[Interview] Heather Youmans on making music, combining multiple skills, and playing the long game
The music of Heather Youmans is full of life and energy — and once you learn more about the voice and mind behind the songs, you’ll quickly understand why.
As a person and artist, Heather Youmans is the portrait of a generation of artists that explore multiple sides of their potential. The singer, songwriter, and dancer mastered the art of multitasking and connecting the dots between different abilities to achieve her goals. For Youmans, it’s all about the bigger picture, but she sure knows how to make the most of each little piece too.
Owner of a powerful voice, and admirable drive, Youmans has been on the stage for almost as much as she’s been alive. Her story is proof that “it’s not enough to just be talented in this industry”, as she told me; and her experience offers valuable insights for performing artists, songwriters, or just any creative or individual with a dream.
I feel like I relate to Youmans in how she chose to embrace various careers and pursue the best of all these worlds. We have a lot in common — at least in theory. I actually have a lot to learn from her, and it was a pleasure doing so.
In this exclusive interview, Heather Youmans talks about how she accommodates all her passions and skills in her life, and how everything makes her the artist and person she is today. She also shares her inspirations and future goals.
Her answers are published in full so you can hopefully get the best glimpse into the mind of a skilled, versatile, and determined young artist.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I think your story might resonate with a lot of young adults with dreams of today. You are multipotential and you have chosen to combine your different skills to achieve your goals. Was that a conscious decision? Was there ever a moment when you focused on “only one” path?
My career in the entertainment industry came together in the most beautiful and unexpected way.
I grew up in the industry and I spent many of my formative years working in musical theatre and creating original music for major motion picture soundtracks. At 13, I got the chance to be the opening soloist for a UNICEF benefit headlining Sting and the late singer Natalie Cole. In 2010, I released my debut single, “Girl To Change Your World,” which had success at national Top 40 radio. Major record labels began to reach out, but when those conversations didn’t prove fruitful, I continued to perform, while exploring some other interests.
At that point, my intention was never to give up performing professionally but to seek out my intellectual curiosities. In hindsight, not getting a record deal as a teenager was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me. Until then, I never thought I would go to journalism school or get an MBA, but I’m so glad I did.
Now when I tell people I’m a professional performer, artist, and publicist, they ask if I have time to sleep. It’s not easy, but I wouldn’t live my life any other way. I essentially built another career in the business from the ground up, working as an entertainment journalist, and now, as a publicist for Fender, one of the biggest names in guitar globally. It’s a dream to wake up every day and work with music legends like Jimmy Page, Nile Rodgers, H.E.R., and Brian Wilson.
You recently released a self-written song, “A Little Closer to Happy”. Would you tell us how the songwriting and recording process were for this song?
“A Little Closer To Happy” is a SoCal-inspired soundtrack to the pursuit of happiness. Ironically enough, I wrote this song pre-pandemic. I was home alone one evening, walked over the piano, played a few chords, and allowed myself to sing whatever melody or lyrics came out spontaneously in the moment.
In early 2020, I took my demo to producer Dan Sadin (Frenship) and some incredible session musicians, like Sean Hurley (John Mayer) and Jake Reed (Seth MacFarlane), who brought it to life. I’m very collaborative in the studio, so doing virtual sessions amid the pandemic was a challenge at first, but we really defied digital boundaries to create something special and honest.
I really like how the lyrics of “A Little Closer to Happy” are positive and speak of growth and awakening, but the chords are a bit haunting, especially in the verse.
There is no right or wrong way to write a song, but I find it particularly interesting whenever a song combines different moods and still manages to sound cohesive. I also like how you choose to say “a little closer to happy” instead of “a little happier” or any other simpler version of the same idea.
How many of these choices in songwriting are strategical, and how much is intuitive for you?
Throughout the creative process, the song has taken on new meaning. It was originally written from the perspective of struggling with perfectionism and the impact that has on happiness. Now, I look at it like a realist’s commentary on happiness. People know me as an “eternal optimist,” someone who always seems to find something to smile about. But, happiness isn’t perfect, and feeling happy all the time is a myth. Truth is, we all get a little sad sometimes.
“A Little Closer To Happy” centers on one truth: “Achieving true happiness is a journey. Once you find it — no matter how big or small — hold onto it.” In the music video, happiness is represented by a single yellow balloon. It’s fragile and can fly away at any moment. In the end, viewers are left with the question — is real happiness ever attainable or do we spend our whole lives chasing the concept of it?
