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No Barriers Podcast Episode 143: Casey Harris of X Ambassadors

about the episode

So often when people with differing abilities want to try something that is perceived as beyond their reach, well intentioned friends will try and talk them out of it. Concerns are based on safety or chances of success or failure. When our host Erik Weihenmayer began planning his attempt climbing Mt. Everest, learning to kayak or paraglide… there were plenty of people that expressed concerns.

Our guest today is Casey Harris. He a professional keyboardist for the  band, the X Ambassadors. He’s also blind. When asked if anyone tried to talk him out of a musical career, he answered no, it was the exact opposite. A blind musician is a completely acceptable, even encouraged, in our society. A blind athlete not so much. This was just one interesting touchpoint in our conversation with Casey.

Connect with Casey Harris

https://www.instagram.com/caseyharris_xa/ – Casey on Insta.

https://www.xambassadors.com/ – Official website. Check out their latest album, Beautiful Liars

https://www.instagram.com/xambassadors/ – X Ambassadors on Insta

Episode Transcript

Casey Harris:

Whenever anyone says, "What advice would you give to an upcoming, aspiring musician?" I always say, "Just make great music and put it out in the world." That's pretty much all you can do. Make great music and put yourself out in the world. Make art, put it out in the world and hope it connects with people.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the grand canyon. And I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no-barrier's life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.(singing)

Didrik Johnck:

So often when people with differing abilities want to try something that is perceived as beyond their reach, well-intentioned friends will try and talk them out of it. Concerns are based on safety or chances of success or failure. When our host Erik Weihenmayer began planning his attempt on Mount Everest, learning to kayak or paraglide, there were plenty of people that expressed concerns. Our guest today is Casey Harris. He's a professional keyboardist for the band the X Ambassadors. He's also blind. When asked if anyone tried to talk him out of a musical career, he answered, "No, it was the exact opposite.

Didrik Johnck:

A blind musician is completely acceptable, even encouraged, in our society. A blind athlete, not so much." This was just one interesting touch point in our conversation with Casey. Have a listen. You'll hear about the role piano tuning played in his life, the funny non-invitations to his brother's band, figuring out social cues and social interactions when so much of that is visual. Can you overdose on music-making? Perhaps. Finding your tribe who appreciates your art, his approach to discovering new music, and much more. Join host, Erik Weihenmayer, with special guest host, Antoinette Lee Toscano, with our guest today, Casey Harris. I hope you enjoy it. I'm producer, Didrik Johnck, and this is the No Barriers Podcast.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Hey, everyone. Welcome to the No Barriers Podcast. My co-host, Antoinette, this is your first day with the podcast. Antoinette, thanks for joining us. It's so cool to have you.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

I am super excited to be here.

Erik Weihenmayer:

For everyone, Antoinette is on the No Barriers board and an ambassador and a whitewater kayaker. It's pretty exciting to have you with us. We're going to interview today Casey. So Casey, this is so fantastic. I mean, this is a highlight of the week for us. We met at a No Barrier summit really briefly.

Casey Harris:

I'm honored. It's such a highlight. I mean, I'm so happy to be here. This is awesome.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. Before that, we were sharing all this stuff about connections, Europe, and Upstate New York. I go up there ice climbing with a friend of mine near the border of Canada.

Casey Harris:

Oh yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

We were talking about how gray and miserable it can be. But I guess we're blind, so it doesn't really matter if it's gray and-

Casey Harris:

Exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... for us.

Casey Harris:

I was also saying, man-

Erik Weihenmayer:

the sun on our faces.

Casey Harris:

I've been in LA now for over six years, dude. So I was saying, "A little grayness is a vibe once in a while." It's a serious atmosphere, man. A little doom and gloom can really spark some creativity.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Nice. Antoinette, you spent some time up there you were saying too, right?

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Yes. Born and raised in New York City. Then I was part of the 10th Mountain Division attached to the 10th Mountain Division up in Watertown. So yeah, Northern Colorado's home, but now it is, but New York is where my roots are.

Erik Weihenmayer:

All right. Cool. Well, Casey, so a lot of times I start with an easy softball question, but in this case, I want to just dive right into kind of a harder question.

Casey Harris:

All right.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. You and I have a couple things in common, that we're both visually impaired or blind, and you're a really successful musician. But you probably in certain ways get more attention because you're blind and you've overcome all kinds of things to become where you are. So I'm just wondering your worldview. Do you see yourself as just a keyboardist, a musician or do you... To take pride in the blindness side of it, do you see yourself as a blind musician or how do you wrap your head around that?

Casey Harris:

Oh, it's my in, man. I mean, I'm a good musician, but there's plenty of good musicians. But you got to have your angle if you want to get attention, especially in this internet age, man. Shamelessly, that's my angle, man. That's like-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. Right.

Casey Harris:

We're the band with the blind keyboard player.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. And I'm in the same boat because I'm not the best climber in the world. I'm a decent climber, but the fact that you're blind makes you stand out.

Casey Harris:

Yeah. Exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It makes you be a bit of a Jamaican bobsledder, I guess.

