Gear Talks: Angie McMahon

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Gear Talks: Angie McMahon

Angie McMahon
Words by Lewis Noke Edwards

Her name is appearing with increasing frequency up on festival lineups, in award nomination lists and on the radio.

Angie McMahon is slowly becoming a household name in Australia. Her soft-spoken, deep lyricism paired with folk-inspired rock coming together for her own brand, and I myself have heard her on the radio a handful of times, scrambled to find out “Who is this?” and it’s been her every time. Ahead of the release of her new album, we had the chance to chat to Angie about her creative process.

Angie is sat in a light-filled sunroom on a warm Naarm afternoon, explaining she’s got a day of press but the sun is helping her through it.

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“I’m so grateful it’s a sunny day, I’m feeling so in flow with it. Sometimes I’m not chatty and I feel bad, ‘cause I [don’t have] enough to say, but I’m happy to be here. How’s your day?”

Angie is kind and calm, genuine and polite. They’re all hallmarks of the intimate, open nature of her music, strumming away on her guitar with a deep sense of self in her lyricism. All of this is augmented by the ambient, expansive nature of her new record Light, Dark, Light Again which is out today. She’s a singer-songwriter, a guitar player, but she’s credited as a co-producer on the new album. How does she define herself?

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“I think of myself as a songwriter primarily, I guess.” she begins “… but I see production as really tied in with that. I think more and more these days a songwriter benefits from being a producer as well.”

“When I’m writing a song, I’m making a demo and trying to conjure the whole world of the song. So doing that I’ve had to learn, in a pretty DIY way, how to conjure a feeling beyond just lyrics and chords.”

“I never used to think that I cared about that stuff, but I’m so interested in it now and I’m still learning those skills.”

“I call myself a musician when I’m entering the country on the passport form, but usually I call myself a singer-songwriter. The ‘musician’ thing, I feel a little bit of imposter syndrome with it because I am not particularly good at practising instruments.” she smiles.

“I’m primarily thinking about lyrics and feelings more than chords and stuff but it all lands together.”

I pause to take an aside here, chatting about the irony that she’s more successful than other people who would call themselves musicians, though she’s the one with imposter syndrome.

“I’ve always loved and connected to poets and lyricists and I think that’s been an avenue that I’ve followed. Then over the course of doing this job, I’ve gotten a much broader understanding of musicians who don’t touch that stuff at all and how amazing they are and what’s involved in that.”

“So everyone just comes at it from a different angle.”

Her poignant lyricism may speak to her original vision for the album, it having been described as “standing on the edge of a cliff and shouting into the wind.” I ask if the songs came first and shaped the vision of vice versa.

“There were a couple songs first, before I got to that feeling. They’re maybe the ones that feel closer to the first record; a little bit more story-telling and a little bit more… unfolding of a lyrical story.”

Angie goes on to explain that she reached a point in writing the record that it became about energy: screaming, wind, nature-focused ideas. 

“It speaks to starting to see songwriting as more of an energetic interaction, and less of a mental moulding of words only,”

“It became about needing to get out really intense things and process things that I couldn’t necessarily put words to.”

It was here that Angie was able to lean more into the sounds and the production to anil the feeling that words couldn’t describe. She felt relieved to get out of her head and into her body with it, expressing herself rather than trying and failing to pen a lyric that encapsulated her feelings.

It’s here that I bring up “Fireball Whiskey”, the second song on Light, Dark, Light Again, stating that it begins more like the sounds on her first album, Salt, and builds into something more ethereal and ambient.

“That’s so cool that that comes across, because I literally wrote the first half of that song… I don’t know how long, but say a year later I wrote the rest of the song. I think you’re probably pinpointing exactly what was happening, like by that point I was in a more confident flow of music.”

“I understood on a deeper level what the song was about, rather than just journaling an idea. That’s cool that that comes across.” she says with a smile.

Angie begins to explain that she likes songs to end somewhere different to where they began, saying that that’s how it feels writing a song. You’re gently easing into processing something, unsure of how you feel, and as you work through it, your feelings become more clear.

We pivot here to producing the record, Angie having co-produced the album. She feels lucky to work with producers who are well-informed, educated and experienced, and she hands off her songs once she can’t take them any further.

Collaboration is a big deal for her, the producers she works with shaping and refining her ideas rather than writing or arranging parts alongside her.

“I’m also a bit of a perfectionist, and maybe controlling when it comes to that stuff. I struggled to fully hand over a song.”

“‘Cause someone could make it amazing, but it might not feel true to me,” she begins. “I want to protect that, so that’s why I end up co-producing.”

I begin to ask about how she demos her songs, and how complete they are before she’s ready to hand them off.

“I mostly use Logic, though I started learning how to use Ableton. I’ll set up one or two mics, usually not more than two, and I’ll track either pain or MIDI keys if I’m tryna do a particular sound, or [sometimes] just my guitar.”

“Sometimes I am writing with particular effects on and recording as I go. Sometimes I’m recording with the drum track. One thing with this album is… a few years ago I was in the studio with my drummer and I just had him play like 20 different beats.”

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“I asked for a few different things, and I took them and used them over and over and over again in a writing process. That was kinda great to write to that kind of stuff and have a loop that we can develop later on.”

“When I started this record I was really set on it sounding like a War On Drugs record and I kind of developed beyond that idea.”

“From there I add vocal harmonies, I add the instruments I can play – I’m not very good at bass so I usually play in a little synth bass.” she laughs. “I try to leave space for ideas to be developed in the studio but sometimes a whole bunch of the world is right there in my head and I’m trying to get as much of it down as possible.”

“That can be tricky, I get the demo-itis later. They’re usually a full song, I don’t know if I’ve ever gone in to record and not had all the lyrics and the full form.”

Angie shifts here, explaining that while this is the process for most songs, it’s not always the case.

“Letting Go, for example, there was a couple versions recorded of that. Once I came home and played it with my band, it was a festival gig, we built the energy after the second chorus and I realised we couldn’t go straight to the bridge. We needed this breakdown and so we re-recorded it because there had to be a little more space.”

“I didn’t know that until I was playing it with them. It was expensive to try and make all the decisions beforehand. But yeah, it’s gotta be right.”

Angie’s new record Light, Dark, Light Again is out today. You can keep up with Angie McMahon here.