Song Deconstructed: ‘The Canyon’ by Mackenzie Shivers
We learn more about a ballad which takes inspiration from the Rocky Mountains and the loss of a family member
Tampa-born songwriter Mackenzie Shivers has been creating emotive and powerful piano-driven music since her 2014 debut album Neverland. With a degree in Music Composition from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, there’s a clear sense that her classic training underpins her music, as recently heard on last year’s The Unkindness.
The latest track to be taken from that album is The Canyon, complete with a video in which Shivers outruns a very real snowstorm (fitting for a song which deals with themes of escaping the past and moving on with life). Here, she reveals all about this evocative ballad…
I wrote The Canyon when I visited Colorado for the first time, driving west from Denver through the Rocky Mountains. I was overwhelmed by the imagery of chocolate milk rivers and breath-taking mountains topped with snow. I was with my husband, and we were freshly grieving the passing of his brother. I wanted to let myself be swallowed up by these surroundings, to drown in their imposing beauty. At that moment, it was just the two of us and the canyon.
The lyrics paint a picture of someone coming to terms with what is really important in life, grappling with the fact that there are always elements in life outside our control. That’s what the line, “If you need me don’t say sorry; it is broken anyhow,” is referring to. It’s extremely discouraging to feel like you can’t fix things that are inherently broken (politically, systematically), but you stand up for what you care about and hold tight to the ones you love. Don’t apologise for needing help getting through something tough. No one does anything alone.
This song doesn’t follow your typical song structure in that the chorus only happens once. I wrestled with this when I was writing the song, but at the end of the day, it just felt right. I think it’s good to know the rules of songwriting because then you can make the conscious choice to break them.
The song is about moving forward and looking ahead, so I realized the fact that the chorus never repeats is quite apropos. I wanted the pulsing piano, drums, and bass to feel like a train chugging through the Rocky Mountains. The pedal steel floats in and out of these rhythmic pulses creating a beautiful contrast, like the river winding through the canyon.
IN THE STUDIO
The Canyon was the first song we recorded for my album The Unkindness. I wanted to start with it because I record my vocals live, and this song sits really comfortably in my voice. We recorded the piano, drums, and bass live along with the vocals. The only overdubs are the pedal steel and backing vocals.
When I was on the bus on my way to the studio that morning, I wrote the second half of the coda you hear at the end of the song. My co-producer Cody Rahn mentioned he thought the ending should be longer, so doubled the coda and added in the lyrics, “In the end, my friend, have we done our best? Do we dare to say it’s fair in love and all the rest?” which ended up being some of my favourite lyrics on the album.
I recently returned to where the song was conceived to film a music video with my friend and filmmaker Ross Vedder. Being there and shooting amongst that astonishing backdrop was quite surreal and felt like the song had come full circle. Watching the video makes me really proud of the journey the song has taken and is a beautiful reminder of the healing powers of music.
The Unkindness is out now. Get all the latest info at mackenzieshivers.com