Harper Starling’s life was turned upside down with the onset of Tourette’s syndrome at the age of eight. Her only respite from the condition, and the unrelenting bullying that it prompted, was performing as when she sang or danced her tics disappeared.
Despite the freedom performing granted her, Starling initially pursued a career in healthcare. She was on the cusp of becoming a physiotherapist when she packed her studies in to pursue her singing dreams.
It was a gamble that paid off – she’s currently riding high in the Billboard music charts. Euphoria, a Perry Twins dance tune as upbeat as the name suggests, features Starling’s vocals and is a top ten hit. Starling spoke to iSing.
Describe your childhood and growing up with Tourette’s?
I have a music-oriented family, especially on my dad’s side. My cousins, sister and I would always put on performances for our aunts and uncles. I also attended dance classes and would always look forward to those rehearsals because it was a break from school. Initially, I had a great time at school but with the onset of Tourette’s at age eight, I started getting teased a lot and felt I had no control over my body. When I was dancing and singing, though, the tics would disappear. That’s why those classes would be the highlight of my week.
What role did singing play during your teen years?
I was an outgoing child until my Tourette’s came on and I became very introverted. Even though I enjoyed singing, I usually did so around the house with my sister. When she started taking singing lessons my mother figured they could help me come out of my shell, so when I was 12 I started taking lessons at the same studio. It was a great outlet for me and allowed me to grow artistically. I learnt a lot of great techniques that I still use to this day.
Who are your favourite artists?
I love Lady Gaga, what she stands for and her live performances. I also love that her music, her message, her visuals and her fashion are all a cohesive unit. One of my other idols is Michael Jackson. That man was one of the best performers of all time. He did everything: sing, write, produce and dance. He was a pioneer and changed the face of pop music.
Tell us about your meeting with Sigmund Snopek of The Violent Femmes?
After I decided to pursue a full-time music career a family friend introduced me to Sigmund. Initially, we were going to work on two songs together, but when I played him some of my music he really liked what he heard. I worked with him for the next year and a half while gigging all over Wisconsin. This culminated in me opening for Sheryl Crow at Summerfest which is one of the largest music festivals in the Midwest.
You were on track to become a physical therapist (or physiotherapist, as we would say in the UK). Why did you change direction?
From a young age I had wanted to pursue a career in music, but I decided to take a safer approach and aim for a steady job. I was very good at science and shadowed my friend’s mother who was a physical therapist. I was close to getting my doctorate degree and pretty much had a job lined up, but I really missed having music in my life. As clichéd as it sounds, music is a part of me. Yes, I was performing in musicals and singing in choir during this time, but it wasn’t the same. I could only devote a few hours to music each week. Eventually I decided I didn’t want to spend my life doing a job that I wasn’t passionate about.
How does Tourette’s affect you now?
I still have tics today although they are not nearly as severe as they were when I was a child and a teenager. The tics aren’t painful, more annoying than anything. Usually the tics get worse when I’m stressed or excited. Before I go on stage to perform the tics are at their worst but the moment I hit the stage they go away. I’ve learned to accept that Tourette’s is a part of me and how to manage the tics in my day-to-day life. I’m no longer embarrassed by the tics, but proud that they make me unique.
There are many examples of people with Tourette’s who find their tics subside when they sing. Why do you think this is?
I think it has a lot to do with focusing your energy on one task. Vocal tics are very common in people with Tourette’s and when you’re singing, your body can’t do both at the same time. It’s when we are at a standstill that the tics tend to take over. That’s probably why I never liked to sit still as a child and still don’t to this day. I’m so grateful though that singing is the best remedy for my tics.
What’s next for Harper Starling?
I’ll be releasing an EP in the near future as well as some other new singles. I’m performing at multiple Pride festivals over the next couple of weeks and just released the new music video for my Billboard hit single with The Perry Twins, Euphoria.