SJ McDonald from the Farm to the Honky Tonks

SJ McDonald grew up on a farm in Virginia, but now she graces the stages at songwriter nights and Broadway in Nashville. McDonald, an artist we have followed for a while, has become one of our favorites in Music City. SJ released her latest single on March 12, 2021. Please keep reading to learn more about McDonald and her music.

From Farming to Playing Music

SJ McDonald isn’t one of those singer-songwriters who always dreamed of singing, but music gradually became her focus. McDonald said, “I am the oldest of five kids. I grew up showing cows, lambs, and goats in 4H, but I have been making music for ten years. It was a slow and change to music. My mom signed me up for the 4H Share the Farm contest, which was a talent show. Mom had heard me singing in my room, so she signed me up. I won, and she kept signing me up for things. Honestly, I don’t remember ever saying I want to do this, but I think she just knew. However, I loved the attention. The big thing was they got me a vocal coach when I was twelve or thirteen to learn how to protect my voice.”

McDonald recalled what put her on the path of being an artist. SJ said, “I won ten hours of recording time in the studio through another vocal contest. So we were like, okay, SJ is an artist.  I have been writing songs since I was nine years old. When I was twelve or thirteen, we recorded ten of the songs I had written, so they were crap. Another big push was being on being on tour with John Anderson and Aaron Tippin. Only two shows happened for me, but this put me on the map a little bit. I got a band, and my mom booked everything until I was seventeen or eighteen. Now, it’s all on me.”

SJ McDonald came from the farm to Nashville
“I am gut feeling kind of girl.” SJ McDonald

Why Belmont?

SJ McDonald moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University, where she became a songwriting major. She explained why she chose Belmont. The Virginia native said, “Honestly, it was gut feeling. I originally wanted to go to college to be a music education teacher and play oboe or classical guitar. However, I came to Nashville to audition for the voice. While we were here, I don’t even think we drove past Belmont. I just thought, Nashville, everybody says to go. I planned on not moving here, and I thought, who needs Nashville to be a musician. But, I liked the city and thought, what the heck, I’ll apply. My dad and I toured the school, and it just felt right.”

Many songwriters bravely move here right out of high school, but McDonald felt college was her path. SJ said, “For me, I didn’t care where I went to school as long as I had a place to sleep, food to eat, a shower, and a toilet would be nice. I mean, I don’t know. Many of my friends are like, Belmont was the one. I knew that college was the next step, but it didn’t feel like a life-changing next step for some reason. It felt like a thing I had to do. You could make up something, and it would sound better than why I chose Belmont. It just felt right.”

SJ McDonald on Becoming a Better Songwriter

Most songwriters can recall the reason they began writing songs, but once again, SJ is unique. The singer-songwriter said, “I have no idea why I started writing; I just did it.  My school had given us a notebook to keep track of announcements and homework. I began using mine as a songbook when I was nine years old. My first song was about a princess and a prince on a horse. I would write about love, but I no longer write about love.”

Many talented songwriters in Nashville went to Belmont, but do the classes make you a better writer? McDonald said, “No, not at all. I love Belmont, don’t get me wrong. I have gotten many great things from it, but honestly, what made me a better songwriter and will continue to make me better is writing with other people. All of my co-writers, except for one, came from outside of Belmont. While I received helpful critiques from my professors, it was in writing rooms that I got to apply those lessons. A school like Belmont is not going to hand you your dreams. You have to work for it.”

SJ McDonald is performing at Belcourt Taps
SJ McDonald performing at Nashville Tour Stop at Belcourt Taps in Nashville

SJ’s Nashville Experience

There is a lot to learn about the music scene in town for those who don’t know when you first move to Music City. McDonald describes her first impressions of Nashville. SJ said, “I was so misinformed about Nashville when I came here. I didn’t know there were songwriters. I thought the artists wrote all their songs. When I got here, the primary name I heard was Nicole Galyon. I was like, who is that? Now I am obsessed with songwriters. It is incredible how much you can learn once you get immersed in the music scene.

SJ hit the ground running when she got to Nashville. McDonald said, “I came to my freshman orientation at Belmont late because I had a gig opening for Sister Hazel in North Carolina. My guitar from my old band drove me to Nashville since he has moved here. All I had with me was my guitar and a bag of clothes. My parents came a day later to bring my car. Literally, a week later, I started playing on Broadway. I got lucky on a Facebook post and auditioned for this band called The Garrett Speer Band. It turned into a weekly gig.

The best advice for anyone moving to Nashville is to go out to the songwriter nights and meet people. McDonald said, “I started going to Belcourt Taps to listen to and meet people. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I have this crew of people I know like you and everyone at Nashville Tour Stop and Song Suffragettes.”

