Having appeared on Season 13 of American Idol and worked tirelessly to promote positive self-image among young people via her “You Matter” tour, Casey McQuillen creates music with meaning. Currently preparing to release her new EP Beautiful, she chatted with us about social media, first musical memories and the influence of Taylor Swift.
PW: Please introduce yourself.
Casey McQuillen: My name is Casey McQuillen, and I am a singer-songwriter based out of Boston, MA, a 2016 Berklee College of Music graduate and a Pokémon Go aficionado!
PW: How would you sum yourself up five words?
CM: Determined, kind, funny, vocal, engaged.
PW: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a performer? Was there a concert you attended or album you listened to that made you think, 'yeah, I want to do that'?
CM: My first memory of “performing” was singing a Spice Girls song with my sister and cousin. They were happy to be background dancers, and I couldn’t wait to take center stage. As a kid, I found the challenge of being on stage so alluring. I loved the adrenaline rush of testing myself, and performing gave me that. It took me a while to find a formula that worked, though; I’m a terrible actress and dancer, but that didn’t stop me from trying! I learned to play the guitar in the 7th grade and realized I could sing on stage without having to act or dance. Looking back, that was the start of my career!
PW: Which bands and artists most influenced you growing up, and have those influences changed as you’ve gotten older?
CM: As a child, my exposure to music was basically limited to what was playing on the radio. When I found myself listening to an artist’s album, I would be drawn to their slower, more emotional tracks. Vanessa Carlton, James Blunt, Colbie Caillat, and Kate Nash were some of the artists that influenced me when I first started writing songs. Now I find inspiration from my colleagues, other songwriters. It’s so cool listening to music written by my peers, perhaps even knowing the secret story behind the song!
PW: How did attending and graduating from the Berklee College of Music impact your career path?
CM: Attending Berklee impacted my career path in just about every way possible. As a student, I was surrounded everyday by talented musicians and experienced professors -- an entire community dedicated to music. Establishing myself as a commercial artist is a lot like launching a new app. The product can be great and the creators passionate about their work, but it still takes an in-depth business plan, financial resources, and plenty of industry contacts to get the app to market. By majoring in Music Business at Berklee, I acquired the necessary tools to conduct the business side of my music career. As a young woman launching a “start-up” in a male dominated industry, I depend on those skills everyday to compete in this ever-changing music world.
PW: You also featured on Season 13 of American Idol. What made you decide to audition?
CM: When the opportunity presented itself to audition, I was ready to make my national debut. I had completed the first two years of my degree at Berklee, performing in many of the school’s major concerts. At the same time, I had solidified my performance chops by spending an entire year as the lead singer in a wedding band. As you know, American Idol’s format is based on contestants singing other artists’ songs, and, because my forte is songwriting, I honestly didn’t think I would have much success. In the end, it was a great surprise to advance as far as I did.
PW: Do you have any favorite memories from your time on the show?
CM: Audition day was a complete whirlwind. It started early and ended late. I was incredibly nervous and my adrenaline soared during the actual audition. I spent hours shooting B-roll with the other Hollywood-bound contestants, waving around our coveted golden tickets. After this very long day, I was completely exhausted. My mom and I had planned a big celebratory night out; instead, we ended up crashing in our room watching a chick flick, munching on two gigantic pieces of carrot cake for dinner. I have never enjoyed a night in so much in my life.
PW: You released your first album Enough in 2010 and your second, Passenger Seat, in 2011. You're now set to release your new EP Beautiful. How do you think your music and song-writing has evolved over time?
CM: In many ways, this EP feels like my first professional release. When I recorded those first two albums, I was just a high school student with a YouTube channel. I had a pretty big fan base, and they were asking for an album. So I did what most people do when they want to know how to do something -- I Googled “recording studios” and found a nearby basement studio. I recorded at night after my real summer job scooping ice cream. The album’s cover photos were taken by a classmate in my back yard. The process was pretty basic, but I’m extremely proud of both those albums because I just decided to go for it. We learned a lot along the way.
This EP takes all of that experience and combines it with both the formal training I received at Berklee as well as the expertise of my amazing team of Berklee engineers, producers, and musicians. This EP is my introduction into the music industry as a professional, showing the world the full extent of what I can do. I am very proud to share this music with my fans and hope they love it just as much as I do.
PW: Who or what most inspires and influences your song-writing?
CM: My life experiences and those of the people I love are the basis of my songs. For example, one of the songs coming out on my new EP is called “Solenne.” It’s named after the newest addition to our family, a beautiful baby girl. I sat down and wrote this song in 10 minutes; it just poured out of me. I tried to imagine it from the new parents’ perspectives: what it must feel like to stand at your baby’s cradle at night and feel so much love and wonder. My producer, Charles Humenry, and I recorded the song in just a few hours. I never intended for it to be part of this EP, but the sentiments shared in “Solenne” are universal.
PW: In your opinion, which is the greatest song ever written and why?
CM: Oh man! This is such a hard question. “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen has to be up there. The verses are incredibly beautiful; the lyrics strike a wonderful balance between poetry and stark emotion that is intensified by the beautiful melody and harmonic movement. I first heard Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” on the Shrek soundtrack. I was nine years old and had never heard anything like that before. I remember sitting on my bed and listening to it over and over, completely transfixed.
