Oakland U. student's setbacks won't stop singing dreams

Ali McManus, a 20-year-old singer-songwriter, will perform at a benefit for music therapy programs Friday at MotorCity Sound Board

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Listening to Ali McManus belt out her original songs, you wouldn’t know the 20-year-old sings with only 30 percent lung capacity.

Singer-songwriter Ali McManus plays with record producer Jack Douglas. Douglas visited McManus at her home in Bloomfield Hills a few months ago.

You also wouldn’t know the singer-songwriter gets around in a wheelchair pimped out with pink spokes. But McManus says the chair is just “a temporary thing” until her bones are strong enough for hip surgery.

“There’s a chance I can walk someday,” she says Monday before performing at a Bloomfield Township Dairy Queen to support the Children’s Miracle Network. “(The chair) is because of all the surgeries and everything. Each surgery went well, but it had a complication somewhere else.”

Born three months premature, weighing 2 pounds and 7 ounces, the Bloomfield Hills native has endured 11 surgeries as a result of a rare bone disorder, osteoporosis and scoliosis. At age 13, she spent nine months at Shriners Hospital in St. Louis to straighten her spine, which had twisted 145 degrees.

“My spine was actually crushing my lungs and my stomach, so my lung capacity was below 19 percent. But now it’s actually at 30, so it’s still not 100, but it’s pretty good,” she says. “It’s better than 19.”

Sitting on the edge of her wheelchair, McManus looks like a young singer trying to make it in the industry. Red lipstick taints her lips. Her blond hair is wound up in a side bun. Several silver rings, one engraved with the title of her song, “Rhythm that Rhymes,” wrap around her fingers.

She hasn’t let her medical challenges stop her musical pursuits, even though with 19 percent lung capacity, she admits “trying to hold out long notes can be difficult at times.”

Friday, McManus will perform at the third “Remember the Child” Dick Wagner memorial fund concert at MotorCity Sound Board to raise money for music therapy programs at Beaumont Children’s Hospital and Flint’s Hurley Children’s Hospital. Next week, she’s off to Los Angeles for a month to produce an album with legendary record producer Jack Douglas, who’s produced John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Aerosmith.

That connection was thanks to her new manager Susan Michelson, who founded the Dick Wagner benefit concert and managed the Saginaw native and guitarist the last decade of his life. Michelson discovered McManus’s music — which McManus describes as “contemporary pop with some soft rock” — last year when she spoke at the benefit.

“I was so taken by her songs and her performance,” Michelson says. “I haven’t taken on anyone since Dick Wagner. I just didn’t feel that I wanted to take on another artist, but she is so compelling, and her talents and the genuine way she speaks from her soul, I decided to get involved with her.”

On a trip to Los Angeles, she played McManus’ music for Douglas, who’s a friend.

“I told him that she was in a wheelchair and he said, ‘I see her as an artist first.’ And I said, ‘I do, too.’ The fact that she’s in a wheelchair is irrelevant to her talent,” she says.

Michelson still has trouble believing McManus sings with limited air capacity.

“You’d never know,” she says. “She’s never out of breath. Her tone is always even and beautifully supported, and in most singers’ cases, they don’t support themselves well with their breath until they’re very experienced.”

Though McManus had to withdraw from her second semester at Oakland University for the trip, she’s ecstatic about the opportunity to work with Douglas. College isn’t a priority, anyway.

“Music was my No. 1. School was No. 2,” she says. “It was always like that.”

“I didn’t really go to college for a major per se,” she adds. “I went for independence.”

When Douglas visited her months ago, she solidified his commitment to help her produce an album.

“We jammed together and started some lyric ideas — and he has amazing stories about John Lennon — so we just got to know each other,” she says.

Since then, McManus has penned as many songs as she can, which she’ll take to the West Coast. The first week will focus on writing. The second will be spent rehearsing with musicians Douglas is gathering.

Most songs are about the medical challenges she’s endured. Though one of her favorites, “Heart Shattered Like My Bones,” is a love song.

“It was my first break-up song. I swore I would never write one, but I did,” she says, laughing.

Her music incorporates the piano and guitar, which she just picked up two years ago. She credits John Mayer and Ed Sheeran as her main influences and gives a shout out to Aaron Julison, Kid Rock’s bassist, who she considers a “big mentor.”

Her mother, Julie McManus, 47, says Ali is the happiest of her three children and making other people smile is “what it’s all about.” But often after she performs, “there’s not a dry eye in the house.”


(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

‘Remember the Child’ Dick Wagner Memorial Fund Concert

Doors open 5:30 p.m. Friday;

concert starts 7 p.m.

MotorCity Casino Sound Board

Tickets start at $25 on Ticketmaster

Call 1 (866) 782-9622