Mackenzie Shivers Unfurls Haunting Sonic Possibilities with The ‘Funeral Singer’ EP (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Sara Haile

In Spring of 2021, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mackenzie Shivers unveiled full-length album Rejection Letter, written partly while marooned on Cape Cod in the early days of the pandemic. This was also a period when she was exploring the guitar for the first time after many years focusing on the piano for songwriting. When the songs from this period were recorded in Woodstock, New York, a few of the songs felt different, as if they belonged to another world all their own. They have now been released as the EP, Funeral Singer. 

The three songs on the EP all have particularly haunting qualities, which makes for a great sense of cohesion, but the ways in which they are haunting vary. Another commonality are themes of the past and echoes of associations. Sonically, you’ll hear further explorations into guitar, including electric guitar, which has turned out to be the next chapter of Shivers’ upcoming work. I spoke with Mackenzie Shivers about the ways in which these songs differentiated themselves in the wider sessions that generated Rejection Letter and how recently relocating to Woodstock, New York, from New York City has impacted and accelerated her sound experiments. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: How has relocating to Woodstock been for you in your life and your music?

Mackenzie Shivers: In 2020, which already feels like so long ago, I was up in Woodstock recording Rejection Letter, and actually, Funeral Singer also. I was going back and forth a lot and realized that I really loved it, so made the leap to move to Woodstock full time in August 2021. It’s been really good.

HMS: I’ve heard really great things about living there, and, of course, there’s so much musical history.

MS: That’s very true. It’s definitely steeped in history. I lived in New York City for 13 years and really loved it, but I didn’t realize how removed from nature I was until I moved out here. I guess I was starved for nature and now I’m seeing animals and birds outside my window.

HMS: I saw on social media that you had adopted a rescue dog. Does she add to that connection?

MS: Yes, we adopted Luna Bug in November, and she is full of energy and love. She’s just been great. It’s been a whirlwind, in a good way. Sometimes when I’m working on music, she finds it very relaxing and will chill out. Other times, when I’m playing the piano, and she really wants to play with me. She’ll put her face near mine. When we put on records, she clearly likes some music more than other music. I wrote a song a few weeks ago, the first one I wrote with her in the room with me. When I started playing it again the other day, for the first time in a while, she really perked up and got excited. It was so interesting! It really made me wonder how much she recognizes music. 

HMS: You mention a relationship between the songs on Rejection Letter and the songs on Funeral Singer in terms of recording. But I know that the songs on Rejection Letter were shaped by learning to play the guitar. How far does that extend to the songs on Funeral Singer

MS: We actually recorded Funeral Singer in the same sessions as Rejection Letter. “Island Avenue” was written on the guitar, and the other two were written on the piano. I had actually written those two songs pre-pandemic and had played them live for the first time right before the pandemic hit. Then I’d been saving them. When we recorded all the songs, the idea was that we didn’t know yet which songs were going to be on the LP yet, and that we’d figure it all out when we were finished. 

I felt like those three songs belonged in their own little world together, so we decided to release them separately. When I released them, I was so happy that I still liked them and that they felt relevant, since it feels so long since summer of 2020. They are all a little more electric guitar focused, in terms of the recording of them, and that’s actually something that I’ve been focusing more on in terms of the songs that I’m recording right now. So the Funeral Singer EP feels like a little bridge between Rejection Letter and what I’ll be doing next. 

HMS: I do think these songs are a little different from the songs on Rejection Letter and I can see why it occurred to you to separate them out. 

MS: With everything that I release, whether it’s a song or a collection, I like to create little worlds that the audience can live in, whether it’s for three minutes or forty minutes. That was another reason for separating these out.

HMS: It’s interesting how these songs were predictive of the sonic direction you would take later, even though they were only a portion of the songs from those sessions. That often seems to happen, that an album might have one song that creates a direction for the next album. 

MS: When you think about different instrumentation or different sounds, there are so many crayons in the box that it can almost be overwhelming which colors to choose. But if you reach for the purple and you just start coloring with it, then you realize where you want to go with it. You follow your nose and see what you like. On Rejection Letter, Kevin Salem was the Producer, and he now lives five minutes from me, so we are collaborating a lot. He’s an incredible guitar player, and can create so many different sounds on the electric guitar. 

He’s been teaching me, since I just bought my first electric guitar recently. I think that’s been part of the direction we’ve been heading because we can meet and collaborate a lot. We just mess around with sounds and see where we come out, and electric guitar and piano are on there a lot because electric guitar is his forte, and piano is my forte. That’s how these new songs are taking shape.

HMS: I’ve heard of people moving big distances just to live closer to their Producers because of what more direct collaboration can create. 