Casey Harris:

Yeah, exactly. There's no shame in using whatever you got to stand out in this world. Yeah, honestly. Yeah, it's funny. So much of the time, I mean, when I'm thinking about myself, I'm a dad first and foremost, and then a musician, then somewhere way down the list I'm also blind. It's just a feature, but because of the outside world, it's such a, I guess, unique thing. I'm not exactly quite sure what the word I'm looking for is. Unique or such a novelty, I guess, that it's like, "Yeah. You can fully capitalize." I'd say absolutely any blind person should fully capitalize on that novelty factor to get yourself attention, then let your talent shine. Once you've got that spotlight on you, then you can show them what you got.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. I think that's a great attitude for sure. You're visually impaired. You're not totally blind like I am and you're not sighted, so you've lived in this in-between world a lot of your life. How does that affect your world view as well in terms of... I don't know. I just can imagine that sometimes in that situation you're like, "Man, I'm not blind, I'm not sighted, I'm somewhere in the middle." It can make you feel like a bit of an outsider, I would imagine.

Casey Harris:

Well, it's funny too, because especially... I was growing up in the '90s and early 2000s. The internet was a thing, but there weren't forums all over the place. There wasn't the online blind community. I think I knew one other legally blind person in my age group in my town. I wasn't exactly part of a blind community growing up. I was the only blind person that most people I knew knew, that kind of thing, which was, I guess, sort of would've made me feel like an outsider if it wasn't for the fact that I'm just a stubborn dumbass who prefers to go against the grain.

Casey Harris:

I don't know. I always preferred to be into the unpopular things or the less popular. I was always into weird music growing up and always liked obscure TV shows and that kind of crap. Just purely just out of stubbornness and just a desire to go against the grain. So I'm sure the blind thing contributed to that, but it was probably just a icing on the cake honestly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

And you were a rebel too, you're alluding to that. I've listened to a bunch of your stuff, and yeah, so you were rebellious a little bit, you and your brother, I think, growing up.

Casey Harris:

I love my brother and a shame to say that I think I make him look tame with my high school antics. I got into one or two things in high school. But nothing serious, nothing life-threatening to anybody. Nobody got hurt.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. So what do you think you were rebelling against? I mean, the natural answer might have been, hey, you're trying to prove yourself. And I have to say, when I look back in my life in high school, I did a lot of crazy stuff because I was blind and I wanted to be the toughest, most badass guy. I'd be the guy jumping off the cliff into the river the first before everyone else. There was a lot of silly proving going on. I don't know if that was the case for you or not.

Casey Harris:

I mean, that's a case for everybody in high school, I think, to a certain extent. There's always something like that going on. High school's tricky because that's where everyone's transitioning. I guess that's partly middle school too. But where it's everyone's really going from being a kid to being an adult. I think the biggest way that being visually impaired or blind impacted that as far as I'm concerned is that there are all these social cues, particularly for things like dating, that sort of thing, that you are just supposed to pick up via osmosis.

Casey Harris:

What I've realized later is that you pick it up by observing other people doing it. You watch your classmates how they go about acting like grownups and that kind of thing, or you watching on... It's a lot of observation. You're never formally taught these things, like how to... I don't know. Yeah, ask a girl out or something like that, or how to get I invited to a party, that kind of thing. It's these subtle social things that I think a lot of the times, because they're not taught, because they're just... For so many people, they're just something that naturally you pick up on without even consciously thinking about it.

Casey Harris:

That was definitely something that caused a little high school rage and I'm sure contributed to my desire to climb in the roof of the school and that kind of crazy shenanigans. I mean, it's complicated being a high school in general, and especially if you're somehow also on your own tip, if you're not already into being popular, and then suddenly you enter high school and popularity is like the end-all be-all, that's what everyone is about. It's a culture shock. But that on top of not being able to navigate around the city by yourself, that was another big thing.

Casey Harris:

And that started a little more in middle school, is that around that age, around your twins and your teens, you start... especially in a small town like Ithaca, kids just go around town, walk around town by themselves. When they turn 16, they get a car and they can drive around by themselves. I learned my roots through town. I could get from school to the coffee shop or to downtown and that sort of thing, but never had that teenage freedom experience where I feel so... I remember my brother telling me the first time after he had gotten his driver's license and he took our parents' Volvo out and was just free to drive anywhere he wanted to, how free that felt.

Casey Harris:

I think that's something that you miss out on a lot as a visually impaired teenager, is that newfound freedom, because unless... Yeah, I mean, these days maybe it's different with phone navigator, with GPS and talking smart phones and everything. I myself can navigate a lot better than I used to be able to. But a techless kid growing up in the '90s and 2000s, it was very much a... I either followed the group around or I went somewhere that I knew how to get to. That was pretty much it. Yeah, I think that probably did also contribute to, the idea of not being as free as everybody else.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Right. Yeah. Not getting your license, all that kind of stuff is a big deal, but sounds like you're just a little rebellious anyway. Just looking at rules and saying, "That's stupid. Why would I do that?" So there's also just the stuff that's totally separated from blindness as well.

