We take pride in introducing fans to country music’s brightest new stars through our Country Next series. Here, we chat with Harper O’Neill.
Harper O’Neill is making quite a name for herself in Nashville, Tenn. A Texas native, the rising singer/songwriter moved to Music City in 2018 after graduating from The University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising and falling in love with the music scene.
Honing her writing skills, O’Neill caught the attention of former BMI executive Jody Williams, who saw a video of her singing and playing music on TikTok and requested a meeting. After signing a publishing deal with Jody Williams Songs, a co-venture with Warner Chappell Music, in 2022, O’Neill experienced more success. She was named the 1st place winner of the American Songwriter Song Contest, which aims to discover new talent and groundbreaking songwriting from writers everywhere.
O’Neill reigned victorious with her song, “Somebody,” which she co-wrote with Meg McRee. Her win granted her a $10,000 check, studio equipment, a Gibson guitar, and a year of distribution via Play MPE.
More recently, O’Neill released a song called “Guilty.” Co-written with Jacob Bryant and John Davidson, the track showcases O’Neill’s originality and authenticity to an ever-evolving genre. To add to the excitement, the rising star recently completed a tour alongside Ashley McBryde and Morgan Wade.
O’Neill, who is managed by QPrime South (Eric Church, Ashley McBryde, and Brett Eldredge), caught up with Country Now to talk about her music, how she arrived in Nashville, songwriting, and more.
How did you begin a career in country music?
I’m originally from Bridgerton, Texas. I grew up listening to Texas country music. My parents listened to Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. They always took me to local songwriters festivals, and we would sit and listen to songwriters pretty much my whole childhood. When I got older, my parents introduced me to Carole King and Bonnie Raitt. They’re just true music lovers – children of the ‘60s, and they influenced my music library since the beginning.
How did you end up pursuing country music in Nashville, coming from Texas?
I went to UT Austin for school. I was down there for four years and played around that area in the bars on 6th Street. After that, I didn’t know how to pursue a job in the music industry. I think it’s one of those things where if you don’t know anyone who has done it, it can be an intimidating process. In college, I interned for a telemarketing company in Chicago. While there, I lived in the dorms of the art institute downtown.
It just so happened that a guy named Richard Casper. He is an incredible guy and a decorated veteran. He lives in Nashville now. He was starting a program called Creative Vets. They bring in veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Therapy) and coach them through Art Therapy. It was one of the first times he had started the program. After I graduated college, I got a job in financial services and was ready to leave it behind. I got this out-of-the-blue phone call, saying, ‘I think you belong in Nashville. I just moved my program out here, and I want you to visit and stay with my wife and me for a week. If you hate it, I’ll leave you alone.’
So, I took Richard up on the offer. I was [in Nashville] for about 30 seconds and was like, ‘OK, I’ve gotta move here.’ So six months later, I found some roommates on Facebook and made it happen. It was interesting how I wound up here, but I’m glad I took that call.
How did you get into songwriting, and what led you to your publishing deal with Jody Williams Songs?
I started writing songs when I was 15 years old. But I started playing drumline music in high school. My sister sings like a canary. It’s absolutely stunning. I wanted to be like her, so I picked up the guitar. I feel like that’s when you start having a bunch of teenage feelings, so I started writing my music around that time. Slowly, I started learning how to write songs. When I moved to town, I went to writer’s rounds to watch and soak in what I could from this town and the different approaches people take with songwriting. Then I started finding my path and combining my influences. I developed my songwriting slowly over time. Then, in 2020, the world shut down, and everybody was getting involved on TikTok. I was slow on the boat with that, but in 2022, I posted a video of me in my bathroom, jamming out on one of my songs, and somehow Jody Williams was surfing the platform. It was just a wild thing. He called me into his office. I played him a few songs, and he signed me on the spot. We have been working together for a little over a year now.
Did other publishing companies also respond to your TikTok video?
