Time on her side: Angie McMahon

Angie McMahon speaks softly.

Though, in the scheme of things, there isn’t really a need to talk any louder. It’s a quiet Saturday afternoon and we’re holed up in a studio space on the backstreets of Collingwood. It’s just the two of us, chatting in a place where much of her album vision came to life.

“You have my permission to make stuff up if my answers are too boring.”

This isn’t something to be concerned with. The Melbourne singer-songwriter is a very easy person to talk to; her warmth and kindness is radiant, her conversation nuanced and absorbing. So much so that for about fifteen minutes after my arrival, we just sat together and spoke about life before I even thought to open my voice memos. Not before a few apps were deleted to save space, of course. Naturally, this inspires the first point on record: Living in a digital age.

Angie: I can’t back up my phone because my computer is full and I can’t backup my computer because my hard drive is full. I’m waiting for my world to implode.

It’s funny how technology simultaneously betters our lives, yet also makes them more challenging. While the world is literally at our fingertips (for better or worse) a phone in hand is the ultimate decoy for perceived awkwardness of taking time out.

Angie: I’m so overstimulated with conversation and communication at the minute. So every time I go out I feel really bad because I just want to sit at the back of a room. Sneak off in a corner and be on my phone. I wish it was more normal to sit by yourself. I just want to be with my thoughts.

By the same token, this connectedness is sometimes to our detriment. It’s not an uncommon urge to switch off completely. Who hasn’t had a fleeting feeling where they’d like to throw their device from some height? Or into a body of water – whether on purpose, or by accident.

Angie: Mine survived being dropped in the toilet. I kinda wish it hadn’t. The week that I did that, I left it in rice then went to Perth for 3 days. I left my phone at home and it was the best feeling. It’s nice to not have it, but then the anxiety inevitably kicks in. Particularly in the music industry where everything moves so quickly. The amount of times you get a phone call where it’s like “we need an answer on this in 40 minutes” or “this is urgent” and it’s not urgent.

With the nature of anxiety in the industry, it would be really good for people to calm down a little bit. We’re all a little bit disorganised. The idea of a ‘priority’ is false and makes you really confused about really is important.

The industry we find ourselves in is no doubt a strange one. Standards are built on guesswork, work conditions vary, abusive people remain unchecked and as Angie reminds me; there is no HR department to check in. While there still is a lot of progress to be made, we are seeing some promising shifts.

Angie: People are starting to actually be held accountable for their actions. I think that’s really important, because as much as people might be like “oh political correctness” or “it’s about the music,” we know that. You have to work really hard in this industry and if you’re not working to be a good person at the same time there’s a hundred other people who deserve your spot.

There are some strong voices. I feel really grateful for them, because it’s often those voices who speak out that make you feel brave enough to speak too. Or that the things that you’ve witnessed or thought have grounds to them. Because other people are speaking about them too.

Speaking up does sadly come at a cost. These artists that push the conversation forward put themselves on the line to do so. Every day there’s a looming threat of being doxed, abused or threatened – because they have the nerve to speak about something that is wrong.

Angie: It’s emotional labour. It’s almost always women. There was a really good post from Rolling Blackouts about lineup diversity. They were like “We just want to say, we haven’t really been speaking up about this because we felt it was our place to listen and support. But now we realise there’s a lot of emotional labour being done by the women we care about. So we want to make it very clear that this is something we support.”

It would be really cool if that was happening more, because it does just get placed on the shoulders of women all the time. Camp Cope, Stella Donnelly, whoever it is shouldn’t have to carry the weight of all the misogynists.

The discourse around underrepresented line-ups has been pushed forward monumentally in recent years. Films such as Her Sound Her Story, projects like Lineups Without Males/Lineups Without Whites and conversations led by integral music organisation LISTEN have all have played a pivotal role in making representation an industry-wide conversation. It’s a message that revolves back to a very simple premise: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Angie: I’ve always dreamed of doing what I’m doing. When I was younger and looking at stages and lineups and stuff there were people like me? And I just found it so easy to believe that I could do it. I am very lucky that I had that. There are people who have plenty more talent than me, and deserve the job as much or more, but maybe when they were younger they didn’t have that visibility or support. It’s really sad – the importance of representation in music is so simple. It’s so easy to see. Art is how we comment on the world, it’s how we change the world. It’s a hugely important part of our society. The world is not white people. It’s not rich people. It’s as a simple as that. We need more voices, we need diversity, we need to hear from minorities. Visibility is so important.