MS: It used to be about scheduling out studio dates way in advance, and now it’s just so much more free, texting and saying, “Want to meet up this week?” It’s been a huge, positive shift for me.

HMS: Does that mean that you might show him songs at an earlier stage of development than you did in the past?

MS: That’s definitely true. It’s so fun because we’ll mess around with the form of a song, or add a bridge, or an instrumental section. We’ve also worked together quite a bit, so our musical language is becoming very fluent, and that’s where the real magic happens, whether in a band or with a Producer. That’s exciting. 

HMS: The songs on Funeral Singer feel like a new direction, but I can also see how they relate to the bigger arc of the music you’ve created. There’s a continuity there. Interestingly, they all have themes that deal with the past, too. 

MS: Totally. I think it all fits in. In some ways, some of these songs are very much what people might think of as a “Mackenzie Shivers song” who have known me since my first album. And you’re right about the past in these songs because I think they seem to embody the idea of loss and longing, though not in a hopeless kind of way. I think that’s a through-line in a lot of what I write, acknowledging these things that are part of our lives as human beings that are difficult, but trying to paint them in a way that’s not taking doomsday attitude. This EP does that and I think that you’ll hear that in the stuff that I’m doing right now and releasing this coming year. 

HMS: The song “Funeral Singer” seems to take on the conflicts and the ambiguities in the world that we’re familiar with. It has a directness about it. Unlike the songs on Rejection Letter, it’s a little more about ideas. How do you see the conflicting elements in that song?

MS: I wrote it after I sang a song that I had written at a funeral a few years ago. It brought back this memory that I hadn’t thought about in a long time, which was that when I was a kid, I had the job of playing my own compositions at the funeral of a friend’s father who died. When I sang at the more recent funeral, I had this full circle moment. A lot of the time when I write, I get these vivid images in my head, almost like a film reel, and that informs the lyrics. At this time, I got this image of looking into the future and seeing myself in a situation where my sole job was to sing at funerals. I think that’s become even more relevant through the pandemic, with so much loss. 

I was wrestling with all the loss in the world and, really, all the darkness in the world. For a lot of the song, the narrator is feeling very dejected, then through the bridge, with electric guitars, it turns more impassioned, asking, “Is no one going to do anything?” I think that’s the attitude of the song, like in the film, Don’t Look Up. In the movie, there’s so much information, but no one is doing anything. “Funeral Singer” is that frustration summed up. Because I think it’s important to still try, even if you have those moments of wondering, “Is this really going to do any good?” 

HMS: I could definitely pick up on fighting against a sense of apathy in the song. “Sunday” also has images that could be from the past, but they are very timeless, like something from our ancestors, like the church bells. I really love the line, “Those sounds are religion to me.” I definitely identify memories of sound with religious feeling. 

MS: Absolutely. I was thinking of this time a few years ago on a vacation with my family in Italy, before the pandemic. I was in Sienna, which is in Tuscany, and I was walking down this little cobblestone road. Then there were these church bells ringing. I just stood there and listened to them, and thought, “This, for me, is church. I’d rather sit outside and listen to these bells than actually go into the church service.” Places, and sounds, and music, specifically, can be a religious experience for me that makes me believe in something bigger than myself. I think that’s why music is so important to me. I grew up singing in a church choir with my mom and sister, and those are really powerful memories, too. 

HMS: The song “Island Ave” feels very mythological, almost like a very old Folk song in some strange ways, probably because it doesn’t give a lot of detail, and yet the pictures that it paints are very specific. It feels haunted. Is this a weird song for you in the context of the songs that you tend to write?

MS: It is, kind of. You are nailing something there, because when I wrote it, I wrote it on Murphy, my nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. I wrote it in a finger-picking style, and it was way more of a traditional-sounding Folk song when I wrote it. When we brought it to the studio, we decided to really play with it and create this more distorted, modern world for it to live in. I wrote it at the very beginning of the pandemic and this very specific story with these very specific images came out as I was trying to process what the hell was going on. 

I’m not sure why it manifested in that way, but it did. I wrote it very quickly, and we wrestled with whether or not to put it on Rejection Letter. I felt like it was telling us that it wanted to do something else and be its own thing. It felt like it fit in the world of Funeral Singer. It is definitely different from what I usually write and I think it’s because I wrote it on the guitar with a Folk style. 

HMS: It reminds me of this song by Bob Dylan that got covered by The White Stripes at some point, “One More Cup of Coffee”. I think he might have written it in Woodstock, so that comes full circle. These are very different songs musically, but that one has an eerie, folk tale feeling to it, too. 

MS: Looking at the lyrics, I can see that correlation. That’s cool!

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