PW: Tell me about your new single, "Come Back To Me". Is there a story behind it?
CM: I wrote “Come Back to Me” for an assignment in a songwriting class. My teacher, Melissa Ferrick, gave us a prompt: write about something that makes you angry. At the time, I was 21 and single, living in Boston, so I wrote about the vanity of the dating scene: how everyone cared more about who you knew and how expensive your clothes were than who you were as a person. It made me crave the innocence, excitement, and passion of that first love. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the silly guys I dated in college; this song was worth it!
PW: Which has been your favorite performance to date?
CM: About two years ago, I performed a “You Matter” concert at Everett High School. I was nervous because it was my first time in front of an auditorium of high school students -- 600 10th graders. I walked on stage to polite applause and took a big risk. I had a proposition for the students: I would sing one song, and, if they didn’t think I was good, they didn’t have to listen to the rest of the program. However, if they did like it, they had to pay attention for the rest of the performance. Needless to say, they were intrigued. I belted out the best version of “Skyscraper” I’ve ever sung and won their respect. They were the most energized, engaged, and respectful young audience I’ve ever played for. I received a standing ovation between every song but also had their attention as I delivered my message. They were the dream audience! After the show, I was practically mobbed for autographs, was asked to prom on Twitter, and still keep in touch with hundreds of those Everett students through my social media accounts.
PW: If you could play any venue in the world, which would it be and why?
CM: I’ve always dreamt of having the opportunity to perform at the Grammys. That would be the ultimate challenge -- holding your own in front of the best musicians in the world. I can’t even imagine the rush!
PW: What are your touring and performance plans for the rest of the year? Will you be heading to Europe, perhaps?
CM: We have many “You Matter” concerts scheduled for this upcoming school year and will be performing at various venues around the country to promote the new EP! Actually, the EP release show for Boston is at the Middle East in Cambridge on Friday, September 9; check my website for information!
PW: Which three bands or artists, who can be living or dead, would you most like to share a stage with, and why?
CM: Adele, Taylor Swift, and Sara Bareilles. I am so obsessed with the music of these three women. They are so talented and have each influenced my writing style immensely.
PW: Whose career would you most like to emulate?
CM: Taylor Swift. She is incredibly talented and has an amazing relationship with her fans. I love responding to fan mail and will always make an effort to continue that open communication. I am also impressed with the way Taylor runs her business; her brand is rock solid. She was able to successfully transition from the highest selling country artist to the highest selling pop artist, going against the advice of her management. She is a role model to young women because she is multidimensional: she is a singer, songwriter, performer, and businesswoman, all at the same time. Being young and beautiful doesn’t mean you can’t be in charge! I am an artist and an entrepreneur. I am a woman -- a sister, daughter, cousin, and friend.
PW: What made you decide to found the "You Matter" tour and encourage young people to talk about positive self-image, etc.? Is it something you wish more people had done when you were younger?
CM: I didn’t set out to create The “You Matter” Tour; it happened organically. I was invited back to my old middle school by my music teacher to teach a songwriting class. I wanted the songs I sang during the class to resonate with the young students, so I picked three songs I had written when I was in middle and high school that dealt with bullying and insecurity. The kids loved my songs and stories, and I was invited back to play for more and more students. Word spread to other schools and other towns. Now, as a result, I’ve performed for over 25,000 students in 100 middle and high schools over the last five years.
What has kept me invested in the tour, however, is its impact on students. In today’s world of social media, everyone is busy creating the “perfect” online presence. Kids feel this pressure everyday, whether it’s to fit in or make the team or have the most “likes”. I try to convey this idea, that everyone feels insecure sometimes, but it is by accepting our flaws and learning to love ourselves that we become more confident and happier. At the beginning of the show, I walk out on stage, sing my best song on the top of my lungs, and show the students the confident, American Idol pop singer they think I am. But then I peel back the layers. I talk about the anxiety that plagues me, my insecurities with friends and my appearance. I show them that everyone has insecurities just like them.
The song “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World came out when I was nine years old. I cried when I heard it. I was so vulnerable at that age; I felt like I didn’t fit in, like I wasn’t enough, like I didn’t matter. That one song made me feel better, like someone understood. It would have meant so much to me if someone had come to my school, told me that they sometimes felt insecure and it wasn’t my fault. That’s what I hope to give to these students.
PW: Finally then, what are your ultimate ambitions both personally and professionally, and what advice would you give to anyone looking to make it in the music industry?
CM: My ultimate ambition personally is to have a life full of family and friends and try to live up to the message I profess during The “You Matter” Tour -- self love. Professionally, I want to be an internationally touring pop star! This is another message I tell my fans during that show: they need to be willing to say their goals out loud. I try to make my goal a reality by wholeheartedly committing to it each day. My advice to anyone looking to make it in this industry is: identify what you want, identify how to get there, and don’t hold back. When I was younger, my fear was that I would try and publicly fail. Today, my fear is that I will try but I will hold back just a little. I will grow up and grow old wondering what would have happened if I had truly committed myself. Somebody will become a pop star, somebody will become president, somebody will live our dreams -- why shouldn’t it be us?