Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, Angie McMahon took up piano and trumpet as a child and got her first big break in 2013 after winning a competition to support Bon Jovi on tour. After spending years playing in a local soul project called The Fabric, she released her debut single, ‘Slow Mover’, in 2017, and her debut album, the piercing, confessional Salt, came out in 2019. She went on to share stages with Father John Misty, Pixies, and Hozier, and reworked some of the record’s songs for 2020’s Piano Salt EP. For her sophomore LP, Light, Dark, Light Again, McMahon headed to Brad Cook’s studio in North Carolina with a studio band that included Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan, Canadian singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk, and Megafaun’s Phil Cook, while working alongside Salt collaborator Alex O’Gorman and producer Bonnie Knight back home. Striking a delicate balance, the record anchors in the gentle intimacy of McMahon’s debut but expands the sonic world around it, from incorporating nature sounds to stacking up vocals, in an earnest effort to stretch feelings of hope and beauty out of heartbreak, anxiety, and fear. “If the alternative is heavy holding,” she sings, “I hope that I’m always exploding.” The remarkable thing is how much it sounds like a kind of peace.
We caught up with Angie McMahon for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about surrendering, the process of writing her second album, relating to nature, and more.
One theme that runs through the album is the idea of surrender – you sing about “surrendering your keys to the universe,” “the trick is simply to surrender.” What did that mean for you, not just on a personal level, but for your creative practice, as you were writing these songs?
It’s been a spiritual practice, I think. What I found in the writing of the songs was that I really needed to process and document my own growth and the lessons that I needed to listen to, and that was a big one. ‘Letting Go’ is a big song of lessons for me – coming to understand myself as relatively controlling, and also understanding why and being compassionate about that. Looking at the way that I was trying to go through life, like, gripping the wheel and having a lot of panic attacks, and just imagining this version of myself that could live in flow and be more in the breeze. I have known myself to be like that sometimes, but she was gone, couldn’t find her. From having the songs to taking them into the studio, I ws feeling a lot of internal pressure and expectations about making a second record. I felt myself quite crippled by it, but I had been reading this one Buddhist book, which was really landing, and the things that I would read about surrender and acceptance just felt so true in my body, so I was really trying to adopt those lessons. Making the record was scary for me, but I knew that I wanted to take risks with it and not try and control it every step of the way, which is different to how I have done things before. I really was surrendering consciously in the whole process, whether it was in a collaboration space or producing the record, and it’s not the same as being apathetic or not choosing how I wanted it to be.
Every day in the studio, there’s a hundred things that happen where you have to make a decision and you don’t know what the right decision is, and you don’t know if you’re going to end up hating it later. I was just trying to embody the surrender mindset to bring myself some peace and make it a joyful experience, so that I didn’t have to be stressed the whole time. You know, I spent a lot of money on the record. I spent a lot of money going to America to record a bunch of it and redoing some of the stuff that we did in Australia, because I didn’t think it was right the first time. And I just really wanted to have fun. I really wanted to look back on those memories and feel good, and I didn’t want to look back and remember that I was real angsty and just trying to control everything. I just was trying to let go a little, which is only in the context of working with people who also let me have a lot of control. But it was balanced.
A big part of it is about not being afraid to relinquish control, but it’s also, as you allude in the song, about allowing yourself to stumble and make mistakes. When you struggle to find the right words or melodies, do songs ever feel like that – mistakes you either have to let go or keep exploring?
I think if it feels like a visitor, like it’s something that’s in the room with me, then I will follow it. I’ve had days where that is just the entryway to something completely different, and it’s arrogant to think you know what it’s going to be 10 minutes later or three hours later because you don’t like where it is right now. And then there’s days when you feel like you’re forcing it, and sometimes it loses its magic a little bit. It depends on what type of creation I’m doing – for example, I’m trying to learn more production stuff and computer-based programming, so if I don’t like the music, it’s still going to be a good 10 minutes or an hour for me to practice. It’s really important for me to stay in the room with the song if it’s there, because I’m not always sitting down ready to do the thing, but if I am and there’s something happening, I’ll 100% follow it. Someone taught me ages ago that you’re not meant to let your editor in the room until later on in the process, and I try to remember that. I have no idea what this thing is meant to be right now, and even if I think I know, I don’t. It’s like, stop intellectualizing the thing, just feel the thing and see what it becomes. And if it’s shit, then who cares? That’s just you practicing your craft. It’s working the muscle.
