From her time on the ultra-popular “American Idol” to her performances at schools and now upcoming EP album, entitled “Beautiful,” McQuillen has made it her mission to connect to audiences through raw emotions and honesty.
Simply put, the singer-songwriter shares her personal stories and emotional journey in a refreshing way.
The EP “Beautiful,” also features a song by the same name which is the focal point to her program for younger kids. In fact, the EP reflects the same honesty and vulnerability that’s displayed in her live performances for students.
McQuillen has used her talents to create an anti-bullying program, known as the “You Matter” Tour, which encourages self-esteem in youth across the country. She performs songs that she wrote as a teenager in hopes to connect with the middle school and high school students she visits.
“I wrote about being 15 or being 17 and just how difficult that could be,” McQuillen said. “I use those songs as a way to talk to students about what they’re going through.”
The idea for the “You Matter” Tour started when she was 18 and a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her seventh grade guitar teacher invited her back to the guitar class to speak with the younger musicians. In preparation for the talk, she chose three original songs to spark a connection with the middle school-aged kids.
She explained to the students about the songwriting process and her teacher thought it was so powerful that she then did the presentation for the whole grade and eventually the whole school. Since then, she has played in over 100 schools for more than 30,000 students.
After being a contestant on season 13 of “American Idol,” McQuillen developed the program even further. McQuillen was in the top 48 out of tens of thousands of contestants. She was able to add the element of discussing her time as a contestant on the show and reflecting on taking risks in such a public way. The program is all about perception versus reality, like how the kids perceived her experience versus how it really went.
“With today’s social media, students are looking at everyone else and see that their lives are so put together and you’re life isn’t, but the truth is that we’re all a lot closer to the middle,” she said.
“I’ve done this program in some of the fanciest schools in the country and in some of the lower-income schools in Boston and what resonates with students of all backgrounds is that I’m just telling my truth and not trying to assume what their life is like,” McQuillen added. “What it’s really taught me as a songwriter and as a performer is that people respond to honesty and vulnerability.”
She often speaks to students about some of the hardest experiences she’s had to face and she’s noticed that they always respect and respond well to it.
“Everyone understands what it’s like to not believe in yourself and to doubt yourself or feel lonely and people respect when you’re willing to share those stories,” she said.
“Beautiful,” the most popular song she has performed, starts out as McQuillen at 17 years old and not being able to leave the house without putting on makeup out of insecurity. The song explores her relationship with her appearance from wanting to fit in to wanting to be popular. It also looks at the perspective of her mother who is watching her daughter “go through the same cycle of self-hate that she went through and most women go through.”
Honesty is what McQuillen strives for in her songwriting, and it definitely comes through in the rest of the EP. The songs in the album have spanned over a decade and focuses on growing up as well as finding yourself through different universal experiences.
And speaking of “American Idol,” she’s pretty glad that the show is returning to television.
“With the program, and the fact that I talk about ‘Idol’, I’m sort of happy that these 11-year-olds will continue to know what the show is and that I’ll stay relevant for a little bit longer,” she joked.
If you’d like to learn more about McQuillen’s upcoming EP and her “You Matter” Tour, visit www.caseymcquillen.com. She will perform at Brooklyn's Pete's Candy Store but the date is TBA.