Lisa, a 20-year-old college student, has a condition called Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD) that can inhibit her breathing. We all have trouble crossing the finish line sometimes, but for Lisa it's literal: a runner, she learned about her condition after collapsing at the end of a race. Certainly unpleasant, but it may have kept her out of the cubicle. "If I didn't have VCD I probably wouldn't have found this inspirational place to write music," she says.
"Hope" has gone transnational, taking off in Australia, Canada and most of Europe. She's still unsigned, holding out for the right label to launch her first EP, which is already recorded with a video produced for her next single. It's a lot to handle along with a full course load, but Lisa has a way of turning adversity into opportunity.
Lisa Heller: I go to Colgate University but for this semester I'm at University of Sydney in Australia.
Songfacts: That's pretty exciting.
Heller: Yeah, definitely. I'm so excited to be here. This semester is like their spring semester, but it's my first semester of junior year.
Songfacts: Australia is one of the places where you're doing pretty well, aren't you?
Heller: Yeah, it's actually pretty crazy. A week or so before I left it was one of the places that trended to number one, so it was pretty cool.
Songfacts: A lot of people think, I'll just make a video, put it on YouTube, it will get a million views and I'll be a star, but the truth is that hardly ever happens. Somehow you managed to pull this off, which is pretty remarkable. I'm trying to figure out how you did it.
Heller: I was pretty much just as surprised as you. I obviously didn't have a huge budget, like a lot of these record labels have. I think it's all based on my story and the story of the song.
With my Hope Wall I've been starting this movement where I've met with some kids going through really challenging times and I think that through meeting all these people and the story spreading up to the release of the video, it made this successful. And I'm so excited to continue to meet with more people and have the story continue to spread.
So, I think it's really the song itself, the story behind the song and the whole movement I'm trying to do in inspiring hope in people who might not have that much hope that is what has made the video become what it is.
Songfacts: It's not the first song you've written. You've been doing this for a little while, haven't you?
Heller: Yeah, I'm 20 and I've been writing since I was 14, so it's been six years of writing a bunch of songs - a couple of hundred at this point. But this song in particular I really wanted to lead with because I think it could really inspire people. So that's why we chose this song.
Songfacts: How did you start playing music and writing songs?
Heller: It was actually funny. I always loved music when I was little. My mom would always take me to those little like toddler instrument classes and I always loved it. I took different music classes - it was required in middle school - and I always had so much fun with it but I never thought of it as anywhere near a career option. But then I was in high school and I did a lot of running, especially because my family's really into athletics and my mom and dad both still run - my dad does triathlons and my mom went to Colgate and founded the cross-country team there.
So, I was really into running. I was doing cross-country and track, and sophomore year I was running in a race and all of a sudden my throat started closing up and it was really scary. I collapsed over the finish line and we didn't know what was wrong. We thought it was asthma for a while and it kept happening - it was only in races and not in practices. Finally we found a specialist who figured out that I had VCD, which is Vocal Cord Dysfunction, and she said that one way that could make it a lot better would be singing.
So, I actually started humming to myself quietly in races and it really did help a lot. Most people with VCD wouldn't be able to finish the races, they would have to stop halfway through, but I was able to, with my singing, cross over the finish line. Even if I passed out at the end, I'd at least make it to the end.
So, after that I started to love singing more and more and then the same year a really nice upright Steinway piano got passed down from my great aunt, and I was obsessed with it. Right away I started learning some chords and I started writing songs. My first song was about my breathing problem, and then after that I branched out to writing music about other things in my life and it kind of became a stress relief from average sophomore and junior year struggles in high school and coming home from studying for SATs and after sports practices. It made me love singing and songwriting even more. So, from there I just built this whole thing.
Songfacts: When you're running, it seems like your mind would start writing songs, getting ideas.
