When Massachusetts native singer-songwriter Mckinley Black picks up her guitar, the world stops to listen.
Her career has taken her from crooning in the cranberry bogs of Middleboro to headlining stages in Switzerland, Berlin and beyond. According to Black, the beat has been in her blood since day one.
“I’m half Portuguese and half French. My father was an amazing singer, and we were always singing with him,” she says. “As a Portuguese child, there’s no chance for you not to sing or dance.”
When her parents separated and she relocated with her mother and six siblings to New Bedford, the rhythms continued. Every Sunday, Black’s mother would take her to TryWorks, a music night hosted at a local church. It was there that Black first performed one of her own songs.
Black’s style is hard to pin down because it varies depending on the song content. “I wasn’t in it for the money,” she says. “I was in it for God more or less, in the sense that music for me is like God. It has to spin in my blood, and it has to mean something to me.”
In “High Noon” off her latest album, “Beggars, Fools and Thieves,” Black uses rich, country-style crooning to tell her story. But, in “Seashells and Roses,” which is based on her experience growing up near Cape Cod, she takes on a more uplifting, pop style. The effect is that this diversity is a dynamic reflection of her life experiences.
Part of Black’s appeal is her utter lack of pretension. In Boston she worked as a secretary to the Chief of Medicine at Faulkner Hospital (now part of Brigham and Women’s) to pay the bills. In fact, she never even knew that singing full-time was an option until she moved to Switzerland after her mother’s death.
In Europe, Black found a much more supportive artistic environment that included visas and resources for musicians that the U.S. doesn’t offer.
“When I got my stamp here for my very first artists visa, it said that all I could do was make music,” says Black. “There’s no, ‘I’ll just paint this house to make money,’ or ‘I’ll just work here to make money.’ I really had to prove myself as an artist. A byproduct of that was proving to myself that this was actually possible.”
Black is currently living in Berlin and working on a new album, which will feature a song inspired by New Bedford’s whaling culture. Currently titled “Forever is My Love,” the song tells the story of two newlyweds separated when a man goes aboard a whaling ship to seek his fortune.
The album will also be dedicated to Maggi Peirce, who ran TryWorks back in the 1970s. Black plans to perform a cover of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” the song that everyone would sing to close out a TryWorks evening.
Though Black may have traveled far and wide, and become famous along the way, it’s clear that her Massachusetts roots continue to influence her work.
“I wrote my very first song when we had to leave my hometown. I was around seven years old. I wrote about it because I was very sad that I had to leave my friends,” she says. Luckily she never really had to leave them. “Every time I come home, there’s always a meeting of us in Middleboro, everyone from that street.”