Mackenzie O’Brian has a tattoo on her arm that reads “Hummingbird.” It was a nickname given to her as a young child because she was often found content, playing alone, and humming made-up melodies to herself. She remembers a desire to be a singer as early as the age of four, but often heard from peers and teachers, “no one becomes a professional singer,” which caused her to hide her desires as a young school girl. Never the less, at 14, she picked up a guitar at home on winter break out of boredom. She proceeded to strum, teach herself chords, and experience a part of her brain that seemed to understand music better than anything she had been taught in school. In 2017, that shy young girl who loved music was asked to tour Nashville providing music for author Artie Kornfield, who was engaged in a book signing tour.
Determined To Sing
Mackenzie lives Northwest of Chicago, close to the Wisconsin Border. ”I’m not sure if I’m from the city or the country though,” she said, “as there are a few farms where I live, but I can also hop the train to Chicago. I do consider my town to be a bit country.”
She often travels back and forth to Nashville, but figures one of these times she may never come back. “For now, there are a lot more opportunities to perform in the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison area because Nashville is so saturated,” she observed.
Although Mackenzie is not from a musical family, she says music has always been central to her life. ”As a kid, music was always playing in my house, and I listened to a variety of styles including 90s country, 70s folk, Abba, Classical music, Opera, Bluegrass, and lots of Indie music like, The Shins, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Death Cab for Cutie.”
“I feel like I was always in music. When I was four or so I just knew I would be in music in some way, and had this dream of singing in a coffee house or something like that. When I entered school I had heard that people don’t become professional singers, so I sort of stuffed those thoughts down until I picked up that guitar. It felt like my brain was unlocked. At that point, my only plan was to be a singer, musician and performer,” she recalled.
Doin’ It Fulltime
Mackenzie is now a full time artist and has been since she graduated from high school several years ago. ”I perform usually two days a week and a bit more in summer. On other days I’m practicing or taking a voice lesson with my voice coach in Nashville (via Skype) or working on a composition or guitar lesson. I also have scheduled writes with songwriters locally (or via skype) if they are in Nashville or other places. At other times, I’m writing by myself or trying to learn new covers. I also practice with my band one night each week to stay ready for shows.”
For Mackenzie, writing is more of a process than just trusting the organic flow. “I do write in scheduled writing sessions often. When I’m in Nashville, writers tend to crank out songs quickly. When I’m scheduled to be there, we start and finish a song between one and three hours usually. When I’m writing alone, a song can come to me in a flash or drag out a long time. My quickest solo write took about 20 minutes while my longest took several months to finish. When I’m writing with a partner, we usually discuss events in our lives and process through that until something sticks, like a catch phrase, or idea. When I write alone, I will listen to music until a certain hook or chord progression strikes me, and I start there.”
Landing In A Style
“I would say my music is modern country with some indie influences. I think the audience for my original music is young women who may be teens, or well in to their 20s. With that said, when I perform, the crowd is a mix of all ages.”
Mackenzie performs solo, and on occasion will play with her full five piece band, The Mackenzie O’Brien Band. ”Most often I’m performing with some combination of the guys from the band, whether it’s me and my lead guitarist, or at other times, three of us from the band. It’s a nice way to keep all of us up on the new songs for our full band gigs.”
Laying It Down
She released a CD late in the summer of 2019, Ready For Change, which is available on her website or at live shows. Mackenzie also released a couple of videos for two of the songs on the CD. ”I do continue to release songs that I write and record. The songs I release are sometimes worked up with the session guys in Nashville, or are recorded as simple acoustic versions with myself on guitar and vocals. That decision just depends the type of song that was written.”
Her favorite moments are when she hears industry insiders tell her they think she has talent and natural gifts. ”On a recent trip to Nashville, I had a great meeting with a company CEO. That same day I was introduced to Ashley McBride just a few days before she won the CMT award for best new artist. She was wonderful and put me at ease, and then she took over the bar with her performance! I also met Artie Kornfeld and was able to tour with him when he was doing a book signing in Nashville.” (Artie founded the Woodstock Fest back in 1969).
“My short term goal is to move to Nashville as soon as it makes sense. I would love to have a song or two picked up for use by a big name artist, and in the long term I would love to have recognizable success like a nomination at the CMA or something like that,” she said.
At the end of the day, Mackenzie says she’s a very different person on stage verses real life. ”On stage, I’m much more open and confident. On my own, I tend to keep to myself more and I’m a bit shy. I spend way too much time with my dog watching Hallmark Christmas movies,” she laughed.