A Vision for the Future - Part Two: Interview with Casey Harris of X Ambassadors
In our line of business we hear a common rejection when pursing potential employer clients – “people with disabilities can’t do our jobs.” No joke. More times than I wish to hear. Stigma is a relevant fear among employers looking to find the best talent for their business needs. On the heels of October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) I had the pleasure of sitting down with Casey Harris. He has been visually impaired since birth, and I had the opportunity of watching him do his job as the keyboardist of the rock/pop band X Ambassadors.
Last year I talked to Casey about his journey from a visually impaired childhood in Ithaca, NY to playing in front of sold-out arenas and collaborating with the likes of Eminem and Imagine Dragons. A year later, Casey has a newborn baby, a brand new album with a tour and he gave me the opportunity to sit down with him during his work day.
For most, and especially me (sorry, boss) being a rock star sounds like the greatest job ever, so I asked Casey to tell me about his day to day activities. “It's a dream job now. It definitely wasn't. You really had to love it in order to keep doing it. Now though, the day to day, it's fairly routine. On tour we get a full night's sleep on the bus and wake up in whatever the next city that we're in. We have about an hour or so to shower and have coffee then grab a bite to eat. Then it’s usually off to a radio station or two to do some interviews, and sometimes an acoustic performance. Meet some folks, all that good stuff. Then between 2 or 3 we’re at the venue for sound check, which is usually pretty easy,” Casey explains. Of course every work day comes with some hurdles, “People think rock and roll is all just drinking and partying. It's a lot of work. After that I do any emailing or that sort of thing - basically trying not to get frustrated that something on my computer is not working, or someone sent me an email that I don't really want to deal with. That's the time when, after the doors are open, after all of our initial responsibilities for the day are out of the way it's pretty much just getting ready for the show. Sometimes we find out we have to perform an acoustic song the one day and have to learn an entirely new song the next. So there's always moments, the occasional moments of stress. It'll be usually after we do the main soundtrack, Sam and I will stay on stage, and we'll work out the piano and vocal version of some new song. We did that yesterday with a really beautiful Chris Stapleton song called "Either Way," that we did today as an acoustic. Then we play the show and that's always the highlight of the night. After the post show it's shower, grub, and usually... I’ve honestly been trying to go to bed at reasonable hour and yet still end up in bed by 1:30 or 2:00. It's just the tour life. When you play around 10:00 each night, by the time you're done with all the post show routine, it's late. So it's late to bed and late to rise but otherwise it's a pretty stable and an easy routine.”
On the road it can be tough to find downtime for yourself much like the drive home from work to unwind or hitting the couch to binge watch some Netflix. “We've got a little bit of time to ourselves. I will Skype my wife and my son and have dinner in there somewhere, but then it is back to work. “We do our VIP experience, where we meet everybody. That's always really cool actually. It's really... one of the biggest rewards, honestly, doing music and having people listening to your music is talking to them and hearing how much it means to them, and hearing their various stories and such. Casey and his bandmates are amazingly optimistic, high spirited and overall down to earth guys, but there has to be something that gets on their nerves. I’ve watched a lot of interviews with the band where they asked generic questions, some even borderline inappropriate towards Casey’s visual impairment. So what bothers Casey? “I obviously won't name any names, but there have been occasional interviews where we get these guys, I guess, I don't know if it's but they feel they are obligated to ask the hard questions and whatnot. But it's not even that they ask the tough questions. Especially these two guys I think of in particular. One asked us how it felt to know that our band would always be known for "Renegades." And that's a question that any person should realize that obviously implies that you'll never do anything bigger than "Renegades". Like we love "Renegades", it was our first hit, but we're still playing and making music. And it's true. That's the same with "Renegades" and "Unsteady", is those are what are allow us to keep touring. But we don't want to sit on our laurels and be like, oh okay, those were our biggest songs, we can just write pretty much anything now and we'll be fine. In January, we’re going back into the studio again, hopefully to release something next year. And we're constantly trying to write a better songs and better songs, hopefully we'll connect with people and someday, who knows, might have another "Renegades" level hit, fingers crossed.”
