Slash, Pharrell, Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay, Mackenzie Johnson – there are worse habits you could have in common with other musicians than wearing a hat. The thumbnails of Mackenzie Johnson’s YouTube videos certainly have that instantly recognisable factor others would love to have: the hat, the guitar, the lights in front of a pastel-coloured wall. MJ fans know what they get for #mjmonday. But the regular videos and the 275,000+ YouTube subscribers of the singer-songwriter almost didn’t happen …
► Mackenzie, your current YouTube channel isn’t your first …
Yes, fun fact: I did have a channel back when I was 14. That was before I knew how to play guitar. I didn’t have that sense of who I was yet, much less who I was as a musician. Back then, I would just set up my camera on my computer desk and sing to karaoke tracks. I didn’t quite know what I was doing. Then I got my first mean comment on one of those early videos and thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. And then I deleted the whole channel. That’s why I always tell people: If you want to upload anything to YouTube, make sure you’re really ready for it, because people aren’t so nice sometimes. I’ve grown thick skin since then.
► You’re only 22 now, but eight years is a long time when it comes to the internet. Which is to say that YouTube was still pretty new and there were no blueprints for using it as a singer-songwriter back then. Where did 14-year-old you get that idea from?
I’m not sure. I think I just wanted to share my talent in a way that made sense to me. I knew that YouTube was sort of on the rise and there were a few people doing their thing on there already. I always cite Kina Grannis as a big inspiration – I think around the time I uploaded those first videos, she already had a few videos of her own. I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is new and different and interesting.’
► What changed for you that you gave YouTube another shot a few years after that first painful attempt?
I just loved music too much to give up on it, no matter what anyone said. I think a lot of it had to do with maturing, both as a person and as an artist. I became a lot more confident. And I have a great support system too. My parents are awesome. It helped to have people encouraging me. So one day I simply decided to go forth and try it because I felt ready. Of course I was still a little vulnerable. The idea of putting videos up for so many people to see and comment on is daunting. Even today. I’m on such a regular schedule now, but sometimes I step out of it and realise that what I’m doing is quite a vulnerable thing.
► After your initial experience, did you set any rules in terms of how much of yourself you put out there? As you say, it makes you vulnerable to put any type of video or creative content on the web. But of course putting much of yourself out there makes you even more vulnerable to the horrible or the inconsiderate people roaming the internet.
I’m pretty open, for the most part but there are certain things I like to keep private. And I think we should all set those boundaries. There is such a thing as oversharing. Personally, I don’t feel the need to tweet when I go to the bathroom. That’s a little too much information. (laughs) But seriously, I don’t need to broadcast my personal life constantly. At the same time I really want people to get to know me, so I do post about my life and my music quite often. I’m also kind of outspoken when it comes to my opinions and I’m not afraid to speak out about something on Twitter or on YouTube if I feel strongly about it.
► Three years ago, when you decided to get back on YouTube, how much time did you spend – if any – researching how to approach the new channel and everything that comes with it?
None at all, to be honest. I just kind of winged it. If you look at the old videos of any YouTuber though, you’ll see that the quality is different, the style is different. They even speak differently. Take Bethany Mota, one of the biggest YouTubers ever. She was sort of shy and timid at the beginning but that just naturally changed over time as she started figuring herself out and gaining a fan base. I may have taken some technical hints from some other people – basic things like making sure people could see me in my videos, that it wasn’t too dark – but overall I had no real plan and didn’t do a ton of research into how best to approach a music channel like this. Things like getting on the schedule I am on now happened sort of accidentally. I tried things and when I figured out it worked, I went with it.
► Having no plan is one thing. But what about expectations? Did you have any?
Yes. In the beginning, I was maybe a little foolish in thinking that my success would be more instantaneous than it was. The reality is that – for most people – it takes time to grow. I envisioned myself having a lot of subscribers and I think that’s an important thing to think about from the start. But it’s almost impossible to predict how exactly things are going to turn out and how long it’s going to take. So, yeah, at first my expectations were a little too high, but as I familiarised myself with the YouTube landscape, I started understanding it a lot more. I started becoming more comfortable and more confident and that’s when I started seeing things happen. But it definitely took some time to get there.
On the other hand, I didn’t realise at first how wonderful it was going to be in terms of making connections with people. I was naively thinking about numbers, not realising how valuable the relationship with the fans really is. The truth is that it’s pretty special to see the people behind the numbers and realise they are indeed real people, and to make those connections.
► How soon after starting the new channel did you see that happening?
It took a while. You know, there were always people who were telling me they liked what I was doing, and I always appreciated those supportive voices, right from the start. But it took a while until I started seeing people say things to me like, ‘You make my Mondays with your videos’ or ‘I picked my guitar back up because of you’ or ‘Your music gives me strength’. That took it to a new level for me.
► Your initial eagerness and expecting a little too much at the start – did this maybe come from the fact that you went all in? A lot of singer-songwriters start using YouTube almost on the side, while they are at university/college. You, however, started right out of high school, didn’t go to college, focused only on your music and, with it, on YouTube …
I think so. Like I said before, my parents are super supportive. If they weren’t, I probably would have had to do it all differently, to be honest. Maybe I would have had to coincide school and music, like you said. But since I had the opportunity to go all in, that’s what I did. I’ve always been kind of intense about my career. I knew what I wanted to do and I was determined to find a way to do it. A lot of people didn’t understand that. For most it’s go to college, start making money – and that is a wonderful thing for some people. But I just knew that this wasn’t in the cards for me.