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SJ McDonald: From Belmont To Broadway

Virgina native, Sj McDonald grew up lip syncing in her farmhouse bedroom to Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. Now a senior at Belmont University in Nashville, McDonald is making waves on the same streets as her childhood idols. Powered by authentic lyrics and dynamic vocals, Sj is carving out a spot for herself next to an impressive class of new faces in country. With a passion for powerful storytelling, Sj is determined to bring her stories to todays country music listeners and make her mark.

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In your instagram, you claim you are the “Bad Joke Queen” What is your go to bad joke?

All of my bad jokes are really in the moment. I am the female Micheal Scott! Ok I hope I don’t mess this up. “Jesus said to John, come forth and you will have eternal life. But John came fifth, and he won a toaster” *Both Bobbi and SJ laugh*

How does actually growing up on a farm and living this country lifestyle set you you apart in a music scene that has kinda just been focused on this bro country vibe?

It makes me feel authentic. You know, everyone's searching for authenticity. And the last thing I want to be is like a poser. And I'm not saying that people who you can't sing country music, you don't have to have grown up on a farm to sing country music. But, for me it feels like I'm more connected to the roots of country. Like, if that makes any sense. I feel it gives me a fun perspective and something cool to talk about. And, you know, I haven't really found the perfect country farm song yet. I wanna write that song and like write the next “International Harvester.” My family drives International Harvesters, by the way.

It's cool because I can bring that into my music. And I put out a song when I was 16 about being a farmer's daughter, but now it's gone because it was, it could have been better. It just makes me really feel connected to country music. Like the things that they talk about. I know they talk about cowboys a lot and we're not like a ranch it's like trucks and cows and no horses I feel like country music's in my blood because I was raised like that. I'll leave it at that.

Who were the voices of your earliest country music memories?

Carrie Underwood. So I know so many girls my age, either Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift. It was Carrie Underwood for me. I hated Taylor Swift because I wanted to be her. I was just jealous. I love Taylor now, but Carrie Underwood's first record, I think the record Some Hearts did it for me. I just remember I had two beds in my bedroom cause my brother and I shared a bedroom for a bit when I was a kid. I would just hop from my bed to his bed singing. My go tos were “Some Hearts”, “Wasted” and “Lessons Learned.” Those songs really shaped me. And then I was really only carried for me for a couple of years. And then I transitioned to like Sarah Evans and Matina McBride and a Celine Dion.

I feel that in a different life Celine was a country musician only because her storytelling is so impressive. I describe country music, not necessarily by the sound specifically, but like your way to tell a story. And I feel like her arcs are always like this just grand thing. So I love that you include her in your influences.

The way her chorus’s soar is very similar to Carrie Underwood’s. I wouldn't be surprised if Carrie Underwood was influenced by Celine Dion. I love that 2000s country sound, but now I've shifted into more. Now that I've become a songwriter. I didn't know I was a songwriter until I came to Belmont and it's so funny. I'm getting a degree in it in two weeks if I pass all my classes. But now that I'm a songwriter,

Do you find your creativity thrives more when you're writing solo or when you're co-writing?

Co-writing all the way I'm like I'm a dog. Like if I'm around people, I’m like LETS GO! I feed off of people, you know? So that's where it really thrives. And it's so funny. Like all, a lot of my co-writers are just women, which it's not a bad thing. It's really cool because a lot of country music is like 75% male songwriters. haven't gotten any big songs yet, but hope to one day, get something on the radio or, you know, something and get some more women out there. So these really cool. I just have been so lucky to met a crew, a female writers who are bad ass! You've probably heard of some of them too. Mae Estes, and Britney Moore and two of my gals I work with.

What are some of the biggest lessons that you've learned either personally or musically while being at Belmont and being in Nashville?

Oh gosh. The biggest lesson for me. Okay. I'll say two things. The biggest lesson is one, it's not going to get handed to you. I see a lot of people come to Belmont and it's like, Belmont is a music school and there are a lot of famous writers to come out of here. Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood, Florida Georgia Line came out of Belmont, but that wasn't just handed to them. You know, like if you're at this school, then you need to go out and network. Obviously it's harder for people that are rock and pop because I mean, this is a country town, but there are those secMons in Nashville. Nothing's going to get handed to you and if it is, it's not going to last. Then my second thing that I've learned is to not doubt myself in the writer room. I’ve had a really bad problem of saying, Oh, I have this idea, but it's sort of stupid. Or like, Oh, I'm sorry, this is a stupid idea and stuff. I've just started coming out out of the gate, like trying to be more balls to the wall. I mean, if “Red Solo Cup” became a song, then any idea is on the table.

It's a big thing for everyone. And I'm still working on it every day. I mean, I, I probably said this is stupid, but something like this in a co-write last week. I didn't even notice it because it sort of goes along with how we're all wired to say sorry. Like apologize for being me. It sort of goes hand in hand with that. And I don't know where that is rooted from, but I am working on breaking that!

But my favorite motto that I love is to replace your sorrys with thank yous. So like, instead of saying, sorry, I'm late. Say, I appreciate you waitng on me and like stuff like that. And that's totally changed things for me. I love that perspective. I mean, you can write good songs, but you got to take care of you and like how you feel about yourself with how you're presenting yourself to people too.

