From blockbusters to bangers, MCKENNA GRACE is a creative force to be reckoned with.
Words: Martyn Young.
Photos: Gus Black.
Mckenna Grace can seemingly do it all. The sixteen-year-old from Texas is already a big-time actor with roles in actual huge Hollywood blockbusters like Ghostbusters Afterlife, and she has also been nominated for an Emmy for her role in prestige TV behemoth The Handmaid’s Tale. Now she’s getting in on the music game with her super fun, super fresh turbocharged pop-punk EP ‘Bittersweet 16’. Oh, and she’s also really good at roller skating. “I’m a really big roller skater,” she says. “I love going to skate parks and learning tricks. I like to drop into the deep end of the bowls, go around and do the splits and go back in. That’s my go-to when I want to impress.” See, multi-talented.
Mckenna is talking to us while on a trip to London. Why’s she in London, you ask? “Who knows???” she teases. “Not for me to say!” No doubt it’s something very exciting. What is very much not a secret, though, is Mckenna’s swift ascent towards the summit of mount pop. Despite a challenging start to 2023 as she recovered from a spinal operation, a now-healed Mckenna is revelling in being an actual pop star in all its brilliance. “2023 was off to a very rocky start, but we’ve made it. Now we’re here, and it’s looking pretty good,” she smiles.
It’s always a good sign for an artist when they’re laser-focused on what comes next rather than coasting on their current triumphs, and Mckenna is already looking forward to the new music that she’s creating. “This EP was really fun and angsty, but I’m really excited because I think I’ve grown as an artist since then,” she explains. “I’m excited about the music I’m creating lately because I think I’m constantly changing and evolving.”
For Mckenna, while it’s true that acting came first, her two main passions of acting and music now go side by side. “I can’t even remember a time now when I wasn’t going to the studio all the time and writing music,” she says. “I don’t think there was a firm decision like, ‘OH, I’M A MUSICIAN NOW’, because music has always been a part of my life. I’ve played the ukulele for five years now. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I play the piano, and I’ve just started learning guitar. I’ve always been a musical person. I love singing and creating.”
“For me, music is a way to get out a lot of emotions I don’t usually release”Mckenna Grace
Mckenna is someone whose vibrant, buzzing personality jumps out, whether on record or on screen. While both disciplines share performing, they both require a different skill set, which Mckenna has had to develop, although the open creative environment of the film set does provide fertile ground for anyone wishing to prove their musical chops. “I really love what I get to do. It’s my dream job, both music and acting. I love it. The two are truly so different, though. I have a few producers and writers that I work with a lot that I wish could come on set and see what I’m like because it’s so wildly different,” she says. “You’d be surprised how musical most actors are. I bring a guitar to work every day; usually, there are cast chairs, and I’m always sitting playing music. Some people will sing; right now, what I’m working on, everyone plays guitar, so my guitar just gets passed around. It’s so lovely.”
Mckenna puts down her ingrained musical and creative impulses to the diverse tastes of her parents and the musical touchstones that formed her first experiences. “I like to say that I grew up on Taylor Swift and Korn because my parents had very different music tastes,” she laughs. “My mum really loves Taylor and Selena Gomez, and my dad is a big heavy metal guy. I have a very broad sense of music.” As she began to explore her own tastes, Mckenna developed a taste for punky eccentrics and piercingly emotional and evocative songwriters. “I really got into music over the pandemic when I started to like Le Tigre and punkier things like that,” she remembers. “What inspired ‘Bittersweet 16’ was I was listening to a lot of Le Tigre and Alanis Morrissette and No Doubt. Now I’m listening to a lot of Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey and other sad music.”
Even the greatest of songwriters, like Taylor Swift, had to start somewhere, and Mckenna laughs as she remembers writing her first songs as a kid. “My best friend and I would listen to music, and we would write parody songs,” she laughs. “We would write parody songs about Cheez-Its or Minecraft. Cheez-Its are square crisp, chip thingys; they’re so good! Do you not have them here?”
Well, if there’s one thing at Dork we love almost as much as music, then it’s crisps. We don’t have Cheez-Its here, but we do have cheesy Wotsits. Sadly, Mckenna is not a fan of unquestionably the greatest crisp flavour. “Salt & Vinegar???” she cries disgustedly. “I’ve never heard that.”
Anyway, “We would just goof around,” she continues. “I have to text my friend now and ask her if she remembers all those little things we used to do because growing up, we would listen to [buzzy American YouTubers] Rhett and Link because I thought they were hilarious. I wrote an actual song, which was terrible when I was 11 or 12 and then actually started ‘writing’ writing over the pandemic. I’ve been changing a lot as a writer. I’m really proud of what I’ve been creating lately, and I can’t wait to release it. I’ve changed a lot since ‘Bittersweet 16’. I’m always looking back at myself, thinking I could have done better. I’m very proud of it, though. It’s always weird having those moments captured in public for everyone to listen to, but it holds a special place in my heart. I remember exactly where I was and what I felt when I wrote it. It’s a time capsule, even if I know I can do better now.”
The songs collected on ‘Bittersweet 16’ represent a specific time in her life captured for posterity with hugely relatable lyrics and an endearing sense of youthful exuberance. Punky, poppy and full of hooks, they’re engaging snapshots of what it’s like to grow up. “I was trying to tell the story of the weird mixed emotions of being a teenager,” says Mckenna. “It’s a weird time in everybody’s life. I wrote a lot about heartbreak, but it’s so funny cos I hadn’t even been on a date. My non-EP song ‘Haunted House’, which seems like it might be about a breakup; to me, it’s about a totally different situation that wasn’t even romantic. I think heartbreak can come in a lot of different forms. All of my songs stem from real situations in my life, but sometimes I want to be a little dramatic.”
That propensity to ramp up the drama in her music is mirrored in the directness and straight-talking approach of her lyrics, like the matter-of-fact self-deprecation of the girl in ‘Ugly Crier’ who thinks they’re “so mediocre” and “will never be Taylor Swift” or the lame protagonist of ‘Buzzkill Baby’ who “sucks the air out of the room”.
“I feel so mean in my music sometimes,” laughs Mckenna. “I’m a super non-confrontational person. For me, music is a way to get out a lot of emotions I don’t usually release. I was in an angry place for a while. I got that put through music. I moved past it by writing music. I’m like, oh gosh, my music is a terrible representation of who I am as a person sometimes. It was for the fun pop-punk feeling. It was totally my therapy, but they are things I would never say to anyone, ever to their face. Writing these things down or saying them out loud is so therapeutic.”
Itching to tell more stories and let out more of that emotion, Mckenna is excited to be making music in a time full of possibility. “I want to move to a different place that I haven’t been before,” she says. “Pop is people evolving and changing and different people telling their stories. There’s so much stuff out there, and the best part to me is that music shouldn’t look like what we think it’s going to. Music is at its best when people surprise us or do something new that you haven’t heard before. I’m excited to see what people do this year. I want to challenge myself to create some new stuff. I want to explore different genres. I think I’ve found a sound I really like, but who knows if I’ll stay there.”
Mckenna recently played her first-ever live show at The Moroccan Lounge in Los Angeles. It’s an experience she describes as “terrifying, but the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never experienced anything like it. With acting, so many people see what you do, but you never see them watching you. It’s so strange; you only have one shot. You can’t mess it up.”
Ready to seize the moment, Mckenna has big plans for the rest of the year as she continues to develop her artistry. “I have a vision for what I want to release next,” she says confidently. “I want to be a bit more singer songwritery and a bit more personal, get into a little bit more heartbreak. I have a plan and a definite vibe for my new stuff. It’s all very cohesive. I’ve been tying a lot of things back to different songs, and I’m very excited by what I’ve been creating.”
Turning 16 and becoming a pop star as well as a major actor all in one year is quite the ride, but it seems the journey is only just beginning for a star who’s ready to build on her early buzz and turn an unforgettable musical year into a lifetime of creativity. ■
Taken from the June 2023 edition of Dork. Mckenna Grace’s EP ‘Bittersweet 16’ is out now.
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