Mackenzie Nicole Rewrites the Pop Rulebook

Interview by Jessica Klausing

Mackenzie Nicole photo courtesy of Strange Music, Inc.

Mackenzie Nicole photo courtesy of Strange Music, Inc.

I was fortunate to have a conversation with Mackenzie Nicole, a talented pop songstress whose latest album, The Edge was recently released. We chat about life as a pop artist on a rap label, her musical influences, and being a young woman in the music industry.

Mackenzie Nicole defies the pop standards with her classically trained chops and urban rock influence. Her musical experimentation led to her debut single, “Actin Like You Know” which caught the attention of Travis O’Guin, the co-founder and C.E.O of juggernaut Strange Music, Inc. Her recording history predates the single as she made her debut on platinum certified rap icon Tech N9ne’s K.O.D.

Signing to Strange Music in 2015, she formally released “Actin Like You Know” featuring a cameo from Tech N9ne. The track received critical acclaim with over 3.9 million YouTube views and 1.9 million Spotify streams while the song was featured on the label’s collaborative album Strangeulation Vol. II. In 2017 she released her debut album The Edge, co-written with and produced by Los Angeles duo The Jam.

I read that you’re a classically trained vocalist. Can you talk to us about the difference between performing operas versus pop songs?

Mackenzie:  The point of opera is to sing accurately, perfectly, correctly, and everything by the book. Pop music is the exact opposite. There is quite a bit of stigma in the opera community towards pop music because it so experimental. Pop music does not have to abide by the rules and it has no real form to it in terms of technique. Pop is more into content while opera is a more technique.

Can you tell us a little about your new single, “Actin Like You Know?”

Mackenzie: “Actin Like You Know” was essentially a song that was made because I wanted to get a spot on my label’s collaborative project called Strangeulation Vol. II, where all the artists on my label come together to make an album. I went to my producer Seven or more accurately he came to me and said, “We have two options: we can do what we normally do which is you sing a hook and pitch it as a Tech N9ne song or you can do a whole song and leave a verse for Tech.”

I wanted to do something different so we tried to make a ‘me’ song. I created the song with a number of influences but it’s mostly my experiences with stigma for being brought up in a rap label. Tech and I both received a lot of negativity for being involved with rap and the type of rap that we do.

Can you rap?

Mackenzie: (Laughs) Yes, I can but I won’t! They will label me as another Iggy Azalea wannabe. What I mean by that is you can’t be a blue eyed blonde white girl out here trying to rap. The masses are not going to have it. They are going to clown you.  I may rap one day…we’ll see.

What are the complications with working on a rap label as a pop artist?

Mackenzie:  Being on a rap label with your musical background in pop and classical is hard. You have a rapper named Tech N9ne who received a lot of negativity for doing a lot of horror core influenced gangster rap which is not as widely accepted as one might believe. He based the label off of that and we as an independent label are constantly fighting for our lives. We are the underdogs. We are doing everything 100 percent independent. We are representing the rap genre with controversial rap artists who are not the most easily marketable people. We cling to self expression in a way that’s really true to ourselves and not made to cater to the masses.

I think we succeed it at it. That’s our complications. I grew up in a very strict conservative community who were very against the type of artists that I work with. I’ve been accused of witchcraft and have been bullied for just being different. I just channel those experiences into my songs.

You like to describe yourself as a “very intense and extreme person taking everything as far as possible before breaking.” Can you share an example of that?

Mackenzie:  In terms of my character I think it speaks deeply to my mental and emotional state. I’m the type of person who is always on the cusp of being depressed and having a mental breakdown or just being happy to the point of crying. There’s no medium or gradual it’s a very one end to spectrum to the other for me. That’s what got me into my work when I started to do music.

I started going into the office from 8AM to 9PM everyday for months. I’m learning to be more moderate. That’s my goal. That’s something that The Edge album taught me is that I need to calm down and constantly temper that urge to want to go to the extreme. Before I was focused on music, I wanted to go to college. I picked the most selective college and I spent everyday at school from 7AM to 9PM and then I would go home and work on my homework until 1AM then go to sleep and wake up at 3AM and work on homework some more. It was an all work, no play mentality. I am tunnel visioned when it comes to projects.

Mackenzie Nicole photo courtesy of Strange Music, Inc.

Mackenzie Nicole photo courtesy of Strange Music, Inc.

How do these strong emotions work into your songwriting?

Mackenzie:  Writing songs is very hard for me. This album was a co-written album, which is very new for me. I have never written with someone else before and it was a great learning experience. I look forward to writing more for my upcoming solo projects.