I was born and raised in San Diego, just a 10-minute drive from the beach, so this song and video really sum up the California dream — from sunshine and contemplative beach sunsets to playing music around the campfire in flip flops (with a White Claw).
Besides singing, performing, and writing music, you also play instruments, act, and dance. It’s a lot! How do you find the time? And do you think all these skills and experiences benefit from each other?
It IS a lot and it’s tricky to find time for everything! I’m a very curious and focused person. I’ve always been that way. But whenever I’m discouraged or exhausted by one passion, I rotate my focus to the next one — so I have enough time to recharge and keep going.
This strategy is what has sustained me in the entertainment industry for so long because I don’t have everything riding on one thing. And when all my passions come together at once — like they did on Season 1 of “I Can See Your Voice” on FOX — it’s a dream scenario.
The learning and practicing never stop for me. It’s integrated into my daily routine and more or less subconscious. At this point, it doesn’t even feel like practicing anymore. I’m always singing, listening, exploring my voice and the music around me. I have a lot of creative interests, so between singing, tap dancing, and bass playing, I’ve got my hands full.
My journey and progression as an artist are ongoing. The day I stop being curious, the day I stop learning and growing, will be the day I die. Music is a lifelong pursuit for me. I can’t help but create, because the music has always been in me and there’s a lot more in there to share with the world.
Your writing experience is not limited to lyric writing, as you somewhere worked as a journalist too — and had a quite impressive career, I must say. As someone who engages in different kinds of writing, I feel like sometimes it can be hard to switch, or to “turn off” the parts of my brain that I don’t need, when I’m writing for different fields or in different formats. I assume, eventually, you might have found yourself feeling the same.
How would you say a writer can find their “voice”, and how does your personality come across in different kinds of writing?
The process of “finding your voice” as a writer never stops. As our mind and perspective develop, so does our voice.
When I look back at articles I wrote 10 years ago, it’s hard to recognize “that girl” that I once was. I read those stories I wrote and it transports me back to that time in my life and who I was then — just like a song would.
So much of my journalism experience has impacted my voice as a songwriter. You’ll notice my lyrics are not overly metaphorical or flowery. I get to the point. I don’t care about using big words or needlessly deep phrases. When I write, I choose the simplest of words, the most efficient of phrases to accurately and quickly communicate an emotion tied to the human experience. More importantly, I tell a story and that’s central to everything I do musically. You can see the journalism influence in my music from the simplicity and storytelling alone.
Networking and business sense are highly underrated. You’ll get very little accomplished sitting around waiting for someone to call.
You’ve been performing and making music for quite some time, in spite of still being a young musician. You must have noticed a lot of changes in the music industry, music trends, and whatnot. With your experience in the arts and journalism, you surely must pay attention to the music world in a different way. What advice would you give to artists that want to pursue a career in music?
I encourage young artists to stay the course and trust the timing of their life. Also, it’s not enough to just be talented in this industry. Networking and business sense are highly underrated. You’ll get very little accomplished sitting around waiting for someone to call. You have to want it more than anyone else. It’s up to the artist to go out and ask for what they want, or nobody will ever know.
Moreover, creatives have to withstand immense pressure and rejection without cracking. Often, it’s too much for young artists. They come to Los Angeles for two years and then head back home because things don’t go the way they thought they would. To achieve success in this business you need patience because it’s a marathon.
As you keep running, practicing, putting in the work, building alliances, and networking, the rewards start rolling in. There are so many incredibly talented people that want a life in this business and few that can actually weather it. I’ve struggled. I’ve wanted to quit, but I’m still here. Resilience is everything. The truth is, I want this more than anything because it chose me.
Let’s talk about your work as a dancer. How long have you been tap dancing? Did it have anything to do with how you discovered yourself as a musician as well?
I’ve always had the music in me and I’ve spent my life finding ways to let it out. I started tapping when I was 3 or 4 years old after doctors suggested I be enrolled in dance for physical therapy purposes. I had a hip issue growing up, so ballet was a means of correcting it without surgery. I took this tap/ballet combo class at Carlsbad Dance Center. While I came for the ballet, I stayed for the tap, because I just had a special connection with it and the musical aspect.
From the time I was a kid, my dad — a drummer — would play Elton John in the car and drum on my head. He showed me how to express myself musically through rhythm and tap was my outlet. To this day, I call myself a “rhythmic singer” (Hayley Williams of Paramore has said the same thing in interviews) and it’s the tapping that’s cultivated my sense of time since I was a toddler.
I watched a very interesting video showing how you incorporate tap dance in music production. Was that a natural choice? How does tap dance influence your creative process in music?
