Interview: 'Unbreakable' Ali McManus overcomes the odds
Ali McManus

Singer-songwriter Ali McManus has spent her entire life beating the odds.

The Detroit native was born premature, diagnosed with a rare bone disorder as a child, and has spent the last twelve years confined to a wheelchair.

But McManus wouldn’t let her physical limitations keep her from fulfilling her dreams. Inspired by the healing power of music, she took up piano and guitar early on and began writing songs in her teens.

Now the 21-year old is celebrating her first career milestone with her debut EP, Unbreakable.

AXS spoke to McManus about the tunes…and the remarkable tenacity it took to finally get them recorded, despite obstacles that would’ve had lesser mortals throwing in the towel. Plucky, positive and passionate about her craft, the indomitable Ali is ready to share her gifts with a global audience.  

AXS: When did you write the songs for Unbreakable? How long had you been holding on to them?

ALI MCMANUS: I had more songs, but I’ve had these songs for about—it depends on the song—about the last year or two. One of the songs, “Breaking Free,” I wrote when I was fourteen. So that was an old one. That was one of the first good songs I wrote. The songs on the album are the ones that, throughout the years, were most special to me. Ever since I wrote them I wanted to get them on CD. But there were a few setbacks, surgeries and hospital stays that set back the time frame. Even when I started getting better there were more setbacks! So it was a long time coming, just waiting for it. Then my manager Susan came into my life, and that’s when it started really happening. 

AXS: You must’ve been excited to finally venture out to L.A. to begin recording.

A.M: Very excited! I went to L.A. for a month and recorded with Jack Douglas. He engineered the Imagine album by John Lennon, and he’s done albums with Cheap Trick and Aerosmith. So to even work with him was incredible! The first week I went to his house and we got the arrangements down. I played all my songs for him, even the ones that aren’t on the album. We picked the ones that worked the best, and ones I liked the best. So we got the arrangements down, added a bridge or two here and there. Then we went to a rehearsal studio and played the songs with the band, and then we went to the studio, L.A. Confidential. It was an amazing experience. We recorded all the songs live, where the band is all playing together. Then we mixed the vocals and had it mastered at Sterling Sound in New York. So that was the whole process.

AXS: Had you been to L.A. before?

A.M: Just for vacation. Not for any music stuff. It is a big city. I knew about L.A. before going there, but I was so just excited to do everything with Jack and everyone.

AXS: How easy—or challenging—was the recording process, as far as communicating with the band and translating your ideas into sound?

A.M: It was cool how they really listened to me, and they helped with certain guitar strumming patterns for the songs. A couple times it wasn’t specifically what I wrote. There’s one song where I had a certain feel going for the strumming, so I recorded that one, “Rhythm That Rhymes.” But they were very nice. They listened to all my ideas about how it should be. It was some of the best times in my life, honestly.

AXS: Well that’s good because it sounds like you went through a lot to finally get there.

A.M: Yeah. And you won’t believe it, but I got in a car accident on the way there! The crazy thing is, here I am going to meet my band for the first time. One minute there’s something amazing happening, and then another challenge comes my way! That was my first car accident ever. We were at a red light just waiting to go, and someone rear-ended my mom. I leaned forward just a little, but for me, that could mean another trip to the hospital, or me being done for! My mind just goes there if something traumatic happens. It was crazy. But I was proud of myself because I calmed down and went to meet the band. We rehearsed all the songs, and it was like nothing happened.

AXS: It must’ve felt very rewarding to hear the finished product after all that.

A.M: Oh, yeah. When I heard “Unbreakable” for the first time, I started crying. I was so amazed that something I wrote at home had been taken to that level. It was beautiful and amazing.

AXS: Talk a bit about the message in your music. Obviously, the title track speaks a lot to your ability—and anyone’s ability, really—to persevere and overcome the obstacles in life.