It’s important to be educated about it. When you read the shit comments sections, or the really strange close-minded statements from people in power… You want them to go a read the very vast amount of research, seek out publications and have conversations. If you’re feeling fragile and insulted, cool, get over it. Grow up.

“Grow up.” The same phase exactly that Jen Cloher said to Bluesfest after they revealed a first round lineup that featured fewer than 5 female acts. Jen is someone Angie looks up to immensely, alongside many other women in music that serve as inspirations.

Angie: At the moment, it is female songwriters and industry members that are speaking up. It makes you feel more confident to talk about this kind of stuff. Music wise, I feel like I look up to so many people… Like, everybody. It’s a hard job, so everybody who’s doing it and trying to do it well. If I named them I’d probably forget some. But if you asked me to write them down, I probably could.

Outside the studio, a piano begins to play. The sounds grounds us back to the realisation that we’re in a communal space. I ask about who else spends time here. It’s a studio in a studio space put together by Alex, Angie’s bandmate and also producer. The studio was a central point to the making of Angie’s debut album.

Angie: [The album] was mixed in this room. We spent a lot of time in here, everything basically except recording. Planning, producing, going over and over the tiny little details in every fucking song.

We recorded it all over the place. I’ve got some photos from the Scout Hall. It was an Air BnB that we got out near Castlemaine. We stayed there for 6 days and finished off some stuff, because we wanted a place where we could set up all the mics without having to pay a lot of money. We did some in my house, there was quite a good sound in my hallway. Though we’d have to pack up everyday when my family came home. Gormie would bring all this stuff – computer, speakers, all this shit, to my house, set it all up, do a day’s work, then at 5 o’clock pack it all down, put it back in his car and do it all again the next day. It just became a bit much, so we thought we’d finish it at the Scout Hall. We did some in studios as well, but that was mainly for drums because studios are expensive. So, it was all over the place.

With Angie frequently heading out on tour, album production was fragmented. A couple of songs at a time would be collected and completed, before moving onto the next batch.

Angie: We did ‘Missing Me’ separately, then the rest came at two or three songs at a time. ‘Missing Me’ we started in here, and that was in November/December last year. The album took us 6 months or so – we finished it just last week. In between touring, that was hard to juggle. The Scout Hall was the last 3 or 4 songs and that was in March. Then mixing took a while because we went on tour.

When I think about it, compared to other bands I’m not sure if I actually toured that much? But I’m trying not to compare myself to other artists because to me, it’s been a lot. A lot to get used to.
It’s hard on your body. I’m not the healthiest person, but I think if I was doing exercise on tour and eating really healthily it might be a bit easier. So that’s probably what I’ll do next time. Work out a little bit, which I’ve never done in my life (laughs). You gotta start sometime.

It’s particularly hard at the beginning because you don’t know how much to do. I have conversations with different types of artists who say different things – like, you have to accept every opportunity you get in the first year otherwise they’re not going to come around again. Then you have conversations with other people where they say “you have to look after your health first and foremost, the opportunities will always come around” and “not to worry much about money, just look after yourself.” It’s like, the ambitious side of me and the comfort side of me and sometimes I don’t know what to listen to. Each time there’s a decision to make about touring it’s a bit of a struggle.

There really are no set standards for a musician. For artists of all ilk, it’s a case of piecing things together in a way that feels right. The notion of that is scary, and that’s not lost on Angie. But she overcomes it everyday, calling upon her team and a strong inner-voice to do so.

Angie: I’ve been trying to have a lot of faith in myself. Trusting my gut and being in a mindset where I know I can make decisions for myself. Trusting that I am good enough to play this show that’s going to be scary, or I’m good enough to produce this album even though it’s hard and I’ve never done it before. Then, when that falls through – which is always does, confidence wavers, falling back on the people around you. Which is very lovely to say, because the people in my immediate team – Charlotte, Alex, Lachy, Jono – are people that give wonderful advice very generously every time I feel a bit fucked thinking about something.

I try and keep it simple in my head – it’s about the songs. It doesn’t have to be about the way you’re perceived, it doesn’t have to be about your political opinion or impact. That stuff is important, but the moments to speak up will come. Songs are the way I know how to connect with people, and it’s how I connect with myself as well.

Not knowing what the fuck to do with relationships, responsibilities, ambitions and pressure – that’s being in your twenties. Those personal experiences of being a young adult often feed back into Angie’s songwriting and keep her grounded.

Angie: In an interview recently Mitski talked about her songwriting, she was essentially saying when you write something that you feel is good and a true expression of yourself, people will connect with it because you’re not extraordinary. Even though you’re an artist, you’re a normal being with human feelings.