I’ve been tap dancing longer than I’ve been singing, so incorporating tap tracks in my music was a natural choice. Tapping is percussion for your feet, and like any other instrument, I use it as a means to communicate my musical ideas. I treat the tap tracks like easter eggs, so you have to really listen closely to my music if you want to hear them!
On your website, you mention Joss Stone, Alanis Morissette, Kelly Clarkson, Sheryl Crow, and HAIM, among others, as your musical influences. Is there any particular song, album, performance, that you recall changing the way you think of music recently? I’ve seen you mentioning Sting and Natalie Cole when asked a similar question before, but I wonder if such experience can still happen for you, even after years in the game.
These are the albums that have impacted me most as a vocalist: VH1 Divas Live (1998) with Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain, and Aretha Franklin; Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill”; Joss Stone’s “The Soul Sessions”; Sheryl Crow’s “Tuesday Night Music Club”; P!nk’s “I’m Not Dead”; and then Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway.”
I continued to be inspired by the music I hear every single day. Recently, I’m very inspired by Tori Kelly (I love her cover of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”), Yebba, Paramore, HAIM, Brett Dennen and I even think Olivia Rodrigo is pretty cool.
You have done musicals, and TV shows such as “American Idol” and “I Can See Your Voice”. I assume you are comfortable with being on the stage and being on TV. Has it always been like this?
I begged to be on the stage since I was 5 years old. My mom told me that if I wanted to do musicals or sing music, I needed to learn how to read first. So she tutored me in our living room — which did the trick, but I remember being so frustrated with my progress that I’d just throw the English book across the room and cry. I was a dramatic child.
I’ve always loved being in musicals. I’m a storyteller first and a performer second. For me, it’s all about connecting with people on the “human condition.” Musicals, when written well, provide such a great avenue for that vulnerability. I feel the same way about songwriting and performing.
Performing on TV was not always easy. I got my first dose of it performing on American Idol (2011) at just 19-years-old. Reality TV singing show competitions are high pressure. You could be sitting around for 12 hours and then you have to sing cold, on command, and incredibly because you’re under the scrutiny of a national audience. Each TV show experience prepares me for the next, and it was my experience on Idol that got me ready for “I Can See Your Voice” Season 1 (2020) — a prime example of where opportunity met a decade of preparation.
Your rendition of 5 Seconds of Summer’s “Youngblood” really stood out to me. I love that you basically inverted the way it is sung in the original record: you started the song in a very high key, very emotionally, and went lower in the chorus.
Could you share about your journey to find how to best use your voice, and explore your strengths as a singer?
Back in July 2020, I got the craziest phone call. It was a casting director from the now-hit TV show “I Can See Your Voice” on FOX, and they wanted to know if I was interested in singing on the show. It’s a mystery guessing game that challenges celebrity guests, a contestant, and fans at home to determine which “Secret Voices” are good singers or just posing as professional vocalists. These Secret Voices have pseudonyms (mine was the Tap Dancer) and throughout the episode, the contestant attempts to weed out potential bad singers, so they end up with a good one and a cash prize in the end.
On the show, my big reveal song was “Youngblood” by 5 Seconds of Summer, and naturally, I incorporated tap dance in my version. I’ll never forget the look of shock on the celebs’ faces after I tapped and opened my mouth to reveal my singing voice for the first time. It was a special moment in my career and one I got to share with Train’s Pat Monahan (a musical influence of mine) and an incredible group of fans.
Ever since my appearance on the show, fans have asked me when I’d do a full version of “Youngblood.” It took me some time because I wanted to do it right, but it’s finally out into the world. I arranged and recorded all the vocals, tap tracks, and bass guitar myself from home and worked with producer Dan Sadin to pull it all together.
It’s been a journey finding my vocal strengths and the best uses of my instrument. I sang in front of Mariah Carey one time and she told me the mid-range part of my voice was really special and that’s the feedback I get from a lot of other singers and vocal coaches to this day. I’m a mezzo and It’s my sweet spot. I wanted to showcase that part of my voice in those verses of “Youngblood,” so I jumped the octave. I usually don’t give away that much power and range at the front of a song, but it really worked for this.
Every singer has their own strengths. Some have incredible range, power, and time, while others are extremely agile and can effortlessly riff. It’s like having vocal superpowers and we all have our different combinations.
To show off your instrument in the best way, it’s crucial to know your strengths without putting yourself in a box and not trying anything new that doesn’t come naturally. There’s a time to experiment and grow, and a time to channel those strengths and deliver.
