20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
In part 39 of our continuing 20:20 Q&A series,
the thoughtful and conscientious Mackenzie Shivers —multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and producer—
joins us to talk about self-care, her lovely new album Rejection Letter, taking on taboo topics, and more.
Rejection Letter is an honest exploration of emotion and experience, of questioning and soul-searching—and of rejecting certain aspects that cause self-harm. The electro-acoustic sounds accompanied by Mackenzie’s beautiful vocals are at turns gentle, soothing, lively, and moody. She weaves a cocoon and enfolds the listener within her thoughtful threads, taking us with her on her journey of discovery and change.
Welcome, Mackenzie, and thank you for joining us.
~Bambi Grinder, NoteWorthy Music
20:20 with Mackenzie Shivers
NWM 1: Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Mackenzie: Hello! My name is Mackenzie Shivers, and I’m a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and producer. I am a Taurus, I love a good glass of whiskey (my current favorite is Powers), and a place I’ve never been to but want to visit is Mexico City. That felt a bit like a dating show response, but I’m okay with it.
NWM 2: What was your first concert as a fan?
Mackenzie: For my 13th birthday, my mom took me to see Shawn Colvin. ‘Sunny Came Home’ was, and still is, one of my favorite songs.
NWM 3: Name three things that make you smile.
Mackenzie: Watering my plants (but not overwatering them, as I’ve learned the hard way), a great thrift shop or vintage store find, every episode of The Great Pottery Throwdown.
NWM 4: Please share a unique childhood experience that you feel helped contribute to who you and your music are today.
Mackenzie: As a kid, I would come home from the movies and pick out the score on the piano. I didn’t realize that it was a unique skill until my parents asked me, ‘Wait … are you playing the music from the movie we just saw?’ I could tell they were a bit taken aback.
As a kid, I would come home from the movies and pick out the score on the piano.
I can read music, but I’m still more adept at playing by ear. It’s shaped how I learn music and how I operate in rehearsals or recording sessions.
NWM 5: Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your life as a performance artist?
Mackenzie: I was at home in New York, and flights to Europe had just been grounded. I was supposed to get on a plane to Ireland the next night. I was going on tour, but I was also celebrating my five-year wedding anniversary (we got married in Dublin), and my friends and family were meeting us over there. So we cancelled the trip, I cancelled my shows, and it started to sink in that I wouldn’t be playing live or traveling again indefinitely.
NWM 6: Your third full length album, Rejection Letter, was released on April 2, 2021. Please tell us about this album, why it is different from your previous two (Neverland, 2014 and The Unkindness, 2019), and what makes it special.
Mackenzie: Rejection Letter has more of a rebellious spirit. It’s an embrace of the messier sides of myself. You know, the human sides. While making this album, I realized that I have a real fear of disappointing others, letting myself down, holding myself to impossible standards, wanting to please everyone. Rejection Letter is a reflection and, as the title suggests, rejection of that.
I think it’s important to discuss things that are considered taboo in order to help others feel less alone and break the stigma.
It also deals with topics I hadn’t discussed before—the expression of female anger, social injustices, even fertility struggles. I think it’s important to discuss things that are considered taboo in order to help others feel less alone and break the stigma. For me, fertility and questioning whether or not to have a child are those topics.
NWM 7: Rejection Letter was written during the pandemic, a time in which you retreated to Cape Cod from New York City. Tell us about creating during this unique time in history and in Cape Cod specifically. What did you discover about yourself and your music?
Mackenzie: I’m very fortunate to say that Cape Cod was a sanctuary during a tumultuous time. I took long walks on the beach. I saw seals sunbathing and seagulls fight over crabs. I watched the sun rise a brilliant orange.
And I discovered how beneficial it is—for my music and mental health—to go easy on myself and give myself permission to rest. Writing music was the last thing on my mind when the pandemic hit and I went to Cape Cod. But freeing myself from the obligations of touring, promoting, and even writing itself, caused some of these songs to flow out of me.
NWM 8: From your press release:
[A]rmed with an old guitar purchased by her great-grandmother, gifted to her by her father, the pianist experimented with alternate tunings guided by Laura Marling’s online guitar tutorials.
Tell us about this special guitar and experimenting with this altogether new instrument for you. How did it shape your music compared to your approach with piano?
Mackenzie: I know the piano like a friend I’ve had since childhood. It’s where I feel comfortable and confident. And the music theory knowledge I have, even something as simple as chord progressions, I think of in terms of the piano and how it’s arranged.
With the guitar, I wasn’t thinking of what key I was playing in or what chords I was using. Most of the time, I had no idea. I just went off of sounds I liked, which led to chords and chord progressions I wouldn’t have necessarily found at the piano.
I know the piano like a friend I’ve had since childhood.
My great grandmother bought this guitar at Sears. It’s not a fancy guitar by any means. But the sound is warm, and I love playing it. Writing on the guitar was exciting; I felt like I was exercising a new muscle.
NWM 9: What is a favorite of your songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Mackenzie: A personal favorite on this album is ‘Butterscotch.’ It’s a song of contrasts, wanting to feel special but needing to feel less alone. We all experience grief, and yet grief feels so incredibly lonely. It’s a dichotomy I wrestle with a lot, and sometimes I get trapped inside my own head with those thoughts. Writing this song was one way of getting out of my own head.
NWM 10: How do you keep yourself centered or able to cope with stress during these trying times?
