This week, I had the chance to chat with Kären McCormick, an emerging singer-songwriter born in Brazzaville Congo and raised in Washington state.
Now based in Nashville, McCormick is brightening up the country scene with her catchy, yet personal lyrics and upbeat pop sound. Establishing her following on Youtube, McCormick has released her own singles, most recently “We Were on Fire”, and has performed alongside country-star Walker Hayes. She discusses her writing process, style and struggles, as well as the beginnings of her first EP.
Just so we can get to know you, can you tell us about yourself and your background in music?
I should probably begin with my name! It is actually pronounced CAR-in. I was born in Brazzaville, Congo — a small country in Central Africa, and although I moved around a bit growing up, I spent most of my life in small town in Washington State. When I was eleven years old, my father turned on the country radio station in the car. A song called "Tim McGraw" by a girl named Taylor Swift came on, and I fell in love with it. I already knew that I loved writing stories and music, but the idea of combining the two did not occur to me until that moment. I begged my father for a guitar for a year and finally got one when I was 13. I haven't stopped playing or writing since.
On Youtube you cover songs from Taylor Swift and Rihanna — how did these artists inspire you, and how did you eventually discover your own sound?
Honestly, I think I am still finding my sound. I know I dance on the line of country and pop, and I am okay with that. When I play older songs I wrote when I was 17 or 18, at the heart of them, they still feel like a song 22 year old me would write today — maybe I would be able to elevate the lyrics a little more, but the stories are still there. Country music is my first love, but what I love about music is the lyrics. Regardless of genre, what stands out to me or catches my ear is a lyric. Taylor is spectacular at writing songs that are cathartic for both the listener and herself, and if you look up songs written by some of her co-writers — Liz Rose especially — you will see and hear that at their cores, they are incredible storytellers. I have been a fan of Rihanna since "S.O.S". She is an insanely impressive entertainer and what I admire about her career is her ability to change her sound and yet still be so recognizable. If you listen to her early stuff like "Umbrella", it is quite different from something like "Love on the Brain". She has managed to stay to true herself while experimenting at the same time.
Can you tell us a little about your songwriting process and your latest song, "We Were on Fire"?
I have never been the kind of songwriter that is able to go into a room, sit down, and write a full song. The concept usually comes first, then maybe a lyric or two, and then it comes together all at once. With "WWOF", this was an unusual case where I knew exactly what I wanted to write, and I was able to do it in one sitting. I wrote it in March earlier this year, not too long after the release of my first single, "Just a Song". I knew I wanted to write something upbeat and happy, yet nostalgic — but in a satisfied way. "Just a Song" was reflective as well, but a little bit on the sad side. It is completely possible to look back on a relationship with a "even though it's over, I'm still glad it happened" mentality. That is what I wanted to capture with "We Were on Fire", and with the help of my producers, Lucas Hathaway and Caleb Lovely, I feel we did just that.
Have you experienced any hardships breaking into the music scene or remaining true to your voice? If so, how did you overcome it?
When I first realized I wanted to be in country music, I spent a lot of time worrying if my songs were "country enough". I still have moments like that today if I am being honest. It is hard not to worry about what a listener will think or how they will categorize your music. But after releasing two singles, I am learning that listeners do not care about genre as much as I thought they did. They just care about if the song is a song that will make them happy or make them dance or make them forget about something that happened at work. It is encouraging as an artist to have people say, "I don't usually listen to country music, but I like your music." It is such an exciting time to be a country music artist and listener right now. The females are killing it — and they are all so different! Kelsea Ballerini has some pop sound, Danielle Bradbery's music has some R&B influences, Carly Pearce brings some traditional sound back to the mainstream, and Kacey Musgraves simultaneous folk and dance/disco vibes. Having this kind of variety brings in new listeners to country music, and new ideas for songwriters and producers. I think it is already an uphill battle being an African-American female trying to break into the country music world, but I do not want that to define me. I want my music and my stories to define me.
Finally, what are your plans moving forward in your career?
I am going to keep writing and recording. I want to release one more single this year, and then focus on releasing an EP in 2019. I just moved to Nashville a month ago and it has been so educational for me — watching other people perform, listening to the songs my peers have written. I want to continue to grow as a writer and a performer. I am always in competition with myself, with each project, I want it to be better than the last.