Growing up hearing your grandfather croon classic country while working on the family farm, it’s no surprise when your life journey eventually brings you to Nashville. And, you’d surely find a home in this town – where many of those hit songs were born.
That’s the case for singer-songwriter Mackenzie Porter. The 28-year-old was raised on a cattle ranch in rural Alberta, near Medicine Hat. The sounds of Nashville spilling from the radio were a daily part of her childhood education. Her family were all musicians. At four, she began studying classical piano, violin and voice, and performed regularly with her siblings and cousins in the family’s band – which included brother Kalan, a past Canadian Idol winner.
For the past four years, Porter has called Nashville home. She’s also hung her hat for months at a time, out of every year, in Vancouver – filming the TV series Travelers, in which she acts a principal role (see sidebar). When we chat, Porter’s the process of completing her new EP, tentatively set for release March 22, 2019, on indie label Big Loud Records. The collection of six songs is Porter’s first batch of new music since 2015, when her self-titled debut won a JUNO Award for Country Album of the Year. Porter released the upcoming EP’s first two singles (“About You” and “Drive Thru”) in November of 2018. Fellow Canadian, and SOCAN Member, Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Dallas Smith, Jake Owen) produced the release.
“It is a cool, pop-country blend,” says Porter. “I like to think of it as ‘country Sheryl Crow.’ I wrote half of the songs, and three are outside songs the label found. I’m of the mindset that I want to write all my songs, but if an amazing song comes in, the best song wins in the end… that’s how you get your name out there. To sing another person’s song, I need to connect with it and it needs to connect with me. It has to feel like a situation you’d been in, and words you’d say.”
Porter was set to participate in a CCMA/SOCAN songwriting camp recently, but had to cancel at the last minute; a promo video for a special Fall 2019 tour with a couple of other country stars (to be announced shortly) trumped this commitment. “I was so bummed I couldn’t go,” she says. “If me-as-an-artist doesn’t work out, I’ll be a songwriter because I love it so much.”
Does the songwriter recall the first piece of music she created? “I can’t remember for sure, but it was some horrible thing I did in my bedroom by myself,” she laughs. “I hope nobody finds my old MacBook!”
“If me-as-an-artist doesn’t work out, I’ll be a songwriter because I love it so much.”
Today, Porter still writes alone in her bedroom, but co-writing is her preferred method of penning a song. Most weekdays, you’ll find her teaming up with other songwriters, somewhere around town, for a writing session. She loves bouncing ideas off of other artists. By working with co-writers, she says, each one brings their experiences to the session, which can change the whole direction of a song.
Porter started acting in high school. For a while, landing roles was her main focus. She booked her first lead on a TV series when she was 16. It wasn’t until a dry spell, when she couldn’t land a part, that she enrolled in music recording school and fell in love with the art of songwriting. “I needed another creative outlet,” she says. More recently, the songwriter starred, along with Eric McCormack, in the hit TV series Travelers — a show about time-travelling created by Brad Wright, and shot in Vancouver, which aired for three seasons. The series is set in a future where technology has developed a means of sending people back to the 21st Century to help save humanity. Porter starred as Traveler 3569, the team medic, who assumes the life of an intellectually disabled woman named Marcy Warton. “Eric is one of nicest people I’ve met,” Porter says. “He’s so positive and encouraging. He really believed in our show and all of the young actors on it. Now that the show is over, I’m definitely focusing more on my music.”
“The first part of every co-write, I always get really nervous,” she explains. “I’m scared to come in with an idea other people may or may not feel is cool. Tyler [Hubbard] from Florida Georgia Line recently took a bunch of writers out on their bus with them. I’ll never forget what he told me, ‘Nothing is cool until you make it cool.’”
Songs for Porter usually start with a hook, or a title. “That’s the Nashville way to do it – 99 per cent of the time people here do it that way,” she says. “You hear a title, and you may not think it’s cool right away, but words are a puzzle, and suddenly you wrap it up in a different way, and you’ve got something.”
Porter’s advice to other aspiring songwriters is perseverance: you need to put in the hours. “Write, write, write, and write,” she says. “No matter how good you are, you need to get all the shitty songs out of the way before you can get to the really good ones. I was writing 150 songs per year for three years before I started picking songs for this new EP. It can be discouraging, but it’s worth it. My advice: write hundreds of songs and finish them, even if they’re crappy. It’s like a muscle. You need to work it out.”
Whether her acting or music career ever become too challenging to sustain, one thing is certain in Porter’s mind: she’ll never stop writing songs.
“I’m a songwriter at heart,” she concludes. “I hope it never happens, but if me-as-an-artist doesn’t work out, I’ll be a songwriter because I love it so much. Sometimes I think I’m running out of ideas. That happens when you’re writing five times a week. You start to think, ‘What else can I write about?’ But the songs always come. Different co-writers inspire you. And, there are always different ways to say the same story.”