Well, this is funny to look back on because when you move to town, everybody is like, ‘You’re going to hear ‘no.” So, I was prepared to move here and hear people say ‘no’ to me all the time. But the truth is, I didn’t know that they were saying ‘no’ when they were saying it. I just assumed they were busy. So I heard a lot of ‘no’s’ before Jody came along, and he was the first to ‘yes.’ I’m so grateful to him for that. He’s the first one to buy into what I was doing.
You won the songwriting contest for American Songwriter. Can you tell me about that?
It was honestly incredible. It was one of those things where I thought the coolest thing had happened. I am a fan of that magazine and how they’ve supported artists over the years. It was special because during 2020, I lived in the building across from the American Songwriter building, and I could see their office every day. I would write songs just staring at the office from my room, and my roommate at the time used to joke about me leaving my demos at the doorstep to try to get in there. So for me, it was a full-circle moment to be acknowledged by their team as a songwriter.
Are there any songwriters you look up to or any who you wish you could collaborate with?
The coolest thing about this town is that there is an endless number of songwriters to look up to. I have enjoyed not having expectations for somebody and connecting with them. I’m finding new writers all the time who are moving to town and getting started like I did. But I’ve gotten to work with Lucie Silvas and John Green. Those are probably two of my favorite collaborators at this moment. Jason Nix, who is signed with Jody Williams too for publishing, we’ve gotten the chance to hit it off, and Nathan Chapman, who was with Jody for a while. Also, I have this crew who I am coming up with who are songwriters. We all found each other from the very beginning. So we’ve seen each other grow, change, and put out music. They’re all starting just like I am. So it’s fun to see them grow alongside me.
Do you get inspired by the people you’re growing alongside?
Absolutely! Anytime somebody puts out a body of work, the courage it takes is just so admirable. There are so many different ways that I end up connecting with what people release. It’s also fun to see my friends start the writing process, hear them sing it out a couple of times, and follow them along to the finished product. It’s cool to see the choices they’ve made from a production standpoint and with visual art and everything else. I always love asking questions.
Tell me about your song “Guilty.”
I try to come in with a feeling and general idea with many of my songs. Especially with co-writers, I always love for them to add their stuff. This is a personal song, but it took on a larger picture when the other writers Jacob [Bryant] and John [Davidson] came along. I had brought them an idea from my personal life about being guilty of missing somebody that I probably should not be missing. I told them about the story and everything, and they said, ‘Well. That’s kind of depressing. What if we did guilty of loving you?’ So it took a turn from there. But, pieces of the song stayed true to the original story I brought in. That’s another fun thing to see is how the idea twists and turns and ultimately becomes the finished product.
What do you want fans to take away from your music?
I think it’s fun to expand on what it means to make country music. I hope people get references back to old soul music and rock music, and even a little pop. That’s a big thing that I hope people take away is that it’s another evolution of what I believe is country music. I also hope people who listen to the music get engaged and hope they get something out of it.
Can fans expect an album from you this year?
I’ve been working on a lot of music. I’m excited because we’re going to be slowly releasing a bunch of songs over the summer. We’re packaging them up in fun and surprising ways. So I think there are tons of things to look forward to, for sure.
You recently toured with Morgan Wade and Ashley McBryde. Can you tell me about that?
I had a bunch of dates earlier this month with Morgan and Ashley. I just got back from a long string of dates. Hopefully, we have more coming up here at the end of the summer. But it’s been so fun to watch those artists do the same show every night but bring such different energy and stories to the audience. It’s just a different vibe to it. I’ve learned so much in wildly different ways.
What goals do you have to round out the year?
I’d love to play live music as much as possible. I want to start sharing my story and see how many people I can connect with about some of the subject matter in these projects that I have coming up. But truly, I got into music because I love to play it. So if somebody called tomorrow and told me I was going to be on the road every day for the rest of the year, it would be a dream come true.
Fans can keep up with Harper O’Neill on Instagram.