Courtney's Got Talent
Courtney Harrell ’01 remembers being about 11 or 12 years old when her mother, a gospel singer, started calling her up to the front of church congregations: “She would point to me, and just say, ‘Come up here,’ while she was singing, and toss me the mic.”
Her mom would do this at Faith Tabernacle Assembly, the Dorchester church where she and Harrell’s father were co-pastors, and at the many churches where she was a guest singer. “That was her way: She just threw me in the deep end,” Harrell says. Her mother expected her not to just keep her head above water but to be able to plunge into its sonic depths and glide atop its buoyant surfaces. “It’s like, ‘You’re not learning, you’re doing it, and you need to sing it like you wrote it,’” Harrell remembers.
The message—this is your moment, take it—was one Harrell internalized as an invaluable lesson that has helped her have a successful career as a songwriter for some of the biggest names in the industry, as a teacher at Boston Public Schools, as a performer who’s toured with John Legend ’20H and landed in the top 10 on The Voice, and as a casting and lead producer for America’s Got Talent (AGT).
It’s a résumé many musicians would envy, and Harrell built it after becoming a mother at 17, while also often working jobs in retail and trying to become self-sufficient enough to get off welfare.
This spring, Harrell returned to Berklee to receive one of the handful of Alumni Achievement Awards the college gives out every year (see p. 8) and to participate in Career Jam. “Berklee is home,” she says. In March, while she was at her current home in Los Angeles as the next season of AGT got under way, she talked with Berklee Today about her unlikely path to success, her tips for songwriting, what she looks for in musicians she’s casting for AGT, and what she calls “the big fear.”
The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
I want to talk a little about how you grew up. What was your early exposure to music? Was your family musical?
My parents are pastors. My mom–incredible singer. Voice like Patti LaBelle [’96H] that soars through the air. She was the first one that I saw that was like a superhero in music. She would sing at the Gospel Night at the Pops. …What is now TD Garden was the Fleet Center at one point, and the opening night they requested my mom to come and open the Fleet Center.
Everything I know about music, like songwriting, delivering emotion in song, comes from my father. He was a songwriter, too. …I have memories of him calling me into a room where he’s listening to Motown or whatever. [He’d say,] “Do you hear phrasing? Do you hear how they delivered this line? The rhythm in this line?”
There were times that a song would come to him at like 2, 3 in the morning, and he’d get me and my mom up and say, “Wake up, wake up! I hear this! Sing this part!” And then he’d record it in a tape recorder.
In addition to that, your dad was a social worker?
Yes, he worked for–I think the name has since changed in the last two years–but at the time it was DARE Family Services.
Did your mom have a profession other than being a pastor?
She was a homemaker. She had a home daycare for a while, and then started teaching in Boston Public Schools. She’s still there to this day. She teaches children who are challenged, in fourth grade.
You were 15 when you entered Berklee’s City Music program. Did you enroll at Berklee right after high school?
I started at 20. [Before that] I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m so tired of music.” I wanted to study sociology, so I went to Brandeis University for a year. [Then] I was like, “Ooh, no, I miss music.” So I came back.
Tell me about your choice to major in music business if your passion was to be a performer and a writer.
I wanted to be equipped, businesswise, to pursue the goal that I had of being a singer and a songwriter. Oftentimes, you’d find songwriters and singers who would get shafted because they didn’t know the business. And I had a child; I couldn’t afford that.
I wanted to ask about that. You had your son in high school, then you went to Brandeis, and then to Berklee. How did you manage that?
I don’t know. Jesus and family. And holding on to what was in my gut, that there’s more, and now I have a reason to do it. My son was my reason to do it.
You’re saying that your son motivated you in going to Berklee and in succeeding at Berklee?
Absolutely, my son saved me. Most people would think, “Oh, 17! You had a kid. Oh, how unfortunate! You know, your life is over.” Dylan gave me my life. Because prior to him I was talented, but I was terrified of the world. …my esteem or belief in myself was…it wasn’t there. But [after his birth] I had someone I had to do it for.
I hid my pregnancy for seven months. I was just afraid. …But I would talk to him in my womb, I would tell him I loved him. I didn’t see a doctor until I was almost eight months, and then I went into silent labor at eight months.
What is silent labor?
