For burgeoning 17-year-old Mill Valley musician Anna Harrell, who’s set to take the Sweetwater Stage on May 14th at the 2023 Mill Valley Music Festival, it all started at a Taylor Swift concert.
At eight years old.
The spark that lit the flame for Harrell was hearing Swift say during the concert that she wrote her first song, “Lucky You,” at the age of 12 after a computer repairman who came to her house taught her how to play three chords on a guitar.
So how did that Taylor Swift show at the age of eight come to fruition? Harrell’s grandfather worked in government and his family traveled and moved around quite a bit. Harrell’s parents wanted to give their children a similar experience, and Harrell’s dad’s work took the family to San Francisco, New York, and Ireland, where he worked at Google for a time.
“That was the moment,” Harrell says. “I just kind of knew. I thought, ‘better get started.’”
Harrell’s spark didn’t emerge out of nowhere.
“My grandfather was in a music group in college and always loved to sing, and that spilled down to my mom, who has played piano and guitar her entire life,” she says. “I grew up surrounded by music. Our parents were adamant that all of us would be exposed to the arts.”
Initially for Harrell, that meant musical theater where, from the age of four, she took part in all kinds of musicals over the span of many years.
“It’s always been performance and always on stage,” says Harrell, who attended Mill Valley Nursery, Edna Maguire, Mill Valley Middle and now Tam High.
But with that long standing Swifty seed having been planted, Harrell dove into writing and performing music. She experienced some hurdles along the way, particularly transitioning from musical theater to live musical performance.
“Musical theater was me acting like someone else on stage – I found that to be pretty easy,” she says. “At first I found performing live music in front of people to be so nerve-wracking.”
But when Harrell was 12, she got to perform a song in front of a ton of people at her mom Anna’s 50th birthday party, and that experience propelled her jitters to melt away.
“I gained the confidence to see that I don’t just have to be in musicals and play someone else, but I can create my own music and share that with people,” says Harrell, who counts Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac – “that unique sound and the depth of their lyrics is always something I try to emulate,” as well as John Mayer, Lennnon Stella and the Beatles among her influences.
Open mic nights at the venerable Sweetwater Music Hall followed, as did performances all over town, including a packed Kiddo! Benefit at the Mill Valley Lumber Yard.
The arrival of the COVID-19 crisis rendered live performances an impossibility, so Harrell launched a YouTube channel. “That really helped me come into my own and be comfortable sharing my songs and getting that positive feedback.”
Harrell says she’s always loved to be creative – throwing paint at a canvas or drawing on the walls – “any sort of way to express my creativity. Music allowed me to do that and in a way that felt more unique to me than my peers. It was something I was passionate about and allowed me to process the world around me. Music is special to me.”
Harrell and her family attended the inaugural Mill Valley Music Fest in 2022, and as Harrell saw her musical journey evolve, she took a minute to think what it would be like to perform in front of 6,000 people on a field in the midst of her hometown.
“I have been so honored to be recognized in my community and I thought, ‘I want to play there next year.”
Harrell has turned that wish into a reality – come see her perform on May 14.
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