“When my psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar I disorder, I felt a sense of relief,” artist Mackenzie Nicole proclaims.
And so went the descent into the making of Mystic a sonic odyssey to mental health and wellness. After nearly a decade of chasing and making her dreams come true, Mackenzie hit a wall. The young musician suffered breakdown after breakdown and spiraled into darkness dimly lit by thoughts of suicide.
Through a combination of self-actualization, support, and therapy, Mackenzie rose from her blight stronger than ever before leaving behind a concept album for all of us who suffer from depression. Mystic is more than a record, it’s a friend, a “You are going to be ok”, and the warm hug we all need when we go to the depths of our mind where drowning seems like the only option.
Mackenzie talks with us her album, fighting the good fight and leaves some words for all of us to find solace in.
Wow, first of all, MYSTIC is a really emotional listen. It sounds like a journey to wellness but as painful as it takes to get there.
A quote from “Peach” by my favorite band The Front Bottoms occurred to me immediately as I read that. It goes, “It’s just so hard to see tomorrow past tonight”. Tomorrow was so invisible to me in the darkness of tonight. I didn’t even realize the depth of the abyss tonight was until it passed and I looked back over my shoulder then forward to the contrasting light of tomorrow. In other words, yes. I can only imagine that a caterpillar is pained in the cocoon as its evolution manifests.
What was the process of making this album? Was it hard to make art about such a journey?
I underwent the infamous Mental Breakdown during the first six months of 2018. Fall of that year, only a few short months into my recovery, I had a responsibility to record an album, so I teamed up with my hero / mentor / producer Michael “Seven” Summers, and we got to work. At a time when I felt my breakdown defined me, what else could I possibly authentically write about? I wrote what was relevant to me, so it wasn’t difficult at all. All I had to do was tell the truth.
What was the most difficult part of your wellness journey and what did you learn the most?
This is going to sound mad discouraging, but the most difficult part of my recovery thus far remains the dreadful epiphany that, despite being “better”, I’m still not really happy (or at least as happy as I thought I’d be). Life is still hard and complicated. I guess when I began recovery I really genuinely believed that this process would be very simple. I go to therapy at least once a week, I take all my medications as prescribed, I get better. Don’t get me wrong ─ I did get better. Just not as better as I hoped. But, the thing that keeps me going is remembering that, in my darkest days, I never thought I could be as good as I am now, meaning that the days ahead could hold potential I am blind to yet.
We all go through various triggers, especially when you have mental health issues. Is music a good outlet for that? What other outlets do you use?
Music was never really an outlet for me until Mystic, and even that utilization of the art was unintentional. I did not create Mystic as a conscious effort to cope with my tribulations. It wasn’t until I began to live with the album that I actually realized how therapeutic Mystic was and is. All this to say, yes, music is an excellent outlet for me, a relatively newfound revelation. But, since you ask about other outlets, I must confess I’m still working on finding them. I really do need to get a hobby I don’t monetize.
Is there anyone specific you want to hear this album?
The person who needed to hear this album the most was myself. I needed to hear my story told back to me in a way I could respect. Now that I’ve heard it, it’s up to the universe to distribute it to whoever else needs it.
Are you nervous about your TedTalk?
I am not giving myself the option to be nervous. I have to do it whether I’m nervous or not, so I’m choosing not.
I need to tell you that you are very brave for talking and making art and speaking on the subject of mental health. Why do you think it’s still such a taboo topic?
THANK YOU. I mean that so sincerely. I genuinely believe mental health is still taboo largely because it is perceived as separate from and less important than physical health. While our mental health does manifest physically, our mental states themselves are virtually invisible, unlike most physical conditions. Out of sight, out of mind. Looking at me, you can see the burn scar on my right arm. You cannot see the chemical imbalance in my brain. It’s also difficult for us as people to fully empathize with the mental conditions of others because we do not all share the same mental attributes to the extent we do physical attributes. We all have skin, and we all can be burned, so you can see my burn scar and empathize with the severity of the injury. We do not all have bipolar I, and we cannot all experience its symptoms, so you cannot live my mental state and empathize with the severity of the illness. Mentality is less universally understood than physicality, making it harder to discuss. This complexity in tandem with the widely held societal belief that one who struggles mentally is weak stifle productive discussion of these topics.