The writing of The Edge songs like “Fix Me” and “Darkside” sent me into a spiraling depression for months that I’m honestly still getting out of. I’m very emotionally invested into my work. The darker stuff like “Darkside” is hard to write about without becoming a method actor and staying into that mindset for the next month and a half. It’s especially challenging if you’re trying to write something authentic. To access that part of yourself, for lack of a better description to quote the movie Insidious, you have to go into the “Further” and hope that you’ll come out. That can be very scary place.

Which of your songs is your favorite and why?

Mackenzie:  The most accurate song on this album is “Fix Me.” I think that one is my biography. I have this condition where random strangers come up to me about once or twice a week, and it’s not a joke, I’ll have these random strangers approach me and give me life advice. I had this one stranger come up to me in a coffee shop and grab me by the hand and say, “Hey, I know you don’t know me and I know this may be overstepping but I just think that you need to start journaling. I feel like it would relieve a lot of your anxiety.”

The co writer of my album told me that I have instead of a resting bitch face or a resting sad face that I have a constant ‘resting why am I here existence crisis face’ and that drives people to think that they need to help fix me. I think there is something attractive to people about being open about your brokenness and I do believe that I am a very ‘heart on your sleeve’ kinda person. I think the problem with being infatuated with this manic girl character is that you only stick around until it stops being fun or until the mental breakdown stops being cute. That’s what “Fix Me” is all about—my crazy is not for your amusement.

The song I love most is called “Burn.” It’s a pre-order track for the album and you can find it on Spotify and streaming platforms now. It was written in 2014, I recorded it when I was 16 and I re-recorded it right when it came out. It’s a love song. It’s really important to me because this is the song that I worked on from start to finish. It’s my favorite if I had to pick one. I feel like it’s the one that I did the best on and it’s the most ‘me’ in terms of my art.

How would you describe your music?

Mackenzie:  I like to refer to my music as dark pop because it’s not bubblegum and it definitely has an edge to it. As I go forward I want to constantly pay homage to where I came from because I’m an opera singer signed to a rap label that was named after a rock band trying to do pop music (laughs).

There are a lot of lenses that I’m filtering through and I want to make sure you can hear my influences. I want to know that people who like Johnny Cash, who I love to death, would be proud of my music. I want to know that 2PAC would have been proud of my music. I think my goal is always going to be to keep this urban rock influence going and to trojan horse some substance back into pop music, because I feel like the genre has been lacking that for a minute. We do have a lot of substantial artists coming through right now but I just want to be one of them.

Mackenzie Nicole photo courtesy of Strange Music, Inc.

Mackenzie Nicole photo courtesy of Strange Music, Inc.

How do you face the various challenges as a young woman in the music industry? Do you have any advice?

Mackenzie:  There is something to be said about not only being a young artist but being a young female artist in the industry. You have three things going against you: A. you’re an artist, so everyone thinks you’re stupid. B. You’re young, especially if you’re 18, everyone thinks you’re stupid. And C. You’re female, so everyone treats you like you’re stupid. I have had to sit in the music meetings with men over 45 who try to look at me and tell me what teenage girls like to listen to as if they would know how girls think. It just cracks me up! These record executives, they will talk about you, at you, through you, but they don’t speak TO you and that’s the most frustrating thing for an artist.

The main thing that I always tell young women is to focus on your personal education on the business side of the music industry. This way you can sit at an executive meeting and while they talk about you, they will assume you are not grasping anything but you’ll know what they are talking about. They can assume you’re stupid until you open your mouth to reveal that you’re more educated than they thought. Your secret weapon is always going to be your education. Unless you take the time to be attentive and take notes, no one else is going to do that for you.

There is also the subject of sexual harassment and assault within the industry. I have known some women who had considered or full on quit music or whatever they are passionate about because they have had one negative experience with a man who tried to take advantage of a situation. I have been in that position too. I have been in situations where I have experienced sexual harassment.  It comes with being a female in the entertainment industry and it’s dirty, vulgar, and disgusting!

There’s no real advice for avoiding it but there is for recovering from it. My advice is to tell someone you trust and not be ashamed of yourself because you are not responsible for other people’s actions. Be educated and know when you need to speak up on it.

What is your proudest musical accomplishment to date?

Mackenzie:  One of my favorite things I ever recorded was a hook on the song “We’re Not Sorry” that I did with Tech N9ne. It means so much to me because the song is about how we at Strange Music have a cult following and that cult following has become a family. Think if The Godfather had a baby with Straight Outta Compton.

We are in our own Hip Hop mafia and if you come for one you come for all! It’s about being in the elements of family. Strange Music has been more of family to me than some of my biological family members. I also love performing it live because it’s as close as I get to become a Rockstar because it has some very cool musical moments.  I love it because I can just let loose and be myself for the most part.