Gracing some of the hottest venues in New York, Jazz singer Harmony Keeney is redefining just how far an artist can go on the “local” scene. Leveraging great talent and a highly stylized image, this rising star creates a true first class act. Harmony’s unique character and honesty inspired us and we’re proud to put her career in the spotlight. We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did. May you be inspired!
LBFH: At what age were you attracted to music?
HK: I loved music right away. My parents were music lovers and exposed me to a lot of stuff pretty early, and they let me use the record player. I scratched up several albums and memorized them, complete with the skips I’d made. I have a strong memory of hearing my parents play “Heart and Soul” on the piano when I was about 3 or 4 and I couldn’t get enough of it. That was the first time I heard swing, and I just went crazy for it.
LBFH: Did you study music? What was the first band setting you ever played in?
HK: Yes, I took Suzuki violin lessons as a very small child and then piano lessons. I didn’t practice enough to actually learn to play, but it at least gave me a feel for the basic structure of a song. I did a little better in middle school, playing flute in the band. I chose the flute because I thought all the girls would be playing it and I didn’t want to be different. There was no real passion for the instrument, but I did love playing in the band – all those different instruments combining to make music together. I really found it thrilling. The band program, when I started high school, was pretty small, so I quit after my freshman year in favor of chorus, but I did miss it. By that time, I knew I wanted to be a jazz singer and was taking voice lessons, and I continued in college as a voice major in music industry studies.
LBFH: What bands/artists were among your earliest influences?
HK: Really young, probably around 5 years old, there were three albums I’d play over and over: The Beatles, Abbey Road; The Manhattan Transfer, Mecca for Moderns; and Dolly Parton, 9 to 5. I also remember really liking The Carpenters and Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good… so it was an eclectic little mix I had. In middle school, I saw a televised concert of The Manhattan Transfer’s Vocalese tour and really became obsessed, like only a middle-schooler can. That Vocalese album made jazz, particularly bebop, more accessible to me, and it also made me want to listen to artists like Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. It was a great foundation to start from, and I feel really lucky that I happened to see that concert. My gratitude to PBS for that.
In high school, I started studying and really fell in love with jazz standards, particularly the Great American Songbook. I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Billie Holiday. I became a huge Judy Garland fan – my next obsession. It’s funny, I was studying jazz phrasing and learning about singing behind the beat, and listening to a lot of jazz singers, but the phrasing light bulb really came on for me when I heard Judy Garland singing “Do It Again” on her Carnegie Hall album. I just got it. The tempo was there underneath, and the voice flowed so freely over it, yet still within the structure, and with purpose. From that point, my sophomore year in high school, I would always say I wanted to be a jazzy Judy Garland, although I didn’t really have a mental image of what that would sound like. Then, in college, I heard Shirley Horn and knew right away, that was it. I could go on and on about my influences, both early and more recent. A much-too-short list would have to include Stevie Wonder, Blossom Dearie, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Quincy Jones, Madeleine Peyroux and gospel singer Ethel Caffie-Austin.
LBFH: At what point did you know that you wanted to be a professional musician?
HK: I always wanted to be a singer. Early on, I think I wanted to be a singer and a teacher and probably a fireman too, but by middle school, I knew I wanted to be a professional jazz singer.
LBFH: Was it hard to find other serious like minded musicians?
HK: In high school, there were quite a few talented kids, who loved making music, jazz even. The hard part for me was that I was convinced that no instrumentalist enjoyed working with singers. It took me a long time to get over that fear. I was fortunate to have my friend, Bess Sadler. She played guitar and sang, and we formed a singer/songwriter duo, Bess and Harmony. We recorded an album that was a hit with a lot of our school friends. I have a lot of good memories from our time working together. Once I got to college, I slowly realized how spoiled I had been because Bess had handled all of our bookings. On my own, I would take jazz gigs when musicians would invite me, but I eventually realized that to work regularly, I had to get the gigs myself. Once I figured that out, things started to fall into place and I was able to work regularly with some really wonderful jazz musicians.
LBFH: What sacrifices did you make along the way?
HK: I think lack of financial stability is the biggest challenge in this business. It’s a frightening thing to be without and it’s hard to ask your family to make that leap with you. I don’t have children, so the challenge isn’t as great as it could be, and I’m fortunate that my family is supportive.
LBFH: How much time daily/weekly do you spend writing new music?
HK: That’s something that’s fallen by the wayside over the last couple months and I’m really itching to get back at it. Fortunately, I should have some time this summer to write regularly. I’m planning on writing three days a week, probably mainly in the mornings. I tend to feel most inspired if I jump right in after breakfast.
LBFH: Can you describe your studio/creative space?
