By Nicholas Jason Lopez
While Mackenzie Nicole enjoyed success in the form of a million Spotify streams and eight million-plus YouTube views after her 2017 debut album ‘The Edge’ dropped, it came at a hefty cost.
She suffered an emotional breakdown in silence, not sure where to go or what to do. She sought help and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by her psychiatrist.
The news came as a relief to Nicole, who could now identify her key issue and work to repair the personal damage. Inspired to carefully craft her journey to recovery, the resulting album ‘Mystic’ became not only a story to tell, but an obligation to help those who felt the same struggles.
This past February, the dark-pop artist released ‘Mystic’ via Strange Main and accompanied it with a short film to open the discussion for topics like emotional pain, mental wellness, strength and recovery.
The Music Bugle had the opportunity to talk with Nicole about what she’s been up to lately and more.
Music Bugle – What will you remember the most about your ‘Mystic’ album?
Mackenzie Nicole – Every single second of every single step of ‘Mystic”s creation was memorable and special to me. ‘Mystic’ was the first time I had full creative control over an album and that alone made the process indescribably meaningful. From the very first time I put pen to paper to the release of the final visual, ‘Mystic’ changed every last facet of my life and it’s not over yet. The ‘Mystic’ experience will be lifelong and for that, I am beyond grateful. All that being said, what I will remember most about ‘Mystic’ is the creation of the accompanying “Mystic” film. Shooting visuals has always been my favorite part of making music. However, before ‘Mystic,’ these “visuals” were just music videos, minute ventures compared to “Mystic,” which took about a year to plan and nearly two weeks to shoot alone and that’s before the entire editing and post-production process. It was and is my most ambitious creative endeavor to date. Before I go into any more detail, I feel I should explain how this film came about. The album ‘Mystic’ is autobiographical. It details the worst time of my life ― the extreme mental breakdown I suffered during the first six months of 2018 after a lifelong battle with crippling mental illness. During this devastating period, my every move was a concentrated effort to self-sabotage and I nearly died by my own hand several times. This period thankfully culminated after I finally began seeing my current psychiatrist. It was upon our very first meeting that she diagnosed me with bipolar I disorder. It was the best news I’ve ever received, for finally this intangible monster I had forever warred with had an identity and a kryptonite – a cocktail of psychiatric medications and at least once-weekly therapy sessions. Come Fall of 2018, a few months into the recovery process, I had a responsibility to deliver an album. At a time when I felt my mental illness and breakdown defined me, I knew nothing else to write about. I dove headfirst into documenting every single detail. However, during the process of chronicling my own story, something else emerged – or, rather, someone else. I realized there was another narrative just beneath the surface of every line I wrote. That’s how I met the Girl. This album was hers as much as it was mine. While our stories share parallels, we both went through the same struggle in our own unique ways. The Girl is not an alter ego for me. She is a different person entirely. I was shocked to encounter her, to say the least. I didn’t know why the universe introduced me to the Girl or even who she was, exactly, but I knew she must be important and that her story must be told. How I was to tell that story was the big question. At first, I tried to start writing the songs about both of us, a task that soon proved impossible. There simply wasn’t enough room in those lyrics for the both of us. Furthermore, since the Girl was her own person, how could I write for her? How could I put words in her mouth? It seemed disingenuous. There had to be another way. “Another way” occurred to me the very second CEO Travis O’Guin – my father – approached me to remind me to start brainstorming for the ‘Mystic’ visuals. It hit me immediately that the visuals must be the Girl’s medium. The idea of making a standard performance-based music video for any song on ‘Mystic’ felt cheap and wrong. ‘Mystic’ was destined for something greater. Realizing what I had to do, I began constructing the little pieces of the Girl’s biography that the universe had been doling out to me for months. Before I knew it, her story was constructed before me, but with its construction came a serious issue – there was no way I could tell the Girl’s story in the standard three or four music videos allotted per album. I expressed this to Travis and he did something I never would’ve dreamed of – he gave me the green light to record a visual for each song on the album, creating a single narrative piece in 12 parts. 12 music videos. One short film. To say I was doubted by many would be an understatement. I was told by a number of “industry experts” that I’d never do it. They said every artist tries and fails to do a visual for every song on the album. They said me playing a character other than myself – nevertheless, three characters other than myself – would be confusing. They said I couldn’t make an entire short film with just music and no dialogue. They said a lot of things. They were wrong. I found my team of believers and we created something incredible.
Music Bugle – You’ve made your past struggles with your mental health no secret – how has creating music helped you along in that aspect?