“You Made me Hate Love Songs” is another performance of yours that I really like. Very powerful. Is there any specific genre or style that you enjoy the most, or that you think favors you best?
“You Made Me Hate Love Songs” is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. It’s inspired by some of my favorite John Mayer and Fiona Apple tunes. The song is about the fickle nature of heartbreak and how it’s easy to hold onto someone, especially when you think there will never be a greater connection or love. You go back and forth between that feeling of longing and realizing their complete disregard for you and your happiness.
Even though my artistic aesthetic is bright and sunny, I still love to write sad songs but never release them as official singles because it’s just not my artist vibe. We filmed and recorded the live version of “You Made Me Hate Love Songs” at YouTube Space LA in 2019.
I typically write in the pop-rock genre, but I’m also influenced by other blues, soul, and country-centric artists. My central genre and what I’ve ultimately landed on are indie rock, pop, soul. I described myself that way early on in my journey as an artist and it still remains true today!
Let’s talk about your older work. “Girl to Change the World” (2010) is a very cool song, really in line with the pop music of its time, but still sounds fresh and enjoyable. Would you say the way you write, sing, perform, has changed over the years?
When “Girl To Change Your World” came out in 2010, that was really a special milestone in my life. We had no idea the song would do so well. In its first week on the radio, “Girl To Change Your World” rated in the Top100 at Mediabase on the Top40 charts. That’s a really big deal in the radio world because I was up there charting with major label artists when I was on an independent label.
That summer, the song was played on Radio Disney, Top 40 radio stations nationwide and friends would reach out saying it was used in a beauty pageant, available at karaoke, or played at the gym while they were working out. It was so wild.
That was my senior year of high school. So much has changed since then. I got married, zeroed in on my craft, moved to LA, and grew up. The music I’m writing now is Heather 2.0, Heather all grown up, and represents the woman and musician I’ve become in the past decade.
While the genre I write and perform in as an artist hasn’t really changed, I’m far more collaborative as a singer-songwriter than I was then. Community is my favorite part of the business, so that’s a part of everything I do.
I guess it’s not fair to ask you what you like the most, from all the things you do or have done. But if you could choose one song to first introduce Heather Youmans to someone that doesn’t know your work, which song would you choose?
Fair. If someone didn’t know my music, I would tell them to listen to “A Little Closer To Happy,” my latest single. It’s the best representation of my music today and my personality — which is good vibes and sunshine personified.
“A Little Closer To Happy” chronicles our universal struggle with happiness, acknowledging the hope found in progress, embracing imperfection, and taking steps forward toward a happier life. People know me as “the eternal optimist,” someone who always seems to find something to smile about. But, happiness isn’t perfect, and feeling happy all the time is a myth. We all get a little sad sometimes.
We are in a time where an artist no longer needs to release an album to find an audience or build a career. Do you want, or plan, to make an album or any long play in the future?
I’ve definitely thought about putting out an album, and it’s definitely in my future at some point. There’s something special about curating a collection of songs that take a listener on a journey. I’m also an actor and writer outside of music, so the extended storytelling opportunity of an album is super appealing. I just need the right collection of songs to authentically tell my story. It will happen one day.
You just released “A Little Closer to Happy”. Is there anything else we can expect from you in the future, in music, dance, acting, or anything else? And please tell us the best way to keep up with your work!
I’ve been singing several national anthems for the MLB this season, while I continue to perform live in LA. My anthem for the Oakland A’s recently went viral on TikTok with over 3.6 million views. The video teaches other singers how to sing the national anthem with stadium delay!
I’ve also been doing session singing work for major TV networks — so if you hear a familiar voice on a show, that could be me! I continue to write and work on new songs, and the next song — or chapter — in my commentary on happiness is all about holding on to that hopeful feeling in a relationship, even in the darkest of times.
It’s easy to put artists up on a pedestal, but the best music is grounded in honesty and vulnerability. Frankly, I struggle with love and relationships just like everyone else, but this song takes all the mistakes, heartbreak, and struggles and turns them into a message of resilience. Great love is never easy, but worth it.
Stream “A Little Closer to Happy” by Heather Youmans on your favorite streaming service
My work as a music writer and critic is independent, but this blog is also used for content marketing purposes (never sponsored by other businesses besides the ones I own or work at). It is not monetized.
I am currently a staff writer at PopMatters, an independent, digital magazine of cultural criticism and analysis. My articles and reviews have also appeared in Consequence of Sound, Dummy Magazine, Remezcla, Sounds and Colours, KultScene, and more.
The reviews and articles posted in this blog are original and have not been published on any of the websites I write for.