An Interview With Mackenzie Nicole: On The Edge

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Touring in support of Hip Hop Heavyweight Tech N9ne at The Armory on April 21 is Strange Music’s prodigy Mackenzie Nicole. Tickets are available HERE

Mackenzie was kind enough to sit down with TCM and engage in a rambling and enlightening conversation about her new album, what motivates her on a daily basis and the advantages and challenges of growing up in a music business family.  While she may only be 18 years old it would be an egregious error to discount her experience, talent, business acumen or vision.  There are far more miles than years here.  Once in a blue moon, an artist comes along who brings to the table such a broad array of skill sets that seem destined for more success. 

While the name may not be familiar to many, the voice certainly is, particularly to Tech N9ne fans.  She has been featured heavily on that artist’s albums since debuting on Tech’s 2009 platinum release K.O.D.  When Rap label force Strange Music Inc. decided to venture into the world of Pop in 2015 a deliberate decision was made to bank their future on a single, very talented, very young artist.  That appears to be a well-informed business decision.  Her first single Acting Like You Know has generated over 4.5 million You Tube views along with a comparable number of Spotify downloads.  The second single release, Deleted, is racing down the same road.

But the woman behind the image is someone that is quite different from the public persona.  That fact became obvious with the first powder puff question thrown her way.  Asked if she was excited by the prospect of her first full length album The Edge hitting the streets on April 13, she demurred and responded: “For pretty much everyone I say yes.  But that’s not really the truth.  I honestly don’t have time to feel excited right now because the amount of work, travel you do to get ready for a release is huge and also considering my involvement on the business side of the label, not only for other artists but on my own project as artistic director, creative director; I’ve done all the visual and artistic design.  I haven’t had time.  So honestly, I won’t know how I feel about it until it’s here.  Maybe you should ask me in about a year.”

In a world where most artists are in a hurry up and wait cycle, as the record company slowly grinds its way to a release date, this is also a full-time business woman helping to run a successful label.  She has any number of daily challenges and deadlines to keep her focused on the next task at hand. 

Were we talking to the next Pop diva or to a battle tested record executive or a young woman finding her way in the world?  The answer with Mackenzie Nicole, as it is with so many aspects of her personality is…All of the above.

She described the process of creating The Edge, which is by any measurement is an extremely polished effort, as a real challenge.  It was a collaborative effort with Jordan Omley of The Jam, an LA production outfit with working credits alongside the likes of Lady Gaga, Santana and Jojo.  She admitted that as a record executive it was imperative for her to produce an album that could help to launch Strange Music’s new division, Strange Main, into the world of Pop.  As with any collaborative project there were personal compromises made along the way to ensure she could meet the needs of the label and the legions of Strange Music fans that have supported her and known her through her association with Tech N9ne.

However, one should not equate that concept of compromise with sell out, or in any way less than fully realized when talking about her album The Edge.  The concept of compromise seemed to be more about reining in some creative impulses to stay clearly on track with a stated objective and vision.  It’s hard to separate the business woman from the artist and she would not want it any other way.

“It was my first experience co-writing.  So when you have an idea in your mind and it turns out being something different it’s definitely something you have to adjust to.”  Mackenzie pointed to the fact that her co-writer is as relentlessly bright and happy as she is dark and emotionally conservative.  On many of the tracks, if you listen closely, you pick up this fascinating kind of call and response ordering of verses.  An open, non-threatening verse from Jordan often sets up a more complex and closer to the bone emotional expression in the next which is all Mackenzie.  It provides the album the accessibility of Pop love songs while drawing the listener into a shared reflection on the pain and confusion that comes from wrestling with failing personal relationships.  MacKenzie was quick to laugh and point out that while she wouldn’t recommend struggling in a relationship to anybody, it certainly makes for fertile ground for a songwriter with literary tendencies.

A wonderful self-deprecating exchange followed in which she described her co-writing partner as a man well suited as a motivational speaker were it not for his success as a producer.  “He was genuinely horrified by my sketches of monsters on the lyric sheets and reading Camus between takes.”  While Mackenzie looks and engages with a sunny and professional persona, she admitted that many of her friends accuse her of having “rusted bitch face” because she’s so often focused on whatever is fully on her mind.  “There’s this really strange phenomenon where people who don’t know me come up and try to give me life advice, unsolicited.  I had someone come up to me in a coffee shop.  Like right before we recorded the song Fix Me from the album and said: ‘Listen, I know you don’t know me but I really think you should start journaling.  It would really lessen your anxiety.”  WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?  And why do they want to tell me how to make my life better?  So THANK YOU! But that’s kind of where the title Fix Me comes from.  I don’t like to ask for help from people and that’s why co-writing an album was such a challenge for me.  At the same time it was a tremendous learning experience as an artist”.