I really liked that because I think there’s a risk, particularly as a front-person in a music project, there’s a risk of vanity overtaking it and thinking you’re like gods gift. I’m terrified of that, because I don’t want to be that type of person. But I feel moments of it, if there’s some shit blowing up on social media or a single on the radio – whatever makes you feel very special, briefly. I try not to hang onto that because you want to be reminded of the fact you’re just a pleb, you’re human. You’ve got this cool job where you wrote songs and people might listen to them and relate to them, but it doesn’t make you more important or extraordinary. I think that’s also sometimes magnified by staying at home to write, or retreating from the world because you’ve been overstimulated or whatever. Sometimes you can get into that ‘it’s all about me’ mindset.

The first time I saw Angie McMahon play was in 2016, on the rooftop of Joyluck Studio (RIP) supporting Retro Culture. Since then it’s been an incredible upwards trajectory. More people than ever are interacting with her music: Singing back her lyrics at a festival, requesting her songs on the radio, browsing her Instagram with intent. But in her eyes, what is that like?

Angie: There’s just a lot more people in my life, when I think about it. Hello, everybody. I forget people’s names all the time because I feel like I’ve met too many people. It just comes down to attitude so much of the time, the way you treat people is very important.

As much I can whinge about the experience of the industry and of the anxiety that comes with it, having people in front of you while you’re on stage, looking at you while you play your songs is worth it. I really feel that. 100 times over.

Songwriting is so often a personal, cathartic experience. So while there isn’t always a specific ‘goal’ in mind when writing, there’s definitely an idea of where and why to take it.

Angie: It kind of depends on my mood. I think about writing songs a lot when I’m entering a processing phase. Which I guess is what happens when things start to slow down. Sometimes there will be a very particular idea or concept that I am like “I’m going to try and put that in a song, one day” and I’ll write it in my notes or whatever. I know that there are things I can come back to, a bucket list of things I want to write about. Then sometimes, a lot of the time, there is a quiet moment where I just want to sit at the piano and hammer some things out. To process, I don’t even really know what.

The goal is just to untangle the stuff that’s in my head, I guess. It’s kind of like having a therapy session or going for a run. Things just feel a bit more clear after I’ve done it. I think there are different ways that me, or anyone, can write a song. The goal is often different depending on the place that you’re at. I’m not sure if I have a specific goal of what a song is going to be, because I know that I’m going to be writing them for my whole life and the goals will probably always change – so I don’t know if there is that one answer in my head. It’s just something that I like doing. It makes me feel better.

Interested in English all throughout school, songwriting has been a big part of Angie’s life from a young age.

Angie: The first song I finished, I was around 15. I don’t really remember before that, but I definitely have been writing all my life. Interested in lyrics all my life too, the idea of rhyme and diary entry stuff was how it sort of started. I think some of the earlier songs that I wrote would be one or two lines that were true and real feelings that I had, then one or two lines that were absolutely completely random metaphors so that they would rhyme. That’s the perfect example of really shit songwriting. I’ve always loved it, I always loved writing and English at school. I feel really lucky to be able to do it, even though sometimes I find it really hard and sometimes I don’t have any time for it.

Having worked at Some Velvet Morning and played in the Melbourne music scene for years, Angie is part of an incredible music community. It’s a tapestry of talent and passion that has welcomed and supported leagues of musicians since day dot.

Angie: My immediate community is my band, Charlotte my manager and our independent team. I’m talking to them about my music all the time. My band and the other bands those boys are in are also a big part, they’re the bands that are on my radar all the time. My boyfriend plays in a couple of bands which I also love, that’s a close community to me as well. I worked at Some Velvet Morning for a long time and then after I stopped working behind the bar I was booking gigs there. So all of the musicians who came through Some Velvet Morning became my community 2 years ago. I started doing gigs with BroadsJames EllisAl ParkinsonEm South… That whole community of musos is enormous – you can’t even list the number of people who play at SVM, but that became such a hub in my mind. A safe space for music and a welcome place for musicians. That’s where I first learnt about the idea of having a music community, that you could be surrounded by other bands who supported you.

A 2020 Editor Note.

At the time Angie and I caught up, she was about to set off on a tour of huge, historic venues. Her debut album was still a couple of months off. From a continuity perspective, I should probably leave out the album stream. But, I feel like you, dear reader, would be missing out. Below you can listen to Salt, the bold, brilliant and breathtaking record from Angie McMahon. Enjoy.

Listen to Salt by Angie McMahon.