Casey Harris:

Oh, yeah. 100%. It's hard to figure out which is which honestly. It's all a mess.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It's all mixed in.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Casey, I heard you talk previously, and even today, about freedom and in another interview talking about being an explorer and naturally curious about places and things and getting around. Do you think of yourself as an explorer and does that go into your connection to nature and do you have a connection to nature?

Casey Harris:

Oh, very much. I mean, I think I've rediscovered that. Me and my wife got our house in... It was actually we got my childhood house in Upstate New York, which is in the middle of a bunch of acres in just out maybe three, four miles, five miles outside of town. So not too far away from town, but it feels like you're in the middle of nowhere and you're surrounded... I think there's a state park or something on one of the sides. There's just trees and grass everywhere and it's so silent.

Casey Harris:

Still, I even fell in love with the bad weather, the crap when there'd be patches of nasty snow on the ground everywhere and it would be all dirt. Man, I loved it all. Me and my wife and our oldest son spent the pandemic in Ithaca while everyone was on lockdown while we were pregnant with our second little guy. Yeah, it was really a wake up call to get back in touch with nature. I mean, there's plenty of nature in LA, but it's not like going to the woods where nobody else goes kind of nature. That was something else. That was really amazing.

Casey Harris:

Yeah, obviously connecting to nature and my family and people is... I mean, it's part of being human. I think just being human is something that's lost a lot, especially when you're in the rat race of the music industry and when it's all about success and your next big hit and what are you working on now? What's your big project? Sometimes I feel like the humanity of life can get a little lost.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

I think a lot of us reconnected to nature during the pandemic. Erik and I are those people who... I don't want to speak for you, Erik, so this is really a question. I feel more at home out in nature, in the back country, on the rivers, and deep back country than I do in my here in a small town, Northern Colorado.

Casey Harris:

Yeah. There's a real, real magic there and it's hard to put into words. It's partially the primalness, obviously the fact that is still deeply in our bones. That's where we live for a long, long time, human beings. It's really nice to live in a nice, climate-controlled house and be able to sleep in a cozy bed, but there's something magical about just being out there, just you. If you were stuck out there, you'd have to get together sticks to build a shelter and you'd have to... There's something just really grounding about that in a weird way. It helps you put all the other things that is going on in your life into perspective. If it really came down to it, you'd have to forage for food and build your own shelter. That's perspective right there.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Yeah, exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Hey, Antoinette, by the way, yeah, I'm with Casey. I like the outdoors, groveling in the dirt and snow. But I also like a soft bed and a hot tub and my massage chair.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

I definitely appreciate-

Casey Harris:

I love them equally.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I love them equally.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

I don't think I can say that. I think I love the back country more, but I appreciate coming home.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. Right.

Casey Harris:

It's good contrast. It's one of the most of the beauties of life, is contrast between things. Life would be a boring place if everything was always the same.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Exactly. I spent a lot of time listening to your music this weekend, Casey. So your band, the X Ambassadors, are still in my ears. But I started with Sucker for Pain and I realized that you had some of my favorite artists like Lil Wayne, Imagine Dragons, Wiz Khalifa. I stood in the rain for two hours waiting for an Imagine Dragons' concert to start in North Carolina, so-

Casey Harris:

Oh yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

But on the Beautiful Liar album, I thought, "How could I not know about this band first of all because this is definitely my gym vibe and my I'm feeling good, I'm dressed out, I'm getting ready to go out but I need to pump myself up kind of music?" This is definitely in my playlist because I was in my Adidas track suit, listening to this song, dancing around the house like I was in the club. Love it.

Casey Harris:

Oh, that's awesome. Yeah. That's so cool, dude.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

So there's a question in there, but I need to preface it. I'm asking this question from a black woman's perspective, okay? Are you ready?

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Okay. I want to know how some white dudes from Ithaca could have such a soulful sound. What were your influences? Where did that come from?

Casey Harris:

The only explanation I could think of is it's purely about the music you listened to growing up. Especially when I started playing piano, I was a serious funketeer. I was all about Parliament and the Ohio Players, the Commodores, all those '70s early funk bands. That was basically how I learned to play keys, was copying those guys a lot of ways. I mean, I took lessons for a couple years, but when I really learned to play was just mimicking those guys, man. And Herbie Hancock as well, all those... Oh my God! That was my jam.

Casey Harris:

I honestly really didn't listen to too much rock growing up. My brother was more the rock guy and I got into that a little later on. But my brother very much was... He listened to rock but he also loved Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and all those guys. That was also credit to our dad because he played a lot of classic records for us. He had a huge record collection. Man, he definitely introduced us to a lot of stuff that was very, very formative, even if we didn't know it at the time as kids growing up. But yeah, honestly, I mean, that's the sort of music that I love.

Casey Harris:

When I'm with the kids in the morning and it's a Saturday morning, I'm feeling good, I've had my coffee and it's up, put on a little P-Funk or something like that. I just put on some Earth, Wind & Fire or something like that. It's the way to start the day. It's just the best. How can you be in a bad mood listening to stuff like that? It's crazy.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

And it really comes through in your music. I could feel it. I could feel the soulfulness. I could feel that connection. It's not necessary for me to enjoy a song because I am a huge country music fan also, but I also love classical music. But I just really sat down thinking, "Hey, I'm going to get to know this band," and next thing I just lost all work ethic and just started dancing. So that was wonderful.