Heller: Yeah, definitely. Also, when I was younger I used to do bike trips. Instead of going to camp I would go on these bike trips through this program called Apogee. The first one was from Maine to Quebec, the second one was from Oregon to San Francisco, and the last one was down all of Europe. We went through seven countries and ended up going over a couple of Alps and it was very hard and really difficult at times. Going over those Alps and stuff, I was able to come up with some song ideas. It made me realize that these hard times that I've been through, even though they don't compare to anything that the kids I've met with have, these struggles could turn into something positive and instead of them holding me back they made me find singing and it made me find songwriting and find my hopeful career.
Songfacts: The VCD sounds like a blessing in disguise. It sounds like you have a wonderful family and a lot going for you, which can be an impediment for a songwriter because you don't have this type of challenge for inspiration. And then this thing hits you and suddenly you've got your voice.
Heller: Yeah. Honestly, if I didn't have VCD I probably wouldn't have found this inspirational place to write music. I would just have gone on with my life, gone to college, got a cubicle job or something.
This is what made me find singing and it's what made me be able to inspire others by having my own issue I've had to work through. So, it's been a pretty cyclical, cool experience, definitely with some ups and downs, but in the long run it's been a good thing.
Songfacts: Where did you go to high school?
Heller: I went to Simsbury High School.
Songfacts: Can you talk about coming up with the verses for "Hope" and putting that song together?
Heller: Yeah. I co-wrote "Hope" with this guy I've been writing with for a while. His name's Jim McGorman and he's worked with everyone from Avril Lavigne to Shakira to Gwen Stefani. The first time we worked together I was new to songwriting and I was really nervous to state my opinion or say my ideas because I thought, Oh, this guy would never want to hear my ideas because he's written thousands of songs and he's had so many more years of experience.
But this time it was much different. I had grown a lot as a singer-songwriter so when we sat down to write my new EP of songs we started writing "Hope." We came up with some chords on the piano. This is how I write most of my songs. Some have a little variation, but once we find a chord progression we really like I usually hum along to find a melody and then we put words to it.
So, when we got that hook, the main line was:
Hope, hope for the best
Hope for the rest of our life
Till the day that we die
We got that surprisingly super quickly. Most songs take us up to an hour to just find one good line which might just be in a verse, but we got the main line of the song in like five minutes. And after that, it was just amazing. We were building on each other's ideas. We built the whole chorus in less than half an hour, and then the verses were just super easy. We just went through different experiences of my life and what I wanted to say with this song.
So, it was definitely a much different experience writing this song. It was almost meant to be because it was so easy and so ready to be said.
Songfacts: How did you end up in a room with Jim to begin with?
Heller: When I was younger, senior year of high school, I started recording in a local studio called Onyx Soundlab and the guy that used to own it, Adam [Gootkin], he really knew what he was doing and then he passed it along to another guy who was definitely a beginner at producing. So, I was brand new to recording, senior year of high school, and it was actually almost better because if I'd worked with a big-time producer from the beginning, I wouldn't have learned all the basic techniques of making sure the rhythm and the pitch and everything is correct.
And then, at one point, we were talking to this video producer, Max Moraga, who was nudging me to move on to bigger and better things, so he recommended his friend, Kurt Zendzian, and he has pretty much been my mentor through this whole thing. He believed in me and he was able to hook me up with this producer, Jim, who I've been working with since then. And through both of them I was able to find my manager and publicist.
So, it took going to this beginner studio and learning all the basics and proving myself to people and showing my work ethic and determination and them believing in me, and then that made it possible to work with people at a higher level.
Songfacts: So, you end up with Kurt, who does a bang-up job on this video. Where did you do that video?
Heller: It's funny, he's actually from Connecticut as well, that's kind of how we met, but this past year, with his fiancé, he moved to Sarasota, so we did the video down there.
Songfacts: So you're at a studio in Florida doing the video.
Songfacts: Tell me about the video: who is in it, who came up with the idea, what it was like wearing that big fancy dress.
Heller: We went down there to do two videos because I have another song coming up pretty soon and the other video is much more planned out and I'd say has more of a storyline. The "Hope" video, we just had some ideas of what we wanted to do and it wasn't fully planned out. I knew that I wanted it to inspire people and he agreed. We were kind of stuck on how to do that because these kids that I met that have been going through really challenging times, they wouldn't be able to fly down to Florida and be in the video, and if they sent in pictures or videos it would look unfinished.
