Studying piano from the age of four, MacKenzie became fascinated with traditional Scottish music before her eighth birthday. Inspired by field recordings of Gaelic music, she taught herself to speak Gaelic as a teenager. She continued to strengthen her connection with the tradition while studying ethnomusicology at the New England Conservatory of Music. She worked as a team teacher at Harvard University from 1982 to 1983 and helped develop a course, "Structure and Form in Music and Movement." While living in the Boston area, MacKenzie was involved with a variety of musical projects. Working with several dance companies, she increased her understanding of the Russian, Baroque, Balkan and Celtic traditions. In addition to performing in a multicultural acapella duo with Anne Goodwin, she was a founding member of the worldbeat group, Sedenka. In 1985, she recorded an album with Celtic dance band, St. James Gate.
MacKenzie's debut album, Shantyman, released in 1986, showcased her eclectic tendencies. A collection of traditional maritime songs, the album reflected her experiences as a shantyman on square-rigged ships. The following year, MacKenzie emigrated to Scotland and enrolled in the Celtic department of Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies. She had made her first trip to the area in 1979 and had returned in 1984 to record singers from the Scottish west coast and islands. ~ Craig Harris, Rovi