2022 Song Contest Winner Q&A with Harper O’Neill

I hope he ain’t in love with somebody / I hope he’s alone when he leaves / I hope he ain’t holding out for somebody / If somebody ain’t me, up-and-comer Harper O’Neill sings in her track “Somebody.” 

“Somebody” is one of the few tasters O’Neill has released as she gears up for a much larger project. The song is a modern take on soul music, complete with melodic horns, a waltzing beat, and crooning vocals—all of which helped her to earn first place in the 2022 American Songwriter Song Contest. 

Co-written with Meg McRee, “Somebody” speaks to the moment “when you see someone out in a bar or coffee shop and your mind runs away with the fact that they could be your dream partner.

“It’s through that daydream that you decide you don’t even really want to meet them, you want to keep it at a distance so that that fantasy can live on,” O’Neill tells American Songwriter. “I was really proud of the fact that I stayed out of my own way and let that idea just be what it was.”

[RELATED: American Songwriter 2022 Song Contest Winners Announced]

Since releasing “Somebody,” O’Neill has found it to be one of those special songs that listeners can connect to on a number of levels. “They see what they want to see in it,” she explains.  

“I showed it to some friends from home, and half of them said, ‘Oh, man, this is such a cool country song,’ and the other half said, ‘I’m so glad you’re not making a country song,’” O’Neill continues. “I loved that.”

O’Neill adds, “Also, people of all ages seemed to relate to the song. When I first wrote it, I thought that it might be more of a youthful thing but it’s something that I’ve found that even older people really connect to.”

Being a Texas native, O’Neill credits a number of country artists for inspiring her sound. 

“One of my first guitars was a baby Taylor that was signed by The Chicks,” she says. “I still think they are the baddest around. They were so inspiring to me because they were incredible musicians and did it their own way.

“Being from Texas, I’m so inspired by all of the women that come out of there from Miranda Lambert to Kacey Musgraves,” she continues. 

While a level of twang is well accounted for in O’Neill’s music, there are elements of other genres mixed throughout that add a fresh perspective to her sound. “Later in life, I really fell in love with Carole King,” she says. “I like to think my music is somewhere in the middle of country and the soul/pop world.”

O’Neill started writing music when she was about 16 years old when she first felt the tinges of “really intense feelings.” She caught the songwriting bug after going through a breakup with her then-boyfriend. 

“It needed to be a song,” O’Neill reflects, acting on the same itch so many songwriters are pestered with. 

O’Neill was reared in a distinctly musical family with parents who were “children of the ’60s.” She had an affinity for songwriters and live music and a sister who “sang like a canary.” Despite music being a part of her life from a young age, O’Neill struggled to see herself pursuing it as a serious endeavor. 

“If you haven’t known anyone to have found a path in this industry, it’s hard to see yourself doing it,” she says. 

Nevertheless, after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, O’Neill made the move to Nashville. She has since earned herself a publishing deal with Jody Williams Songs, signed to Q Prime South, and has received recognition from her peers—namely Ashley McBryde and Morgan Wade, who have both tapped her as tour support.

In spite of her growing success, O’Neill says honing her sound was initially a difficult process for her. 

“I made my first EP in 2020, and I got to the end of the project and thought, ‘This doesn’t feel like me,’” she says. “It felt like anyone’s name could’ve been on it. I ended up scrapping the whole thing, which was painful, but I kept one of the songs called ‘No Longer Mine.’ I really dig it from a songwriting perspective. It’s a really cool amalgamation of all my influences.”

Now it seems O’Neill is confident in the sonic direction she wants to pursue, as many of the same flavors found in “No Longer Mine” are also in “Somebody.”

Our panel of judges—the likes of Rob Thomas, Kara DioGuardi, Nicolle Galyon, and more—all gave “Somebody” their esteemed “thumbs up,” a notion O’Neill is taking as a sign she is on the right path. 

“They’re all such titans of the industry and really carry so much weight with their work, opinion, and style,” she says. “I took it as a nod that says, ‘You’re on the right track, and you just gotta keep going.’”

(Photo credit: Aubrey Wise)

One Comment

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  1. I absolutely love her honesty in her EP.
    I’ve heard and read countless times where an artist finds themselves in a project and come to the realization it’s not theirs.
    I’ve heard it said there comes a moment in time that an artist absolutely finds themselves after that realization and that’s when the true beauty begins.
    I hope for the continuation positivity in her fine tuning her particular take on the craft of singer/songwriter.

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