Grace Shaw started making music as Mallrat in her bedroom in Brisbane, Australia, uploading tracks online as a 16-year-old in 2015 before releasing her debut EP, Uninvited, the following year. Showcasing a unique brand of earnest, hip-hop-inflected indie pop, 2018’s In the Sky EP saw her taking on more production duties and featured the breakout single ‘Groceries’, while Driving Music‘s ‘Charlie’ climbed to Number 3 in triple j’s 2019 Hottest 100. After experimenting with different styles and touring with the likes of Maggie Rogers, Post Malone, and King Princess, Mallrat channels her growing ambition and versatility on her debut full-length, Butterfly Blue, out Friday via Nettwerk. The LP was made in collaboration with Stylaz Fuego, Jam City, Alice Ivy, Japanese Wallpaper, and Tommy English, among others, while none other than Azealia Banks guests on its fourth single, ‘Surprise Me’. Bringing her pop vision to life with equal amounts vulnerability and confidence, it’s an expansive and layered document of an artist whose sound continues to evolve, never losing sight of that initial spark.
We caught up with Mallrat for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical ambition, her debut album, butterflies, and more.
How do you feel about the response to the singles so far?
It’s been really good. I think people have been surprised by all of the singles, which is good because I like to surprise people. All of the songs are quite different from each other, and I still feel like nobody has a clear impression of what the album’s going to be like. I find that exciting.
You definitely kept the most surprising one for last. What was your reaction when you first heard Azealia Banks’ verse on ‘Surprise Me’?
Yeah, my jaw was on the floor and I couldn’t believe it. But it was a good sort of disbelief. I just couldn’t stop listening to it and I couldn’t stop smiling.
You’ve said that the first album that you bought with your own money was her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste. Are you nostalgic about that time in your life when you were first getting into music?
That’s an interesting question. I still feel like the way that I think about music and my love for music feels the same. But I guess when you listen to music that you loved when you were younger, it always brings back a sense of nostalgia.
You’ve also cited The OC soundtrack as an early influence and have a playlist collecting the different mixes together. There’s an incredible combination of styles there, and I wonder if that’s inspired you to reach for variety in your own collections of music, as if they could be made by a range of different artists.
Yeah, I definitely think so. I love that you went and listened to the soundtrack – isn’t it just so good? I’m definitely inspired by so many things. I love in that soundtrack how so many of the songs have such strong feelings attached to them, and they’re all so different. And I definitely draw especially from a lot of that indie rock that’s in there, like the Dandy Warhols, Gorillaz, and also some of the softer, more acoustic things as well.
If you could go back and give yourself advice before you started making music, and also before you began working on your debut album, do you think it’d be a similar kind of advice?
That’s a hard question to answer, because I feel like the approach that I had when I started and the approach that I had when I was making the album was pretty good. I feel like I was pretty switched on when I was younger, so I think it wouldn’t so much be advice, it would just be like, if I could put a microchip in the younger me, saying this how you use Ableton, this is how you put vocals down – it would be stuff like that. But I think the attitude of baby Grace was always to be ambitious.
I think the ambition is definitely there in your earlier work, but do you feel like the confidence in yourself was something that took time to grow?
Yeah, but it’s a funny thing that I’ve noticed about myself. It’s like, even when I have insecurities about other things or indecision in other areas of my life, with music I’ve always felt certainty, and I’ve always felt really sure of myself even when I probably had no reason to. It’s just always felt like something that comes very naturally. It’s a very intuitive thing for me.
You’re someone who tries different things sonically, and the EP is a format that allows for that experimentation without necessarily having to be cohesive. When it came to thinking about your debut album, did you find that you had to shift your approach, or was it a challenge to use that bigger space?
It was a little bit of a challenge wrap my head around. The album didn’t make sense for a really long time until I wrote the first song, ‘Wish on an Eyelash’ and the last song, ‘Butterfly Blue’. When I had those two songs, then I understood what the album was going to sound like and look like. Because when I wrote them, I knew that it would be the first song and the last song. But everything else about it, I was kind of just fumbling around in the dark, just writing songs until I made something that I liked. So yeah, it was a little bit of a challenge, but it was kind of just trusting the process and having the privilege of being able to take my time to do it.
Did you go into ‘Wish on an Eyelash’ knowing that you wanted it to open the album, or was it something that came organically?
The original version of the song has the “I’ve been dying to tell you…”, but it’s a verse when I first made it. The original demo was really high energy. That was the verse, and then it went into this big instrumental chorus, but I could never figure out how to write the chorus for it. And I tried so many times because I loved that verse, but it never clicked. So it took me thinking looking at the song a different way and not trying to make it a three-minute song with verses and choruses and a bridge, and just accepting that maybe that’s not what the song is meant to be. When I shifted my focus, then it became clear that it could be a short song, and that short song could be track one.