Mackenzie: Therapy. It was weird at the beginning of the pandemic switching from in-person to phone and Facetime sessions, but I’ve actually gotten quite used to it now and am extremely thankful for it. I also cook, garden, and enjoy a glass of the aforementioned Powers.
NWM 11: If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Mackenzie: I’m lucky enough to have seen two of my favorite artists—Elton John and Tori Amos—perform live, but I would love to have been able to see Joni Mitchell play at a small Greenwich Village club in the late 1960s.
The deeply personal can also be surprisingly universal.
NWM 12: In its honest examination, Rejection Letter touches on a number of themes that resonate with us as humans of Earth. ‘Afraid’ in particular addresses fears of climate change and bringing a child into a potentially uninhabitable world, topics often at the forefront of our conversations.
What message, if any, is integral to your work?
Mackenzie: That the deeply personal can also be surprisingly universal. It goes back to what I was saying about ‘Butterscotch.’ While no two experiences are exactly alike, we are all connected by the human experience. I think it’s imperative that we remember that because when we do we can have empathy.
NWM 13: What song/album could you play on repeat?
Mackenzie: Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled album.
NWM 14: How do you express your creativity other than through music?
Mackenzie: Fashion. I just love it. But the fashion industry is incredibly wasteful and problematic, so I buy vintage and second hand. I rarely buy something newly made, but if I do, I try to make sure it’s from an ethically sourced brand. But you have to be careful and really do the research because some brands that say they’re ‘ethical’ or ‘green’ simply aren’t. I’m still learning and educating myself on the topic.
I also love expressing creativity through the visuals that go with my music—videos, the styling for photo shoots, the look and feel of the merch. It’s all connected and creative!
NWM 15: Prince or Bowie?
Mackenzie: Bowie when I want to dance, Prince when I want to keep dancing.
NWM 16: What is a unique trait or quality that sets you apart from the crowd?
Mackenzie: People can literally spot me in a crowd because of my red hair.
As far as music goes, I have a classical upbringing in both piano and voice, but I knew I didn’t want to be a classical musician. It wasn’t the world for me, but I really value the fact that I was playing Beethoven and Mozart at a young age and wish I still had that repertoire in my fingers!
Bowie when I want to dance, Prince when I want to keep dancing.
I also earned my degree in music theory and composition, so when I’m songwriting, I’m always thinking back to those rules I learned. I know when I want to follow them and when I want to break them.
NWM 17: What is something that has surprised you in your life or career? Tell us a bit about it.
Mackenzie: Every moment in life is a surprise! But one thing that comes to mind is how meaningful touring in Japan was and how easy it was to communicate with the audience, even with the language barrier. Most audience members couldn’t understand my lyrics, but it didn’t matter, they still understood the songs. It was one of the most memorable and special moments of my life so far.
NWM 18: We often ask: Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to ‘normal’? And though we are interested in this answer, we would like to get a sense of what feeling you are getting now playing music in your area—are things beginning to return to normal with a continued element of caution or is everyone openly embracing freedom with a general feeling of being ‘over it’?
Mackenzie: I’m looking forward to traveling again. That’s the first thing that comes to mind.
As far as live music goes, I haven’t played a show since February 2020. I am so happy that musicians are getting out there and playing again. But I’m trying to be careful about not jumping right back on the hamster wheel. I want to be mindful. Before the pandemic, I put a lot of pressure on myself to play a lot of shows. I wanted to put on amazing performances and sell a lot of tickets and fill the room and make each show better than the last. I was always setting the bar higher and higher, and it got to be too much.
Actually playing music and having a rapport with the audience? That’s pure magic.
So I’m taking the time to think about what I want my life to look like as a musician and performer, and how I can have a healthier relationship with live music. Because I do miss playing. The lead up can be stressful, but the shows themselves? Actually playing music and having a rapport with the audience? That’s pure magic.
NWM 19: What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Mackenzie: If you’re a vinyl lover, I pressed some really special butterscotch colored vinyl of Rejection Letter, and I still have some copies available on my website and Bandcamp. They’re limited run, and they’re beautiful, if I do say so myself!
NWM 20: What’s next for Mackenzie Shivers?
Mackenzie: I’m writing a lot and heading back into the studio, which really is my happy place. I’ve had a lot of creative energy lately, and I can’t wait to channel that into these new recordings. And share them with you, of course.
Mackenzie Shivers “Afraid”
Mackenzie Shivers was stuck on Cape Cod.
At the onset of the worldwide pandemic, Shivers, along with her husband, decamped to the Cape from their home in Queens, intent on waiting out the proverbial storm at a family friend’s vacant oceanside home.
They soon realized they might be waiting a long time and, for the next three months, Shivers and her husband, along with their friend who owned the house, hunkered down far from their New York City apartments.
Inspired by the change in scenery and the serenity offered by a resort town in the offseason, songs began pouring out of Shivers.
On Cape Cod, however, Shivers wasn’t armed with a piano, the instrument she’s been writing songs on for over three decades. Rather, she had brought along a nylon-stringed guitar that her father had gifted her years earlier, one his grandmother had bought for him decades before.
With the time afforded by quarantine, Shivers began digging into the heirloom guitar—which she dubbed “Murphy” after a few rounds of polishing courtesy of an old tube of Murphy’s Oil Soap—focusing on honing her playing and exploring the instrument in ways she never had before.
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