Mackenzie Shivers is a lot more than just a fitting name for the winter season. The New York-based singer-songwriter has been building her base since the release of 2014’s Neverland, at least in part captivating by her dedication to her cultural roots and traditions. Her studious, heartfelt indie folk and pop has consistently been informed by the musical inflections of her Irish heritage. She met critical acclaim with her 2019 LP, The Unkindness, and has toured the country and performed in Tokyo since, making it a landmark year for the singer-songwriter.
The “singer-songwriter” categorization continues to bloat and grow all the more nebulous. Ergo, it takes an artist with a certain quality talent and means of expression to truly stand out. Shivers has repeatedly showcased her ability to go above and beyond this threshold, producing piercing arrangements that are capable of exhibiting a smorgasbord of emotion. The Unkindness is a redemptive, calamitous, and compassionate celebration of humanity reminiscent of the harrowing anti-folk and chamber pop of Regina Spektor and Tori Amos, pop-rock gems this side of Elton John, and her own Irish roots.
Recently, Shivers perked her keen artistic ear for tradition back up to develop her new album, Midwinter. An album centered on the complex feelings of joy and nostalgia that come with reflection during the holidays, her first recorded collection of holiday songs effortlessly capture the familial warmth and comfort that comes with the season.
Midwinter is the first holiday album you’ve recorded. Would you be so kind as to take us on a walk through its development? Like, how did you go about choosing holiday songs out of the umpteen of them out there to include? What was it like recording them in the dead of summer?
That was actually a very interesting process. I started around ten years ago doing my own arrangements of holiday songs that my mom would videotape when I was home for Christmas. It would just be me at the piano, at home in my living room. My sister would sing with me and it became a tradition.
I was asked before, “Are you going to turn this into a record? Are you going to make this into a Christmas album?” This year, I said, “You know what? I’m just going to do it. I’m just going to go for it.” I’m not exactly sure why, but this was the year where I finally felt inspired to do it.
Picking the songs was quite hard. There are so many that I love, but there are also a lot of old hymns and traditional songs that I grew up singing in church that I really love. I’d go back to revisit them and mull over the lyrics and find what really resonates with me now. It was about finding what I felt most strongly about, that I connected the most strongly with.
It was like ninety-five degrees on the day that we recorded it. You’re in the studio, though, and you can’t really tell what’s going on in the outside world. It’s like a casino in that way, you know, where you’re just in your own little place where no time is going by. We tried to make the studio feel very cheery and wintry. I brought a jacket with me.
Just turn the AC dial down several notches.
Yes, exactly. And I wore red pants. [Laughs]
How long was the recording process?
It was fast! We did it in a day. We did it in a single day. I’ve never done anything like that in a single day before, and it was a wild ride.
It was good, though. I didn’t want this album to feel like anything perfect or polished. I wanted it to feel like we were back at home in my living room, or in a pub. When you have a short amount of time to get something done, you don’t have time to overthink it. I think that it worked well for that reason.
I would agree. It’s an album that feels comforting in that homey holiday sense.
This is also an album of mostly covers. Are there ways that this differs from making an album of mostly original music?
For me, a big part of it was interpreting stories that have been told before, versus my own personal stories. There was a lot of brainstorming like, “Who has already recording this tune? How has this already been arranged?” I didn’t want to do anything that was exactly the same as a previous cover.
I’m someone who, right after the day of Thanksgiving, I’ll put on the whole Christmas arsenal. So, I have to make a conscious choice sometimes to not do certain songs because I’ll want to do someone else’s versions of them.
In what ways did you honor your Celtic roots in this release?
The title track, “Midwinter”, is the only original song that I wrote for this album and it’s also the only one that has any percussion on it. I used my Irish bodhrán on that track which was a lot of fun.
Irish music is all about the story and how it’s told in such an unfussy and genuine way. I try to emulate that in everything that I do. The song and a lot of the album was me asking myself, like, “What if I were in Ireland for Christmas with family at a pub, and there was an upright piano in the corner?”
Ireland always inspires what I play. I’m going back over there next spring and I’m really excited about it.