Casey Harris:

Oh, that's so lovely to hear you. Thank you for saying that. That's amazing.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Sam, for the listeners, is your brother and lead vocalist? Did Sam say, "Hey brother, let's start a band."? How did the band come about?

Casey Harris:

Oh, no. Oh, man, we had our own bands in high school. I went to a different high school than Sam. I was the keyboard guy at my high school, so I was on a bunch of different bands there, mostly different funk and soul projects honestly. But my brother's band would play in the basement where I would also have my gear set up. So I'd bored and they'd be usually between songs and I'd come down and jam with them, jam with the guitarist and drummer and bass player. My brother obviously was not a huge fan. We were still in the sibling rivalry phase.

Casey Harris:

So he wasn't that happy that I was playing with his band, but he tolerated it. It was just one of those things where bit by bit it was like, "Oh, well, we could use a piano on this song. Well, Casey could just record something real quick." And he's just like, "Yeah, no, he's not in the band, but you can lay keys down on this." "We're going to play our album release show, how about you play that." And then next thing, it was just like, "Why don't you just be part of the band?" It was a very just gradual slippery slope from just doing a few jam sessions with the guys to, yeah, to being part of the band.

Casey Harris:

Then it was kind of like, "Okay, we've got a band. We don't really know what we're going to do after high school. We know we like being this band, let's all go to New York City." I went off actually to a vocational piano tuning school for a couple years, but then we all met up in New York City and kept the thing going. It's wild actually thinking about. I'm pretty proud of us for actually sticking to it and really buckling down to say, "Hey, we're going to take our high school band and move to New York and try to make it a thing."

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

You talk a lot about putting in the time to become good at something, putting in your 1,000 hours. What was that process like for you?

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, I read as well you played a bunch of clubs and you put in a lot of time.

Casey Harris:

I mean, I feel like I'm still always going through that, but I'm still trying to put in the hours and learn how... Because I mean, the music industry and the sound of music is changing so fast I feel like. I mean, I put in all this time as a kid learning how to play the piano and then I put in all this time playing live shows. Now I feel like I'm still putting in all this time trying to learn how to produce and engineer myself on the computer because that's the future.

Casey Harris:

All these kids these days, all you need is a laptop and a little mini controller, maybe a guitar, and you can create a fully-fledged, professional-sounding song. And I'm starting to get decent at that, but it's... Yeah, I mean, that's been a learning curve too. There's going to be something else that comes up too. There's going to be some new thing or new skill in the music world that I'm going to need to put in those hours.

Casey Harris:

The day I stop learning and practicing and trying to perfect some craft, the day I think that I'm on top of my game is the day that I probably need to retire from the music business, because you can never be too on top of your game. Especially for us as a band, people have talked about us as a really good live band. That fully came from grinding it out because we were a really bad live band for a long time. But that was all in these tiny, bad venues all over New York City and basically playing for our friends who would show up.

Casey Harris:

So it was no pressure. Then by the time we actually started opening for Imagine Dragons and stuff like that, we had at least to a decent amount honed our craft to where we could feel like we could put on a good show. And I think we're still working on that. I mean, for this last tour, Sam learned how to dance. He's never really danced. I mean, he's always had moves on stage, but he's never really danced on stage before. Primarily because he had danced for the Monster music video, he was like, "I want to dance on tour this time."

Casey Harris:

He got a coach, a movement coach, and yeah, it was like a totally different performance from him on the Beautiful Liar tour. It's that sort of thing you always got to be pushing the boundaries, always got to be trying something new and learning new things and adding those to your repertoire because you can never put in too many hours. You're never good enough at something.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Casey, do you remember... All right, so I'll just give you a tiny bit of background. I just started playing the guitar. I do these little recitals, literally in front of like 50 people, and my hands sweat, I get so nervous, my hands start shaking, I lose a little bit of micro control of my fingers. I can play guitar decently in the house by myself, but soon as I get in front of people, it's just a whole different ball game. When did you decide that you could be a professional musician? Then talk about stage fright. How are you so comfortable up there? How do you not freak out when thousands of people are all staring at you?

Casey Harris:

Well, that's the hours thing again, plus, I mean, being blind helps there too because I can't see them.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Right.

Casey Harris:

Yes. But literally, a lot of it is just that hours thing, plus it helps if your first couple of shows are for your drunk friends. That takes a lot of the pressure off. That's a pretty easy crowd to please. At least for us, you're pretty three sheets to the wind too. So everyone's having a good time, and afterwards, everyone thinks you guys rocked. It's easy. It's only later you start to realize how bad you were when someone actually films it and you watch it back and you're like, "Oh, man. Wow! Okay. I got to brush this up. I got to work."

