McHenry has a star on the rise as 20-year-old Mackenzie O’Brien is on the road to making a name for herself in the music world.
O’Brien has made music her full-time gig since graduating from McHenry High School West Campus in 2016, performing more than 200 shows in the Chicago and Madison area.
Most recently, O’Brien was discovered by W!zard Talent, a division of global teen media brand W!zard Radio Media. On the hunt for new talent, the London-based company made a call for submissions on ReverbNation, an online music platform for aspiring artists. Out of the thousands of entries, O’Brien was chosen.
This is quite the accomplishment for someone who picked up a guitar only six years ago.
“It was winter break of my sophomore year of high school. My sister had this guitar sitting in her closet and I would always go in and look at it,” O’Brien said. “I always had this fascination with the guitar. I thought, ‘why not give it a try, bring it back to life, get the dust off of it?’ ”
O’Brien began to teach to herself to play. Once her parents noticed her interest was more than just something to pass the time, guitar and banjo lessons were sought. O’Brien also plays a little ukulele, but the guitar truly brought her to the stage.
“I’ve loved music my entire life and always knew I wanted to be a singer but hadn’t really performed in front of anyone. I can thank the guitar for getting me out of my shell,” O’Brien said. “I never sang in front of anyone until I played guitar. It was my security blanket.”
Initially, O’Brien had aspirations of becoming an indie artist but has more recently found herself enveloped in the country music scene, performing covers of well-known performers the likes of Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. O’Brien said she hopes to be able to find her voice in what would be a happy medium of commercial country with an indie influence.
O’Brien performs shows about twice a week and continues to perform at open mics both locally as well as in Nashville.
“Nashville is a really cool environment,” O’Brien said. “I continue to get really good feedback from people and it has helped my confidence. I didn’t really think I was any good until other musicians that I really respected told me I was good.”
A nod from infamous Woodstock Music and Arts Fair of 1969 promoter Artie Kornfeld was quite the confidence booster for O’Brien as well. An agent of Kornfeld’s heard O’Brien perform at My Place Bar & Grill in McHenry and made a call that resulted in O’Brien touring with Kornfeld in Nashville while he promoted his book “The Pied Piper of Woodstock.” O’Brien provided live music for some of his tour stops.
O’Brien makes regular trips to Nashville to perform and compose songs with her writing partner, Olivia Rudeen, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter signed under Deluge Music.
“I’ve been writing and writing,” O’Brien said. “I do a lot of co-writes and then I go to Nashville every month and I write with Olivia. I feel like our creative minds really collaborate in a beautiful way and that our styles are so similar. I’m so thankful I’ve been able to work with great people.”
O’Brien is in Nashville currently working on her first single to be released in October on UK Radio under W!zard Talent called “Kissin’ at Stop Light”. O’Brien has already had a few songs receive radio play in smaller markets of the US and Ireland, but this single will be ready for a bigger market.
O’Brien’s father and current manager, Mike O’Brien, said he looks forward to having Mackenzie under a new management wing in order to take his daughter to the next level.
“I’m her manager until she signs with W!zard,” said Mike O’Brien. “She’s been performing for two years and I’ve kept up her online presence and most of her bookings and I’ll continue to do some of that, but I realize that these people in the industry can take her to the next level. It’s time consuming. I’m at it every night when get home from work, responding to people emailing me about performances and what not. It keeps me busy but it’s worth it because it allows Mackenzie to focus on her artistry.”
O’Brien spends a majority of her time on her craft making her own sacrifices when it comes to work and play.
“I’ve pretty well given up my weekends, which is kind of hard,” O’Brien said. “My friends are always free on the weekends and busy during the week so it can be hard to connect. It also gets difficult singing so much. I have voice problems here and there, but stick it out and do the best that I can.”
O’Brien said she’ll continue to work on writing and performing in hopes of one day playing for sold out arenas, a true sign of making it. She said she does not currently have a backup plan should music not pan out. She’s found a home on the stage and would like to live there as long as she can.
“I feel like I have two different personalities, but I’m not crazy,” O’Brien said. “When I perform I’m outgoing but then I come home and I like my alone time. I’m usually pretty shy. It’s taken a lot for me to get out of my shell and I’m grateful for it.”
O’Brien returns from her latest stint in Nashville this week to ready herself for upcoming performances that include:
Friday, Aug. 3
The Copper Fiddle – 532 W State Rte. 22 #110, Lake Zurich, IL
Saturday, Aug. 4
Scorched Earth Brewery – 203 Berg St, Algonquin, IL
Friday, Aug. 10
WGN midday news broadcast
Saturday, Aug. 11
Oriole Park Country Fest – 5430 N. Olcott Ave, Chicago, IL
Spoondoggers – N1320 S. Lake Shore Dr, Genoa City, WI
*same day event