“Aurora,” by singer-songwriter Jodi Heights, is the first song she has written for the Celtic harp. “Aurora” beautifully compares intuition to the northern lights by using them as a metaphor. Jodi’s first project with Black Balloon Media is an animated lyric video that depicts the mystique of the aurora borealis. Check out the song and the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
JODI HEIGHTS: I’m originally from Iowa, but I’ve been living in Boston for almost 20 years now. I don’t remember a time when music wasn’t part of my life. I started writing my own songs when I was 11, and it’s been one of my favorite forms of expression ever since.
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
JODI HEIGHTS: It depends on the instrument. I started taking classical piano lessons when I was 3 and classical voice lessons at 10, plus I have multiple music degrees involving those instruments. However, I started teaching myself Celtic harp during the pandemic. Eventually I would love to take some harp lessons to improve my technique, but for now I’m keeping my playing fairly simple.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences and why the name ‘JODI HEIGHTS’?
JODI HEIGHTS: Classical music was the first huge influence since I was studying and performing in that style on two different instruments and also attending a lot of concerts. In contrast, I grew up attending a church that used contemporary Christian music, which is where I learned how to work with bands and play and sing by ear. I’m still amazed by music’s power to create and enhance spiritual experiences. As for my stage name, “Jodi Heights” is a simplified version of my actual name, and I liked the upward trajectory that it implies.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
JODI HEIGHTS: I describe my sound as singer-songwriter-pianist with Broadway-tinged vocals and alternative pop style. I still consider myself to be a newbie on harp, so I haven’t added that to my title yet. I think one of my key elements of my music is my use of metaphor in my lyrics. I get bored when things are too literal. I like to challenge myself to write more poetically so there are layers of meaning to the words. For subjects, I try to focus on commonalities of human experience so that, hopefully, most people can relate to my songs.
5. For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style?
I don’t think I’ll ever leave the learning phase. My natural curiosity will probably make me a constant student of something new. While classical music and church music were my early influences, once I started working as a musician I was exposed to all sorts of genres. I was even in a world folk band for 14 years where I sang in over 40 languages and dabbled in hand percussion and other non-western instruments. All of that experimentation gave me the confidence to pick up Celtic harp. I knew that with patience I could teach myself to play and sing simultaneously, and I could probably compose with it as well. So far, I’ve written three songs on harp. It definitely brings out something different in my voice and songwriting than when I use piano. I find that fascinating.
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative, and entertainment?
I love the ability of art to help people grapple with heavy or complex issues. My 3-song EP Triptych that I released this year addressed climate change, the pandemic, and the wealth gap. I want avoid being “preachy” when focused on tough subjects, so I’ve found the most effective approach is to either use humor or use “we” language where I include myself in the issues. That way I’m not assigning blame but rather holding up a mirror and asking the listener “do you see what I see?”
For “Aurora”, I wanted to honor the instinctual, spiritual, heart-driven part of human nature that is often dismissed in our culture. I believe the perfect balance for decision making is leading with heart and then using your head to make a plan, a blending of our unconscious and conscious minds.
7. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfillment as the amount of work you are putting into it or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
I’d say a bit of both. I find such joy in songwriting, performing, and recording. But of course, as an artist, I hope my music can reach more and more people who resonate with the messages I’m singing. I have my moments where I feel like I’m shouting into the void, but I believe I’m meant to be doing this work in some way, shape or form. I’m pretty determined to follow where my intuition leads.
8. Could you describe your creative processes? How do you usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
One of my fears as a writer is that all my songs will sound the same, so I make myself start songs in different ways to avoid that outcome. I might begin with a subject I want to write about and do a deep dive into researching the subject, or I may have a vocal melody, chord progression, or beat that I’m drawn to. I’ve learned to trust that songs have their own timeline. I can’t force it. I’ve tried, and the results are disappointing. Instead, I play around with ideas until I feel a spark of inspiration with one of them. Once I’m in the flow of writing, I can be pretty prolific.
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
JODI HEIGHTS: There isn’t one specific event that jumps into my mind, but in general, I think there’s a romanticized version of careers that lives in most of our minds. Being a musician sounds glamorous when you’re imagining it or studying to become one. Once you actually start actually working as one, either part-time or full-time, it can be a rude awakening. The arts are often undervalued and artists severely underpaid. I was lucky to find a variety of jobs that I loved that made it possible for me to be a full-time musician, but that’s not the reality for most artists. It costs a lot of money to make art. I would love to see a shift in the way we support artists throughout their lifetime of creating. “Starving artist” shouldn’t be a common saying, in my opinion. It’s not a badge of honor to suffer for something you love.
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
JODI HEIGHTS: I always come back to recording my first album and the release concert. I wanted to make an album of my own music since I was a kid, and it felt like such a huge accomplishment to finally do it. The release concert brought together so many people who believed in my songwriting and were there to celebrate with me. I was vibrating with joy the entire performance!
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Photo credits: Arielle Doneson