A.M: “Unbreakable,” it’s got the line I am who I am, I know where I stand. That’s kind of saying that I am who I am, no matter what. If someone is going through something that’s hard for them, you realize it really doesn’t affect you in certain ways, so you can still do what you want and be who you want to be.

AXS: “Breaking Free” talks about how being different doesn’t always have to be a bad thing or some disadvantage. People can be distinguished by their talents, their skills, and other good qualities.

A.M: Right! All you can do is break free from that negativity. You beat it that way. And it’s a great feeling when you do!

AXS: There’s a line in “Wings” where you discuss the overwhelming odds you’ve faced in conquering your health issues and bringing your musical dream to life…

A.M: Sure, all through the years I’d experienced it. Even when I was born, I was premature. I had a 50/50 chance of living. Another 50/50 chance was when I got my hip surgery. I broke my hip, and there was a 50/50 chance of coming out in a body cast or not. We were expecting to come out without one, but they went it to repair it, it shattered my whole hip! So then they had to do emergency surgery, and I came out of surgery in a hot pink body cast! That was when I was around nine. Another one was when my scoliosis became so curved—at 145 degrees—that it was crushing my lungs and stomach. I had no air left, and nowhere to put food! My lungs were at 19% at that point. It was risky to operate, but they had to do it. So we hoped for the best. After that, I had 40% lung capacity, and I grew seven inches. I stayed in a hospital in St. Louis for nine months. When I was thirteen I had halo traction, which is when they screw into your skull and put a halo bar across your forehead, and you stay that way 24/7. That was another 50/50 chance. So that’s where that line comes from!

I’ve always just wanted to get better and to get fit like anyone would! A lot of the times, I’d go into one surgery, and then another. Maybe one thing would work, and another wouldn’t. It was this downhill cycle. But I just had to keep up with it and keep my head held high, literally [laughs]!

AXS: Do you have to do anything special to prep your voice, given that diminished lung capacity?

A.M: I do vocal warmups. Where I really feel the effects of it is outside. I did the National Anthem outside, and it was one of the hottest days of the summer. That made it so hard for me to sing! That’s when I feel it the most. It’s harder for me to hold longer notes, and some of the lyrics—when we recorded them—we had to chop up the lines a bit because of the lung capacity, so I could do them in the studio. 

AXS: How long have you been singing and playing guitar?

A.M: Well, I started on piano. That was my first instrument, besides my voice. I had a grand piano in the living room. So when I couldn’t go outside and play with the other kids, I’d gravitate to it. Honestly, if I didn’t have the medical stuff going on, I don’t know that I would’ve ever gotten into music. That’s how I got into it. Then I saw what I could do, instead of what I couldn’t do. I played piano for about seven years. Then I moved on to guitar.

AXS: Who are some of your musical influences?

A.M: My biggest is Ed Sheeran. He’s the one who made me want to learn guitar. His lyrics are incredible, so vivid. Also John Mayer. I love his stuff, and he’s an incredible guitarist. When I was younger it was Adele. And Stevie Nicks!

AXS: Do you play lots of concerts?

A.M: I play in town a lot. I’ve been doing that for a few years. Next, I’ll be going to New York. I’ll be playing at the PlayStation Theater for the T.J. Martell Foundation on April 8. So I’m excited for that. I love playing live! I play better in front of an audience than when I’m playing by myself! I also do public speaking and motivational shows. I basically take the lyrics from the songs and put them into what I’m trying to say, which is about how to be unbreakable in your own life! The first one I did was for businessmen and women at a learning center conference down in Orlando, Florida. It was about how challenges come your way every day, and changes are always happening, and you can’t get away from them. But you grow, and you always have room to have everything get better.

AXS: Well, thank you for your time, Ali! Congrats on the new record, and good luck with it!

A.M: Well, thank you, too! Awesome. You have an unbreakable day!  

Visit Ali's website for tour details and album info. Tickets for the April 8 event are available here.