Speaking of staying positive and staying rooted. How do you bounce back from being told “No.”

I feel like I'm really lucky to have this just positivity thing running through my veins. So I've started to give myself like an alloCed Mme of being sad about hearing. “No.” And then just move on. So I'll be like, okay, for instance I was in this round that Belmont put on that had winners. It was two rounds of four people. And there was a winner from each round and it was like the big deal round at Belmont. And I didn't get picked. And so I was sad and I alloCed myself one movie. I said, you get to be sad for one movie and then you got to move on from it because you can't carry that into tomorrow and carry that into tomorrow’s songs. I mean, of course everyone has their, Nashville's kicking me down song and I've written mine. But I don't need to carry that with me. I don't know who I heard that from, but I did not make that up on my own. Someone, maybe it was in a class I'm taking a social and emotional wellness class at Belmont.

My teacher said a lot yourself a time to be sad. And then I guess not really force yourself to move on/ You, the worst thing you can do is not give yourself the time to be sad about the thing. Otherwise it will creep up on you like an alligator.

Do you feel like you can achieve everything you want as an independent artist?

Oh yeah, totally. I look at, I'm sure. You know, this fan Muscadine Bloodline. I love how they are, you know, super independent. They've grown this fan base because of their touring. It's very grassroots. And like just the way that they interact with people is like, they're real people. I've met these guys a couple of Mmes in person and they're really sweet to me. They respond to every Instagram message. If I like share their song, they say, thank you. Or at least give it a like or something, you know? And of course, since they're more of a smaller act, they can do things like that because their Instagram isn't completely flooded all the Mme. I don't imagine.

I love what they're doing. And for me a day, if I like make a new fan off of a show, then that is a good day. Because, you’re building a pyramid and I'm building my foundation right now. Hopefully within the next few years, I'll have like another part of my pyramid coming together. The belief that you need a label and stuff isn’t always true. The worst thing that could happen is seeing, people getting shelved. If I get signed by a label or publisher that would be great, but I want them to pay attention to me!

What is your favorite thing about being an indie country artist?

I can say and do and post whatever I want. If I want to talk about a song coming out two months before and not get in trouble. I just don't need approval for anything, which is nice. And luckily I haven't done anything to incriminate myself yet. I haven't made any stupid mistakes yet. Knock on wood. I just love the freedom. You know, of course I do have my girlfriends, like I'll text them and be like, Hey, do you think this is like too weird of a post? But ge^ng to talk freely about your music. I love that.

You have this amazing new single out “One More Night in Des Moines” any plans for an EP as well?

Yeah, I'm actually, I'm going to release another single the first week of May And since I'll talk about it because ya know, I am an independent!

It is called ‘Stop Sending Me Love Songs.” And it's just about like a clingy guy and it's just a fun rocking song. And someMmes I struggle with, you know, the fun songs that don't have like a huge story behind them. Mainly because I’ve gotten so into the stories that are intricate, I’m obsessed with it. So it's been a little bit of a mental thing where I have to talk myself out of overthinking a simple song. You know, the song isn't like simple per se. I'm really proud of it. But it's just different than something like “One More Night in Des Moines”, which has like a powerful story thing behind it. And this one is just like, screw you, you’re clingy.

Talk to me a little bit more, how “One More Night in Des Moines” came to be. Is it based on true events or is it just a really great idea?

I will start with saying basically half of my songs are not true events! I love just putting myself in the shoes of the bad person. I've really figured that out lately, I’m so comfortable with myself. And I know that I'm a good person at the end of the day that I have no trouble stepping into their shoes because who's going to tell their story. And also it's saucy who wouldn’t that. I just love a good saucy story and something that sort of jolts you. So “One More Night in Des Moines”, I’m from Virginia. So I have no connection to Des Moines what whatsoever, but I have a couple of friends in town from Des Moines and one of them, she's an artist in town that had nothing to do with the song and she'd give her credit. And her name is Nicole Miller and she's a wonderful artist and writer, beautiful voice.

And she's from Des Moines. She put up an Instagram story and put a caption that said “One More Night in Des Moines” like two years ago. And I loved how that sounded or does. Yeah, it just rolled off the tongue. So I wrote it down. I sat in my dorm room and like wrote like half of a song, and somehow on my own decided I want it to be a cheating song. So I took it into writes in the fall of 2019 and nobody latched on. Then Brittany Moore and I were writing. I think then the date we wrote it is on the cover of the song. She latched on and came up with the, the melody and like lyrics for the the pre-course, especially that was all Brittany. And it just came to life. I wasn't gonna do anything with that song. I actually wasn't even thinking about pu^ng it out because I thought that it was too grown up me cause I'm only 21. It's very much like an adult song. I am not a cheater have never cheated. Hopefully I haven't been cheated on, but for someone my age, who looks like such a baby to be singing about that, like it can be a little jolting. That's what I like about it.

I was back home in Virginia talking to a friend from high school about music and what's going on. And I didn't say anything about “One More Night in Des Moines” He was just like, are you putting that song out? I love it. For some reason that friend remembering the song and being like, I really like, it made me, it was like I pulled the trigger.

I love it. It's a dynamic, I'm a huge fan of dynamics and songs. You know, it gets loud and soft. I love how the Stapleton records do that, but I'm super proud of it.

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