Of all the conversations you have with yourself on the album, ‘Music’s Coming In’ is one of the most intimate. But it also makes sense that you would bring in a choir of musicians to sing through it – like, “I’m saying this to myself, but I’m not the only one saying it to myself.”
Yeah, I hope so. I mean, I didn’t want to impose that on the other singers, but that one did feel like one of the most obvious conversations with self. I think I wrote it quite early on in the process of writing the record. I was definitely in lockdown, not really sure creatively how to move forward with what I was doing. Low confidence, bad habits – I was just not in a songwriting place. I literally just needed to sit at the piano and ask myself whether I still wanted to do it and try to meet that version of me again, find the songwriter again. I definitely didn’t intend for it to be on the record, and that’s probably why it is so tender, why I didn’t want to touch it too much in terms of shaping and reshaping it. Even in the recording process, Bonnie, who is my friend who recorded that song – we weren’t sure what we’re gonna do with the track, whether it was just going to be released on its own, the rest of the record wasn’t made yet. So I wasn’t so self-conscious about it, and it’s one of my favorite moments on the record. But the opening lines – “Don’t be harsh, babe” – that’s literally just me talking to myself. That felt really important to preserve, but I’m not always in that space. I’m really glad there’s a couple moments of that kind of intimacy, because I think that’s the truest form of songwriting for me.
There’s different ways in which you align yourself with nature throughout the record, but I thought ‘Fish’ was interesting because you’re not doing it in a romanticized way. It feels like these metaphors came out of just tuning into your surroundings.
I think my relating to nature in the songwriting maybe developed more and more because I was looking for a language for such enormous feelings, a language for understanding. And I found my understanding in nature and the knowledge that it has of us. I’d be watching a tree or the ocean or some birds or something – I was moving quite slowly at this time and probably observing more than I ever have, and it sounds like I was stoned the whole time, but I wasn’t. [laughs] I was kind of blown away by how much I’d ignored it in the past and was falling in love with these metaphors and these images, just finding so much space there. But the fish one, I was using the metaphor of there being lots of fish in the sea, that was the initial idea for the song. It was a breakup song.
When I wrote that one, I hadn’t had all the epiphanies that I was soon going to have about, you know, trees and birds and stuff. [laughs] But it was already seeping in, and I remember producing that – even the demo, I just wanted it to feel like being underwater. I started using production language and hadn’t really done that very much before. There’s a lot of moments in the record when I’d be talking to someone that I was working with, and I’m trying to find the words for how I want it to sound. I don’t have the technical language for it, I can’t just be like, “Reverb.” But I’d be like, “We need to be deep in the ocean.” That’s how I would paint the picture. I was really relying on the language of nature to make sense of stuff throughout the whole process.
It’s also natural, in trying to find a space for those big feelings, that you would lean into a more expansive, almost cosmic sound. How did that become the goal, given that the demos tend to start from an intimate place?
Sometimes at least, I was imagining the world of the song and the way that it sounded in my head. ‘Mother Nature’ is a good example. I wanted to just magnify what I was saying in English language that just didn’t feel like it captured it enough. In ‘Mother Nature’, I’m singing about flocks of birds in the sky and how they are inspiring me so deeply to think about my place in the world, and how they relate to a group of climate protesters in the street, there’s all these images that are coming up. The production, for me, became completely tied in with the songwriting. I demoed most of the songs at home, really building out the worlds – there’s a couple songs where the the demos were pretty stripped back, but those songs are pretty stripped back on the record, and the ones that really became thick and big, that just felt like the truth of how to portray what I was feeling. It feels like painting with more colors. I’ve never delved that deep into the world of production before – I’m still really in the shallow water, to use a nature metaphor [laughs].
