Harper K. Smith Has Gone Wild
Hip thrusts. Intensive forehead grabbing. Blood. Pills. An unused green screen. Teletubbies.
These are just a few of the images in “not sad,” Harper K. Smith’s most unhinged music video yet.
Described as an “anthem for those who’ve danced on the edge, laughed in the face of pain, and sought solace in the absurdity of it all,” Smith’s new single, released on October 31, 2023, meets depression with a gentle punch in the face.
Harper K. Smith is a queer/disabled freakfolk indie pop musician based in Winnipeg as of this year. She also happens to be a former Navigator.
Smith worked on The Nav for two years (2017-2019), appearing on the masthead of volumes 49 and 50 during the magazine’s print days. After completing her Bachelor of Arts degree in December 2020, she shifted her creative focus toward music.
Although Smith’s role on The Navigator was Social Media Specialist, promoting a student press isn’t necessarily the same as promoting your own music.
“I think the thing that has been most difficult to get a grasp of is promotion,” Smith said.
“With ‘grim,’ the first single, I did nothing.” Smith laughed. “With ‘holocene,’ I did a bit more, and now with ‘not sad,’ I’m trying to do the most.”
And with her EP forthcoming in the new year, Smith plans to do even more. Even if social media gives her the ick.
“I have a very complicated relationship with social media—as I’m sure most people do,” she said. “But for musicians nowadays, social media promotion is kind of the thing.”
Even if you can come to terms with Elon Musk owning Twitter/X, content creation doesn’t end at an album drop announcement.
“People say the standard is like 60 to 90 days of content per song, so that’s a lot.”
And on the marketing side, it takes time to connect.
“Trying to get interviews … media coverage … plays on the radio … that takes many, many, many more hours than writing the song and even making the music video,” Smith explained.
“I hate to be a musician who’s, like, griping about social media and marketing, but … yeah, it’s definitely not my favourite thing,” she said.
Still, there are some parts that Smith enjoys. “I do really love doing interviews, and I love talking to people,” she said. “I try to make the most of it.”
Plus, internet humour is one of our digital world’s seven wonders. Reflecting on my own experience with social media promotion—current projects including Portal Magazine and Sad Girl Review—I wondered what informed Smith’s online presentation.
“I had many years spent on Tumblr, and … I think I missed shitposting more than I thought,” she said.
“Same,” I said. Then, as a token of solidarity, I told her about how my first experience with social media was running a One Direction fan account on Twitter when I was 12.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said (which I am now pretending is a reference to the lyrics of the boyband’s 2011 song, “Na Na Na”).
“My One Direction phase was 21, so I was, like, a full ass adult,” Smith admitted. As it turns out, you can’t hide your Directioner past from TikTok’s algorithm—she still gets “so much” One Direction content on her “For You” page.
Smith shrugged. “I don’t mind.”
Thankfully, Smith has her partner, Spenser, and her collaborator, Rachel, to help her handle some of the challenges she has encountered as an artist.
I have a small support system but a good support system.
— Harper K. Smith
Smith added that she has also reconnected with friends who have reached out to her about music.
Despite the pressures of self-promotion, Smith is grateful that she can share her music with the world. “I hope I can build some kind of sustainable practice and keep doing that.”
But how did she start?
As I was familiar with Smith’s previous projects—having been introduced to her written work in my first years of university—I wondered where her musical origin story began.
I prepared myself for the potentially surface level response as I asked Smith if music has always been part of her career plan.
“[Music] has always been something I’ve wanted to pursue,” Smith said.
She paused for a moment before answering. “It has not always been in my plans.”
“Yeah, that’s the CliffsNotes version of that,” she said, laughing.
“I don’t know if you want to hear more…”
Oh! Thank goodness. Yes, I nodded.
“I think it was a lot of things that kind of built to, I have nothing else to do, she began.
Five years ago, Smith was studying Creative Writing and Visual Arts at VIU. “I was getting really good grades and getting pieces published and stuff like that,” she explained, “but … I was just having a rough time.”
Smith’s work often discusses sensitive topics, many of which are related to the body—such as disability and death. As is the case for many artists, Smith’s material can be quite personal. Not everyone is mindful of this, however.
In workshops, we sometimes think of any feedback—positive or negative—as good feedback. While there’s some truth to this, feedback should never be cruel.
