Mackenzie O’Brien was the first winner of Making Music’s new Community Video people’s choice competition. Her video for the song “Anything Other Than This” received twice as many votes as the runner-up.
O’Brien is on a trajectory to music industry success, and her story really started, as sometimes happens, with a dusty guitar that nobody was using.
O’Brien has been a musical person her entire life. Her father in fact gave her the nickname “Hummingbird” when she was little because she was always humming songs to herself no matter what she was doing. Between the ages of 4 and 14, O’Brien was constantly trying to find her creative voice — she tried the flute, dancing, Irish dancing, and other things, but none of them really spoke to her. Then, at age 14 when she was a high school freshman, she was home bored one day on winter break. Her sister had a guitar in the closet she never played that was just gathering dust, so O’Brien pulled it out, learned some chords from YouTube videos, and found she had an innate talent. “I learned some simple songs and I found that everything progressed right away,” she said.
Throughout her high school years, O’Brien took guitar lessons and continued focusing on her passion for music. Singing came naturally for her, and although she was encouraged by people to get a vocal coach, she thought she did not need any vocal training. “I just needed a slap in the face because I really needed to learn how to properly sing,” she said. She ended up training as an opera singer for three years, but after suffering vocal fatigue and a realization that opera was not the musical direction she wanted to go in, she connected with a well-known teacher in Nashville with whom she still works weekly. “She literally fixed everything; she saved my career,” O’Brien said.
After high school graduation, O’Brien determined that music was going to be her profession — but how? She started by playing open-mic nights in her home area in the suburbs around Chicago, which led to paid bookings by various local venues who saw her perform. Her father, who also acts as her manager, called and emailed venues all over the area and helped market and book O’Brien. “It was a ton of hard work, a ton of writing, and lot of going back and forth to Nashville and trying to build connections there,” she said. Those Nashville connections have translated into songwriting lessons and opportunities, recording sessions, and performances in the place known as Music City. “I guess my musical journey so far has just been trying to figure it all out,” she said.
O’Brien is currently talking with a Nashville publishing company about being a songwriter and artist for them — but songwriting isn’t easy, and even though she has been hailed by industry people as an excellent songwriter, she said it was not always her strong suit. “I would play a lot of covers [when I first started out in 2016] and people would always tell me, ‘You need to write your own songs.’ And it was just such an intimidating thing to think of; I had no confidence in that,” she said.
So in late 2017 she began co-writing songs with more experienced musicians, and has been working to improve and elevate her songwriting ever since. She said she tries to write at least one song every week, and continues to learn more every day. Some of the best advice she ever received came during a songwriting festival in Colorado she attended, at which she was told that to write something deep and meaningful you must tap into what you know and what you’re feeling at that exact moment. “What I’ve noticed about my own writing is that when I really got deep I really got vulnerable, even if I didn’t want to at that exact moment. I’m really proud of that, because it becomes something I want to put out into the world and be like, This is literally me and not a version of me that people were trying to write for me,” she said. “As far as songwriting goes, don’t try to be somebody you’re not; just be yourself.”
Mackenzie O’Brien is an indie country artist from the Midwest whose influences include Casey Musgrave, Sheryl Crow, and Miranda Lambert. During her years as a solo artist, she performed in the cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Austin, Los Angeles, Denver, and Nashville, and has received interest in her music from professionals around the US, as well as in England and Ireland.
In 2018, O’Brien applied for and won a National Endowment for the Arts music grant, which gave her the funding to professionally record with full production and a full set band her three-song EP “Ready For Change,” which was released in 2019. She also released three music videos in 2019, one of which was the Making Music Community Video selection, “Anything Other Than This.”
Last year, O’Brien also founded her own band, The Mackenzie O’Brien Band. “I get inspired by going to concerts, and I look at bands and think they entertain so much more than just me sitting in a corner with my guitar,” she said. The band — which includes guitar, bass, drums, banjo, and mandolin — plays O’Brien’s solo songs as well as new music at venues outside of Chicago. O’Brien also continues to travel back and forth to Nashville to record songs she has written and make industry connections.
Moving forward into 2020, O’Brien’s goals are to build a following in Chicago, to continue to improve her songwriting, and to get a music publishing deal. “Nashville is where I want to be for sure,” she said. “If I can get there in any way, I will.”
If you haven’t seen her video for “Anything Other Than This,” you can check it out here.