Nancy Harms: “Be mindful of the intention behind the choices you make”

Let curiosity and play compel you. The teenage perfectionist in me had completely killed off these two beauties when it came to the way I approached any sort of learning in high school. I wanted to get good grades and be impressive, be someone who won at life. Ironically, this intention behind learning versus being […]

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Let curiosity and play compel you. The teenage perfectionist in me had completely killed off these two beauties when it came to the way I approached any sort of learning in high school. I wanted to get good grades and be impressive, be someone who won at life. Ironically, this intention behind learning versus being driven by curiosity and play had killed off the joy of learning for me. I had placed so much pressure around it and because of that, so much of what I learned in order to receive those good grades did not stick. I had to re-learn how to learn and tap back into curiosity and play in order to tap back into my intuition and tap out of crippling anxiety.

As part of my series featuring the rising stars in the music industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Harms.

Nancy started the surprising journey that has been her life under an endless prairie sky in a Minnesota town of 1,000 people. Growing up, she spent a lot of time lip-syncing to Janet Jackson with a hairbrush “microphone” in her mom’s beauty shop mirror after hours. Nancy fantasized about singing professionally, but her dreams were capped by what she directly saw around her…or, more accurately, what she didn’t see. She did her best to blend into the expected norms of her community. Only now has she learned that when we act solely with the intent to create harmony for the people around us, it can be the cause of much disharmony within us. Something within Nancy was missing by not honoring her own sense of inner peace and joy.

“Do I dare create what I cannot see?” — Nancy Harms, Vocalist, and Songwriter 
Possessing a voice filled with delicious subtleties and striking authenticity, Nancy Harms has been declared “an original” with “a truly special voice and style” by DownBeat magazine. Will Friedwald of The Wall Street Journal stated that “she engages the listener by seeming to put her whole soul completely forward…after hearing her just once, you’ll never want to let her go.” Audiences all over the world keep coming back, again and again, to hear this rising-star and international jazz vocalist cast her spell and bare her heart.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Harms relocated to New York City in 2010. She has toured Europe multiple times since 2010, with her most recent tour taking her to such prestigious venues as Copenhagen’s “Standard” and “Jazzhus Montmartre; Paris’ “Duc des Lombards” and “New Morning”; “Royal Albert Hall” in London; “Herr Nilsen” in Oslo; Stockholm’s “Fasching”, and other stops in Norway, Italy, The Netherlands, and Denmark. She has loved playing the Copenhagen Jazz Festival for the last four years in a row (along with many other festivals in greater Denmark) and hopping north to play Norway’s Sortland Jazz Fest twice, and Norway’s AnJazz Festival in Hamar.

In North America, Nancy has appeared in the major jazz festivals of Pittsburgh, the Twin Cities, and Quebec City in Canada, and has experienced the fun of touring her album in many clubs across the United States. Nancy’s New York City appearances have included her own shows at Birdland, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center), Smalls Jazz Club, The Kitano, 55 Bar, Mezzrow, and several other venues, including a series of performances with trombone legend Wycliffe Gordon (Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center), The Lenox Lounge, and concerts in Toulouse, France).

Stephen Holden, reviewing her ELLINGTON AT NIGHT show in the New York Times, described Nancy as “an enigmatic woman, forging her own path”.

In addition to her own CDs, “Dreams In Apartments”, “In The Indigo”, and “Ellington At Night”, she appears on Wycliffe Gordon’s disc “Hello Pops” and on Jeremy Siskind’s releases “Finger-Songwriter” and 
“Housewarming.” “Weight Of The World”, one of her self-penned tunes from the “Dreams In Apartments” album placed 3rd in’s international listener poll of top jazz tunes of 2014 which garnered over a million and a half votes.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

There have been many nudges along the way that have led me to this particular project at this particular moment. In about 2005, there was a huge nudge telling me to change direction when I was in my first “life” as a music teacher in a small town in Minnesota. I started having crippling panic attacks and anxiety. I had lots of great friends and enjoyed my job to a certain degree, but something felt so “off” internally. I knew I had to leave the job to search for something else that would light me up, though I didn’t know what that was at the time, and I was scared to do so. I was fortunate enough to have two friends who cheered me on so beautifully and were so invested in helping me find my way to whatever it was that was calling me. They made me feel supported in that wild transition time. About two years after I had left my teaching job, I found myself singing my first club gig as a jazz singer. Those two supportive friends I mentioned were in the audience and sat motionless during the entire gig. I found out after getting off the stage that they had actually been shaking during the whole show because they were in shock. They could feel in their bones that I had found my calling. How beautiful is that?! That someone knows you and loves you so well that they can feel that knowing with you. This began my journey of learning how to listen to what my emotions and body are trying to tell me. I’ve still got a long way to go with this kind of listening, but I’m so happy it’s led me to this project “SHE”. SHE’s been teaching me so much, opening my heart every step of the way, and it rings with more truth of who I really am than anything I’ve done before.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?