Mackenzie Nicole – I’m highly sensitive to an overwhelming degree. I’m highly emotional. Creating music has helped me articulate and understand my emotions. Once you cage a feeling in words, it loses a lot of its power in its captivity, for better or for worse. This phenomenon can lead to disappointment – like trying to capture the night sky on a cell phone camera – or relief – like caging a vicious animal. Equally important as helping my mental health through music is helping the mental health of others. Part of the reason I am so transparent – besides being a chronic oversharer by nature – is because I know that there are so many people living the way I used to live before I began treatment. I know that isolation. I know that fear. I know that pain. I also know that it’s not necessary. I want others to know that too. Maybe I would’ve escaped all of that agony sooner if someone else who fought similar demons told me I could tame mine. Maybe not. I’ll never know.
Music Bugle – What are your goals for the rest of 2020?
Mackenzie Nicole – Survive.
Music Bugle – Does social media make it easier or harder for a musician to stand out these days?
Mackenzie Nicole – Social media and our general technologically enhanced accessibility is a double-edged sword. On one hand, social media allows artists to further develop their brand without having to rely on conventional press coverage, as social media platforms offer artists the opportunity to essentially create their own publicity. Social media also operates as a liaison between artists and their supporters, making communication and acquaintanceship more feasible than ever before. In these ways, social media is yet another medium for artistic expression and thus serves as another avenue through which artists may distinguish themselves. On the other hand, this aforementioned accessibility also means that there are more voices than ever vying for one’s attention across every social media platform and all this shouting eventually devolves into a white noise that ironically makes it nearly impossible to pick even one artist out of the endless parade on your timeline or feed.
Music Bugle – How have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Mackenzie Nicole – My career was most affected by COVID-19 when I went out on tour in mid-March just to play exactly one show before the tour was called off and I was sent home. Other than that, thankfully, I believe my team and I have made the most of our inability to perform live by connecting with my supporters virtually now more than ever. I am grateful for the endless support of my listeners and viewers during these bizarre times. While I believe my team and I fielded the COVID-19 pandemic fairly well in regards to its impact on my career, I feel I was not as capable when it came to managing my personal wellbeing amidst COVID-19. The pandemic and its accompanying struggles took a very severe toll on my mental health in particular. As I’ve discussed often, I have bipolar I disorder and though I have been managing it somewhat well over the last couple years since I began recovery, I definitely lost my grip on at the beginning of quarantine in March. I underwent an extended, highly destructive manic episode, which was followed by a severe bout of depression that I am just now emerging from, but I am emerging and that’s what’s important.
Music Bugle – Where do you go when you feel the need to escape?
Mackenzie Nicole – My happy place is driving around the city listening to music. I drove around Downtown Kansas City for about three hours straight recently, just listening to music with my windows down as the skyline kissed the overcast. My car is my absolute favorite place to listen to music and it’s also where I wrote almost every single one of my songs.
Music Bugle – Away from music, what is something people might be surprised to know about you?
Mackenzie Nicole – I’m extremely, severely, cripplingly shy. I flip a switch when I have to work, but away from music, I’m incredibly insular. I’m working on it.
Music Bugle – Which of your songs was the hardest to write or compose?
Mackenzie Nicole – “A Cut Rose In Tap Water” was a complete fluke. When Seven sent me the beat, I deemed it “too dark” for the album – which is laughable, now – and pretty much wrote it off. Then, weeks later, I had a studio day. I showed up in pieces. After months in recovery, I found myself experiencing the worst day I had in a very, very long time. It was the closest I had been to suicidal ever since I began recovery and I felt like a failure. When I got in the booth, I was supposed to record a super turnt track for a rapper friend of mine, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t pretend like I was anything other than devastated. I went back to my car, got out my songwriting notebook and put on the beat I had all but forgotten about. It once seemed too dark. I understood it now. I wrote a song about the feeling of resignation and defeat that overcame me that day and how in that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever really, truly evade the darkness that would never release me. As I rifled through the pages of my songwriting book, a phrase caught my eye ― “a cut rose in tap water.” I had scribbled it down one day and I wasn’t even sure when, but I did remember that I wrote it smiling and that broke my heart. I wrote those six words for the first time when I first noted a peculiarity about myself. Looking around my room, I noticed an abundance of dead roses. They were everywhere, littering shelves and bedside tables or sticking out of old bottles. They had accumulated over the years I had inhabited the room, as I had the habit of collecting interesting vessels, filling them with tap water and granting them a single cut rose that I would never again bother. The rose would die and the water evaporated, thus adding yet another wilted specter to the floral graveyard. Sitting in my car that day, I suddenly understood the roses. They were beautiful and that very beauty is what damned them to be cut – a death sentence. Human emotionality is my beauty and that very beauty is what made me susceptible to the darkness. It was only a matter of time before I withered, a matter not of if, but when. I sobbed in the booth. “I am not precious.”
Music Bugle – What’s a quote that motivates you to keep doing what you do?
Mackenzie Nicole – “As the rose, so is life.”
Music Bugle – What’s something you wish happened more in the music industry?
Mackenzie Nicole – As a young woman who grew up in the music industry, I wish predatory men weren’t allowed to accost, harass, abuse and take advantage of us.