What made you want to cover Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade Into You’ as a bonus track?
That’s just a song that is on my list of songs that I wished that I had written. We used to play it live quite a bit, so it’s just something that I enjoy singing and feels from my voice even though it’s not something that I wrote. The day that I recorded ‘I’m Not My Body, It’s Mine’, actually, the producer and I still had a lot of time left in the evening and we kind of wanted to keep making music. We both had talked about how much we loved that song, and we recorded it 15 minutes just for fun. I just had it sitting it in my computer for ages and I thought I’d love to do something with this, so that’s how it ended up on the album.
Another one of my favourites is ‘Heart Guitar’, and that’s very much a song that expands and grows in its own way. I wanted to ask you about the vocal layering on the song. Was it challenging to get it right so that it fit into the overall atmosphere?
Thank you, I really appreciate that you like that song. It’s one of my favourites too. So, the process of making that song, that was one that started in my living room playing the guitar, just playing one note. And then I took it to my computer, and I turned that one note into a really abrasive-sounding guitar. And then I had a lot of fun trying to fun trying to contrast very dreamy, gentle vocals with the rough guitar, producing around it, adding those synth choirs towards the end of the sections. And then I took it to the studio with my friend Japanese Wallpaper and we re-recorded the vocals, and he helped me fix a couple of synth sounds. That’s when all the vocals came in that are in the second verse. It was a very gradual process, but it was really fun to make.
What appeals to you about applying vocal effects to your voice, also on a song like ‘I’m Not My Body, It’s Mine’? Do you feel like you’re more intentional about it compared to when you first started out, in terms of how to use them and what it brings out of your voice?
When I wrote my first EP, I didn’t understand what you could do with your voice to make it sound special. Not that voices aren’t special already, but all the ways that you can enhance it and play with it, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure it out. And now it’s probably one of my favourite parts of the process, seeing how you can turn your own voice into an instrument that has so many different tones. And how AutoTune is like the best thing in the world, how you can use it in a natural way or how you can use to turn your voice into this crazy alien-sounding thing. I think with ‘I’m Not My Body, It’s Mine’, it’s a pretty clear contrast of that organic, harmony style and the throaty guitar, and then that transition into the most Kanye, like, ‘Runaway’ outro. [laughs] I think the voice is so cool and having the technology to turn your voice into whatever you want, it’s just fun. It’s so many different things, but at the end of the day, it’s just fun, and being able to play with that is a joy.
I feel like that kind of relates to one of main symbols of the album, the butterfly, and this idea of transformation.
Yeah, that’s a really interesting comparison to draw. It certainly wasn’t intentional, but I think it’s true. And I think that tools like AutoTune do make you feel unafraid, like you can do whatever you want. It opens up so many different melodies and writing techniques when there’s no limit anymore to what you can actually use your voice for.
Can you talk about when you realized you were fascinated by bugs and butterflies specifically?
Yeah , ever since I was little, I’ve loved animals so much and always had soft spot for small little creatures. Whenever we would go to the pool, I would spend my whole time going around and finding all the ladybugs and the ants that were in the water, getting them out and putting them on dry land. When I would be at school and people were playing soccer, I would sit next to the ant mound to make sure that the soccer ball didn’t hit the ant mount. Just things like that. I would never let anyone kill spiders or anything, I would always be like, “No, take it outside.” I don’t know when that started, I think it’s just a part of me.
And I think I’m especially fascinated by butterflies because of how much hope that idea of the metamorphosis brings me. It’s really crazy that a caterpillar is living its life as a caterpillar, and then one day something in its body goes, “Today is the day that you’ll build yourself a cocoon and you go to sleep forever. You wrap yourself in this thing and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next, but just trust me, this is what you’re meant to do.” And then it wraps itself up and it goes to sleep. Its body uses digestive enzymes to to dissolve itself into goo, it’s completely dissolved, and then basically like stem cell technology within the caterpillar transforms it into this really different creature with wings that doesn’t resemble what it was before. And then it comes out of its chrysalis, and even though it’s been completely dissolved and reconstructed, it still has some memories of its life as a caterpillar. I can’t believe that that is real life. [laughs] I’m so in awe of that process. It brings a lot of hope to find things like that in nature. I find it really comforting.
When you look back at the making of the album, what would you say you’re most proud of yourself for achieving?
I think I’m really proud of just the songs as a whole. I think there are some really special ones on there that I didn’t intentionally set out to make things that sounded the way they turned out, and I’m so glad that the process led them to take shape the way that they did. I think I’m very proud of myself for the songs, but I don’t really know how they even came about. [laughs] Sometimes I’m like, “How did I think of that? That’s crazy.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Mallrat’s Butterfly Blue is out May 13 via Nettwerk.