Awesome! What do you do in Ireland when you visit?
I go around and listen to music and sometimes sit in on a session. This time, actually, I’m doing a small tour and have booked a few gigs already. It’ll be my first time over there doing shows of my own choosing which will be really exciting. I’m really looking forward to it.
It sounds like you’ve taken your time to absorb Irish culture and arts. Now you’ll be able to show off your own music, so that’ll definitely be fun.
It will be! It’s also going to be my five-year wedding anniversary. We got married in Ireland. We’re going to have a lot of our Irish friends in town. It’s going to be such a celebration over there.
Have you been over there?
Have I ever been to Ireland?
No, I haven’t!
Oh, you have to. It’s very special. The music community is so warm and inviting. At least that’s how I found it to be.
I’ll jot it down on the list. [Laughs]
Go. To. Ireland.
Maybe I’ll head down there with 98 Degrees on their next international tour.
Oh my God, I haven’t heard of that band in such a long time. It really brings back so many memories of that 90s era – boy bands, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera… Artists like that really took over the whole culture at that time.
We can loop this back around to be more relevant to Midwinter. How did 98 Degrees influence the development of your music?
Getting back on track here. While crafting Midwinter, did it bring any special holiday memories back to mind? What are some special moments of this time of year that you recalled and want to capture the essence of in your music?
I celebrate Christmas. I’ve realized that as a child, it was more about the excitement towards Santa, and presents, and all of that. As I’ve gotten older, it’s really become about family and friends and appreciating all that’s good in life.
Also, though, these are times that can be really hard for people. My grandma used to visit us every year for Christmas and that was always so special. At this point, she’s passed away like 15 years ago, but every Christmas I think of her. It’s lovely, but there’s also that nostalgia.
For this album, I didn’t want to put something together that was just super happy and jolly. I wanted to put some of that nostalgia in there and have different layers so that it could have something for everything. If you listen to “Joy to the World” or “Joy to the Bar”, that’s there for you, but if you want something a little more pensive and nostalgic about the holidays, that’s there as well. That was the main goal with the album.
You captured it for sure. “Pensive” was a word that I was going to use, as well. When I spoke with Lee DeWyze for our PopMatters premiere in October, his aim was to focus on nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet feelings as well. His reflection was essentially that when you’re a kid, the world is your oyster to explore to your heart’s content and everyone cares about and for you and your well-being. As you get into adulthood, though, you realize just how much you need to get done on your own, loved ones pass away, and we struggle. We’re a product of good and bad times, and as we approach this time of year, we tend to reflect on all of it.
That is so well put. “Bittersweet” is a great way to put it. It’s very true that, at the end of the year, you’re going to reflect on people in your life who’ve come and gone, on your ups and downs…
I think a lot of us would put the term “bittersweet” into negative connotations, but it’s not inherently negative. It’s something that we all go through and experience. It’s better to cope with something than to avoid it.
I know that when I’m feeling sad, or down, or nostalgic, I don’t really turn to music that’s going to put me up; I turn to music that’s going to inhabit that feeling and live with me in that world. Art and music is really incredible in that way, where it can be your companion. It’s very magical to me.
This is also the first time that you’re including instrumental compositions in a more prominent light on one of your albums. You’ve had intros and interludes and outros that have been instrumental pieces in the past, but what encouraged you to approach instrumental compositions more fully with Midwinter?
Going back to earlier years of doing my own arrangements and covers of holiday tunes, they all started out as piano only. It wasn’t until later that I decided to play around with singing them. So, with Midwinter, it was a mix of going back to that original idea of stripping arrangements down and doing instrumental piano performances. Sometimes, it was dependent on the lyrics of the song. If I felt really strongly about the lyrics of a tune that I was approaching for the album, then I included them. If I didn’t, or if I was really mostly just drawn to the melody and the tune itself, then I would do it as an instrumental. That’s how I informed myself on which would be instrumental-only and which would have singing on them.
For “Midwinter” itself as an original piece, it was something that just popped up in my head one night. So, I sat down and recorded it and I knew that that was going to be an instrumental piece. It has an ADAD back-and-forth like a traditional Irish reel or jig. On the album, I do it three or four times, but this composition could really keep going and going and going and going.