Casey Harris:

That's also good. That's good too because that gets you back on your toes too. But yeah, the stage fright thing, it's very much like... Honestly, getting a little loose beforehand helps. Having a low pressure audience for your first several shows is also real nice. But then just, man, you do it so often that it's just natural. It sounds weird to say, but it's like doing anything else. Once you've done it enough times, it just feels normal.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Do you ever make a mistake still? Do you ever make a mistake on stage and you're-

Casey Harris:

Dude, you have no idea how-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Maybe nobody else even notices?

Casey Harris:

The running joke in the band is that there's maybe one out of every five shows where everyone comes off stage being like, "Yeah, we played great. That was awesome." The other four shows, there's one member of the band who will come off stage being like, "Fuck! That was terrible. I played so badly, man. This is an awful show." Just like every night, there's somebody... Usually it's, either me or Adam or Russ. Sometimes it's Sam if he's felt like his voice wasn't up to show. And it's never anything that anyone else ever notices.

Casey Harris:

The thing about being a perfectionist is you're a perfectionist on stage too. You can't turn that off. If you miss a note and then that throws you off a little bit and then you feel like the rest of your performance wasn't great because you were thrown off and you get all in your head, it's terrible. It's terrible. You never really escape that, but you learn to just... Especially, I think, for me watching performances back, watching back some live performances where I did mess up and be like, "Oh, okay, that was really barely noticeable," that helped a lot as far as my mental state.

Casey Harris:

As far as that sort of thing goes, these days I'm much more able to come off stage and be like, "Well, I crapped the bed, but that was okay. It sounded fine." Yeah, I mean, that's again putting in the hours and just honing your stagecraft. I don't think there's a professional performer anywhere who hasn't messed up at least once in a while live. We're human. Human beings are not robots. And that's the other thing too. Recorded music is so produced and perfected these days that people have come to expect that perfection in certain live performances.

Casey Harris:

So yeah, you can't be as sloppy as people were back in like the '70s. But it's also if you mess up a note here or there, people are not going to notice. That's not going to register for the average audience listener.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

In producing music, Casey, I know that you and the X Ambassadors has been pushing forward inclusivity in the music industry. Far too often, when people think of accessibility, diversity, equity, and inclusion, they center on ethnicity. But all abilities being visible and represented, included, and able to access all of the things that life has to offer, and specifically within the music industry and other industries, is often overlooked. What are some of the accessibility and other types of barriers that you've experienced producing music in the industry and what are you trying to do in terms of removing those for others because I know you're involved in some of that?

Casey Harris:

Yeah. I mean, it's funny because producing music, and yeah, modern digital music production is really possibly... I'd say the area where being visually impaired or being legally blind has probably put up the most barriers because modern recording is all computer based, which is a blessing because computers, especially modern computers, are some of the most adaptable tools visually and auditorially, but in a lot of ways doesn't extend oddly enough to the music realm. It's easiest if I just get an example.

Casey Harris:

When you're recording and you've got pieces of recording software and you have this amazing sounding piano patch, but you want to change the reverb, you want change the reverb on this piano patch that you're playing, it's a beautiful piano, but you want it to sound close, the way you do that is you open up the control panel for the software instrument and that's almost always a graphical non-screen reader compatible, usually not very high contrast, a lot of little tiny writing, a lot of little buttons and little knobs and you got to find the knob that says reverb under it and click it and turn it.

Casey Harris:

Sometimes it'll take me an hour with my screen magnified as much as possible going knob by knob, looking at the labels, ciphering them out to find the one control that for a sighted person would've taken two seconds to go in and twist that knob. As far as addressing that, we worked with actually Microsoft a little bit on the BOOM app and then a little bit for some pretty cool digital content for Beautiful Liar too. So I've got some contacts there that I've been reaching out to and seeing if there's any interest in developing possibly a screen reader software or something that can access those graphical digital recording software instruments and effects and all that.

Casey Harris:

The things that make modern music sound huge and epic and great are all controlled by fully graphical interfaces. That's I think a frontier that I'm very interested in working with anyone who I have contacts with in developing software and developing solutions for because I think that that is, for me and I'm sure for other blind musicians, holding them back as far as having their content sound as professional and as well produced as everything else that's out there on the internet now. It's something I'm very obviously feel very strongly about.

Casey Harris:

Yeah, like I said, I've been reaching out to my peeps that I know at Microsoft and I'm open for anyone who's in tech or software development. I know computers okay. I can pretend like I can code a little bit, but that's about it. I'm no pro-tech guy, so I definitely, I'm going to need some help on this one. But it's something that I'm very, very passionate about and very much want to see it through and want to figure out a solution.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I can't believe that somebody hasn't figured that out yet or tried to work on that-

Casey Harris:

That's a...

Erik Weihenmayer:

... issue. It's really crazy-

Casey Harris:

I'm shocked.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... because there's so many-

Casey Harris:

I'm flabbergasted.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. Visually impaired people who are into music, right?

