When Mackenzie Cortes was in fourth grade, one of her most memorable moments was singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” during a Veteran’s Day concert at Fairview Elementary School.
The song, a tribute to self-worth and individuality, was special because her grandfather was in the audience as a U.S. Army veteran.
For Mackenzie, known as “Kenz,” it was a chance to bond with him over their shared love of music.
“We’re really good together musically, and he’s one of my best friends,” she said.
Mackenzie wrote her first song at age 15 with her grandfather, Mike Davis, who has been a fixture in the Columbia music community for years and still performs across the country.
He also gave Mackenzie her first guitar, which she loves and continues to play.
“He’s the reason why I continue to do music and will continue to do music,” Mackenzie said.
Today she is also an accomplished musician whose band, Estrella, has already performed at Rose Music Hall and other venues in Columbia.
She is the lead singer and songwriter for the band, alongside guitarists Luke Sabath and Matilda McKenzie and drummer Emmett Wright. The young band has an indie-rock style inspired by artists such as My Chemical Romance and Melanie Martinez.
A senior at Hickman High School, Mackenzie balances her music, grades and, most recently, teaching guitar, ukulele and songwriting at Compass Inc.
She maintains a 4.0 GPA and plans to attend MU in the fall to study medicine in hopes of becoming a heart surgeon.
Mackenzie has loved music since she was a child, and she is largely self-taught. Her father remembers a birthday when his daughter wrote a song for him and her mother shared a video of Mackenzie singing with cake smearing her face.
Growing up, Mackenzie studied music by listening to hymns in church and playing for the choir. From understanding pitch to making harmonies, she credits the church for many of the skills she uses to make her own music.
Although her father had concerns about conflicts with the secular music scene, he said his pastor and the church community have continued to encourage Mackenzie.
She still plays the guitar and viola at church, and she plans to play the bass, as well.
She has also been a member of honor choirs and orchestras at school, which allows her to practice her music and hone her skills. One of her orchestra teachers, Patrick Ordway, brought a different sensibility to the classroom, straying from books and introducing new ideas.
Mackenzie attributes her continuation in orchestra through high school to him.
“We were really pushed to succeed and learn to the greatest ability that we could,” she said.
From pain to melody
For much of her life, Mackenzie was raised by a single father after a complicated divorce between her parents when she was in elementary school.
“My parents getting divorced definitely had the biggest impact on me as a child,” she said.
In 2008, her father met a woman who would become Mackenzie’s stepmother, and everything turned around for her and her brother.
“She immediately stepped in and just became a mom to them,” Mackenzie’s father said.
As a result of her childhood experiences, Mackenzie said she deals with anxiety and depression.
Music has become a way for her to express her emotions, as well as make sense of her past.
She draws on her past for much of her songwriting. The first song she wrote with her grandfather was about her mother, and several other songs draw upon breakups and stressors in her life.
Mackenzie said she likes to write lyrics after her band has composed the music to identify emotions she feels in the chords.
She describes her style as poetic and melancholy, staying true to the roots of her very first song.
Although Mackenzie has a talent for music, she wants to pursue a career in medicine.
When she was 5, the gas pump in her father’s car exploded, and he was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
Mackenzie remembers begging the nurses and doctors to fix him, vowing to break her piggy bank to pay for it.
“I was such a little kid, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening,” Mackenzie said. “I don’t want other kids to feel that way.”
Her father’s accident provided the spark, but Mackenzie is no stranger to the medical field.
Her mother, stepmother and grandmother are all nurses, so she is surrounded by women in the health care field.
Mackenzie strives to touch the lives of those around her through her music and her future in the medical field.