Going through shit in life is a universal, unifying experience; nobody gets out scott-free. When it’s a songwriter’s turn to have life’s struggles, they’re going to do what they do best: put pen to paper and share their emotions with people who have shared them as well.
As Mackenzie Roark puts it, she’s in the midst of a “chaotic” stretch of life at the moment. That chaos is captured on her newest album, Rollin’ High, Feelin’ Low, but is also rounded off with the resiliency that comes with digging out of life’s hardships and coming out the other side.
We chatted with Roark all about the album, as well as her musical and songwriting roots, authenticity, taking her music on the road and more!
Pro Country: Throughout your releases thus far, you’ve featured a sonic variety ranging from honky tonk, folk and southern rock. Who are some of the influences you’ve drawn upon to create your sound?
Mackenzie Roark: Growing up, I mostly listened to oldies and classic rock. I was into stuff from the 60s and 70s like The Beatles. I got really heavily into Bob Dylan in high school. That’s the background of my musical influence. When I started playing music, I started with a folk sound. In college, I sang in a folk band with my friend playing Dylan covers and other folky stuff. Around the time I was 20, I started to get really into country because I listened to Townes Van Zandt for the first time. I’d seen a video of Emmylou Harris singing “Pancho and Lefty,” and I fell in love with the song. I discovered it was written by a guy named Townes Van Zandt, and I went down a Townes Van Zandt hole. From there, I started to learn about the underground country scene like Guy Clark, John Prine, and artists like that. As I wrote and played more, I was told that my voice was suited for country music. I didn’t grow up listening to country, so I wasn’t sure, but as I listened to artists like Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, I realized my voice worked for songs like that and I wanted to learn them and play them.
PC: Your bio mentions that you were initially forced into music by your parents at an early age. Did you develop a love for music right away or was there an adjustment process?
MR: When I was a child, my parents said I had to do an extracurricular activity. Guitar is what I chose, but I didn’t want to practice. They’d make me practice and they’d force me to play in praise band at church. I always had a love for music as a listener and it’s always been a huge part of my existence, but playing music was something that was different. I didn’t initially love it. It was something I had to practice; it was something I wasn’t good at yet. It’s hard to love something you’re not good at. As I developed as a musician and learned that if I could play four chords, I could play most songs and sang along to them, I started to love it more. The desire to create and write my own music propelled my love of music even more, because it’s become deeply engrained in my identity.
PC: When did that love for the performing side of music translate into wanting to and realize you could pursue music as a career?
MR: I probably didn’t see it as something I wanted to do as a career until I was getting my Master’s degree in Ireland when I was 23. Previous to that, I had performed at open mics, had a handful of paid gigs with my folk duo, but for me, it was a little extra side money here and there for fun. I still had a lot of uncertainty about myself and my own ability at that point. I got accepted into a creative writing program at the University of Limerick in Ireland. I thought I wanted to pursue writing short stories or poetry. Over the course of that year, I discovered my love of songwriting. It’s something I always tried, but never felt successful at. That year, something changed in me because I was fully immersed in the writing world. I was always playing music, because that was just the thing over there; it was such a fun way to meet people. I started to see my own potential, and I had a lot of people in my life telling me that I was special and that what I had is good. They’d say I had something to say, my songs were good and that I had a beautiful voice. Previous to that, I’d never been sure. When I came back to Richmond, I started booking my own gigs. I didn’t know if I wanted it to be a lifelong career, but at that time, I was going to make some money doing gigs and playing out.
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your 2016 EP, Mother Tongue?
MR: It was something I knew I wanted to do and needed to do, but it was scary. I was so young, and I didn’t know how any of it worked. I didn’t know how the recording process worked, and I didn’t even know what the role of a producer was. That experience was me dipping my toes into this world. Everything was new and exciting. I felt like I ha songs that were good enough to be recorded. I don’t really agree with that now [laughs].
PC: You released a 2019 single, “Cigarettes and TV Dinners,” as Pistol Sister with a band. Can you talk about that experience and what you enjoyed about it?