You’re having a baby but you don’t feel it. So I would tell him, “Dylan, you are born to do the impossible, because this is crazy. But I can’t tell you that if I’m not able to do what’s possible for me, which looks impossible to most. So now I have to do it to show you who you are.”
What part of it do you think looks impossible to most?
Teen mom, going to college, full scholarship, raising your kid, putting your kid through college, touring the world, writing for some of the biggest artists, producing on one of the biggest shows in history. Like, these are things that I hear sound incredible, and I think about it, I mean, they are.
It does sound incredible. Did you have a job while you went to school?
[I worked at the retailer] Express. …I would work two and three jobs while I was at Berklee.
So you went to Berklee full-time on a full scholarship, you held down a couple of jobs, and had a baby?
It was hard. It was painful.
Impressive, though. So can you tell me about those years right after you graduated from Berklee? What did those look like for you?
While I was in Berklee, a friend of mine gave me a week in his studio to write some songs, and I was like, “Well, I’m going to New York.” …On that trip I met a man at Popeye’s Chicken who I started having a conversation with, and it turned out that he was the assistant to the executive director at [the New York chapter of] ASCAP. And he was like, “I want you to meet my boss.” I talked to his boss that night, and his boss said, “Can you get here on Tuesday? Come play me your songs.” I was like, “Yeah.”
What happened from there?
I was signed to them, or I signed with them as my [performing rights organization]. Usually you don’t get that kind of attention from them if you haven’t really proven yourself. But I went in there on my three little demos, and I was like, “Here you go.” I just said, “I’m a songwriter.” I had never really written. But I was like, “This is what I do.”
And it wasn’t for artists at first; it just was with producers. So that’s really where the value is in the beginning: it’s the relationships with the other creatives.
Claude Kelly [B.M. ’02] was one of them, right?
Yeah. Oh, I went to school with him. …At one point…he was like, “Courtney. You’re a singer. You need to get out there.” And he was my manager in Berklee. In New York, I stayed with him and his mom. …I was writing with him. Some of our first cuts early on were together, for the Cheetah Girls, or I don’t know. Like, little things…these smaller cuts that you get along the way. We got a lot of those together.
How did you go from writing for ASCAP to writing for some of the biggest artists in the industry?
You keep working. You keep making connections. You keep taking the things that seem like they’re not really a big thing, but they turn into a big thing. And eventually you’ll meet someone who’ll have a key to open the door to that room.
After you’d been doing this for a while, you started working as a teacher at Boston Public Schools [BPS]. Can you talk about that transition?
I would ask [my son] all the time, because I was on the road, “I will stop when you ask me.” Whenever I would leave, I’m like, “Dylan. Are you sure you’re okay?” …And then one day in January of 2005, he says, “Mom, I’m not fine anymore. I want you home.” I was touring at the time with Tweed, or doing gospel spot dates here and there. And then I’m in New York, writing. …So I went from that to teaching at the Lyndon School in West Roxbury, music to kids K through eighth grade. I did that for four years and wrote in between. I would test my songs out on the kids: “Is this good?” If they can’t sing it back to you, you do not have a hit record.
Oh, really? Why?
Because it needs to be memorable. And if it’s too smart, or too anything, they’re like, “Oh, that’s nice, Miss Harrell, can you play Taylor Swift?” …So that’s how I know that if you cannot get a kid, forget about it. And I also understood the influence of music with the middle schoolers. So there were two very important, urgent lessons that I learned that prepared me for being a songwriter. I keep them in mind every time I put my pen to paper.
If you can’t get them to sing the song, you don’t have a hit song. And…
What you write shapes their world. It shapes their perception of themselves. I would see how they would come and tell me what they wanted to do with their lives. …A lot of times the influences were not good. We had little girls who aspired to be video hoes. I mean, that’s what they said at the time, and that was a cool way of saying it. So, okay, I have to bear that in mind.
What kind of messages do you think about putting into your music, having those kids in mind?
I just think about writing what is true and what is vulnerable and what is beneficial and hopeful. I like to write the world the way I’d like to see it.
I noticed at the AGT auditions you ran at Berklee last month that you would encourage students to sing their inner truths. Is that how you help shape artists that you work with?