HK: We live in a one bedroom apartment, so there isn’t a ton of room. I work in my living room. The windows let in plenty of light and the walls have that great molding you find in prewar buildings. It’s the one room in the apartment we painted ourselves – a cool grayish-white with bright white molding and it has a couple pieces of furniture from the West Virginia farm where my grandfather grew up. I find the space simultaneously calming and inspiring. I love working there.
LBFH: What equipment do you use?
HK: I have a Kawai upright piano that I absolutely love. My parents bought it when I was growing up, hoping that a nice piano would inspire me to practice more. That was a complete failure, and now I just hope my neighbors are at work when I write, because I’m only able to plod through chords, constantly stopping for mistakes – it would be complete torture for anyone to have to listen to that. But it gets the job done, and it’s such a joy to have a real piano when musicians come for rehearsals. To create the charts, I use MuseScore, which is free, open source music-notation software.
LBFH: How much time do you spend developing your own unique sound?
HK: I always say that I found my voice when I was trying and failing to become Janis Siegel — she has such amazing vocal chops. A doctor told me I have slight paresis of the left vocal fold. I don’t know what all that means, but one thing it means is that I’ll never have her incredible range. So, around middle school, I tried and failed to become Janis Siegel, and, by the ninth grade, I had stumbled upon the basic sound that felt like me. I think it’s fairly unique, but that’s not my goal. I just want my singing to be an honest reflection of me and my love for the music – I’m very uncomfortable with anything that feels contrived.
LBFH: What do you enjoy the most about performing?
HK: I am so emotionally affected by music that to be able to actually participate in the making of it is a complete thrill. And that special communion that happens between the musicians and an audience that shares that joy… well, it’s divine in the truest sense of the word.
LBFH: What do you enjoy the least about performing??
HK: I really enjoy performing. Live performance is my favorite way to enjoy music, so it’s hard to come up with anything I don’t enjoy. Occasionally, I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to sing songs I don’t like or arrangements I’m not comfortable with and that can be hard. But in general, I love performing; it’s the promotional aspect of the business that I find more difficult.
LBFH: How do you feel the industry has changed over the past 2 decades?
HK: The internet has completely changed the industry. I certainly don’t feel like I am equipped to analyze these changes from anything but a personal perspective. Growing up, I wanted to be discovered and signed by a record label. That would be the machine that allowed me to do what I loved to do. It would handle the business/promotional side of things and I would be responsible only for singing. Well, that probably wasn’t the full reality back then, but it certainly isn’t the reality now. People don’t buy albums as much anymore, they can stream the songs they like for very little money or they can find almost anything they want to hear on YouTube for free. The big record labels have lost some power and the smaller labels are struggling. Record deals for artists are few and far between. But, on the other hand, I can release my music on cdbaby myself, I can put my videos on YouTube, I can promote my music and performances on Twitter. I have to handle every aspect of my business, – I’ve even learned web design – but with that responsibility comes control. I have to make all the decisions and I get to make all the decisions.
LBFH: What are your views on social media and how it impacts you as an artist?
HK: Facebook has become my Rolodex and event calendar, and Twitter is like a huge conference where everyone’s passing out business cards and getting tipsy off cocktails. Both are great resources in terms of making industry connections and keeping up with other artists in the community. Of course, they’re also huge promotional tools in terms of getting your music out there and attracting new fans. As an introvert, it can be challenging and I do miss home being a haven, separate from the world. But, then again, the ability to reach the world when you’re on the couch in your pjs has its perks.
LBFH: Do you feel that your work promotes the arts and music in the community?
HK: In its own small way, yes. I know artists who do special programs in the public schools and head up fund-raising concerts for various causes, and, while I greatly admire them, I don’t know if that will ever be me. But I perform live music in the community, and I think that working with other artists and just being a participant in the music community helps to promote it. Lately, I’ve been performing at 508 GastroBrewery here in New York, and that feels very much a local, community endeavor. People come for the food, the beer and wine, the atmosphere, to catch up with their friends – and the music is just one part of that. I’ve been doing the gig with Tedd Firth (p) and Steve Doyle (b) and it’s very musically freeing to work with them in such a relaxed atmosphere.
LBFH: How would you like to see music and arts evolve locally?
HK: I just hope people keep going out. There’s a great temptation to stay in and watch Netflix every night, and I’m not knocking that at all – I love to do that myself. But I think, with all the home entertainment options and social media at our disposal, we are coming to realize that there is no substitute for going out and engaging with friends and seeing music performed live. It’s life-giving and something I want to make more of a priority in my own life. I hope others do too.
Beyond that, I’d like to see artists encouraged by both venues and audiences to go where their creativity leads them and not be too strictly confined to one genre or style. Perhaps that is something we will see more and more as audiences can discover independent artists online, artists that might not fit easily into mainstream categories. Live music is great for encouraging that freedom. I think when an audience is engaged in the full experience of seeing an artist live, they are naturally more open to music they might not discover in the confines of their own headphones.
