Maybe you've seen Courtney Harrell and remember her from her season of The Voice, but her phenomenal story and her credits as a songwriter begin long before she ever stepped foot on that stage. A native of Dorchester, Ms. Harrell grew up in the church, surrounded by music, so it was no surprise that she has become one of the most sought after voices and songwriters of her time. Visiting Berklee this week to give critiques in ensembles, have one on one mentoring meetings with songwriting majors, and give a clinic on toplining in Los Angeles, I sat in on an informal talk Ms. Harrell had in The Loft on Tuesday afternoon.
She started by sharing some of her story. Growing up in Dorchester, while she was surrounded by people listening to Soul, R&B, and Hip-Hop, Ms. Harrell's favorite music was 70s soft rock groups such as Chicago and Hall & Oates. As a result, she was often told that she "sounded like a white girl." Nevertheless, she persisted in her efforts to pursue music on her own terms, which has been a hallmark of her career. Completing Berklee as a teen mother, she went on to write songs and/or produce vocals for the likes of Brandy, Fantasia, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Kelly Rowland, and more.
Ms. Harrell also shared her harrowing experience as an artist on The Voice, which was especially unique, since she had already been successful as a writer before competing on the show. Admitting that her most successful moments on the show were when she performed exactly the way she wanted to and was most herself, she also said that the moments where the judges were unsure about her were because she was unsure as well.
Students asked questions and some of the advice that stuck out to me the most were the following:
Sometimes you have to love yourself like Kanye loves Kanye.
Honor your limitations because they make you have to approach things in a different way.
You must have a certain attitude about yourself and your story. Be confident about being yourself.
If you have multiple talents, own it, and leverage it to your benefit.
Ultimately, I believe students were inspired both by Ms. Harrell's successes as well as the challenges that she has overcome. She gave a realistic view of the industry that we will experience post-Berklee, and encouraged everyone to develop a thick skin in order to persevere through challenging times.