Unfortunately, Smith found some comments less than sensitive, dampening her workshop experience. Needless to say, she wasn’t exactly feeling supported by those involved.
“I stayed up really late one night and … I think I just kind of started rambling to Spenser about what was going on and how I felt so out of place,” she said. “I felt so … pushed out of this space that I really wanted to be in.”
Having grown up in the music scene, Smith recalled feeling “not even pushed out of it, so much as not even invited in.”
What comes next, however, may sound ironic.
“I broke down and was like, ‘I need to buy a bass guitar!’ because—”
She had to face the music.
“That was the instrument that I was more formally trained in.”
The very next day, she went to Long & McQuade and bought a bass guitar.
“As we were looking at the basses, Sonnet L’Abbe walked out of the Guitar Center after getting guitar lessons,” Smith explained. “And they were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I was like, ‘Having an identity crisis.’”
Smith laughed. “They just like, blankly nodded. Like, yes.”
Yup, that checks out. (I’ve taken classes with the poetry prof.)
Smith later moved to Vancouver. “At this point, I had a new guitar and some other equipment that I’d just been accumulating and kind of doing nothing with,” she said.
Shortly after graduating, Smith came up with a plan.
“I set up a corner of our apartment at the time with all my equipment and instruments and stuff like that,” she explained. “And I was like, ‘Okay. In January, I’m going to do like a DIY music degree.’”
Naturally, Smith looked to the internet:
“I signed up for Coursera.”
“I had a bit of a hard time keeping up with what I was studying, but I did make some strides,” she said. “I did as much as I could.”
In late fall, Smith took another shot and wrote a couple songs. “They were … very bad,” she said, laughing.
Months later, she was scrolling through Instagram when a sponsored ad piqued her interest. The ad linked to a website called School of Song, a brand new online songwriting school. They were having a one-month-long songwriting course taught by Robin Pecknold, lead singer of indie band Fleet Foxes.
Smith realized that she couldn’t comfortably afford the tuition, but she took a chance and signed up anyways.
“One thing that Robin Pecknold talked about in his songwriting course was getting into almost a meditative state to write music,” Smith said. “He had some funny phrase, like ‘witchy … witchy conjuring’—something like that—and basically, [it’s about] grounding yourself … trying to hear the songs.”
Alright, so what does this “conjuring” look like? Let’s break it down.
“Ask yourself a question, like, ‘Could I write a song about what it’s like to…?’”
Listen for the answer.
“[Start] with two chords or something—and then just [try] humming and singing gibberish, whatever random words come to mind.”
“Eventually,” Smith said, “[you’ll reach] a place where it’s forming into something.”
For Smith, conjuring is “the most personally satisfying and rewarding” method she’s tried so far.
“I think for some people—and I have written like this—you’re trying to solve a puzzle or assemble something, put something together,” she said. “I think ‘not sad’ came out of that, but that’s not my favourite style of writing.”
Smith wrote “a lot of songs” during the course. Plus, she said, “a couple of them were decent.” However, decent lyrics were far from her biggest takeaway.
In addition to fostering an encouraging learning environment for the whole group, Robin Pecknold ensured that his students—including Smith—had opportunities for one-on-one mentorship.
Not entirely unlike discussion posts on VIULearn, School of Song used a “song share board.”
Smith greatly appreciated Pecknold’s visits to the share board. “He would listen to my songs and comment on them, [which was] unreal.”
Smith, of course, made sure to prolong the experience in the same way anyone else would.
“I have all the comments screenshotted somewhere on my computer,” she admitted. “It was just like pure dopamine for me.”
Putting her former fangirl self aside, Smith emphasized how much of an impact the whole experience had on not only her career, but her perspective.
“That course … opened up a whole new realm of possibility for me,” she said. “The guiding hand of encouragement—as cheesy as that sounds—was what I felt was missing from so much of my undergrad and so much of my adolescence.”
In fact, it was so important to Smith that she might have given up on music “if it weren’t for that course and for Robin Pecknold.”
For Smith, finishing the course was bittersweet. She remembers the last Zoom call ending and her subsequent outpour. “I was like, I’ll never experience anything like that again,” she said. “It cracked something open for me.”
By the time Smith was ready to enter the musical market, she had her niche mostly figured out. She already knew what genres she was comfortable in.
