“Maybe it's the wrong glass ceiling to break, but I'm telling stories about the whole human experience of being a woman.”
That’s Harper O’Neill, sharing insight into the creation of her debut project, Dark Bar Daisy. It’s a gutsy assertion. But then again, O’Neill is an artist who’s always favored her intuition over trends. The Dallas-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter with the powerhouse voice and versatile musical chops found her way onto Music Row’s radar by trusting her gut and letting her considerable talent guide her, an increasingly rare path to success in a field crowded with hopefuls trying to recreate the sound of the moment.
“I like to operate on gut instincts a lot,” O’Neill says. “I can't always explain why I do the things that I do, but I can tell you if it feels right.”
Dark Bar Daisy is a bold, brassy statement from O’Neill, with an unusually singular vision for a debut project. Produced by Jake Gear (Hailey Whitters), Dark Bar Daisy is, at its heart, a country record, but one that explores and celebrates the genre’s intersection points with rock, pop, soul and even indie music. Replete with complex, larger-than-life arrangements, Dark Bar Daisy is a striking statement from one of country music’s most exciting new voices.
O’Neill grew up in Dallas, TX, where her parents ran a household brimming with music. O’Neill’s mother shared her love of rock and pop acts like the Rolling Stones and James Taylor, while her father introduced her to a bevy of women songwriters, including Carole King, Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt. The pair’s tastes intersect when it comes to their mutual love for Texas country artists, like Hayes Carll, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. Both of her parents play the guitar and her sister sings choral music, while O’Neill first came to music as part of her school’s marching band, for which she played French horn and was part of the drumline.
“My parents are children of the ‘60s and they love music,” O’Neill says. “Music was always on in the house. We were always going to concerts. We were always going to songwriter festivals. I was just constantly surrounded by music — and, in my opinion, good music. They loved good songwriters and storytellers. So, they were always really passionate about the art form.”
Her parents bought O’Neill her first guitar, a baby Taylor signed by none other than The Chicks. In her mid-teens, she began learning to play simple chords and songs, though at the time she only considered her musical ambitions as suited to high school talent shows or bedroom singalongs.
“You don't see a way forward in music unless you know someone that's done it,” she says. “And I didn't know anyone that had made a career of it. So, I had no idea how. I didn't even think it was really possible. It seemed like kind of like a pipe dream.”
Though O’Neill’s family encouraged her interest in music, before pursuing a career as an artist she attended college at the University of Texas at Austin, earning a degree in communications. Upon graduation, O’Neill moved back to Dallas and took a job working in financial services, which she describes as having been “a blessing but also dreadfully boring.” She knew she needed to make a change but wasn’t sure which direction to take, when she began to reflect on the weekends in Austin she’d spend performing in 6th Street bars.
A brief detour for an internship in Chicago connected O’Neill, by chance, with Richard Casper, the founder of the non-profit organization CreatiVets, which helps veterans process trauma through visual art and music. O’Neill spent time working with Casper while in Chicago, and years later he called her out of the blue to suggest she move to Nashville to pursue music in earnest.
“I was like, ‘What?’” she says of the phone call. “And he said, ‘Come out. Stay with my wife and I for a few days I'll show you around town. If you hate it, I’ll leave you alone. I'll never call you about it again.’ So, I came up here for five days in 2016, after I graduated. I was like, ‘I've got to move there.’”
O’Neill followed her gut and moved to Nashville in 2018, a decision she remains proud of to this day. “I always call it ‘listening to the universe,’” she says of trusting her intuition. “You have to be open to that kind of stuff for it to happen. I had to take his call in order to be invited to come out. And sometimes I feel like that's the hardest part, just letting yourself be open.”
After putting down roots in Nashville, O’Neill began finding ways into the local music scene, trying out co-writes and finding gigs to play around town. After posting a performance video to TikTok in 2022— far from being a regular TikToker, O’Neill had only dabbled with the platform — O’Neill got a text claiming to be from Jody Williams, the renowned publishing executive and former head of BMI known for working with everyone from Maren Morris to Carrie Underwood. Williams texted O’Neill on April 1st, so she couldn’t help but think it was a prank. They arranged a meeting for the following week and Williams signed O’Neill to his Jody Williams Songs on the spot.
While she had a stockpile of songs she’d written over the years, O’Neill didn’t feel strongly enough about the material to use it for her first project, so she started from scratch. That decision led to the gradual birth of Dark Bar Daisy. While her demos veered more closely to traditional acoustic instrumentation, O’Neill was adamant that she wanted horns on the record, which Gear made happen with the help of arranger Jordan Lehning. The addition of Lehning’s arrangements helped O’Neill fully realize the colorful, orchestral sonic vision she had for Dark Bar Daisy. “I was really excited to paint with all the brushes in the studio musically,” O’Neill says. “They're really hip arrangements that Jordan did. We gave him tons of references, like Khraungbin, Silk Sonic, Lake Street Dive and some old soul references. That was the melting pot mix of sounds that I was that I was chasing.”
Dark Bar Daisy opens with “No Longer Mine,” the sole song O’Neill pulled from earlier material while making the LP. Instantly groovy thanks to a prominent, swaggering bass line, the track soon gives way to O’Neill’s dusky vocal, which lands somewhere between Ashley McBryde and Amy Winehouse. The title track is a subtle nod to Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard cut “Dark Bars,” with O’Neill’s own unique take on time spent in dives.
“Guilty” finds O’Neill co-writing with Jacob Bryant and John Davidson of the Brummies, a Nashville-based band she considers to be an inspiration to her own music. After meeting at Bonnaroo a couple years earlier, the trio got together and found kindred spirits in one another, with Bryant and Davidson creating an open, inviting atmosphere in which O’Neill could try out ideas.
“A lot of people in town, if you don't get something going in the first 30 or 45 minutes, people are like, ‘Oh, we didn't get one today,’” O’Neill says. “And they just kind of move on. But Jacob and John, they're just hanging out. And they're trying to write good songs.”
“When You Love Me,” which O’Neill wrote by herself, is one of the record’s most striking moments, with soulful, almost jaunty production belying the heartbreak at the track’s core. With “I’m Not Her,” O’Neill was able to team up with two renowned Music Row writers, Jim Beavers (Dierks Bentley, Chris Stapleton) and Jason Nix (Lainey Wilson, Keb’ Mo).
“Somebody” will be relatable to anyone who’s nursed a crush from afar, while “You Don’t Love Me,” co-written with Melissa Fuller and Andy Skib, offers an answer to the previous track’s starry-eyed vision of idealizing romantic prospects. The album closes with the stunning “I Was Always Yours,” co-written with good friend and frequent collaborator Collin Nash, an emotional ballad told from the perspective of a woman leaving her lover.
“I love hearing this perspective come from a woman,” O’Neill says. “You're not always the one who is left. Sometimes you're the leaver, and sometimes you're the one who hurts.”
Dark Bar Daisy is an honest, clear-eyed expression of O’Neill’s remarkable artistry and a testament to trusting the process, no matter how winding the journey. O’Neill is an unapologetically fearless artist with the music to prove it.