Hi Mackenzie, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
I’ve been great! Busy! Thanks for asking.
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Believe”?
“Believe” is a hymn of catharsis. When the world feels like it’s crumbling around me, I think of the people in my life that I believe in. That gives me hope. The arrangement is piano, voice, and string quartet. I wanted it to have a bit of a Beatles “Yesterday” vibe. My friend and violist Sarah Elizabeth Haines arranged the strings and recorded them while on tour with Hamilton!
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
I actually wrote this song a couple of years ago when my brother-in-law passed away. Then in 2016, the song took on a new meaning to me after the presidential election. It felt bigger than my own personal story. Music is powerful in that way; it transcends one specific event. And right now, with everything going on in our country, “Believe”feels more relevant than ever. This definitely feels like the right time to release this song – it feels a bit kismet.
Any plans to release a video for the single?
I recently recorded a live video of “Believe” in Iceland with the Brooklyn-based multimedia artist collective The Apartment Sessions. Forty musicians traveled to Iceland this past September to arrange, perform, and record all types of music all over the country! It was a wild, beautiful, transformative experience. If you haven’t heard of Apartment Sessions, I suggest subscribing to the YouTube channel!
The single comes off your new album The Unkindness – what’s the story behind the title?
The title refers to the darkness in the world and how important it is to hold onto each other when our surroundings feel ugly and unkind. A friend mentioned to me that the name for a group of ravens was an unkindness, and I knew that’s what the album would be called. “Ravens” is a track I had already written for the album, and it felt meant to be. Ravens are believed to be capable of feeling empathy. Isn’t that incredible? I think genuine empathy is one of the most powerful tools to diffuse hate, and it can also be one of the most difficult to master.
How was the recording and writing process?
The writing process was stretched out overall, but the songs themselves formed quite quickly. Some of them were written two years ago, and my band and I have spent a lot of time honing the arrangements through playing live shows. But a couple songs were written right before we went into the studio. One was even a last minute addition that I wrote after we had already tracked everything – we added it when we were already in the mixing stage!
The recording process was a blast. We tracked vocals, piano, drums, and bass live at Spin Recording Studios in Queens. Then we overdubbed pedal steel, trumpet, saxophone, strings, and additional vocals at various locations. Living rooms, practice spaces, home studios…the album is definitely a state-of-the-art studio and DIY recording mashup!
What role does NYC play in your music?
There are a lot of talented and inspiring musicians who live here, so who I play and collaborate with plays a big role in my song arrangements. I love finding commonality between myself and a musician whose style differs from my own. I’m finishing up a residency at Rockwood Music Hall where I collaborate with a different artist each time. The shows center around finding that middle, overlapping section of our venn diagram.
How has Tori Amos influenced your writing?
Tori Amos was who I was listening to when I first started songwriting, and I felt an immediate kinship with her. I often felt like I didn’t belong in the classical music world or in the music school I went to, and Tori made me feel less alone. Here was another classically trained pianist (with red hair no less!) who broke out of the classical mold and into the pop/rock world. She paired her classical training with her gift of emotive, confessional storytelling and performing. She has real chops. I love that.
What aspect of our social and political did you get to explore on this record?
The album explores the pain of our country feeling so divided, the presidential election, the sexism and racism that runs rampant. It deals with #MeToo and how that movement has been very empowering but also really difficult. The songs can swing from emboldened (“Phoenix”) to dejected (“Better”), which is how the past couple years have felt. A pendulum that can quickly swing in either direction.
Any plans to hit the road?
I’ll be playing in and around Tokyo starting late February after the album is released! It’s my first trip to Japan. I can’t wait.
What else is happening next in Mackenzie Shivers’ world?
Casual things like toppling the patriarchy. You with me? I believe in you.