Absolutely. Ultimately, what the artist wants to happen more than anything is to just be heard. But you cannot be heard if you’re not letting your voice sing lead. Your voice, your experiences, your point of view, your fears, your hopes for a better tomorrow or a better 30 seconds from now—that’s where you have to come from. Or else, it’s just sound. But music needs context. Music needs truth. Music needs power and honesty and vulnerability and badassery—it needs all of that. It needs audacity. It needs courage. And if you don’t have that then it’s not going to work.
This reminds me of a video clip I saw of you talking about the difference between an artist and someone who does music.
Yeah, there is a difference. …There are some people who are just there to make you feel good. And then there are some people who are there to move the needle, to crack your heart open. To shape your world. To throw you a lifeline. To say, “No, you’re not crazy. I feel that way, too.” And it’s to color your world with hope and understanding.
You left your job as a public school teacher in 2009. What made you decide to leave?
I left BPS because it was time to go.
Did you have another job lined up?
No. …But I felt inside like, “I need to prepare myself for what’s next.” And I planned on making a comeback as a songwriter. So I just worked on songwriting for about a good five/six months before I got a call to come in and audition for John Legend, out of the blue.
How does that happen?
My godbrother had called me, and he said, “Courtney, you’re going to get a call. Just say yes.” So the call came the following morning, and I got a call to sing for Lady Gaga. I was like, “Hmm. Something about this doesn’t feel like a good fit for me.” I was on the verge of eviction. But I was like, “This is not the way I’m supposed to go.”
How did you know that?
I just felt it. This is fall 2009.
Was this to be a backup singer on her tour?
Yeah. I would have got paid a lot of money. I’m sure of it. It would have changed things for me financially. …the next day [the same person] calls and says, “How about John Legend?” I said, “That I can do.” The line to audition for him was two New York blocks. There were 500 girls out there.
For one spot?
What happened from there?
In 2010 I started with John Legend. I was still writing. On a break we had in L.A. I connected with a producer named Harmony Samuels, who I had worked with before on a project that seemed like it was nothing. (Remember, I was saying it’s always a thing that you think, “Oh, I don’t have time for that”: that’s the thing that changes everything.) …I went and did a session with [Samuels]—within 45 minutes the song just flowed out of me. And it was [about] my life during that time, which was very hard. I was on the verge of losing my place, eviction, it was crazy. I was still on Section 8. I was still on welfare. I wasn’t ever making enough to not need help.
Even while you were working for Boston Public Schools?
Yes! Even while I was singing with John Legend!
So I connected with Harmony…and then another songwriter, Eric Bellinger, came the next day. The three of us started writing a lot. Those songs got us in the door with Chris Brown. And then it just started going click, click, click, click. But a lot of the songs, like, from Mary [J. Blige] or Beyoncé.…they’re songs that I just wrote, and they heard them and they liked them. …I wrote what was true to me.
What are some of the top tips you would give to songwriters?
Study, study, study. Study the greats. Study not just the songwriters, study the artists. Also, don’t be afraid to live, because you have to have something to write about. It’s okay to put the pen or pencil down. My pen is down right now. It’s down. When I pick that joint up again, though, I’m gonna have something to say. I’m studying [the TV show] Frasier right now for the third or fourth time: Look at the timing. Look at the storytelling in it. …And then, [there are] exercises that you should do. Just write for 10 minutes and don’t stop, and don’t worry about whether or not it makes sense. Or take an object in your room and let that be the prompt that you write a story about for 10 minutes. And then listen. Songwriters, you need to listen. Your songs are all around you. Songs are in the jobs you don’t want to take because you’re too cool for it.
What kind of jobs?
If you’re working as a barista, do you know how many stories you’re going to get? Take the job! You know how many stories I encountered selling clothes? Teaching kids? The world is your prompt notebook. Work at Starbucks! Know what it is to be the person you’re writing to.
I think that’s why, if one says that I connect, it’s because…I am you. I’m not too cool to be you. I’ve struggled. I’ve suffered for this. I’ve paid for it. …But the musicians, they annoy me because they’re too cool for a lot—they’re too cool.
And if they’re too cool they don’t get the stories.
Nope. You too cool. Nobody can tell you anything. You’re so worried about being a rock star. Rock stars pay for that. Otherwise, you get to the top, and then you don’t have what you need to sustain it.
You mean you don’t have something to write about?
Yes, and you don’t have life experience enough to keep you sane when you get to where you think you want to go. Because the air, it’s thin up here. It’s thin.