The above story might be one of my most interesting stories about my career (in my opinion) as it marked such a turning point and the first time I really heard my calling. Though, one of my favorite recent moments was at a small-town jazz club in Denmark. It was a club of mostly white-haired folks and since the Danes can be known to be quite stoic people, I was preparing myself for the possibility of a stiff audience. When I walked into the club there was so much warmth already there. It was like an open invitation for something beautiful to transpire. My voice was tired and sore, but I was quite relaxed since I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about being able to sing the next day as it was the last show of the tour. All of this was somehow a recipe for a magical evening. I was singing quite a few songs about how my time in Denmark and the Danish landscape has been life-changing for me. One particular song was about how light changes us and in the middle of that song, to my perception, the room started to feel full of warm, orange light. After that song, my throat was no longer sore and the audiences’ faces were glowing. I received at least 15 hugs and heart-felt comments as the usually-stoic Danes passed me on their way out the door. It was a night of light-catching fire, each of us fanning the other’s light and it grew like wildfire.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am working on two bigger projects right now and I love them both dearly. The first one is called “SHE” and it’s a collection of songs written for inspirational women I know personally. I interviewed these women whom I find to be inspiring. I asked them more about what life has been like in their shoes and then wrote songs for each of them. It’s a beautiful experience when you think you know a lot about another person as they’ve been a good friend, and then you sit down and ask them to tell you what a certain hardship or journey was really like to experience in their shoes. Those were sacred moments to share with them and I was enriched more than I thought possible by the experience. It solidified to me that listening to someone’s story is a sacred act. Acknowledging the strength and beauty that is found in another person’s story expands the light in both of you. Light catching fire. This project has just been finished and will be released late Fall 2019 on Gazelle Records. I’m so excited!

The other project is a collection of songs I’m writing with a Danish pianist, Peter Rosendal, and we are still working to complete it. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to spend a lot of time touring and hanging out in Denmark these past 5 years. I’ve been absolutely changed by my bike rides along the coast of the Øresund. Medicine for my soul. The whole experience was a perfect recipe for what I needed at that time. Since I’m from Minnesota originally, I find the Scandinavian people to be so familiar and cozy, yet the experience of being in Europe and especially a country that progressively works to take such great care of its people was an exotic experience for me. Wrap that up with a whimsical, moody-skied, surrounded-by-the-sea landscape and my heart was breaking open into new territories it had not yet been. So, the songs are about that life-changing experience, about how I was so moved by land and sea of Denmark. It will forever hold a big place in my heart.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

This is a difficult one to answer. I have met so many interesting people. I can say that meeting fellow seekers, mystics, and also people who have had very different life experiences than I have had, has hugely impacted me. The fact that I’ve gotten to build friendships with people in other countries and with people of other races and cultures because of my singing career has been one of the most beautiful gifts of my life. I grew up in a very lovely, but lacking in diversity, a small town in Minnesota. Hearing the stories of all of these beautiful people from different experiences has given more dimension to my heart, no question. The witnessing of the great diversity of people and landscapes on this planet has to be one of the greatest joys of being alive, in my opinion. It has helped me to find my way to myself, as who we really are is not defined by an external location.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

In history and with people of the present, I find myself inspired most by those who are so completely themselves no matter how much those around them might mock them for being different. The act of them living with that kind of fierce honesty invites everyone around them to do so as well. That’s what we’re all longing for at our cores…to be unconditionally loved just as we are, right? That is freedom. Prince is a beautiful example of this as an artist. I adore the mystics, as well, like Rumi. That hunger for wanting to connect with the divine is all-consuming for me. I find myself incredibly inspired by anyone who has searched within or outside of the boundaries set at the time they lived in order to explore the deepest connection possible to the divine and uncover who they really are and why we’re here.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

From the feedback I’ve received from others, I’ve found that they witnessing the way I live my life has been the most impactful thing…more than the things I have said or done. The desire to listen to my calling, my heart, to take the “risks”, and take the unconventional paths that asks of me has influenced so many for good, I believe. When people ask me for career advice, I steer them to books or teachers that will help them listen to their own intuition and make decisions that way. I believe that a world full of people doing exactly what they are meant to do, following their hearts and intuition, is absolute magic. We are perfect creations, but we sometimes just block that from being expressed for lots of reasons usually having to do with fear. I want to help people find that voice within themselves…that courage to follow their hearts.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