LBFH: What do you hope to leave behind you?
HK: I don’t think about that very much. I’m glad I have a few recordings and videos to show any future grandkids I may have. I used to teach voice lessons, and I think it would be nice to get back to that at some point, perhaps in a master class setting, to pass on some of the things I’ve learned to other artists. And perhaps someone will sing some of the songs I’ve written after I’m gone. For the most part, I really have a passion for music performed live. That’s an art form of the present, not easily captured for posterity, so I feel more than content to just enjoy doing it while I can. When I’m done with my career, all the young ones can know that, like the song says, “I’ve had a love of my own, like yours. I’ve had a love of my own.”
LBFH: What advice would you give to someone who was looking to get into the music business?
HK: If you know in your heart that you have to work in this business to be happy, – that you wouldn’t be happy with music as a hobby – then don’t waste any time, go for it. If you can go to college in the city where you want to work, that’s a great way to make connections. If not, move there as soon as you can. It’s helpful to have youthful energy when you’re starting in this business because you’ll be burning the candle at both ends. Surround yourself with people who encourage you.
LBFH: What’s next for you?
HK: Well, I just finished a week at Birdland over the Fourth of July, working with Eric Comstock (p/v), Christopher Gines (v), and Boots Maleson (b) on the show “Our Sinatra.” The worlds of cabaret and jazz in this city can overlap more than one might expect, and this show has certainly been an example of that for me. Jack Lewin, the show’s producer, discovered me back in 2007, at one of my first jazz performances here in New York. He saw that I was jazz-oriented but could tell that the fundamental phrasing was there, and he knew that I would be able to dial back some of my more improvisational elements to suit the show. This was the third time I’ve done it, and it was really a lot of fun getting to work a bit out of my element, while still feeling so at home on the Birdland stage. The audiences were wonderful.
The rest of the summer should be fairly low-key, as far as live performances go. I’ve got a couple gigs lined up at 508 GastroBrewery with Tedd Firth (p) and Steve Doyle (b). Those are always a lot of fun with plenty of friends coming out to join in the festivities. My wife and I just planned a couple trips to visit family, so I’ll probably try to book something for August when I’ll be home in North Carolina. Business-wise, my main goals for the summer are to write, finalize some performances that are coming up in the fall, and do some radio and press publicity for my new singles.
LBFH: What projects/events would you like to tell our readers about?
HK: Right now, I’m in the process of releasing three new singles. All three are already available as videos on my YouTube channel. The first is my original, “I Was Wrong About You,” a ballad in the tradition of the American Songbook. I hesitate to say too much about it, – it’s a fairly straightforward take on love lost – but it’s probably my favorite of anything I’ve written thus far. The second is a remake of the Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn standard, “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” that was so brilliantly done in the late 50s by Nina Simone. I tried to pay homage to Simone’s version and then add some of my own lyrical and stylistic touches as well. Those first two are already available as digital downloads on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc. The last of the three is another original, “You’ve Got A Lot of Nerve.” It’s a fun, little swing tune about falling in love with someone who’s just stringing you along. I always think of Cary Grant in “An Affair to Remember” BEFORE he fell in love with Deborah Kerr – he’s such a cad, but he’s irresistible. That one will be available as a digital download soon. The videos and links to purchase the singles are all on my website.
LBFH: Can you describe your creative process & how your songs were written & produced?
HK: I have a voice recording app on my phone – nothing fancy. If an idea comes to me, I quickly record it and then I can access it later when I actually have time to flesh it out. That’s essential for me because, if nothings coming to me during one of my scheduled writing times, I can refer back to those clips and have some place to start. Usually it starts with a lyric or a musical line that just comes to me, but from there it can take some extra work. I try not to accept anything that doesn’t feel just right. I experiment with different chords to see if I can go someplace more sophisticated than my initial thought. I break out the rhyming dictionary or the thesaurus. For a long time, I thought if it didn’t come easily it wasn’t going to come or if it did, it wouldn’t be good enough, but as an adult, my motto is more, “it’s worth the effort.”
Tony DeSare produced the three singles I’m currently releasing. He has a home studio that’s really quite impressive. We recorded them in one session – just live, no punching in or anything – and the initial intent was just to have some nice videos for my YouTube channel. But he did such a good job with the audio that we ended up with CD quality recordings, so with everyone’s permission, I decided to release them as singles. It was the best time I’ve ever had in a studio. Tony, along with Robbie Vicencio, who handled the cameras and lights, both gave me just the right amount of support and guidance, and I discovered that I really enjoy recording on camera. Studio work can bring out my worst tendencies as a perfectionist and have me obsessing so much about details that I lose the magic that has to be captured for a record to be good. I think having to perform for the camera and get it in a single take forced me to give a more complete performance, and I think that can be heard in the recording.
Photo credit: Bill Westmoreland
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit his website: Thomasmangano.com