When it comes to questions about Casey’s visual impairment he explains that it’s not something that went away or got easier with success and in no way is he looking for charity. “I get the sense a lot when people are asking me about my visual impairment that they want to hear a story of, "oh, how hard it was" and "oh, but I overcame" and I'd say a sad story, but it is not sad. The great reality of it was, I had lots of great people around me growing up. There were definitely troubles, especially during my early adulthood after moving to New York City. I had a lot of rough times. But overall it's I don't have a beautiful Disney story arc of like, "Oh, you know, I was struggling as a visually impaired kid, but then I found the band and suddenly everything was okay.” It's just being visually impaired it's never like there's one big challenge you have to overcome. It’s a million tiny little day to day challenges that don't make it a very good story. But interviewers always want that sort of rags to riches sob story, about how hard it is to be visually impaired and that sort of thing. There's a lot of hard things about it, but it's not the hardest thing I've dealt with in my life, you know.”
Casey shares the stage each night with a talented, soulful and passionate singer, who is also his brother Sam. If you’ve seen their music videos or watched them before you’ll see their love and connection for one another. Sam acts as Casey’s right-hand man if needed and is very protective. With most co-workers sometimes you disagree with an approach or project. I had to ask what they argue about. “Oh, everything. Everything. It's music obviously and we're in a band together and bands argue all the time. It'll be just simple things like order of set list, or how long we should wait before going on for encore, that kind of thing. Honestly we haven't had any real arguments about, something really life changing in a while. I think we found, obviously, we both know how to push each other's buttons and how to really get under each other's skin. So we've found a way to avoid for the most part, doing that and to live, fairly conveniently with each other. I still have no idea how we've managed to do that. But somehow we've managed to find a sort of piece in the equilibrium that, most of the arguments we have are just about, little details and you know, no matter, which of us wins the argument, it's nothing to where you can't just brush your shoulders off afterward. You keep on, going. You know?”
Whether on the road, in a warehouse or in an office, work is work and it is good to be employed. “Some cities are easier than others, and some shows are better than others, obviously, but for the most part, it’s predictable in a lot of ways. The fact that I sort of know the ins and outs of what's involved and what is needed really makes it more than anything else, it makes it a lot easier to do this job than what it used to be. If we had to go back to that again, I'd still keep playing music.”
Although Casey has found success in music I asked if he was still pursuing his dream job as an astronaut. “Aww man, because I didn't realize that I could! I could actually try in school and get good grades. I was so focused on being a rebel back when I was a teen. My career was the furthest thing from my mind back in my late high school days. Science has always been a fascination to me and space especially as always been, I'd say my biggest hobby, is reading abo. I didn't even consider a career. I regret this. I'm trying not to push my own son into anything in particular, he can be and do whatever he wants to be and do. He does have a little stuffed space shuttle that he chews on all the time, so I'm trying to suddenly drop the hints there, you know? My space hobby has always been sort of private and suddenly this year it's like the world suddenly found out. I've been inducted into the Space Camp Hall of Fame, toured the Kennedy Space Center, I now personally know a few people from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic. It's really crazy. I always say I love my family and I love music and I love space. This year has been for the third…to suddenly come and hit me full in the face. It's been, it's been a wild ride, man. It's been amazing.”
No, not all people with disabilities may be able to do your jobs, but the right person with a disability can do your jobs because disabilities cross race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, disability, or status as a protected veteran. The right person with a disability might be fresh out of high school or a baby boomer with years of experience and multiple degrees, who’s aged into a disability to every human in between. You may not even know a person with a disability has a disability and you most likely have someone working for you right now. As I stood in the back of Terminal 5 in New York City wrapping up a month where we help celebrate the employment of talent with disabilities I was front row rockin out to a successful band with a keyboardist who is visually impaired. The crowd was swaying back and forth with their hands up simply enjoying a talented individual doing his job.