A fun-loving young lady who’s on this artist journey because of her fervent belief in the power of storytelling and music. That, perhaps, is one way to describe country newcomer, Kären McCormick.
Born in Brazzaville, Congo and raised in Washington state, McCormick grew up speaking French and English and listening to a multitude of genres. From rock to country to afro-pop, the singer was exposed to diverse musical styles. But finding a home in the country genre was ignited by Faith Hill’s 2005 album, Fireflies, and hearing Taylor Swift’s debut single, “Tim McGraw” for the very first time.
Since getting her first guitar at 13 years old, winning a talent show in 2012 and playing two shows with Walker Hayes on Kelsea Ballerini’s 2019 The Unapologetically Tour, McCormick has been working hard at fine-tuning her craft as a country artist. “Music really is the universal language, and I will always strive to bring people together with my music,” the singer-songwriter says.
Today (March 9), McCormick has unveiled a beautifully poignant music video for “Congratulations,” one of five tracks off her debut EP, Retro, which dropped last year. Named as one of our 17 Artists To Watch In 2021, we got to catch up with McCormick recently to find out more about her musical journey, influences and personal experience as a female artist of color in this past year.
Introducing the latest artist that you have to “Get To Know”: Kären McCormick.
SLN: What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
KM: My father was in the Peace Corps and when he went over to Congo, that’s how he met my mom. When we moved to Washington, I just remember having two parents with such different cultures. [I grew up] listening to all different kinds of music, from afro-pop, to country to rock. I think that really shaped me as an artist and songwriter— to not really have any specific genre rules because I was so used to listening to all different kinds of music. My parents would speak English and finish a sentence in French, and we still speak French around the house. I see it as a blessing in disguise because for me, it has really created an open-minded ear when listening to music, especially country music we’re seeing today. I think country music is blending to a lot of things with country rock and country pop, even with some R&B. So I’m really appreciative of that.
How did you end up loving country music?
I remember my Mom having the Fireflies CD by Faith Hill, and a Brooks & Dunn CD. I really, really enjoy Faith Hill’s music. I would say that Faith Hill was probably the first female country artist I really became familiar with, followed by Shania Twain. I remember when Carrie Underwood came on the scene after she had won American Idol and when I heard her and Taylor Swift on the radio, I was like, “Wait a second, we have more women on the radio!” They were writing songs that I could see myself in, and that was really what drew me into country music. I really love writing. I wasn’t songwriting at that time, but I would write little stories in a journal and kind of express myself. I also loved music. I never thought about putting those two things together until I heard Taylor and Carrie and even Miranda [Lambert] come along the scene.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I think at its core, it’s definitely storytelling. I think it’s something that when the listener hears for the first time—and this is my goal as a songwriter—you can hear yourself in it and put yourself in that story. I think sonically, it’s country, it’s pop, it has a little bit of R&B in there, and at the end of the day, I really hope that the listener can really decide what they think that it is because I’m learning that if I try to put myself into too much of a box, then maybe that’s not the best idea. I’d really love to just sit down, write whatever comes out and not worry too much about what genre it will fit in. The listener can then decide how they interpret it.
Was there a moment in your life that made you certain that being a country artist was the career you wanted to pursue?
I had been begging my father for a guitar. I was 11 years old and it took about a year and half to convince him. I remember getting the guitar for Christmas when I was 13 and I wrote my first song about 30 minutes after I opened the box. That was when I knew that I was absolutely in love with writing songs. I had [also] researched all these different stories about artists, country music and recognized that they all moved to Nashville. I started begging my Dad to go to Nashville and we made a deal. He said, “If you perform in public three times, I will take you to Nashville.” And one of those performances was for a talent show called “Got Talent, Spokane?” at the Bing Crosby Theatre in Spokane, Washington. This was only my third or fourth time performing in public and there were about 400 people in the audience. I just remember looking out into the audience, seeing my family and seeing the audience’s reaction—there really was no going back for me after that moment. I was fortunate enough to have won that talent show, and I think that was when it really clicked for me, that this was really what I wanted to do. There was some type of, for the lack of a better word, ‘performance high’ you can’t get enough of, and connecting with people through music is unlike any other feeling in the world, to me. So as soon as that performance wrapped, I was like, “OK, we are going to Nashville and this is what I wanna do!”
