As a child, electropop singer-songwriter Harper Starling was precociously talented. She loved the limelight; at 3, she was happy to sing and dance onstage in a packed 800-capacity school auditorium. Alternatively, she’d choreograph her own dances to perform in the living room for her parents and grandparents.
At the age of 8, she was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome after developing severe tics and muscle spasms. As a child unable to control her body, naturally she was scared. She was teased at school, and doctors put her through numerous tests. And then she realized that the singing and dancing that made her so happy also could ease the symptoms.
“I remember going to the doctor a lot and having things tested out,” Starling says. “The only medicine that worked for me and allowed the tics to go away was singing and dancing. How great is that? The thing I love the most is the medicine I needed. The phenomenon behind that — I’m not sure what it is but I’m not going to question it. It obviously helped me. That’s why I always kept with it. It’s something I need in my life, and it helped me work through all of it. Tourette's is a part of who I am, and it allowed me to be that much closer to singing, dancing and performing.”
It’s a point that can’t be overstated: Music has genuinely improved Starling’s quality of life. And for a woman who claims that music is in her blood, that’s a godsend.
“I started dancing at the age of 3,” she says. “I have old VHS tapes. I look back on it, and there would be vinyl records that my dad would play in the living room — anything from the 1970s and early ’80s. Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses, Michael Jackson, you name it. I started taking singing lessons when I was 12, coming more out of my shell in that way. I did all kinds of musicals. I was that kid in high school.”
Music was her life and yet, when it came time to pick her college major, she opted for physical therapy. With just one year to go and her grades good, she made the decision to ditch school and return to her first love.
“I had the grades and a job lined up, and I went, ‘I don’t think this is for me, I miss music too much, I need it in my life, it’s my passion, it’s part of who I am,’” she says. “I decided that’s what I was going to do, and my parents said, ‘All right kiddo, make it happen.’ That was about four years ago now, when I honestly started to take it really seriously. I had always been writing my own stuff through college. I wrote my own stuff, and I had a keyboard. I needed to have music in my life in some way, shape or form. I can’t be without it.”
Starling experienced another career-defining moment when she was introduced to Milwaukee songwriter Sigmund Snopek, known for his work with the Violent Femmes and The Bloomsbury People, among others.
“When I decided to start pursuing music seriously and full-time, a family friend of mine connected me with Sigmund, who happened to be living in Milwaukee as well,” she says. “He ended up living less than two minutes away from where I was living, on the east side. Initially, we were going to do maybe two songs together. I sat down at the piano and played him the two songs that I had. He really liked my voice and style, and he said that he wanted to work with me and do a full album. For the next year and a half, we were working on my music.”
That relationship would eventually see Starling performing before Sheryl Crow at the Milwaukee Summerfest (which, when you check out the lineup online, appears to be every other festival in the country smashed together into a 10-day extravaganza). The set was recorded and made available to view online, and thousands of people chose to do exactly that.
Her manager called and informed her that her star was on the rise, and she needed to move to either New York or Los Angeles. Sick to death of snow, she opted instead for our palm trees. Now, she’s seen her new “Euphoria” single blow up, reaching No. 17 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, and her Planet Disco EP is on the way. Both are a nod to her love for 1970s and ’80s pop.
“I am obsessed with the ’80s,” she says. “The big hair and fashion. There are a couple of things we can leave in the ’80s, like the mullet and shoulder pads. But the decadence and the bright colors — the over-the-top, theatrical performers. I like to consider myself a modern-day version of a combination of Cyndi Lauper and Janet Jackson. I also grew up with ’70s music from my dad. So I also like a lot of that disco. The shimmer, and groovy bass. I still need my music to mean something, even though it’s a lot of dance-pop. There still has to be a message. But I want it to be positive, optimistic and upbeat. I want people to connect to it and, I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but feel that 'Euphoria.'”
On Thursday, Starling performs at the Avalon, part of the Tigerheat club night.
“That’s the largest weekly LGBTQ event on the West Coast,” she says. “DJ Ray Rhodes, the organizer, has a really great eye for talent. I know he’s booked stars right before they blew up. He booked Lady Gaga, and it’s an honor to perform under the same banner. This is what I needed in my life. I’m happy to be flying a banner for them. I’m waving the rainbow flag.”
Harper Starling performs at Tigerheat @ Avalon on Thursday, May 3. She also performs on Wednesday, May 23, at the Abbey, West Hollywood.