Arts

Second Home

Singer Meagan McNeal’s career began in Kalamazoo

Soul and R&B singer Meagan McNeal was born and raised in Chicago, and her music career has led to her living in Los Angeles and Phoenix and touring in Europe. But the Western Michigan University graduate, who lives back in Chicago now, claims Kalamazoo as her second home.

“The mayor of Kalamazoo, Bobby Hopewell, promoted my show on Facebook one of the last times I came to Kalamazoo,” the 29-year-old says. “I don’t get that anywhere else.”

Not only is Kalamazoo where McNeal visited a farmers’ market for the first time and discovered locally grown, organic food, but it is also where she launched her solo career. McNeal had her first playing gig at Kalamazoo’s Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative.

“It was August 18, 2007. I’ll never forget the date because that was the night I first thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can really do this and make a career out of this,’” she says. “It was the best 75 bucks I made in my life.”
McNeal arrived in Kalamazoo in 2004 to attend WMU, a decision she admits didn’t come about as a result of an elaborate, thought-out process.

“I just picked the first university that visited my high school, and that school just happened to be Western Michigan University,” she says.

As a first-generation college student, McNeal had a hard time adjusting to life away from friends and family, she says, so she began to build close relationships with some of the WMU faculty and joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in 2007. McNeal started learning about Kalamazoo’s arts and entertainment scene and found her niche at Fire, where she connected with other aspiring musicians. She graduated from WMU in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in sales and business marketing, and in 2011, released her first album, Mindset. One of the songs on the album is called "RainWalk."

'"Rainwalk' was written from the perspective of three women who have different roles in life, but share the common desire to be free and happy,” McNeal says. “A young, promiscuous party girl, a wife and mother and a career-oriented, super focused woman — all wanting to live and be their authentic selves.”

Her career and life took a turn in 2012 when she became pregnant with her son, Maddox. “Some people came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re having a baby, so does that mean you’re not going to sing anymore?’”

But a strong support system of friends and family allowed McNeal to continue her career without much change. Maddox was the first baby in McNeal’s family in nearly 14 years. McNeal is more cautious now about how far she travels from home and says Kalamazoo is a comfortable distance for her. McNeal says her favorite part about performing in Kalamazoo is bringing 3-year-old Maddox along to see family and friends.

And he enjoys the music.

“It’s cool to see that (Maddox) is starting to get into music. We sing duets together at home, and sometimes he’ll take the lead and say ‘Ok, Mommy, now it’s my turn.” McNeal says.

McNeal got her own start in music as a child. She sang for an audience for the first time at her aunt’s wedding when she was 9.

“I really wanted to be a bridesmaid, but my auntie was like, ‘Well, you can be in my wedding if you sing,’” she recalls. “I sang Stevie Wonder’s You and I.”

McNeal grew up listening to soul and R&B artists such as Whitney Houston and Jill Scott. She listened to different artists for different reasons, she says. Maybe the lyrics of a song struck her, or the artist’s voice was powerful. She listened to Stevie Wonder, for example, because she believes he’s the best songwriter of all time.

As far as her own music is concerned, McNeal tries to combine all types of musical genres into her artistry. She doesn’t think about sticking to a particular style — she just sings and is content with whatever flows out. She calls it expressive music.

“I’m kind of like Kalamazoo,” she says. “Kalamazoo is more laid-back, not fast-paced like Chicago, and I think my approach is laid-back. I’m not trying to force one sound over the other.”

McNeal is back in the studio in Chicago working on a new project but says she tries to come back to Kalamazoo at least twice a year to perform at venues such as Shakespeare’s Pub, Fire and Bell’s Eccentric Cafe. She most recently performed locally in October, at a Homecoming event at WMU.

“I don’t refer to the people in Kalamazoo as my friends,” she says. “The people here are my family.”

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Why Kalamazoo's Her Second Home

The mayor of Kalamazoo, Bobby Hopewell, promoted my show on Facebook one of the last times I came to Kalamazoo. I don’t get that anywhere else.

—Meagan McNeal