How has being a female country artist of color been like for you, especially in the last year?
I think it has certainly been eye-opening, and it has been filled with hope, for me. I am really optimistic and hopeful that the conversations that are being had are not something that will be fleeting. I think this is a very monumental moment in the country music industry especially regarding conversations about people of color, women of color especially. I’m just very, very happy to see people acknowledging the talents of people of color in the country music industry. I hope that it’s something that we continue to recognize in such a capacity that it will become normal that it won’t be something we see as a massive monumental moment. And I think that comes from seeing more people and women of color in magazines and on radio and on Spotify playlists. That’s something happening right now, and the more and more that that happens, again, we won’t see it as something that’s so crazy. It will just feel so normal!
Talk about your debut EP, Retro, that was released last year. How would you describe the sound of this introductory collection?
What I love about Retro is that there’s a little bit of everything. You have a little bit of upbeat, you have some heartbreak, and you have a little bit of traditional country in there with “Congratulations.” I set out to put out something that had a little bit of diversity in sounds. “Heartbroken Girls” has more of an old-school country sound, while “Bar Talk” is like super upbeat country-pop. I really just wanted to show my diversity and growth as a songwriter because there’s a couple of songs I wrote by myself and a couple of songs I wrote with Dana Marie Rogers here in town. So, I wanted to put out a cohesive sound that also showed some diversity.
What was the concept behind your newly-released music video for “Congratulations”?
This is one that I’m very excited about! I released a music video for “Retro” last year, and that was very happy and feel-good. But with “Congratulations,” I wanted to show some contrast and paint a story. [There is] this moment where you have the guy and the girl, and they’re both experiencing these life changes at the same time. It really paints the picture of them going on separate paths. One of them is going to college, and one of them is pursuing music. One of them ends up getting married, and one of them is still doing music. I wanted to represent that while also showing a completely different side of me visually. With this music video, you’ll see more heartbreak and sadness [before it ends] with a little sense of peace. Just because two people go on separate paths, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a sad thing. That can be a very peaceful thing.
How has launching as a new artist in the middle of a global pandemic been like for you?
Not being able to play live has definitely been a challenge. I think I have been very fortunate in the opportunities that I have received in terms of releasing an EP and connecting with listeners through that music. I think if I hadn’t released my EP last year on top of not being able to perform live, it definitely would have been a very challenging year as a creative person. I have loved being able to see the response to the EP and have a project that I’m really proud of. I originally was going to release the EP in July of last year and then the pandemic hit, so I was like, “Let’s push this back for a second and see what we wanna do!” As a result, I filmed the “Retro” video during that time. Sometimes, timing has a funny way of playing out, and it’s all meant to be. I just feel very fortunate that while 2020 was such a high-low year for everybody, at the end of the day, it showed me that music can really bring people together. I’m just so happy that, in some capacity, my music did that for people.
What’s next in 2021?
Well, I’m in the process of writing, and I plan to release new music this year. My goal with this new music is to set out on a journey on what the sound of Kären McCormick is. As an artist, I really want somebody to be able to turn on one of my songs and immediately know that’s Kären McCormick. That is the type of legacy I’d like to leave as an artist. That is my goal. I’m gonna go into the studio and create something that I just feel is so very much me, whatever “me” is in the moment, and I’m really, really excited for people to hear it.
Finally, what is one thing you want people to know about Kären McCormick both as a person and as an artist?
As an artist, what I want people to know is that I just love music so much. I’m a fan of music, first and foremost, before I’m an artist and a writer. I will continue to strive to show that with everything I put out. I always want to be a storyteller, but I always aspire to have every project that I do be bigger and better than the last. Sometimes, that means challenging myself and experimenting with new sounds and new lyrics and new stories. Music really is the universal language, and I will always strive to bring people together with my music. But as a person, when I’m not performing and wearing the artist hat, I just want people to know that I’m somebody that aspires to live a well-rounded, fun, happy life. I am very, very simple. I love watching Netflix, I love conversations with my Dad, I love going to concerts in a pre-pandemic world (laughs). I just aspire to live a really fun, happy, well-rounded life and make people laugh—that’s just who I am!