Genre-defying artist Jessica Harper refuses to be put in a box

Jessica Harper, a sophomore majoring in music performance, wants her music to shed light on personal and social issues faced by Gen-Z. (Emily Sagen | Daily Trojan)

Singer-songwriter Jessica Harper has always had a wide-ranging music taste — something that has translated into her own art. She grew up with this tangled taste in music — from listening to rock artists like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin to classical pop musicians like Frank Sinatra, Harper eventually found her own niche, bringing a classical feeling to rock music.

Harper, a sophomore majoring in popular music performance, started singing for strangers in Target when she was only a toddler. In second grade, she joined her school’s musicals, which allowed her to showcase her talent more openly. 

From the beginning, Harper’s family has supported her love for music. 

“My family loves music, so we were always listening to it and singing along, and it was a very community-based thing,” Harper said. “It was always just kind of a part of my life.”

Although no one in her family pursued a career in music, her relatives have supported her in all of her endeavors and encouraged her to take the steps necessary to help her pursue her own. When Harper expressed her desire to attend an art boarding school in high school, her parents were initially reluctant to let her join, but they ultimately supported her as they saw her passion for music grow.

Harper’s high school journey wasn’t a typical one to say the least. When she first joined the boarding school, she went in with a focus on opera music. As soon as she discovered the variety of programs that were available, she decided to pursue songwriting. This experience gave her the opportunity to collaborate with individuals in other programs, including the dance and visual arts programs. 

“It was just this beautiful, collaborative, artistic place that just let us try new things,” Harper said. “Especially in the songwriting program, my teachers never tried to make me be a certain genre or write about a certain topic. They tried to push me in every direction so I could figure out which one I wanted.” 

Sean Holt, a USC alumnus, faculty member and mentor to Harper, has known her since she joined his sophomore songwriting music cohort a few years ago. Outside of his classes, Holt works with students to find ways they can pursue a more long-term career in music. 

“I don’t focus too much with my students necessarily on any particular outcome that they’re going to achieve — I’m much more interested in a continued process in their careers,” Holt said. “The beautiful thing is that anything we lay claim to right now may not even be as cool as what is possible for [Harper’s] career. She’s certainly got all of the capability and skill to be the next megastar, and she could also enjoy a really great career as an effective songwriter.”

Harper doesn’t take her title as an artist lightly. Her music aims to provide people a way to escape the realities of their everyday lives and to give them a sense of safety and comfort when they need it most, she said.

“I just want people to be in touch with their emotions and to provide an outlet for them to connect with something if they wouldn’t normally get to express those things,” Harper said. “I feel like the general population represses their emotions a lot for the sake of other people and the job of artists is to release that for them.”

Rather than writing about typical love stories, Harper adds her own twist to make her music relatable. She expresses her personal struggles in her music while also writing about social issues important to  Generation Z, including body positivity and wellness, to spark vital conversations.

“I do write a lot about whatever I’m struggling with emotionally,” Harper said. “I write a lot about eating disorders because I struggled with one for a long time, and stuff about body image and self-love.”

Writing has always been the best outlet for Harper to process her emotions, so when it came to eating disorders, she wrote about her own relationship with food. This topic was a sensitive and personal one for her, which made it difficult to explicitly write about, so she got comfortable writing in metaphors to help her mask the intensity of the topic, she said.

Another mentor of Harper’s, USC alumnus Michael Arrom, has instructed her in piano. Arrom is a strong supporter and advocate for Harper’s unique lyricism and the messages behind her music.

“Her music can mean something different to every listener,” Arrom said. “I find that every song paints a different picture as well. [What] I personally hear throughout her music is a love of life, whether in the beautiful, the tragic, or the bizarre — she explores everything.”

Throughout the time Arrom has worked with her, he said he sees great potential in Harper and a long-lasting future, no matter how she decides to orient her music career.

“Jess has a very bright future with a lot of potential avenues,” Arrom said. “She’s an unbelievably talented singer-songwriter and her interests and skills go far beyond that. She has a great intuition for stitching together sounds and textures. She’s a curious and collaborative learner, so where she wants to go is up to her … I don’t see Jess being confined to a single path.”

Harper said she aims to continue her career in music, whether it’s touring around the world as a singer, working on her own artist projects or even writing for other musicians. 

“I want my artist projects to be a balance of socially conscious while still being a fun live experience,” Harper said. “So the subject matter of the songs a lot of times would be focused on things that I want to further, or open up a dialogue about, while the music of the songs themselves would be just something that everyone would jam to.”

You can listen to Harper’s EP “Michigan,” which is available on all platforms including Apple Music and Spotify. Be on the lookout for a music video for her song “Rainy Day,” projected to come out at the end of April or early May.