MR: Pistol Sister was basically me with a backing band. It was all my songs and direction, and that was the first time I ever had to lead a band. It was very new. Thankfully, the people in that band were great. We had a lot of different ages and levels of life experience, which was great. “Cigarettes and TV Dinners” was my song that I brought to them. Pistol Sister was fun, but it was short lived; we were together for less than two years. Those were good days, though.
PC: It was seven years between the release of Mother Tongue and your new album, Rollin’ High, Feelin’ Low. As release day was approaching, how much were you looking forward to offering new solo music, especially after that layoff?
MR: So very excited! There was so much time between the two. During that time, so much changed in my life. My artistic approach and the things that I was writing about were very different. I was really excited to give the world a updated version of myself and my music. Putting out new music was something I knew I needed to do for a long time, and last year, I told myself that it was happening.
PC: Why did you feel that “Sweet Thing” was the right song to serve as the lead single to introduce Rollin’ High, Feelin’ Low?
MR: That’s a song that has its own little flavor that I think stands out from the album. It’s not strongly country; it almost has an indie sound to it. I was proud of it, and for whatever reason, I wanted the world to hear that one first.
PC: “Drunk Again” is our favorite song on Rollin’ High, Feelin’ Low. Can you take us in the room and talk about how the song came together?
MR: “Drunk Again” is about my first husband. He knows this, and I introduce it that was every time I play it. He had a drinking problem, so the song was about him. It took me a long time to finish it, and there were a lot of different iterations of it. The song came from that tumultuous relationship.
PC: “Rollin’ High, Feelin’ Low” is a resilient song that serves as the title track to its album. What went into the decision to have that song serve as the title track?
MR: Me and my producer were talking about name for the album, and I wanted it to be a name from one of the songs. Going over the songs, that one felt like the best album name. On a deeper level, that song is about going through a bunch of shit and coming out on top feeling good. It’s about digging yourself out of a hole that you’ve been living in. I felt like that was a good theme for the album, because it’s about a bunch of shit that I’ve been through, but at the end, you can still rise above and enjoy life. Life’s too short to not enjoy it, so I thought that message was a good theme for the album.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from Rollin’ High, Feelin’ Low after listening all the way through?
MR: All I can hope for is that when people listen to it, it sparks an emotional response in them and they connect with it in some way. Everyone has their own experience, but after somebody listens, I hope there’s one moment in one song that connected with them.
PC: You’re on the bill for FloydFest, sharing stages with several major acts like The Black Crowes, Sheryl Crow and Elle King, among many others. How much are you looking forward to sharing the stage with so many big-name artists and bringing your music to the audience at the Festival?
MR: I’m super excited, it’s gonna be great! My goal is to meet Sheryl Crow, but we’ll see what happens [laughs]. This will be my third time at FloydFest as a performer, and it’s always so much fun. I’m psyched to go back under my own name and what trouble I can get in to [laughs].
PC: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that with your new music, you’re leaning more into a rock ‘n roll sound. What is it about that music that’s connecting with you currently and how much to you enjoy paying homage to that influence?
MR: I have been leaning into a country sound for so long, and I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where if I continue down that route, I don’t know how authentic I can be with it. My roots aren’t really in country music; I didn’t grow up on a farm or in the country, I’m from the suburbs and my parents are wealthy. I want to go in a direction that feels more authentic to who I am. I grew up on rock ‘n roll, and I think it’s a very natural path that country musicians go down. Sometimes people get “country’d out,” and that’s kind of how I feel. I’m in a chaotic place in my life, and I feel like rock ‘n roll is the soundtrack to my life right now, so that’s the music I’m making.
PC: What do you have planned for 2023?
MR: I have a bunch of shows! I’m going a short tour in March. I’ll be going to southwest Virginia and to North Carolina doing solo shows. I’m trying to do band shows here in Richmond at least once a month. We’ll have FloydFest and Bristol Rhythm and Roots too. My fingers are crossed that I can start working with management or a booking agent this year so I’m not doing 100% of everything by myself. I’m ready to graduate to that next level of operating. I’d also like to release two singles this year, if not more!
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