We were trying to figure out how to make it as inspirational for people around the world without having those specific kids there, so pretty much the day of the shoot we asked some random people if they wanted to be in the video and people were so excited to write down what they hoped for and people were lining up writing signs of their biggest hopes and dreams, some because their family members had cancer or others just their dreams for the future. It was a pretty cool experience. It was extremely organic.
I was actually going to wear a much more casual outfit. We switched outfits for the two videos and it was a very last-minute thing. I was so surprised how amazing it was able to come together even though it was spontaneous. I was so happy that we were able to pull it off.
Songfacts: So, you wrote another song that's coming out. I have not heard that but I would love to hear about the song, the story behind it and what's coming.
Heller: Yeah, definitely. It's called "Firewall." It's very personal to me, about the difficult times I went through in high school. "Hope" is very vague in a way - in a good way - that it can inspire everyone, where "Firewall" was probably the hardest song I've ever written because it's so personal to me. It's all about my very personal experiences.
Songfacts: What happened to you that led you to write it?
Heller: Well, part of it was average high school experiences trying to balance between getting into a good school and the stress of my breathing problem and not being able to do as well in sports as I wanted. I wasn't physically ever bullied but in middle school I had some people who I consider my friends who were very rude to me and it definitely changed me as a person. So, the song is based on that and just working through past experiences of people who weren't very nice to me.
Songfacts: When I hear the word "Firewall," I think of how you need some kind of protection to keep you from letting this negativity get into your psyche.
Heller: Yeah, definitely. It's so important to have a good support system. There will always be people who are rude to you or just don't like you. Even if you're the nicest person in the world just minding your own business, there will always be people who are trying to cut you down and that is something I have always struggled to be able to accept because I've always wanted everyone to like me and be happy with me. I've come to realize that that's not always going to happen and there's going to be some people that, no matter what I do, they won't like me.
It's made me realize that it's actually good to have people who don't like you because it makes you work harder. It makes you realize how amazing the people that do like you or love you are, and it makes me be able to connect to others who have had horrible experiences with other people. So, in the long run I've come to realize that, yeah, it's really hard in the moment when people are rude to you or competitive with you but in the long run it actually makes you stronger as a person.
Songfacts: Wow, that's very interesting. How did you play out this story in the video?
Heller: We wanted to make it as raw and real as possible. We wanted to make it apply to as many people as possible, so we didn't get super-specific, but I was trying to be extremely emotional in the performance parts of the video. We did not have a huge budget. I couldn't hire all these actors, so it was based on how I portrayed my feelings. So, I just tried to give as much of an emotional performance in the video as possible.
Songfacts: You have, I believe, a 4-song EP that you've already recorded.
Songfacts: Are you signed to a record deal?
Heller: No, I'm not.
Songfacts: Okay, so how does this play out? I would hope that if you get a million views on YouTube and have this wonderful song and have proven your talents that some record companies would come calling.
Heller: Yeah, I guess we have to wait and see. Once you have one really successful video they want to see what you're going to do next. So, we're waiting to hear what they have to say and I just need to continue proving myself. Because even if I knew someone at a record label, which I don't, and all these favors happened and I got some sort of OK deal, I wouldn't want to do that because then the people in the label wouldn't necessarily be rooting for me. I want to wait until the labels are really ready to have me and are almost fighting over me so that I get the best deal possible and have a supportive group of people at the record label. So we're just waiting for the right time to see what happens.
Songfacts: Do you perform regularly?
Songfacts: So, when you perform do you do the four songs?
Heller: Yeah. Even though three of the four songs aren't released yet, I have been performing them live with more acoustic versions of them, so that people can hear them live before they come out for real on iTunes worldwide.
Songfacts: It makes me wonder why you even need a record company when you can get your songs on iTunes and get them on YouTube, which is where most people are listening. Do you even need a record company to work with you on this?