“Freedom” is the word that comes ringing into my head when I read this question. I know that my ultimate goal in this life is helping to free souls from that which blocks them from expressing who they truly are…which is their truest expression of Love. I’m starting with the “SHE” project which has the intention to remind women of their inherent power and worth. We’ll see how I’ll next be called to express that freedom!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Prioritize feeling good and taking care of yourself as a whole person. Our emotions are a guidance system…if we’re not feeling well, that is a nudge from the divine to make some sort of change or to slow down to listen. People often say it is difficult to know if it is intuition or if it is fear motivating them. My suggestion is to follow your joy and treat yourself with grace and care even when deadlines abound — that will help you to understand what your intuition feels like. We see so many examples of people working themselves into the ground and burning out. Yes, you can get somewhere by working that hard (and God bless you if you have any sanity left at that point in the journey of wearing yourself so thin…this definitely doesn’t work for me), but you can’t get to those epic, unimaginably delicious places operating like that. Those are found by following the heart and intuition. It will be a completely unique path to you and it will be one that brings you great joy. Joy is nothing to feel guilty about, it is your guide.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. See rejection as redirection. This has happened in a lot of little ways along the way, but oftentimes, when I got rejected, I would just sulk and wonder why the system didn’t reward me as much as the next person. I’ve learned over time that these were all nudges to make my own path, to go a different direction. At the heart of me, that’s what I’ve always longed for: for my whole life to be a creative endeavor and not just the projects that I make. Fear was the only reason I wanted to be recognized within the systems I found myself in….fear of not being enough, fear of being rejected. But when I can leave fear out of directional decisions and just move toward that which lights me up, no matter if there’s a path there or not, things get pretty beautiful, pretty fast.
  2. Let curiosity and play compel you. The teenage perfectionist in me had completely killed off these two beauties when it came to the way I approached any sort of learning in high school. I wanted to get good grades and be impressive, be someone who won at life. Ironically, this intention behind learning versus being driven by curiosity and play had killed off the joy of learning for me. I had placed so much pressure around it and because of that, so much of what I learned in order to receive those good grades did not stick. I had to re-learn how to learn and tap back into curiosity and play in order to tap back into my intuition and tap out of crippling anxiety.
  3. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your business. We often think self-care is a waste of our money when we have limited funds to make our business work. We are our greatest asset so taking care of ourselves is epic in importance.
  4. Be mindful of the intention behind the choices you make. They are powerful. After I had lived in NYC for a while, I had really started to buy into the lack of mentality that so many people wanted to tell me about while out and about on the scene. My approach to reaching the next level of success filled with more and more desperation and forced will. So, since my intention was based on fear at that point, I was only able to feel the fear that had motivated me to get to any successful goal I ended up reaching…fear that it wouldn’t last, obsessed with getting to the next thing, etc. Others around me were celebrating what I’d achieved, but I was quite miserable and unable to enjoy as fear had taken root. I’ve made a big intention for this “SHE” project to be something that reminds women (including myself) of our inherent power and worth. I’m just about ready to release this album, but I can tell you that every step of the way thus far, this project has slowed way down whenever any pushy, fear-based energy flares up in me. The project doesn’t allow that more fear-based motivation to move it forward, it responds to only motivations that match the intention of the freedom and love it was created in. I’m already enjoying it in a way I’ve never enjoyed any of my previous projects because the intention set is not based in a fear of lack, but in love.
  5. No true calling is better or worse than another. I know I’ve been in that place where I’m afraid to walk toward the thing that I feel would be so fun to do because I think I should be doing something that society has considered a “bigger” or a “holier” calling. The most sacred thing I’ve ever seen on “TV” had nothing to do with a church or religion…it was episodes of “Queer Eye”. These gorgeous guys are doing what they love to do and they are speaking to the inherent beauty and worth found within the people they encounter. It is Love transforming lives.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

This may be a bit cliché, but I love Oprah and what she is doing with all of my heart. She is a great hero of mine and a hero of our era. I love that she is tending to people’s hearts and souls through the messages she’s spreading and through the vast resources she shares. It would be a deep honor to get to spend time with her.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Instagram and Facebook as @nancyharmssings and my “SHE” project is on Instagram as @rising.shining.SHE

Thank you for these great insights. This was very inspiring!

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