Interview | FFS 5 with Mackenzie Shivers

Faced with the harsh realities of the impending global pandemic, Mackenzie Shivers hunkered down with her husband and friend at the latter’s Cape Cod home. For the next three months, in the midst of uncertainty, she flourished. Without her trademark piano, Shivers partnered with her heirloom guitar, Murphy, to write the songs that comprise Rejection Letter. Inspired by the beauty of her new surroundings one offbeat step after the next, songs flourished from her pen like a waterfall, and the rest is history. Culminating into the artist’s most multisided, and daresay passionate, affair to date. It’s her rebel yell—defiant towards the negative circumstances that trapped her on Cape Cod, defiant of the rejection letter written to her for an artistic grant, and defiant of giving her life’s work anything less than her best foot forward.

‘Martha’s Vineyard’ boldly began Shivers’ album release cycle. It’s a markedly different leap into folk-rock territory for the artist, more reminiscent of the subtle ferocity of a Boygenius cut than anything she’s published prior. It’s forward-driving, melodious, and brash; Shivers abandons her careful, concentrated approach for a more assertive, guitar-driven production. We have tinges of classic Mackenzie spread throughout the album, too, as far as musical developments are concerned—only grander. Opener ‘Afraid’ would attest to this claim with its sweeping string section, and ‘Blistered Sun’ makes for an utterly compelling, key-driven interlude.

On the overall, though, this is unexplored territory navigated by Shivers with aplomb. Another highlight track is ‘The Roses’, its percussive melodies recalling the coastal scenery of her Cape Code escape; nostalgia is betwixt the tune in ways that might recall Joni Mitchell for some. Do pay mind to ‘Butterscotch’, as well, with its synthetic textures offering cadence to Shivers’ striking, face-forward lyrical delivery. Yet, despite all masterful musical innovation present throughout Rejection Letter, it’s Shivers’ own heart that shines through the brightest. The album’s unifying thread is undoubtedly a compelling sincerity, and that will be what has listeners coming back time and again.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day? 

I’m from Tampa, Florida, which I know is hard to believe from my very pale complexion! I wore a lot of Bullfrog sunscreen as a kid. 

Our household was a musical one. My mom sang in the church choir, my Dad always had records on, and my sister and I sang harmonies together from as early as I can remember.

One of my first memories is playing a Muppet Babies keyboard at a friend’s birthday party. I was around 3 years old. All the other kids were playing dress up, and I was in the corner by myself playing this keyboard, and the entire world melted away. Soon after, I started piano lessons and I fell in love quickly and deeply with music and the piano.

As an artist, how do you define success?

If even one person who hears my music feels understood or less alone in the world, then I consider that a success.

What do you find your greatest struggle to be when it comes to the music business?

It’s easy to feel undervalued and drained when certain streaming and social platforms expect you to churn out constant content like a machine. And any independent artist is often playing multiple roles at once – musician, songwriter, performer, marketing manager, publicist, booking agent, content creator, publisher, brand manager, etc. We’re our own record labels. And that can be very empowering, and I have learned so much from embodying these roles. But it can also quickly lead to burnout.

But whenever I feel overwhelmed, I take a pause and remind myself that I’m doing this because it’s my true passion and I want it to be a lifelong career. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Many “emerging artists” have been working hard for 10+ years. Just keep swimming.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist and as a band? What do you hope to achieve? 

Quite simply, I want to keep making records. I want to continue growing as an artist, as a person, and I want to collaborate with people who challenge me. I want to be able to travel again and meet new people through my music. I always want to keep learning.

And more specifically….I want to play The Ryman! That would be magical.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music? 

Traveling. That can mean visiting a new country or getting in the car and taking a road trip or even taking a long walk. But it’s important for me to have a change of scenery now and then. It almost always leads to a boost in creativity, and I think it’s good for the soul.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm