In 2010, Mackenzie Johnson, a senior at Council Rock High School North in Newtown, Pa, created her YouTube account. She was 17 years old, and her guitar cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You into the Dark” was the start of her YouTube career.
Now, five years later, 22-year-old Johnson has over 243,000 subscribers and over 19 million views. She lives about a half an hour outside of Philly and has performed regularly in the city. Johnson lives around an hour from West Chester, Pa.
When she was in high school, Johnson said she “was ready to start getting [her] music out somehow.”
She conceded, however, “It was difficult as a high school student trying to balance homework and getting myself to gigs in the city, so making YouTube videos really made sense to me.”
Johnson’s style can best be described as an acoustic singer-songwriter. She writes her own original music, but also covers songs ranging from the pop radio hits (Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean”) as well as country songs (Kacey Musgraves “Biscuits”). She’s covered Carole King and soundtrack songs from “Begin Again.”
Johnson said, “I feel my heart belongs to that acoustic, coffee shop genre; that music that you know has been crafted by the same person that’s strumming and singing to it. That’s where I feel most at home.”
The climb to YouTube popularity was a slow one for Johnson, but around two years ago, her cover of Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” gained popularity. Today, it has over 580,000 views.
About the cover, Johnson said, “I put it out and it was a bit of a sleeper in the beginning; that is until ‘Treasure’ was released as a radio single. Suddenly people started really searching for that song. It was my first video to reach 100,000 views and that’s when I knew I had sort of cracked this YouTube ‘code,’ so to speak.”
The YouTube code, it seems, also involves posting regularly for your subscribers. Johnson posts “MJ Mondays” videos once a week. The tradition, interestingly, simply started by Monday being the day that Johnson had free to post her videos.
“In the beginning, it was a way for me to build up a body of work on my channel and to keep gaining exposure, but it’s become something that my subscribers really look forward to and I love that,” Johnson said.
Like many YouTubers, Johnson has also collaborated with others in the community. In particular, she’s become friends and collaborators with Samuel, a YouTube musician from Cape Town, South Africa. His YouTube name is Opposite the Other. They’ve done four long distance covers with each other. In particular, their cover of Vance Joy’s “Riptide” is truly powerful. It has over 100,000 views.
Samuel and Mackenzie have never met in “real life,” but YouTube has forged their friendship. They have also mastered the art of performing together, in spite of an ocean separating them.
When not collaborating with other YouTubers and posting covers, Johnson is working on her original songs. In her song “Pretty,” she sings about wishing to be pretty and gaining self-confidence. “One of the hardest things you’ll ever do / is learning to be at peace with you,” she sings. The song has over 44,000 views (and only two down votes, which remains an impressive feat).
“My originals are really my heart,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, her favorite videos are her collaboration videos with her best friend Jeanette Lynch. They wrote a Christmas song around a year and a half ago, titled “Christmas Needs You Too.”
“We were in her dad’s art studio which is this restored, barn-like building that used to belong to George Washington. It was super cool to be there but it was absolutely freezing, and we kept making jokes about how the ghost of George Washington was there with us,” she said.
“So we freaked out when one of her dad’s paintings fell off the wall. So there we were trying desperately to stay warm by the fireplace, pretending like we hadn’t just experienced some sort of paranormal activity, all to get the best take possible,” Johnson finished.
In June, after the Supreme Court gay marriage ruling, Johnson made a pro-LGBTQA video called “Human.” In the song, she uses some colorful language to tell off people who are against LGBTQA people. “’Cause tearing people down for being who they are / isn’t gonna make them wanna change their minds. / It isn’t gonna get you very far. /So open up your heart, and open up your mind,” she sings.
“It was more than just calling out haters; it was about love and equality and simply treating each other with the respect we all rightfully deserve, regardless of your sexual orientation of gender identity,” Johnson explained.
For aspiring YouTubers, Johnson said, “Give yourself time to find your footing and develop your own personal style and signature. I think it’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with what YouTube is all about. Study some of your favorite creators and how they began, but don’t try to completely emulate someone else.”
“Taking inspiration from others is important, but you’ll find that you’ll be your best when you’re being yourself,” she explained.
To check out Mackenzie’s music, follow her YouTube channel, “like” her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, and follow her on Instagram.
Theresa Kelly is a fourth-year student majoring in English literature secondary education. She can be reached at TK780615@wcupa.edu