myself back together. I wasn’t chasing music at that point. I had let that die. I just wanted to be able to breathe again without it being painful.
So I got connected with community college and started taking ASL (American Sign Language) classes, started getting involved with the deaf community, and I found myself around people — friends who have like stories and like pains and like frustrations, and I realized I wasn’t alone anymore.
I was sitting with my dad, and he and I, we’ve conversed, you know, through pain with just playing music together. And I would have never just taken a suggestion of, ‘Hey let’s play a song on the guitar together,’ before that moment, in all of that muck, and all that pain. That would have been ludicrous. But now with this newfound confidence, I was OK enough to say "Sure. Let’s try it. Let’s let me fail miserably," and then we can close this chapter of this book, and let it die and move on. But … it turns out that it was just the beginning.
SARAH: Can you describe that first experience of playing a song on the guitar with your dad — the first time you had tried to play music since all this happened?
MANDY: We sat down I was just watching him, I’d been playing guitar since I was a kid with him — nothing impressive — and so I was just watching him play the chords and following along and keeping time, and I could feel the rhythm through the guitar. So I could watch him and tape my toes and make sure I was in rhythm with him. And we just did that in silence, you know? Just simple, three chords, over and over and over and over again. And then after — that was fun, and that was fine — he then made another suggestion to learn a new song … and to sing it. Which again was ridiculous! I wanted to say no but for some reason, I didn’t. I said OK.
SARAH: And so, when you went about trying to learn a new song that you couldn’t hear …
MANDY: (Laughs) Yeah, I sat at a piano with the sheet music for a song my sister had picked out. It was One Republic, “Come Home.” And I had a guitar tuner and I was humming until the light went green for that note. And then I would sing through and each note I would stop and I would check it on the guitar tuner to see if I was accurate. Anytime I would make a mistake I would start it over. So it took me about eight hours to learn that whole song with being able to sing through once without making a mistake. And when I met up with my dad to sing it I didn’t expect to remember, I just expected to say, "You know what? I put in my good college try. I put in the effort. Let it die."
I realized later that I was born with perfect pitch and then muscle memory — you can feel your vocal cords move and you can feel the sound move from your chest to your head. I just closed my eyes and I trusted my gut and I sang it expecting to fail. And it came out accurate.
SARAH: So when you sit down to write music now, what is that process like? Because I think of it so much as a trial-and-error process with musicians. You try something, you hear it, you decide you don’t like it, you modify it. What is it like for you to do that now?
MANDY: It’s weird — it’s terrifying! I will say that straight up: It’s terrifying. It’s one thing to sing a song that you can’t hear but you know people like, you know? It’s tried and true. It’s something completely different to sing something that nobody’s ever heard before. That’s a brand of naked that you really have to ease into. I sit down or I’ll be driving and I just think of a ditty and I just record it in my phone, and then I send that to somebody else who has working equipment and they chart it out for me. And then I monkey with it from there. But I mean, a lot of the songs, I hate to say this, but a lot of the songs I’ve written I just wrote in one take. Start to finish.
So there’s a song “Happy Again” — I was just sitting in my car and just sang the song from start to finish, words and melody, just all the way through and I never changed it.
SARAH: Are you hearing in your head what you want to come out? Or are you working by the feel of the notes as you sing them?
MANDY: Mostly by the feel. But I mean I — music is constantly playing in my mind. It’s not necessarily accurate to what’s being played out when I play a concert, I can only feel what my musicians are doing. I can’t hear them, but I can see them and I can feel the rhythm, I can feel the bass through my chest and I can feel the drums through the floor and you can feel it tingling on your skin. So, I mean, sound exists even if I can’t process it. But in my mind, even though we’re just this band, there’s this orchestra playing and there’s giant symphonies.
I really didn’t write music for a long after coming back to it because it was never something that I was brave enough to try until I met an amazing guy. His name is Erik Weihenmayer. He’s the blind man who climbed Mount Everest, and he’s a dear friend of mine. And he asked me, "What are you afraid of? Why? Why are you afraid of writing your own music? What’s the worst that can happen?" And I was like, you know it’s interesting. My biggest fear was losing my hearing. That happened. And I survived. What can you take from me?