What do you want to tell people who are struggling right now that you wish someone had said to you in the past?
If you’re going through hell, keep going. THERE IS HELP OUT THERE. If you haven’t found it, keep looking. Seek and ye shall find. THERE ARE PEOPLE AND THINGS OUT THERE SOMEWHERE IN THE WORLD THAT WILL HELP YOU. Yes, finding them can be hard, but the effort is worth it tenfold. Such is true for everyone. You are not the exception. You are not the special case that cannot be solved.
How do you get to a safe space in your head?
I am still working on this. I wish I could give you something like, “yoga and journaling” or “painting my feelings”, but honestly, therapy and medication are what make my mind habitable. And, there’s nothing wrong with that.
When do you find yourself making music the most?
When I’m in love with life or heartbroken by it. So, basically all the time.
What are some constant inspirations in your life?
I’m inspired as a person by my mom and my psychiatrist. They are both incredibly strong and aspirational female figures.
I’m inspired as a businessperson by my dad. His life is the definition of the American Dream.
I’m inspired as a writer by Johnny Cash, The Front Bottoms, MARINA, and Albert Camus. Words are just approximations of experiences, and they all approximate the human experience so artfully and eloquently.
I’m inspired as a musician by Seven. He is an inarguable genius.
Can you tell us about your upbringing and when did you first realize that you had to make music?
Music has always been a natural extension of myself.
My parents started my record label Strange Music in the basement of my childhood home. While formally established in 2000, the label really started manifesting in 1999, the year of my birth, so it has grown up alongside me as a sort of twin entity. Thus, I have grown up in the music industry.
As a baby, I hummed before I talked, so I sang as soon as I could form words. I began classical training in opera when I was six years old, which I continue to this day fourteen years later. My professional recording career began at nine years old when I did my first feature on “Demons” by my labelmate Tech N9ne featuring Three 6 Mafia. After that, I just kept featuring on my labelmates music until I was fifteen, when I did my first solo track, which did unexpectedly well (I say this with a tinge of discomfort, as I hate talking about myself in praise). That unforeseen success necessitated followup, so it was then that I really began working on my solo music.
Coexisting alongside my music career, however, was my academic career. I was always “The Smart One”. Come seventeen years old, I was a senior in high school postured to go to the same college I had been trying to get into since I was a freshman. I had slaved for years doing all the “right” things to get into the college of my dreams, putting my education above and before and beyond all. I knew exactly where I was going to go and what I was going to study and what career I would choose and what I would accomplish and where I would live and et cetera. Any question you asked, I could answer with conviction and certainty. I had a Plan.
Then, music happened. What formerly was a cool side project alongside school suddenly edged its way up to vye for top priority. Two paths diverged, and I was caught in between who I was and who I was trying to be. At times, I couldn’t even tell which was which. I decided to ignore the divergence and pretend like I could maintain doing both school and music full-time.
December 2016, I’m talking to Seven at my family Christmas party. He asks me what I’m going to do after high school, and I give him the same spiel I give everyone (“I’m going to ___ to study ___ so I can move to ___ and become a ___”). He looked at me for a long moment before saying, “But, that’s not really what you want to do, is it?”. For the first time, I admitted it. “No.” I said, hating the word and what it meant to the Plan. Then, Seven asked the question that changed my life. “Why don’t you just do music?” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the whole world. No one had ever asked me that before. No one had ever presented that option. Finally, I was welcomed to acknowledge what I had feared for so long ― two roads diverged, and I was free to choose.
I’ve been doing music ever since.
What are your favorite parts of my life these days?
Thursdays. I go to therapy every Thursday.
If you weren’t doing music what would you be doing?
I’m a writer first, so I would be working on some sort of publication (preferably a magazine).
Can you write us a little love mantra to keep going? What are your mantras?
“AS THE ROSE, SO IS LIFE.”
