Singer-songwriter Mandy Harvey can still feel the shag carpeting under her feet. She can still taste the Skyline-style spaghetti with the huge mountain of cheese on top. She can remember her big sister playing with her and the view outside their apartment window and the loving woman from across the hall who always seemed to have a hug for her when she needed it the most.
What she can’t remember is a time that Cincinnati wasn’t part of her story.
“I think anytime you have roots, even if they are not ones that were fully developed or deep, they still are your roots,” Harvey explains. “It means something to say that this is where I was born. It means something to say that this is where I’m from. There is just something really profound about going home.”
Granted, Harvey only lived with her family in Cincinnati until she was 3 years old, so the memories that were made there are understandably hazy for the now 33-year-old who burst on the music scene with her 2017 appearance on NBC’s talent competition show America’s Got Talent. It was on that stage where she performed her original song, “Try,” which earned her the “golden buzzer” from Simon Cowell. In the years that followed, her breathtaking performance has gone on to amass over 500 million views.
But the Cincinnati memories that she clings to in the back in her mind have always been good ones.
“The apartment we lived in at the time was so multicultural,” says Harvey, who last came through Cincinnati while out on tour mere weeks before the pandemic began. “I was raised in an apartment complex where the people across from us were from Ethiopia and the people next to them were from India, all in one mixing pot of an apartment building. To be able to be raised in an environment where you have such a mix, it does mark you and leave an impression on who you are. It certainly gave me a general respect and understanding of people and culture.”
But it was also in that apartment building that the hearing issues that would plague Harvey for the rest of her life began to surface.
“The hearing issues started when I was first born,” she recalls. “I didn’t, right away, turn to sound. And then I immediately had issues with my eardrums not vibrating. And then there were the ear tubes and the surgeries, and it was pretty immediate that my family knew this was going to be a problem for all of us going forward.”
At the age of 18, as a student at Colorado State University, Harvey was diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Today, Harvey is considered profoundly deaf and utilizes a mix of vibrations, visual tuners, and touch to “hear” all that she needs to when it comes to her music. When she performs on stage, she tunes into the vibrations of the instruments as felt though her bare feet.
But despite all the challenges she has faced, Harvey has continued to let music tell her story. Her newest single, “Masterpiece,” debuted earlier this month.
“I really feel like it’s a message that a lot of people can connect to right now,” she says of the song, the music video for which includes appearances by Marlee Matlin, Kyle Maynard, and Erik Weihenmayer, three high-profile members of the disabled community. “This has been a year. Everyone has felt it. Everyone has doubted themselves or been disappointed or just straight-up felt afraid during this past year. So having a moment to say that this year was worth having because I have grown so much—well, it’s important. I have gotten so many beautiful messages from my fans saying, I needed that. I needed that virtual hug. I needed to know that it was ok to have these emotions.”
Emotions run deep for Harvey. They run through just about everything she does. Currently, they’re showing up in her songwriting and in her preparation for a new album, along with a children’s television show she’s preparing to pitch to executives. She also remains dedicated to her ongoing commitment to advocating for the deaf and disabled community.
But her emotions for Cincinnati? Those, too, will never change.
“Yes, it’s really cold there and the traffic is really bizarre there, but that’s true in a lot of places,” she says. “I think home is home. You just kind of overlook some of that stuff and say it doesn’t really matter. This place is a part of me. This is where I’m from.”