It seems like, following the release of The Unkindness, that you’ve been making notable strides. You have your first Japanese appearance under your belt, performed at the Rockwood Music Hall… How has life been for you in the past year or so compared to the years prior for both the person Mackenzie and the artist Mackenzie?
There’s a couple things that have been really different for me, compared to the time when I release Neverland. Both are really positive changes. One is that I have a much wider network here in New York and I’ve started to collaborate with a group called the Apartment Sessions which is this incredible group that arranges all different sorts of pieces of music and performs them and records them in this tiny Brooklyn apartment. There’s a horn section and a harp and everyone is all crammed in and jamming together. It’s really, really fun.
I’ve also been performing with other people’s bands. That musical network has strengthened and been really good for me, as a person and as an artist.
The other thing is that I’ve been extending myself away from New York. This year marked the first time that I’ve ever really toured outside of the city, ever, which was thrilling. I was nervous about it. I didn’t know how I would do on the road, so to speak, and if it would be exciting or hard. It was sort-of both, but playing in front of different audiences across the country and in Tokyo was very affirming. It was like, “Okay, yeah. This is why I’m doing this. To connect with people.”
It was so much better than just sitting behind a computer. I love interacting with people online and that’s how you and I met, which is awesome, but seeing these people in person made me really think like I was on the right track.
I totally understand that. It’s partially mind-blowing just to chat with you on the phone!
So, how much more for meeting in person, which I’m sure will also happen down the road?
It totally will.
You’re right. It’ll happen when I’m booking for Nick Lachey.
Yes, absolutely. It needs to happen that way. [Laughs]
I don’t think people outside of the bubble understand how unglamorous getting into a van and touring the country can actually be. Have you really toured if you’re not in a venue selling beer to people between sets, or changing a tire in a Walmart parking lot at 3am? In my artistic vocation and yours, there’s that certain amount of truth to us being just crazy enough to put up with all of this.
That’s so true.
I’m really glad that you were able to find that sort of fulfilment on the road. Positive artistic enrichment on the road is invaluable. Maybe, one of these days, we’ll positively artistically enrich you in Arizona!
Oh, that would be amazing. My sister lives in Colorado now, so I would love to book a western tour. Doing a little circuit around that area and California would be really fun.
Final question. Following up on looking back on that life of yours. We’ve reflected on how things have changed for you, but in what ways are you and they the same?
I feel like the way I write music has not changed at all. Looking back, I always have met this same process where a flash of light bursts into my head and through my fingers at the piano. It just happens that way. Most of the time, I don’t know where this has come from, but I hope I never lose it. There’s always that mix of excitement and fear where I have to sit down and say, “Oh my gosh, what if I lose this someday?”
I have to accept that I don’t have a lot of control over this process. The most important thing that I can do is harness it as much as I can and listen for it when it comes around. I do my best to translate this artistic energy when it comes about. So, that process has not changed at all.
I think, though, that I’ve gotten a little better at hearing when this is coming.
It’s all really flowing from the ether. It’s a spiritual thing.
Yeah! It does feel very spiritual. I’ve heard that a lot of other writers write this way. Others have told me stuff like, “You know, I mark out 10am to 5pm every day and that’s when I sit down and I write songs.” Part of me really envies that, because I’ve tried to do that and it doesn’t really work for me.
That said, I don’t think there’s a better way or a worse way or an easier way or a harder way to write a song. It’s just interesting that there’s so many ways to do it, and that in my shoes, I can’t mark out that time like others do to get it done. It just happens.
Any final thoughts?
I feel very grateful over how this whole year has turned out. I’m grateful for the people who’ve listened to my records, bought them, and have come to shows. I have a whole new arsenal of songs that I’m playing for the first few times live. I’m excited that a lot of people are turning up to support me and my music, like you. It’s been really cool.
Yeah, it definitely has been. This is going to keep on happening for you. Positivity begets positivity. You’ll keep on making the right connections and touching people’s hearts along the way, because that’s what you do.
Thank you so much.