When Mackenzie described her childhood the image that came to mind was that of the classic gym rat, only transported to the recording studio.  From the age of 8 she remembers sleeping on the floor of the studio, the 20-hour sessions, stacking items in the warehouse and sitting in on both production and business meetings with her father Travis O’Guin, one of the guiding forces behind Strange Music.  “In many respects, I never was a typical kid.  It was almost like I was born a miniature me. “

That upbringing has had an enormous impact on who she has become today.  She has witnessed first- hand the types of attitudes and work ethic that engender success.  She can point to the cases where talent alone has failed and failure is never going to be a long-term option for Mackenzie.  “I’d sit in these business meetings with my father that would last for hours and at the end he would turn to me and ask my opinion.  You better not have been drifting off or not paying attention!  That was one way to make sure you wouldn’t be sitting in on the next meeting.”

Asked if she foresaw a time when she would focus all her time on her music she answered in the negative.  “I will always be involved in the business side of the industry.  That’s where, ironically, there is great opportunity for creativity.  There is this typical career arc for artists that goes from having complete creative control, to finding some success which necessitates giving up control.  However, if you can make it to the top you regain it.  That’s why I admire artists like Rhianna so much.  She’s done everything, constantly building the base. But that last album is a work of personal passion. That’s the goal.”

We began by saying there are surprises around every corner with this woman.  To list just a few:

What songs, artists are you really into that people might not expect?  “I would say the song Hurt by my man, Johnny Cash.  I mean, I don’t even have the words to describe what that song is.  If it’s not my favorite then certainly top 3.  And I’m really into this 90’s R&B kick.  I’ve always loved TLC. Those girls are my inspiration!  They were the first group that I actually went out and found on my own.  Growing up I was surrounded with so much diverse and good music going on here at Strange that I never had to go look for new music.  This discovery was so exciting because it was truly mine.   The final one I’d mention is a band my best friend turned me on to years ago called The Front Bottoms out of New Jersey.  For some reason they just took a piece of my heart and they’ll always be there.”

On growing up in Kansas City and whether the siren song of New York or LA is calling; the short answer is no.  While she loves both cities she points to the fact that her role in Strange Music compels her to stick close to the nest.  She remembers that as a young child the label decided to pick up stakes and move to LA.  It didn’t work, mostly she says because the pace of things in California was simply too slow for the business and their culture.  By the same token, the pace in New York is about twice too fast.  The Midwest is home and it works just fine.  Mackenzie laughed and pointed out: “How many pop artists are trying to launch from Kansas City?  If I lived in LA and walked into a restaurant and announced I was going to be a pop artist, the waitress, bartender and general manager would all immediately pipe up…Me Too!”

On the role of video production in today’s world of music marketing.  “I love making videos because I can leave so much of it to people who really know what they’re doing.  Once I’ve gotten through signing off on all the budgeting aspects and treatments, all I need to do is show up on set and go to work.  I’m a very visual person so the experience of seeing that first rough cut is very exciting.  I’m not sitting behind the camera so I have no idea what it’s going to look like.  That’s a very different experience from my musical expression.  Usually, the first time I hear what I’ve done I hate it.  People don’t realize how difficult it can be to put to paper something that you are uncomfortable saying.  And then to hear your own voice actually expressing something you don’t even want to think about or acknowledge can be very stressful.”   

On coming back to the Twin Cities with Tech N9ne where she appeared last year at Myth.  “I loved coming to the Twin Cities! That was one of the best crowds we encountered anywhere on the tour.  Probably only Kansas City or Denver were better and those cities are, in essence, hometown shows for us.”

And finally, what was the dynamic growing up around all the gangsters and gangbangers of the Hip Hop world as an upper middle class white girl attending an all-female college prep school?    “Let’s just say on the one hand I was getting this message of empowerment saying you’re going to be the next CEO of this or that company while I was sitting in on the making of what can be considered pretty controversial hip hop videos.  There were probably some outbursts and ways of expressing myself that were extreme.  But I was exposed to a range of influences and role models which were not typical.  You might say it accounts for what’s a pretty unique and nuanced moral compass.”   

If you already have your tickets for Tech N9ne at The Armory you are encouraged not to wander in late.  Mackenzie Nicole is not only a star in the making, she is a burgeoning force to be reckoned with in the industry.  Whether it is as a vocalist, producer, screen actress or record executive, April 21 at 7pm won’t be the last we will hear from this young woman.  She’s standing on The Edge.

Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy

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