Let’s fast-forward a few years to your 2016 audition for The Voice. How did that come about?
[My vocal coach, Nick Cooper] says, “Courtney, can you come teach these kids at my studio in downtown L.A. about songwriting?” I say, “Yes.” He says, “Why don’t you sing something for us?” I sing a hymn, “It Is Well.” The Voice sees that video. That’s what made them invite me.
Oh, your coach put it online?
My mentee at the time, who has become a brother to me, Lamont Leak, he put it online, because he came with me.
…But what you should know is that I was songwriting for all these people, but streaming had taken place as king, really, and so the money ran out. So at the time that I was singing for these kids, I was in the process of losing my home. …By August 2015, I had lost my home. …I was couch surfing…and would drive up to do sessions or what have you, and never tell anybody that I was homeless.
Were you homeless when you auditioned on The Voice?
I had just got into my place three weeks before.
During your audition for The Voice, you said you hadn’t sung publicly in 15 years.
That was publicly as a lead singer.
How did your life change after that audition?
In a lot of ways it didn’t. [Laughs.] But in a lot of ways, it did. I changed. I faced the big fear.
What’s “the big fear”?
Of being seen, being heard, and being rejected. …The Voice was hard for me in a couple of ways…there was an unraveling that was happening. There was death. Two significant deaths in my family at the time that no one knew about. I didn’t have the full understanding of what stress was doing to my body, so my breathing was off when I was on the show. I had a sore throat. …And then the opinions of people who don’t know anything about you, and then the guilt of “Man, what my peers on this show are trying to achieve, much of it I already have. Is it fair for me to be here?” And that guilt would impact the way I would perform, too.
When you say you had what they were working for, do you mean a successful songwriting career?
Yeah, on paper. But there was no money in songwriting at the time. …Now that I’m more stable, I don’t have the financial concerns as I did.
This stability, did it happen after The Voice?
Well, yes, but…it’s in production [work]. I’m a music producer at America’s Got Talent.
Tell me about the transition to becoming a casting producer for AGT.
Lamont Leak, who was a TV producer, had his name in the hat for this particular job. They were looking for a music industry professional to come in on the casting side, just so that we would elevate the type of artist that we placed on stage, because, you know, the executive producer is Simon Cowell, so music is a big deal. And I think taste level is important.… [Leak] couldn’t do the show, so he asked me if I was interested, and I said yes.
When you do casting, what do you look for in a musician?
I don’t know. The truth. Something that says, “Oh, my God, you have to see this. You have to hear this.” And I don’t know what it is until I see it.
…You have to have grit, you have to have belief in yourself, even if there’s some doubt, you gotta have belief. You don’t have to have the best talent, but you gotta make us feel something. I gotta feel it. I don’t care what it sounds like. We’ve heard it all. We haven’t heard life through your perspective, though. That’s what’s missing. The best to ever do it have already come and gone.
…We [as singers] are trained to think, “Oh, we need to be the next big whatever.” No, you don’t. You need to be the next big you, and you is imperfect. …Michael Jackson missed notes. Whitney missed notes. They don’t sing everything in tune! [But] it was real. And that’s why it was magic. …Kobe made most shots, but he didn’t make every shot. Lebron didn’t make every shot. What you need to learn is resilience. You need to learn to fail quickly. Fail and fail fast. …You can’t say, “Oh, man, I didn’t get that shot.” Drop it and then study the tape afterward. But when you’re in it you cannot think about that.
In auditions, do you see people getting caught up in their heads, thinking about that note they just missed?
Yes. And that means that you won’t get the moment that you came for and you wasted your time. The moment that you want—which is to be heard, to be seen, to be accepted—won’t come unless you give it to yourself first. …That’s how I got that job with John Legend out of 500 people. Not that I was the best singer.
A lot of people in auditions think they need to be the best.
You just gotta be the best you. I saw some this season who I’m like, “Oh, you have no idea how much you are in your own way.”
So they are kind of denying themselves.
Yes! And hiding behind all these things that they think they need to have together. What are those things that they hide behind? Oh, “I need the right song,” or “I’m not good enough as a singer,” or “I need more practice.” You’re doing too much. …You have to be able to throw yourself in the deep. It’s what my mother did with me: “Take the mic, Courtney… I’m passing you the mic. Take the mic.”