Last weekend was supposed to be commencement for 2020 UNCW grads. Of course, COVID-19 put the kibosh on those plans. While it’s disappointing for so many who have worked hard for years, UNCW alumni, faculty and staff have been sharing words of encouragement and congratulating graduates in an effort to remind there’s so much to celebrate.
“I know this is a weird time, but know this moment, this virus doesn’t define you,” says singer-songwriter and former Seahawk herself Christy McDonald. “You are a graduate of one of the best colleges. You are a Seahawk, class of 2020, and no one or thing can ever take that away from you.”
McDonald graduated from UNCW with a BA in communications before moving to Nashville in 2000. She also made great friends and memories, including taking on some epic waves while surfing. “My friends and I would leave our surfboards, cross the bridge and head to class still in our bathing suits,” she remembers. “It was amazing fun.”
While becoming a musician wasn’t necessarily her goal at the time, a few influential people in and outside of her department set her on the path to the stage—literally. Her communication studies peers told film studies professor Lou Buttino about her talent as a singer. At the time, Buttino’s class was making a documentary film, “Tobacco Road,” about many famous basketball players (Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, Rick Fox, David “Skywalker” Thompson, Jerry Stackhouse) to emerge from our region. Buttino tapped McDonald to sing the National Anthem at a UNCW basketball game so they could use it for the film.
“It was moments like this that helped push me out of my comfort zone,” McDonald says. “Another professor, Frank Trimble, [turned me onto] a [storytelling] class under Carole Tallant. She had us write a short story then act it out on film. I was terrified, but after it was over, I was so grateful for the experience. I found out years later from a fellow alumni that she still used my recording as an example. It’s funny how you are so scared, but you just have to try. I’ll never forget the people, professors and friends I met at UNCW.”
While living in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, McDonald was immersed in live music. She encountered it with friends, while strolling by houses where bands practiced, or impromptu shows on the beach. “Music was everywhere,” she muses. “I love how there was and still is a variety [of music] to experience.”
McDonald has since collaborated with talents like German musician, DJ and record producer Robin Schulz. They recorded her pop song “Ha Leh Lou Ya” (2017), which she originally wrote with GRAMMY-winning producer Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift) and Danny Rader (guitarist for Keith Urban) for her own record. “Saying ‘yes’ to Robin Schulz pushed everything into overdrive,” McDonald says. Warner Atlantic released the track on Schulz’s album “Uncovered,” which debuted at number four on the iTunes World Charts in 2017.
“I was introduced to Tomorrowland [Music Festival], World Club Dome, full arenas singing every word, and KIIS-FM LA playing us between Adele and Rhianna,” McDonald recounts. “And then we landed the Nivea Global Campaign. It’s been wild. I am forever grateful to Robin Schulz and Stefan Debunk for putting my voice and songwriting out to the whole world.”
McDonald released her debut EP, “PROUD,” on May 8. Filled with catchy beats, it is the dance album we all could use right now. “Your Moment” kicks off with electronic mixes and uptempo clapping, ushering in McDonald’s energetic alto voice telling the listener to go out and own their moment (though, perhaps own it without going out for the time being). The EP as a whole also embodies McDonald’s love of Motown and powerful female vocalists, like Aretha Franklin—music her mother introduced her to. McDonald is also drawn to modern powerhouse singers like Pink and Beyonce. “I would sit in my bedroom, listen to these women and try to hit the notes they hit,” she tells.
The title track honors McDonald’s mother and was written on the anniversary of her death. As McDonald sat on Bloomingdale beach in Amsterdam remembering her mom, she noted all of her small, thoughtful acts during her life.
“She would leave my sister and I little notes—her hopes, wishes, lessons and dreams for us— in books for us to find as we got older,” McDonald shares. “The next day I showed up to the studio and my co-writers convinced me to be vulnerable and put these words to song. ‘PROUD’ was born. It’s the perfect title for the EP.”
The EP’s first single, “Are You With Somebody,” has been playing on the radio in Norway and was featured on Amazon Music’s Brand New Music Best Song Playlist. McDonald wrote and recorded it in a single day at a writer/artist camp in Amsterdam, where she was afforded studio time with various other aspiring songwriters and musicians. It was by chance she had a session with LA-based songwriter Sophie Simmons, whom she met that morning. A couple of Norwegian engineers ran the soundboard.
“I wanted a song about the angst two people share,” McDonald details. “How you might want them so bad, but the next day you might have a different heart. Either way, you have to know, ‘Are they with somebody?’”
Before COVID-19, McDonald was in talks to open for various artists in the U.S. and abroad as a way to celebrate the release. “Sadly, that is put on hold,” she says. Until she can return to the live stage, she’s depending on digital media and people following her socials for upcoming live stream performances @christymcdonaldmusic on Instagram and Facebook. A full-length album is on the horizon, too, set for recording with the Nashville-based music publishing company Big Yellow Dog as soon as the novel coronavirus lockdown is over.
“The music is written and ready to go,” she notes. “The producers and I are patiently waiting to get back in the studio!”