Interview with Mackenzie O’Brien
By: Dennis M. Kelly
Dennis: Good day Mackenzie, how are you?
Mackenzie: I’m doing great. I performed last night, so I slept in a bit today and I’m looking forward to performing tonight. Right now I’m just spending time with my dog.
Dennis: Sounds like a nice way to start the day! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today! So why don’t we start at the beginning, were you born here in Illinois?
Mackenzie: Yes, I was born and raised in McHenry in the far northwest suburbs. I have actually lived here my whole life.
Dennis: What were some of your earliest musical influences growing up?
Mackenzie: Wow, I listened to a wide variety of styles. In grade school, I actually loved ABBA, Bruce Springsteen, Toby Keith, LoneStar, and Britney Spears. As I got older, I started listening to lots of Indie bands like The Shins, The Strokes, Phoenix, and The Fleet Foxes. I try to not to limit myself to one type of music. I actually listen to some BlueGrass, Irish Folk bands, classic pieces, and opera as well.
Dennis: That is good to see, there is so much great music out there, why limit yourself? Your bio states that you turned professional in 2016, when did you realize that you wanted to become a musician though?
Mackenzie: I was so young I don’t remember. I remember secretly always wanting to be a singer / performer ever since I could talk. I didn’t think it would actually happen, but I never imagined doing anything else. Now that it has started to happen, I really haven’t had a chance to process all that.
Dennis: Had you taken any lessons for guitar or your voice?
Mackenzie: I taught myself guitar over winter break when I was 14 as I was stuck home and all my friends were out of town. I knew I wanted to learn an instrument so I borrowed my sister’s guitar from her closet. My parents saw that I was progressing quickly so they signed me up for guitar lessons. So I took guitar lessons for a few years. When I was turning 18 I tried out some different vocal teachers and wasn’t sure what direction to go in. I was lucky as I was able to meet with a world class opera teacher and former opera performer and his wife who also was a professional classical singer. They met with me to evaluate me. It was so intimidating singing in front of them but it was so valuable. They set me up with my current voice teacher, Bruce Hall, who was the former head of opera and voice at Northwestern University. I meet with Bruce every Friday and have for the last two years to sing opera in various languages. I enjoy singing in Latin the most.
Dennis: Wow, very cool and very impressive to say the least Mackenzie! I’d love to hear you sing something in Latin too, you have such a strong and pleasant sounding voice. How had you managed to play all those shows in LA, Nashville, Austin and more?
Mackenzie: I was in LA as part of The Voice. They asked me to do a private audition in Chicago and flew me to LA to be part of the casting round. I really wasn’t ready for it and was a bit relieved when I didn’t make the actual show. With Austin, I went down there when I was 17 to sing at a bunch of open mics on spring break. People liked me and offered me spots singing in their bars. Nashville has become my home away from home. I did open mics there when I was 17 and 18 and built some relationships. When I started doing music full time, my dad, who acts as my manager, sent videos, and links to venues and several places and booked me to perform. Nashville is a crazy place because you never know who you will run into. A friend of ours sells pasta to Steven Tyler and I was singing in one venue and John Oates walked in.
Dennis: Very sorry to hear about The Voice, whether you were ready for it or not, but I expect the experience was rewarding all the same. How had you met Artie Kornfeld?
Mackenzie: A friend of Artie’s heard me sing locally and reached out to Artie’s agent.
She gave me a call and asked me to tour Nashville with Artie as he was doing a book signing tour. Artie wanted music at all of the locations he was going to be at. Artie was so nice and full of so many crazy stories. He knew everyone in the industry. We are facebook friends and stay in touch a little bit.
Dennis: How many original songs do you have under your belt so far?
Mackenzie: Somewhere around 15 or so. Writing is still new to me but I’m beginning to push out songs faster. I co-write a lot because i’m more melody driven and my co-writers are stronger with lyrics.
Dennis: How do you approach songwriting; whenever the inspiration hits you or do you set specific times of the day to write songs?
Mackenzie: I do both. Either through listening to music or by fiddling around with the guitar until I start to find something I like and go from there. With co-writes I don’t have an option and it is helpful as you know you will have to write at that set time.
Dennis: What was it like writing in Nashville?
Mackenzie: It is very chill. I usually go to a writer’s house and we sit around and drink tea until we have a song. Everyone I have worked with there has been so nice. The one thing in Nashville is we usually have a time limit of a few hours to create a song that is in my style and catchy as well. I then take those songs back to my producer for his approval.