Lessons Learned from the Honky Tonks

There are mixed feelings among singer-songwriters in town about whether or not it’s worth playing on Broadway. Some have called it the 10-year trap, but others say the experience is invaluable. For many, it is how they pay their bills while others focus on songwriting. SJ McDonald is a seasoned performer on Broadway. The singer-songwriter said, “Broadway can be addictive. All these people are there, and even if they don’t know who you are, they are excited to hear music. You can get stuck down there, but only if you let yourself. Broadway, for me, is a way to earn money. You don’t have to blow out your voice; turn up your monitor. 

As an observer of the music scene in town, the artist has to determine their focus. Do you want to be known for singing cover songs or for your original music? SJ McDonald talked about how she strikes a balance. She said, “When I was playing 3 to 4 nights a week downtown, I realized I was only posting about those gigs. So, I stopped promoting my Broadway shows and began posting about my writer’s rounds. If you are here to write songs, make that your priority on social media.”

I have heard from many artists, including McDonald, who has played in the honky-tonks; it made them better performers. McDonald said, “Playing on Broadway has made me a better performer. It’s good for trying out cover songs, so you know what people like, and you can include them in your original shows. It’s expanding the songs I know, which has improved my songwriting because I listen to more music. Also, it helps me cut up with a crowd. I would recommend any artist who is a songwriter to play on Broadway to get the most out of your Nashville experience. Hone your skills.”

SJ McDonald: Behind the Music

SJ McDonald released her debut single, “Give Me Back my Heart. In 2020, she followed that with “Hot Damn” and “Rouge.” All very different songs. McDonald said, “Give Me Back my Heart” is more pop country, and you probably won’t hear anything like that from me again. “Hot Damn” was a sassy, kick your ass song. “Rouge” was an open your eyes; domestic violence is happening in this world song.” Rouge was a raw and emotional song. Brittany Moore and I got lucky that we were able to capture that feeling. We have received a lot of messages saying it helped them. The song didn’t blow up or anything, but I am proud of it. 

This photo is the cover art for the new single from SJ McDonald. The single is called "One More Night in Des Moines"

SJ McDonald Releases her 4th single, “One More Night in Des Moines”

On March 12, 2021, SJ McDonald dropped her latest single. Coincidentally, the inspiration behind the song came from one of our featured artists from 2020, Nicole Miller. The singer-songwriter explained, “Nicole Miller is from Des Moine, Iowa. In the fall of 2019, at some point, Nicole put a boomerang of downtown Des Moines in her Instagram story. Nicole put “one more day in Des Moines,” and I liked how that sounded so I wrote it down. One day I was writing on by myself playing around with that title, and I flipped it to “One More Night in Des Moines.” I wrote a verse and a chorus, and I pitched in a few writes. Finally, I convinced Brittany Moore to write the song with me. We rewrote the chorus but kept some of the verse, and Brandon Meagher killed the production on this song.”

The new single is unique because you don’t often hear a cheating song from the other woman’s point of view. SJ said, “This was my first cheating song, where the character knew they were cheating. People in Nashville told me I should release it, but it took one friend from home to convince me to do it. Des Moine was the last song I decided to record for my upcoming EP.”

You can imagine there could be haters saying you are saying cheating is okay, but SJ has their answer. She said, “Hopefully, people don’t think I am a cheater. If I were a cheater, it would be stupid of me to say it out loud song. However, nowhere in the song does it say cheating is okay. I began thinking about “Stay” by Sugarland, and I am pretty sure that’s about the other woman. You don’t hear a lot of that, and I have no problem putting myself in the bad person’s shoes. I am comfortable with myself, and I know I am a good person. 

Listen to “One More Night in Des Moines” here!

Fun Facts with SJ McDonald

You may be wondering what SJ stands for, and I know. However, you will have to ask SJ herself to find out. In the meantime, we can share some fun facts about the Virginia native. If you ever take a road trip with SJ, let her drive. McDonald said, “I am a backseat driver. If you are a terrible driver, I will let you know. I am such a granny, so I am not the fun chick I write myself out to be sometimes.” 

As a college student, you eat a lot of things because they are cheap. One of the most amusing things I have heard about SJ is her feeding one of her co-writers SPAM. SJ said, “Spam is life-changing, and I love it.”  The singer-songwriter continued, “I also love tiny things, like the little hands that go on your fingers. ASMR(autonomous sensory meridian response) videos relax me. Also, I love watching people make tiny food.”

Our thoughts

Does anyone besides me appreciate the irony that SJ’s last name is McDonald and she lived on a farm? Regardless, SJ McDonald is one of the most genuine, heartwarming people you could want to meet. The music she puts out makes you feel something, and as a fan, I appreciate that. So much of the music on the radio doesn’t deal with life’s raw emotions, so we tip our hat to SJ McDonald’s willingness to release something real. Undiscovered Nashville is grateful that a gut feeling brought SJ to the Music City. We get to see her perform anytime we want. If you are in Nashville, you can catch SJ McDonald at The Stage on Broadway from 12-4 PM. In the meantime, follow SJ on social media and listen to great music she has online. 

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