Casey Harris:

Music, yeah. And you can record, it's not like you can't record, but it's the access to the little tweaks and tricks and... Things like editing drums, when you record a drum kit, it's so easy for a sighted person to just go in and look at the wave for and see, "Oh, that kick drum's a little bit offbeat. Let me just slide that back a little bit." But there's no adaptive settings in a lot of programs. It's pretty low contrast even. So it's difficult to do the professional tweaks and tricks that really make your music sound pro. But I think it's on the horizon. If I don't do it, somebody else has got to because it's ridiculous that it's this inaccessible.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Hey, Casey, I've heard you on different interviews talking about like this beautiful connection that happens when you're making music together and you're up on stage performing with your band, with your brother. What do you love about music? Tell me what that connection is like. Is it like a drug where you're just like, "Man, this is a beautiful-

Casey Harris:

Oh, yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... place to be."?

Casey Harris:

Well, I mean, anyone who plays... Even you, you said you started to play guitar. You got a little taste of that drug. You've had your first nip.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Big time.

Casey Harris:

Just sitting by yourself and playing an instrument and having it sound good, there's something that hits the human soul. It's very satisfying about that. Then of course, I decided I wanted to be a musician when I started just jamming on the piano at lunchtime. There was a room in the school that had a piano and a drum kit and some acoustic guitars and stuff. It would just be me and a couple other kids who also really didn't know how to play very well just playing together. You'd start to discover that magic of when you'd communicate and you'd all come together on a buildup section.

Casey Harris:

No one talked about it, no one pre-planned it, no one said a word, but somehow there's this communication going on, there's coordination. That brings that musical satisfaction feeling to the whole next level. It's like doing anything with other people, it makes that activity so much more satisfying. Then of course you bring it to the audience and there's people and you making people happy by doing this thing that makes you happy. It's one thing after another, positive reinforcement. There's no reason not to do music. It is fully, fully a drug.

Casey Harris:

Honestly, I've only really realized this since having kids, is that it's totally possible to become almost obsessed, like obsessive, to want to do music to the exclusion of all else. Thank God now I've got my wife and kids that balance my life out because it really... It's like any drug, when you do it all the time, you build up a tolerance and then it's a little less special. Taking a break from it, like when I'm with my wife and kids and not doing music, it makes when I come back to it that much more amazing and special.

Casey Harris:

But it's very hard. I know some people whose lives are just purely making music, be it playing live. Mostly the people I know are mostly producers who just they live to record music and make sounds in their studios and that kind of thing. It's amazing, and much respect to those people, but I also sometimes wonder if maybe they're overdosing a little bit on music and if they could maybe need a step back from it for a second, just because it honestly does make the music better.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. It can be obsessive though, I imagine, like you were just saying. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It's so beautiful when you create something and you go, "My God! That sounded so beautiful. I have to create something else that's even more beautiful."

Casey Harris:

Yep. It's the best high ever, man. I mean, it's the best high in the world, is making music. And that's why it's so addictive and that's why I think having life balance when you're a pro musician is an underrated thing.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Okay. So I imagine as a kid, we're all insecure and we have things that we want to prove. But now, you're wildly successful. I mean, you've "arrived". Do you still have any insecurities? Do you still have-

Casey Harris:

Oh my God! Yeah. I mean, I'm sure everyone has this, but moments of, man, this is just pure luck that I got here. Like anybody, especially creative types, you go through phases of feeling like the worst musician in the world or feeling like you just can't create anything or that you can't play or there's so many better musicians or better producers or artists out there than you and... Yeah. I think every musician goes through that to a certain extent, or at least every musician who is at least a little bit self-aware goes through that.

Casey Harris:

Yeah, because I think a lot of it, and particularly for pop music... I hate to say, but pop music is so random in what gets pop and you can't... I can't say, "Oh, man, Unsteady got huge because my piano part was so great." I'm like, "It's a great song. I don't know why it reacted with people." But it's a great song and it worked. So much of it, of the success, feels like all you can do is just make great music and something might connect. Whenever anyone says, "What advice would you give to an upcoming, aspiring musician?" I always say, "Just make great music and put it out in the world." That's pretty much all you can do. Make great music and put yourself out in the world.

Erik Weihenmayer:

But it is so elusive, isn't it? Because I always look at these band and I look and see a popular song, and a couple of them are one-hit wonders, and you're like, "Wow!-

Casey Harris:

100%.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... "That must be so painful." Because you're creating this amazing stuff and you're like, "Why did that hit and this didn't?"

Casey Harris:

Absolutely.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I imagine that could be a well that you fall into.

Casey Harris:

But not just that, but there's... I mean, me especially being the guy that I am, I like to listen to a lot of more obscure music that's not in the top 100. And so much of it I'm like, "I would 100% listen to this over something in the top 40 any day. Why is this? Why does this have... whatever, 100,000 streams versus the millions that all these other not very good songs have?" That's the thing about music, is that there is no good or bad. It's a hard industry because it's all completely based on subjective opinion, which there's no rules to that.

Casey Harris:

You can't say, "Oh, these sounds are popular, so let's make a song of these sounds and it'll be popular." That does not work. All you can literally do is make art and put it out in the world and hope it connects with people. When it does, it's awesome and you're like, "Thank God that you see what I saw in what I created because I thought it was great too." At least for us, I think for me and my brother, that's a lot of the feeling of when one of our songs gets big. It's like, "Oh, thank you." It's like vindication. It's like, "Thank you." We make them songs because we think they're good, we put them out because we think they're good, but it's nice to get that external validation sometimes.

