Heather (Pirie) Hill’s website describes her as a “performing songwriter” with “roots in piano-pop rock.” But she also has roots in UWaterloo’s English department, with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts degree in Language and Professional Writing. Given the different ways she’s applied her degrees, Heather seemed a perfect choice for a blog post.
JLH: What made you choose Waterloo?
HH: I chose Waterloo for the Applied Studies (Co-op) Arts program. I was very interested in rhetoric, philosophy and literature and wanted to experience the practical application of this education in industry. In addition to acquiring practical skills during my work terms like public relations and marketing writing, I was also able to pay for my degree with my co-op term earnings.
JLH: You’ve had an interesting career trajectory. Can you tell us a bit about it?
HH: I have had a very unorthodox career! Prior to university, I earned a piano performance degree from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. My first love has always been music. I decided instead of pursing another degree in music, I would expand on my other passion…words. It was fun to deviate from the rigors of daily practice and focus on writing. I ended up doing most of my work terms in technology. When I had completed my MA, my first full-time job combined marketing and technology.
I then learned that I loved product marketing. My employer at the time, Bell Canada, paid for my MBA in Marketing and Strategy at the Schulich School of Business. From there I joined a series of high tech start-ups. I worked on business plans, positioning, marketing communications, PR, promotions – whatever was required. After many years in management, I decided I needed to return to my music. I quit my VP of Business Development role with a wireless start-up, sold everything and went backpacking. Crazy right?
While traveling, something incredible happened…songs started pouring out. I was able to use my classical music training and my love of words. Finally the two worlds collided. I met my now husband (also a math grad from UWaterloo) and we moved to New York City. I cut my first album and we had our first baby. The rest is history – I am a mom, a musician and an active follower of all arts. I write songs with other artists, I perform across Canada, and I work on placing my songs in TV and film.
JLH: Did your degree in English contribute to your career in ways you didn’t anticipate?
HH: My English degrees have been invaluable through all of the crazy career changes I have made. In high tech, the importance of writing well is paramount. Raising money and performing many of the roles in a business requires clear, concise communication in order to be indispensable. In music, you write better songs when you understand rhyme, meter, metaphor, imagery, conciseness and list goes on.
I find that my music career requires that I have a healthy online social network. To manage this, I need to publish all kinds of writing content, from short, snappy comments in Twitter, to crowd-pleasing content in Facebook. The personal blog’s job is to further engage my fan-base with topics that interest. The songs themselves tell stories of my life and those around me from all different perspectives and voices. All these forms of writing are everyday examples of why an English degree is a wonderful building block in your career.
JLH: Has anything stuck with you from your time at Waterloo–classes, books, professors?
HH: One of my best memories of UWaterloo was the time when my writing partner Paula Hendsbee and I received approval to write our Master’s thesis collaboratively. This was the first time at Waterloo that two Arts students were given permission to collaborate. While this is a common undertaking in Science, it is not in English. We set up a case study in the classroom and wrote our thesis entirely collaboratively. The project was twice the length and effort. Our topic was “Collaborative Rhetoric in the Writing Classroom: The Art of Getting Along.”
JLH: What advice do you have for current students?
HPH: Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do or become, you can always change! You can zig zag through life. Try many things. You will know when you find what feels right. Money is not the greatest indicator of success or happiness – it is doing what you love and the rest will follow.
Higher education is a gift. Whatever degree you have, you will use it in unforeseen ways. An English degree is an incredible starting place so you can express your thoughts as clearly as possible so others can understand you. To me, expressing myself effectively across many forms is a life journey and one worthy of commitment!
JLH: What do you wish you’d known right after graduating?
HPH: I wish I didn’t give in to the pressure of getting a good job and earning a living. That can come later. I wish I had gone backpacking and truly explored who I was and what I could become. I waited until much later to explore what it was like to be free and to truly think freely and creatively. Thankfully I have no regrets, and it has all worked out beautifully.
JLH: And just for fun–what are you currently reading?
HPH: I really love historical fiction, books on spirituality and songwriting craft. I am currently reading Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Kingsmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory, and Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattisson.
See Heather’s website for more information, including upcoming tour dates.