Dennis: How long were you there for?
Mackenzie: I go down to Nashville every month for 4 to 6 days.
Dennis: Oh wow… ok, that has to help then being a regular thing.
Mackenzie: I usually write the first day or two and then record the next few days. My producer sets me up with some of the writers. At night, I’m usually free so I hang out in town and hit open mics or sometimes I have set performances in venues. I spend a lot of time eating in Nashville too. There is some really good Italian food there in addition to all of the southern dishes.
Dennis: With having such a short professional career thus far, what have some of your experiences been like with fans, venues and the like? Has it been challenging or fun for you?
Mackenzie: I would say both. It is hard to have a social life as my schedule is crazy and I’m busy most of the time. I love playing with a band as you are on stage with friends and having a great time, but sometimes it can feel like a job but you have to get through that and find the fun. I love when I see fans at my performances and that people are coming back to see me in various places. I get caught off guard when fans ask for my autograph or to take a photo with me but I certainly feel great about that. I’m super thankful for all of the various venues I have played over the last 18 months.
Dennis: Do you think you’ll be putting out a full album first or starting off with an EP?
Mackenzie: I have enough songs for a full album so I will put out an acoustic album within the next month or two. My producer is also going to “shop” me and some of my songs to labels within the next 4 months or so. He is very well connected and knows about everyone down there.
Dennis: Will you do like some artists and produce some vinyl along with CDs?
Mackenzie: I haven’t really thought about that. I might consider it as the market is changing so much. They would be fun, but I would have to buy a phonograph first.
Dennis: What would you like to see yourself accomplish this year?
Mackenzie: I would like to continue to develop my style and me as an artist. I feel like I’m getting pretty close to that. I also have plans to meet with publishers in the next few months. I would like to have something come out of that like a deal with an agency or label.
Dennis: How involved are you on social media?
Mackenzie: I’m pretty involved there. I have a facebook page (music by mackenzie), a website (http://www.mackenzieobrien.net), I have a youtube channel, and I am on reverbnation (search Mackenzie O’Brien). I also have plans to start with twitter and instagram over the next few months. I have music on all of the digital distributors as well. An online presence is so important! That is actually how The Voice found me and led me to a few other breaks like having a song on the radio in Ireland and two songs on Nashville’s new artist station.
Dennis: What are some things you’ve already learned that has helped you tremendously that might help others in their musical career?
Mackenzie: Try to be true to yourself and don’t try to be another artist. Stay grounded in what you believe and trust your intuition. People will sometimes try to lead you in directions that aren’t right for you. Support other musicians and don’t burn bridges because it’s a small community out there. Also, always be kind and never forget your capo.
Dennis: Is there anything more you’d like to share with our readers today?
Mackenzie: I’m just so thankful for everything that has happened in the last two years. Growing up, I didn’t feel like I was good at anything and that I just didn’t fit in. I think hard work and following your passions will always pay off in some way. I think i’m just starting to see that and I’m excited to see where this leads me!
Dennis: Thank you so much for your time once again Mackenzie! I sincerely appreciate it!
Thank you Dennis! I’m so thankful for you talking with me and having me in the Chicago Music Guide!!!
Biography: Mackenzie turned professional in the summer of 2016 after deciding to take on full time music as a career. Her musical journey has seemed, at times, to be blessed. Mackenzie expresses gratefulness to the many people who have been there to support and guide her. This journey has taken her to performances in the cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Austin, Los Angeles, and Nashville.
Mackenzie toured Nashville in July of 2017 with Artie Kornfeld (Woodstock founder and former VP at Capitol) and met Nashville producer Bill McDermott who she works with regularly. Mackenzie performs between the cities of Chicago and Madison and monthly in Nashville where she additionally writes and records.
Her voice has been applauded by industry insiders like John Oates (Hall N Oates), Artie Kornfeld, Chris Gantry (former writer for Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell), and Courtney Burns (Senior Talent Producer at The Voice). Mackenzie provides instrumental work on the guitar, ukulele, and, on rare occasions, the banjo. She plays from a genre that exists somewhere between Country and Indie but it is her voice that sets her apart. Mackenzie’s voice has been compared to various big names and might be best described as a cross between Jewel and Tanya Tucker (if that is even possible).