“When I was like 11 or 12, Avril Lavigne released “Complicated,” and I was like, Holy shit, this is it—this is what I want. I could never have imagined that I would be like 28, 29, 30, googling ‘what key am I in,’ you know? And then releasing songs and talking to someone else about it.”
Smith has done some experimentation in developing her voice, however.
“I used to be a belter,” she explained. “When I was a teenager, some men told me that they couldn’t hear me singing, and so I should sing louder—I also had a huge guitar that was so loud and way too big for me—and so I learned to belt.”
Then, everything changed when Phoebe Bridgers attacked.
“In 2020, Phoebe Bridgers released Punisher. And I was like, What the f*** is this? Like, I can’t even hear her,” Smith said. She listened to the album a few more times and was like, “Oh … yeah, okay.”
Obviously, the solution was right there: become Phoebe Bridgers.
“I basically hired a singing teacher—Adrian, who I met on TikTok—and was like, ‘I want you to help me sound like Phoebe Bridgers.’”
Or, at least, become Phoebe Bridgers temporarily.
“I don’t know if I want to keep that style of singing,” she told Adrian. “But I want to try to sound like her to see what it feels like in my body.”
However, Phoebe Bridgers was only the beginning of Smith’s mimicry.
After listening to approximately “half of an Elliot Smith song,” she decided to mimic him. Then she recorded “grim.”
While it doesn’t always work out this way, mimicry has served as a solid jumping off point for Smith as she’s developed her sound.
Compared to poetry, Smith enjoys how music allows for more freedom in crafting dialogues between sound and lyrics. For example, her notes might be in clarification or juxtaposition of her message. “With ‘not sad,’ it’s not a terribly happy-sounding song, but it is more on the side of happy than like, a mellow, downbeat kind of song.” Smith laughed. “And then the lyrics are like, ‘My life’s f******* terrible.’”
She also appreciates music’s greater emphasis on visual components. “I have had visual arts training, and I enjoy it so much—I love photography, and now that translates pretty easily to videography. Even making album art is fun,” she said.
“I remember Sonnet saying something along the lines of,
‘Poetry is musical … It has a musicality to it—even if you don’t notice it, it’s there.’ And I think that it’s really helpful for writing songs as well.”
— Harper K. Smith
“I haven’t written [poetry] in quite a long time,” Smith said, “but it was very much an experience of trying to let something move through me.”
This was “stressful and unnerving” for her. Smith explained that she would often come out of a session of writing poetry a little shaky and sweating, like she’d just been to a job interview.
“One of my last poems was about medically assisted dying and the unethical nature of that in Canada, and that was so stressful to write,” Smith explained. “I felt like, with poetry, each poem was a topic. Whereas with my songwriting, I can write a song about my experience with death and mention medically assisted dying. [I can bring in] stressful things that I need to say but maybe I don’t want to have to say five stanzas of.”
While she finds songwriting to be more of a “soothing” process, she still has a fondness of poetry.
“I have a little stack of books—like Délani Valin’s book that came out last year—waiting for me for the new year,” she said. “I’m excited to read more poetry again and let it wash through me.”
I, too, am saving Valin’s Shapeshifters for a special occasion.
Of course, the musician lifestyle still has its own ebb and flow.
“In terms of the artistry, I … am handling the idea—the fear—that maybe these are my best songs and best ideas, and I maybe won’t have good ones again,” she confessed.
“I’m handling that… not well.” Smith laughed. “But, you know, it is what it is.”
Yeah. It be like that sometimes.
“I have other songs written, but I’ll be curious to see what will happen once the EP is out.”
Smith plans to focus on songwriting once the EP’s promo period ends. As for a release date, she confirms “nothing official,” but most likely in late January.
If you’ve survived this article, you might as well follow @harperistired on social media. Boycotting Meta or trying to stay off the clock app? No worries! Just head to harperksmith.com and sign up for her newsletter to find out what the heck is up and coming.
Tianna is a queer student in her final year at VIU. She’s taken so many different electives that everyone forgets Creative writing is her major, and she’s also minoring in SWAG. Between her studies, day (night) job, internship at Caitlin Press, and work with The Nav, Portal, and Sad Girl Review, it’s safe to say she’s pretty deep in her girlboss era.