Erik Weihenmayer:

100%.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

And there are a lot of barriers to finding your tribe, finding your people with your song will resonate. The algorithms are sometimes not in your favor also in terms of social media and other online helpers. That can also be a hindrance.

Casey Harris:

Oh, yeah. So much. I mean-

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Just like I didn't find you right until now. And now I'm like, "Why-

Casey Harris:

Exactly.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

... didn't I know about this band?"

Casey Harris:

Exactly. That's the hard thing too, is that... I mean, it's hard now for obscure artists to get heard by people who aren't... How do I say? Who aren't listening to that exact genre. If you're listening to the indie rock playlist that you'll listen to, you might discover some new artists down there. But if you're just listening to... which most people do, which I do a lot of times, just whatever is being served up by the app, it's hard. I mean, it's just a new version of what you always used to have to do.

Casey Harris:

Because back in the day, you'd always have to go out and seek out the music. It wasn't just presented to you. Now it's like there's all this music presented to you, but you still got to go out and seek out the music that you like, the good music. Yeah, it's tough. Luckily, there's a lot of resources and a lot of places to look and listen to music now, which is... It's nice. You don't actually have to physically go to one of the record stores that has the headphones where you can go put CDs in and audition them before you buy one like we used to have to back in the '90s and stuff.

Casey Harris:

Now you can go on YouTube and discover all kinds of amazing music. But it is really true that you still have to go through that arduous process of sifting until you find the music that connects with you.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

We also get trapped in our playlists. I'm heading to the back country playlist, and if I'm going kayaking, I'll probably play some Dirty Heads, Vacation, because it puts me in that-

Casey Harris:

It's so there. I do that too. I'm sure 99% of people, when they go to listen to something, they want to listen to something they've heard already because it takes a lot of... Not effort exactly. But it takes a lot of concentration to get into new music. It's hard to get into new music if it's background, if you know what I mean. A lot of times when I'm discovering new music, it'll either have been background in something where I've... Something will have caught my ear and I'm like, "Oh, what's that?" Then I'll Shazam it or whatever and then dive deep.

Casey Harris:

But that deep dive is always a conscious thing. It's always like, "I'm going to listen to this person's music. I'm going to listen to it." And that it's time. When during your day do you have time to carve out just to sit and listen to some new music? It's tricky. Again, my kids have helped me a lot, because while they're having breakfast or when they're contently playing in the playroom and I don't want to put on a podcast or anything that's talking, I just want to have something to listen to though while I'm watching them play, so I'll go and discover new music. It's really been a pretty amazing opportunity to get back into new and unique stuff. But yeah, it's a task. Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

When you were choosing music as a career, did anyone in your life try to talk you out of it? Because sometimes people want to protect us when they know we have a differing ability, what some people call a disability, and they'll say, "Oh, don't do that. That's dangerous or you might not succeed at it." Did anyone try to do that with you?

Casey Harris:

Not really. And I think I owe full 100% credit to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder for that because these two incredible musicians have changed the face of music and were also blind. People are like, "Oh yeah, you could be a musician. Blind people are musicians all the time." And the fact that I play piano too. People will ask me what I play and I always say, "Oh, it's the cliche blind man instrument, it's the piano." What do all blind musicians play? It's the piano.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Although I thought Ray decided that he wasn't going to play the guitar because more blind people play the guitar than-

Casey Harris:

Oh, exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... the piano.

Casey Harris:

Exactly. Yep. There are all these blind Billy Mellon, all these guys back in his day. Yep, back in like the '40s and '50s. And man, yeah, there are a lot of amazing blind guitar players from the jazz era, man. But again, a lot of amazing... There's a... Oh man, how am I forgetting his name? Art Tatum from the bebop era. He was basically blind. He was as about as visually I impaired as you can get and he was one of the most monster jazz piano players ever. So the tradition goes back a long ways.

Casey Harris:

It also helped that for me and Sam our mom was a professional musician for her whole life before she met our dad, so kind of in the family a little bit. There was always though that, "Okay, but make sure you've got the real job too though." Especially mom, she was very aware of how few bills being a musician pays, especially at first. I mean, that's why I went off and learned how to tune pianos and stuff because I had to find a way to pay the exorbitant rent in New York while we tried to be a band.

Erik Weihenmayer:

I went to blind camp when I was a teenager to learn how to use computers and use a cane and all this stuff. I remember sitting around the table with all these blind kids, I'd never met another blind kid before, and we were listening to Black Sabbath.

Casey Harris:

Oh, wow! Yeah, dude.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Everybody was doing drum solos. All these blind people-

Casey Harris:

Oh, exactly.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... were doing drum solos on the table. And I sucked. I remember thinking-

Casey Harris:

Oh, yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... "This is bullshit. All these blind people got freaking musical talent and I got cursed with blindness and I suck." I had no rhythm. "I'm screwed. I'm double screwed."

