We have seen the driven, the intelligent, the artistically inclined. We have praised the shocking, the jarring, and the fierce individual spirit. But, it is rare to encounter an artist who, through hardship, has refused to use personal obstacles as an excuse.
Recording artist and Tourette’s syndrome sufferer Harper Starling has used music as her medicine, unwilling to put aside her dream in the face of adversity.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Starling knew it was her dream to move to a big city from a young age. Through her youth in a musical home, Starling began performing, dancing, at age four.
“I’ve always been singing [along to] my dad’s vinyl records…or making up random songs that don’t make any sense with my sister, but my love of music really came when I was 12-years-old. That was when I started doing singing lessons,” Starling said.
As Starling bopped her head to the radio, she was unaware of the struggles that lie ahead and how her musical talent could be used as her greatest asset.
“I have Tourette’s. Eight-years-old was the onset of it, and I had the really bad tics, the head jerking back, and a lot of muscle spasms. Obviously, to other kids that was very odd to see, things were said to me, and I kind of felt like a freak. I used to be such an outgoing kid, I could talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime. But, when the [bullying] from classmates came from age 8 until about age 12, it got really bad. I became very withdrawn. I kind of became the wallflower. In my head I figured the less I’m seen, the less I’m heard, the less people will notice me, the less bullying will happen,” Starling said.
Because of the little knowledge of what Tourettes was or how to diagnose it, Starling endured tests, scans, and hospital visits in order to develop a plan for treatment.
“I knew something was wrong and I wasn’t in control of my body and that was a really scary thing. Between [the tests] and what kids were saying to me at school, I felt like a freak. I wish I could go back to that little girl and just say ‘It makes you special and makes you unique. You are not a freak. This is something you have and it makes you you. Embrace it love it, it’s gonna change you for the better’,” Starling said,” Starling said.
However, after her sister began taking singing lessons, Starling signed up hoping to use performing as a way to come out of her shell and through plays, musicals, and involvement in her school’s arts and music program, Starling discovered that when performing, her tics stopped. She began to use music as her medicine.
“My tics started going away when I would sing and dance. That just happened to be my Saving Grace and a blessing in disguise, the thing that I’m most passionate about just happened to be the medicine I needed. So the more I could be performing the better… Going back to it now and thinking about it kind of brings tears to my eyes because that really was a turnaround for me that year,” Starling said.
Struggling through bullying in middle and high school, Harper eventually found solace in her high school’s theater department.
“I really found the group of friends that were very like-minded and we were very positive and upbeat people and that was what I wanted to surround myself with. People really started getting to know who I was and I was able really to kind of break out of my shell. I knew I belonged on a stage and that was were I could really let go and it was very freeing to me. It’s just a way that I can let go and really be myself. There are really no barriers that are holding me back when I’m out there and I’m able to let go of all the fears and the doubts that we’re going on in everyday life. It just allowed me to connect much more to what I was doing in the moment,” Starling said.
In order to further her music career, Starling began covering songs, but, because she was attending school to become a physical therapist, she never created her own music.
“I still was unsure of my talent even though it was there. I wish I could go back and kind of shake my younger self and go ‘you have the [talent], you can do it. You have to believe in yourself.’ But I still went to school for another year and half. I remember thinking ‘What the hell are you doing? Come on girl, get it together. So that night I went to the library and started reading all these books on how to start a career as a musician. I got a keyboard and just started writing,” Starling said.
Her father noticed her becoming more serious about music and introduced her to a member of the Violent Femmes, allowing her to create an album and eventually open for Sheryl Crow at Summerfest 2015. With performers like The Rolling Stones, Bastille, Ed Sheeran, and Kendrick Lamar, Summerfest is the Midwest equivalent to Coachella, and the biggest stage Starling had ever stepped foot on.
“I just happened to be on one of the largest stages on the entire grounds…and I was nervous because I went ‘Okay, this is Summerfest. You know the deal. This is a dream of yours. Don’t mess it up. Come on Harper, don’t mess it up.’ [But], First and foremost, I’m a performer. I love to entertain people. I love to give them something that they can remember and be affected by in a positive light. A week after the performance, I got an email from a management firm in New York who I signed with a couple months later.”
Starling’s move to L.A. two years ago allowed her to create her own music, most recently as a featured artist in the Perry Twins’ “Euphoria”.
“The meaning behind the song is letting go of your fears and your doubts and just being yourself… It really does parallel what I’ve gone through in life and that’s why I’m really happy that so many people are connecting with it because I started to doubt my dream and I didn’t know if I had it in me and when I finally let all of that go, I had this kind of euphoric, freeing feeling inside,” Starling said.
Although Starling has released her music video, is performing around L.A., and is working towards a summer tour, Starling’s ultimate dream would be to headline her own International tour. Starling refused to allow her self-doubt or physical ailments to stop her from reaching new heights, a message she hopes to send to young artists facing adversity.
Starling continues to advocate for self-expression and the importance of young voices in the artist community.
“Self expression gives young people a voice when adults and the rest of the world don’t want to listen. If you allow that creative aspect in you to really cultivate, it can just allow you to grow into more of a strong and beautiful person. I knew what I wanted to do, I knew I had the talent, I knew I have the drive, I knew I had the passion. I finally let all of that doubt and worry go and look what that led me to today,” Starling said.