Choice McKinley is a seventeen-year-old upcoming ukulele musician and singer-songwriter. Born and raised in Alabama, ever since she was very young music has always been a part of her life. At an early age, her mom introduced her to classical pieces, jazz, electronic chill-out, Celtic music, and Christian hymns. Though for many years McKinley was too shy to sing in front of people, her natural talent was there. When she was seven years old, her mom heard her perfectly singing soprano in her bedroom. Growing up her life wasn’t easy. Between skin infections, asthma attacks, and ultimately leaving the house she grew up in because of domestic abuse, McKinley knows what means to have lived uncertain of tomorrow. Through it all, music was still there.
“My mp3 player was my best friend. Wherever my mom and I were, if I could just have my music with me to sing alone in private, I knew I’d be okay.”
In 2016 McKinley’s life began to change for the better. God led her and her mom to a new church where McKinley sang a solo for the first time.
“God wanted me to sing, so as scared as I was, I knew I had too!”
It was at this church that McKinley met a mother whose two adult sons played a multitude of instruments. The Celtic style of playing the violin had always inspired her, so she was able to borrow a violin from this new found friend. But in July of 2016, McKinley discovered her friend’s son’s ukulele and a new, greater passion was born
“After playing the violin for a time, I just knew that perhaps I would gel better with another stringed instrument, just perhaps not the guitar because it’s so big. When my friend showed me her oldest son’s ukulele and I picked it up, I just knew that this could be it. Her younger son plays the mandolin, which I tried out that day as well. But I wasn’t feeling the fact that all the strings were doubled. I sat down with that ukulele and began to strum it instantly. The first chord I ever played without even looking up chord charts was C. My friend let me borrow her son’s uke until he needed it back a month later. I took it home feeling like I had found the best instrument ever. I got up at 6 am every morning to practice and write songs about the wonder of the morning.
Music was just pouring out of me. My mom loved hearing me play every single morning for a whole month. When my friend’s son needed his uke back, I remember getting serious about playing the piano the two weeks I had no ukulele and no violin. Once you have instruments in your life, you can’t go without them! I purchased my first ukulele that August, along with a dulcimer my mom and I fell in love with.”
In the coming months, music flowed from McKinley. Harmony after harmony on her ukulele, dulcimer, and piano. She even picked up some guitar playing skills, though she doesn’t play it at a professional level. She soon began to dream of having a career and making an album. On YouTube, she watched videos of other great ukulele musicians such as Honoka and Azita, Taimane, and Jake Shimabukuro. She was so inspired by them she decided to study their videos since she learns by visuals.
“I could watch what they were doing on the ukulele, and sitting there with my uke I found myself doing it too. I personally think being self-taught has been an amazing experience. I never had to watch tutorial videos, and honestly, if I did I was super confused.”
McKinley wanted to debut an album for 2017, but it wasn’t God’s timing. In 2017 she became greatly ill with another skin infection, the worst she had ever had. It got so bad, she was no longer able to play any of her instruments.
“Through those long three months of pain and discomfort, all I had was my mom and music. I constantly watched videos of the ukulelists that inspired me. I constantly dreamed of being like them one day. I knew God had better things in store.”
Choice McKinley has now been a musician for two years and God is taking her places with it! In the early months of 2018, McKinley was invited to be apart of a praise team. It was through getting on stage every Sunday that she learned to no longer fear singing and playing for people.
“Thinking back just a few months ago, I was terrified of playing on stage. But now, I love it. When I plug my ukulele in, I just sit down and feel the music that I’m playing. There’s nothing like being on stage.”
This year McKinley has also started a YouTube channel, purchased her dream ukulele, debuted at a local open mic, self-produced a track for SoundCloud, designed and build her own website, and started growing her presence on Twitter. After years of uncertainty and living by faith, Choice McKinley is finally living her dream. Having been homeschooled all her life, McKinley is now studying at Berklee College of Music online to hone her skills in the music business.
“I’m coming at my career from the angle of being an indie artist. I’ve always been an independent person, so I think creating my own music and being my own producer and manager is definitely the route I’m taking and sticking with. I’m currently working on my debut album for 2019. I have a great deal of classical, folk, and jazz influence. My plan is to show my musical diversity in everything I create. My first album is going to be called ‘Journeys’. It will include new originals and old originals from my early days as a musician. I’m very excited about it!”
How would you describe your music?
“It’s going to definitely be a mix of classical, folk, jazz, inspirational, and there might be a little pop influence in there too. This is how I like to describe myself; I’m a ukulele musician and singer-songwriter. As a ukulele musician, I do all kinds of instrumental Aesthetics. As a singer-songwriter, I sing and therefore I write songs with lyrics as well. From what I’ve noticed, most musicians either specialize in instrumentals or songs with lyrics. I personally do both.”
What does the ukulele mean to you?
“The ukulele is such a simple instrument, yet it can do anything! If you have ever watched Taimane Gardner, you know what I mean! We only have 4 strings to work with, yet that’s enough! The ukulele also brings people together. It’s almost impossible to hear it and not smile. It carries the spirit of Aloha! It’s honestly more than just an instrument, it’s a lifestyle. I couldn’t live without it.”
What can we expect to see and hear from you in the future?
“I post a YouTube video every week on my channel. One of my favorite things to do is take a song that I love and cover it incorporating my own unique sound and style. I also post originals, impromptu, and in the coming months, I plan to incorporate some lifestyle videos too! I can’t say for sure how much music I will put out professionally in the coming years. It’s honestly a matter of where my inspiration takes me. I write music all the time, but not every song is album worthy if you know what I mean. I plan to have a lot of gigs in the future. As I said, there’s nothing like being on stage. My uke and I could play away for hours it feels sometimes. I want to inspire people with beautiful harmonies and the ukulele’s undeniable spirit of Aloha. Whatever I create or cover, I deeply feel the music and I want you to as well.”