Mackenzie Kavanagh at the Roundhouse, Camden

Music Maker: Mackenzie Kavanagh

16th November 2012

Jill Glenn meets 13-year-old Mackenzie Kavanagh as she prepares for the Area Finals of Open Mic UK

What do you say to a girl who has achieved Grade 8 in cello and clarinet, but has abandoned them both because nothing competes with the piano, a girl who gets up at 5am every day, voluntarily, to practice for a couple of hours before school and then spends her evenings doing more of the same? What do you say?… “Play for me”, is what you say…

Mackenzie’s hands fly over the keys as she executes a Gershwin Prelude, and I could, quite frankly, sit and listen to her for the rest of the evening – but we’re not here to concentrate on her piano per se; we’re here to talk about her developing skills as a singer-songwriter (she’s just won the Intermediate Acoustic Category of the Herts Songwriting Competition 2012 with Rainbow), so the next thing I say is “Sing for me”…

You’re Gone, the number she performs, is her latest composition, a haunting number inspired by a recent stay in a dusty apartment in Lisbon. The lyrics are sweet and subtle; the air is mournful. I found myself humming it later, seduced by its unusual tone; seeped in classical music from years of studying and playing three different instruments, Mackenzie is influenced by pieces most youngsters of her age will never have encountered. She does have eclectic tastes, though: along with Ravel, Chopin and Mozart, she also loves to listen to La Roux, Paloma Faith, Eliza Doolittle, Kate Bush and Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy.

She and her parents, Tasha (a children’s writer and editor) and James (“something to do with computers”, says Mackenzie; “software architect”, clarifies her mother), came to Bushey four years ago so that she could take up a scholarship at the Purcell, the country’s oldest specialist music school. Mackenzie was a promising cellist then, having chosen the instrument almost at random at primary school near Hampton Court where the family lived, but the piano soon overtook everything else in her affections. She’s performed throughout the UK, including at the Southbank: both solo in the Purcell Room and with Lang Lang in the Royal Festival Hall. She’s begun voice lessons too, now, in support of her new interest.

A couple of years ago she idly played a few chords, started singing and just let the music evolve. It turned into The Drowning – “inspired by the sister I’ll never have” – and won her the school’s composition prize. She still writes the same way today. “All my songs start out as just music”, she explains, “and the words grow out of the sound”.

Open Mic UK is a national competition that attracts 8,000+ acts who can perform covers or original material in any genre. Mackenzie, who’s in the 16 and under section, admits to not having realised quite how popular it would be; at the first audition, she recalls, “there were queues all the way down the street…”

Although she sang her own stuff in the preliminary stages, she’s been advised to perform a cover for the next round. She’s chosen Pixie Lott’s Mama Do, “but I’m making it quite dark”. I can’t immediately place it, and her mother sings me a line. “Oh, Mum, stop. Don’t sing…” For all her self-possession and self-motivation, Mackenzie is a typical teenager at heart.

For relaxation she swims, an exercise she took up as therapy for a back injury developed as a cellist; she’s carried on for the love of it though, is now a member of Bushey Swimming Club and goes three times a week. She’s charming, very good company – and very driven. Holidays have to involve a piano, and she spends up to five hours a day practising and playing while her parents go sight-seeing. Her choice. Music is who she is.

The Area Final of Open Mic UK takes place on Sunday 18 November at the Beck Theatre, Hayes; the Grand Final is on Saturday 19 January at The O2 – see openmicuk.co.uk for tickets and details;

To find out more about Mackenzie and to listen to her songs, see mackenzie-music.co.uk

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