Heller: So far I've been OK without it but I actually interned at a record label at RCA under Sony last summer, and I learned so much from them. I learned that, yes, you can do it on your own but once you get to a certain point you don't necessarily want to do it on your own. You could potentially make the same amount of money, but you're just focusing so much on the business instead of your artist career.
I've noticed that some independent artists get lost in the business side of it. If you end up signed to a label, then you're able to focus on your music and inspiring others with your music and being yourself instead of all the logistical stuff.
So, at a certain point, it's the right move to switch to a record label but if you're okay on your own, that's OK too. I think it depends on each artist, what they find best for them.
Songfacts: Have you figured out why your song and video have done so well in other countries?
Heller: I honestly have no idea, especially countries that don't speak English. Maybe they know what "hope" means because that's such a broad, widely used term and maybe those signs have touched them in some way. But I have yet to figure out what it is that has inspired them so much.
I am so excited to be in Australia, which is randomly one of those places where it ended up doing so well, and it also speaks English so they can understand what I'm saying. I'm excited to be here and to continue spreading the message.
Songfacts: What is life like for you now that you have had this bit of success?
Heller: More people have emailed me or contacted my manager with different opportunities that I wouldn't have been able to have before. It's been a little bit easier to book venues and stuff like that because I've been able to prove myself already in the industry, so they know that I'll be able to put on a good show and draw a pretty good crowd.
Songfacts: How does it work going to college while you're also pursuing music?
Heller: It's pretty crazy. I tell most people it's like I'm going to two full-time colleges at once: one a normal college and one a music career. I go to college because I know it's a smart thing to get an education, and I also want to make my parents proud of me. But it's definitely more of my passion to be in the music industry, so it's been difficult but a very good learning experience to try and balance both sides of my life.
Songfacts: What are you studying?
Heller: In school I'm studying psychology.
Songfacts: Not music.
Heller: No. I actually took some music classes. I took music lessons all through high school and then the past two years I've taken a lot of music courses at Colgate but they have a very strong emphasis on classical music. All the classes that I could take in theory that could apply to me I've already taken, so any other classes would pretty much be focusing on Bach or Mozart, stuff that wouldn't necessarily be as useful.
Songfacts: Yeah, it seems like learning psychology would be more helpful to you as a songwriter, rather than learning the mechanics of music and how other people have done it.
Heller: That's very true. I have been told multiple times that even some of the best musicians never learned how to read music because they want to be able to learn on their own and be able to improv. If they learn the basics of reading music, it might limit their creativity. To a certain extent, I feel the same way about taking music classes at Colgate, especially more of the classical stuff because I learn all these rules about how to write a song, but that might limit my creativity in terms of what chord progression to use, for example.
In psychology I'm able to learn about people, which is pretty much what the music industry is about. Because if you can't relate to people with your music then I don't think there's any point in doing music at all. So, psychology is more related to my career than some of the classical music classes that Colgate has to offer.
Songfacts: Did your mother insist that you go to Colgate?
Heller: She didn't insist that I go to Colgate. My parents were just very strong advocators for going to a good liberal arts school. They didn't care which one it was, they just wanted it to be something within my GPA range because I worked really hard in high school and they wanted it to be a school that if my music career didn't work out that I'd be able to get a "normal" job.
Songfacts: How do you deal with the pressures of social media without getting sucked into the vortex that can be your iPhone?
Heller: Yeah, artists can definitely get sucked into that vortex of post the picture that gets the most likes or post at the right time of the day or crazy stuff like that. Where I am more about posting things that I think my fans will be inspired by. I don't really care as much about the likes or my number of followers, I more care about whether or not people are being moved by my story and my music and this "Hope" movement.
So I've just tried to stay grounded and focus on what is most important to me, which is helping people out around the world, instead of on this fake virtual world of social media. Social media is great, it can reach a bunch of people around the world, and I've tried to use that to inspire people instead of worrying about trite things like the number of likes on a picture.
August 1, 2016. Get more at lisaheller.com.
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