Casey Harris:

It's hard. My dad was Jewish, and my Jewish ancestry, it's definitely you got to practice your rhythm. You got to practice to the old metronome. It really helps.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Nice.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

At No Barriers, we have this concept of a rope team. It's the people that are in your support network. Who's in your rope team?

Casey Harris:

Oh, man. First and foremost, my wife obviously. She's my rock, she's my other half. Then obviously my brother and my band mates. I am so lucky I've got a beautiful family, I've got these amazing bunch of obnoxious dudes that I hang out with all the time, and I've got parents and family all over the country. I'm so lucky to have a really, really wide and really loving support network too anytime. I've never felt like I've been alone or been on my own. There's always been someone. I'm very, very lucky for that. Can't tell you how lucky I feel for that.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Well, Casey, I want to say, one, thank you for being connected with No Barriers. You and the X Ambassadors-

Casey Harris:

Oh, of course.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... have been amazing with No Barriers. We appreciate it so much. I want to wrap this up because I know you got songs to write and songs to perform.

Casey Harris:

This is our last day-

Erik Weihenmayer:

Cheers.

Casey Harris:

... in the studio. Last day today at this Upstate studio, man. It's been magical here. So we got to get one more song in.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. So we'll let you go, but I just... Last question, and that is-

Casey Harris:

Totally.

Erik Weihenmayer:

What has been your greatest barrier that you broke through? We're No Barriers, so you got to ask this question. What's the greatest barrier you broke through in your life and what kind of advice do you have for others that are maybe struggling with some of their own barriers, whether they be physical or emotional or whatever?

Casey Harris:

Yeah. Honestly, I think probably the biggest barrier was... It started in high school, was that trying to be a social human being when not being able to pick up on those totally subconscious cues and not being able to really observe what ordinary human interactions are as easily as others. And that lasted up really through my 20s, really through... It wasn't really until I was in my mid-20s that I figured out how to start dating and that kind of thing and figured out, "Oh, you do this, you do that, blah, blah, blah."

Casey Harris:

Yeah, I think that was there. It was like a solid 10-year stretch there where it was just figuring out how to be a normal adult in the adult world, and especially in the early to mid-20s world where everyone's just wild and out anyways. But I think just through practice and observation and just talking to people. I mean, really just not being afraid to talk to people. I think that's obviously, as far as advice, I'd give to anyone else struggling with those same kind of issues. It's just talk to people.

Casey Harris:

It's so easy to say, but finding someone who you really feel like you comfortable with, saying, "Hey, how the hell do you go about asking someone on a date?" What are the ins and outs? What are the little things I should know? Really and truly, people will usually... They don't even know, but if it's someone who you really... If it's your bestie or something, they'll work with you and figure out how they do it and figure out how you can too. It's how to do these social interactions. Yeah, it's all subconscious. But people can help. If you talk to people and talk to people you trust and ask them, they'll help.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah. It sounds like so much of it is don't isolate yourself. Get out there, be social, push yourself in uncomfortable situation, right?

Casey Harris:

Yeah. It's so easy to say and so hard to do, but just don't get discouraged because there's going to be a lot of really shitty, uncomfortable times. That's life. But you learn and then there's lots of good times to come.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Nice. Awesome, man. That's well said. Well, Casey-

Casey Harris:

All right.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... thank you so much. Thank you.

Casey Harris:

Of course.

Erik Weihenmayer:

It's awesome to have you guys connected with No Barriers, as I said, and thanks for spending an hour with us. People are going to-

Casey Harris:

Thank you guys.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... get a lot out of this and be so excited to hear you and your-

Erik Weihenmayer:

... thoughts and voice and everything. So, cool, man.

Casey Harris:

Thank you guys. Seriously, thank you guys so much for doing this with me. Antoinette, honestly, this has been awesome. You're made in the shade. You're good on this.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, right?

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Oh, thank you.

Erik Weihenmayer:

The first time she was amazing.

Casey Harris:

Yeah, that's what I'm saying. Yeah, you've got this down.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Obviously, in the show notes, we're going to put in it all the stuff to promote you guys. I mean, you don't need promotion for of us, but we'll do all that because I want-

Casey Harris:

Thank you.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... you guys to crush it as-

Casey Harris:

Oh, I appreciate it.

Erik Weihenmayer:

... much as possible. Yeah.

Casey Harris:

I appreciate it.

Erik Weihenmayer:

Yeah, awesome. Thanks, Casey.

Casey Harris:

Thank you guys.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

Nice meeting you, Casey. Looking forward to hearing-

Casey Harris:

I got you.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:

... more new music from my playlist.

Casey Harris:

Oh yeah, absolutely. You can count on it. Yeah.

Casey Harris:

(sinThe production team behind this podcast includes producer, Didrik Johnck, that's me, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman, marketing and graphic support from Stone Ward, and web support by Jamlo. Special thanks to The Dan Ryan band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us.

Didrik Johnck:

If you enjoyed this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. That's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for the show or any ideas you've got at all. Thanks so much and have a great day.

 

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