To me, this mantra’s meaning is multifaceted. Life is beautiful, just as the rose. That beauty is not without pain, just as the rose has thorns. Each life is unique to itself and irreplicable, just as no two roses are the same. Every life shares an inevitable conception and conclusion that has been repeated with every living thing since the dawn of the universe itself, just as the rose inevitably blooms and dies. No matter how beautiful the individual, there will always be someone who still does not care for you, just as the rose (no matter how beautiful) will never be everyone’s favorite flower.
“IT WILL GET DONE. IT HAS NO CHOICE.”
To me, this mantra’s meaning is fairly straightforward. No matter how insurmountable a task may seem, it will always get done. It simply has no choice. No situation is indefinite. Every assignment has a due date. Every project has a deadline. Every situation has a resolution. All things conclude, for better or for worse. Instead of feeling like the task at hand is impossible, I force myself to recognize the reality that there will be a future day when the matter at hand has passed, and this provides me solace.
“NOT PERFECT, BUT BETTER.”
To me, this mantra summarizes my experience with evolution and recovery. I once subconsciously hoped for perfection. Once I became conscious of this impossible aspiration, I had to come to terms with the fact that it was just that ─ impossible. I am not perfect, and I never will be, but I am better, and that’s what counts.
Wellness and getting back to a place of being good things that take practice every day. How do you practice?
I’m still working on this. As I have stated several times, my life functions off a baseline of therapy and medication. I am making a real, conscious effort to incorporate things that spark joy into my everyday, such as reading or yoga or talking to friends. My biggest personal project right now is conquering my deep-seated anxieties and finding new hobbies and friends so I don’t spend all my time working, a habit I tend to fall into.
Who are some of your favorite all-time bands?
- The Front Bottoms. They have been my favorite band since I was fourteen years old and have accompanied me through almost every formative experience I’ve ever had. Their music is like prayer to me ─ it is constant when life is not and brings me comfort and a sense of communion when I have none. I saw them live for my nineteenth birthday, and it was hands down the best night of my life.
- Glass Animals. I started listening to their music when I was a senior in highschool but really started getting into them deeply the year after I graduated. I wholeheartedly believe their album How To Be A Human Being is the best album ever made (exempting the work of The Front Bottoms).
- My Chemical Romance. I am nothing if not a constant state of angst. Thirteen-year-old Mack listened to MCR constantly, particularly Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge and The Black Parade, ruminating on my borderline emo self-diagnosed misunderstood-ness. Again, teen angst.
Can you give us a self-love valentine day playlist of 5-10 songs?
COMFORTABLE IN MY COMPANY
Existed, Existing, Exist.
“Medusa” // Kailee Morgue : To me, this track is about recognizing and deeply feeling one’s weaknesses and mortality and facing life anyway.
“SNOWCONE” // REI AMI : To me, this track is about reconciling ego and insecurity. Fake it till you make it.
“See The Future” // Baker Grace : To me, this track is about counting your blessingS and utilizing what you have at your disposal to maintain, despite doubt and difficulty. In short, you are the master of your own universe.
“Immortal” // Elley Duhé : To me, this track is about reminiscing on (the illusion of) invincibility and self-recognition of bravery and ability. Vaguely vain, this track is confidence with conviction.
“No Stress” // Leatherface : To me, this track is easily defined by its name. It is about living easy and being at peace. Sometimes, that’s all you can strive for.
“You’re Not Good Enough” // Blood Orange : To me, this track is about the trial and error of relationships. Ultimately resulting in self-preservation, it represents the bittersweet reality of self-worth.
“Suffer” // Petit Biscuit, Skott : To me, this track defines this playlist. It is about being comfortable in your own company. It is about being comfortable being alone.
“Apathy of No One” // Lentra : To me, this track is about coming to terms with the difficulty of life. Sometimes, you just have to be scared. The only way out is through.
“Not Enough” // Demo Taped : To me, this track is about never succumbing to life’s hardships and going boldly forward despite insecurity and questioning.
“Youth” // Glass Animals : To me, this track is about being happy. Simple as that.
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