The first record, I didn’t feel confident with it. I still had a lot of fun with it. Alex [O’Gorman], who I made that record with, he’s a great producer, and he helped me start to get there. But this time around, I just had more confidence and was building more confidence as I went as well. I just wanted to make more noise and be cinematic and conjure feelings with more than just my lyrics and my voice. I think I’ve always felt confident in my voice, and usually I’m confident in my lyric writing. Those feel like my strengths, so I feel like I could just lean on that always and I’d be fine. But the exciting bit became, what else can I do? What else could the songs say? So in ‘Mother Nature’, there’s a high-pitched birdsong that kind of turns into a screen, we created a crescendo with it. Stuff like that felt like such a cool creative process to be able to do.
I think there’s also a sense of groundedness to songs like ‘Black Eye’ and ‘Staying Down Low’. Someone might feel the need to scream out a line like “I don’t know where to put my hurt,” but the way you contain it makes it feel even more potent. Did you ever have to fight the impulse to go big on every song?
Mostly, no. That song, ‘Black Eye’, that always was going to sound how it sounded. It’s dark and melancholy, and it didn’t need anything more. I still always have a reluctance to put anything more into art than it needs. I mean, if it was going to be really fun, I would have done it, but it just felt like the songs have their own boundaries. ‘Serotonin’, for example, to me feels quite produced, and that song I think needed that, but when I first wrote it, it was obviously in that more stripped-back songwriter form because that’s just how I write. I didn’t know where it needed to go, and then I leaned on Brad, who produced that with me, to help shape that a bit more. It just comes back to trust – it kind of sounds cheesy, but I trust the songs, I think they tell you what they need. I did have the luxury of having a couple years to work on the record, so I wasn’t just trying to make it be one thing. I wasn’t in one singular mindset of, like, “This is a rock album” or “This is an album of intimate songs,” so I think that each song had its own space to come into existence without me necessarily needing to impose a certain world on it. And then there were songs that didn’t make it on the record because they didn’t weave into the whole world in the end, but ones like ‘Black Eye’ and ‘Staying Down Low’ still had some of the lush bigness of the rest of the record enough to hold their own.
How do you feel like your relationship with your voice evolved through the making of the record?
I actually was really self-conscious about my vocals in this record because I’d just been singing so much less. I wasn’t touring, I wasn’t gig fit, so I’d go into the studio really unsure. There’s a couple of moments on the record that I listen to and I’m like, “Could’ve done that better.” [laughs] But that’s part of the surrender thing. I guess two things were happening at once: I’m self-conscious about my voice, and I’m also feeling so grateful for the opportunity to get to make a record and so determined to just get in there and do it. I honestly feel like I was really leaning into the imperfection of it, just because didn’t have another option. I hadn’t been shaping my vocals really well and practicing my technique a lot leading up to the studio – I’d been doing it a bit, but probably not enough for a professional musician. But I’m also just trying to practice what I preach and not beat myself up and not disappear into a depression spiral just because I feel like it’s not good enough.
I think I would have struggled more with that if it had been a fully intimate record. But what I was really enjoying in the recording was, like, stacking vocals on top of each other and making choirs and getting my friends to sing and having it be a little bit more collaborative and a little bit more busy with vocals. That kind of saved me as well, and now I force all my band to sing along with me when we’re live. In ‘Staying Down Low’ particularly, but it happens a few times on the record, one of the feelings I was trying to evoke was that there’s all these different voices in your head, all the different parts of yourself. There’s a bit at the end where I pictured it being all the voices in my head kind of standing up, like, at the town hall meeting or whatever – everyone’s slowly standing up one by one, and then eventually all the voices are together and it’s a clarity moment. I was trying to think about vocals more in that way and less in a perfectionist technique way. I was more trying to treat it as an instrument and as a tool to tell the story.
Now that the album has been released, what’s something you’re proud of that you maybe weren’t able to see while making it?
I think I feel like I’ve made something positive. I was really hoping to do that, but I really wasn’t sure if it would land. I had this conviction in myself that was like, “Angie, you have to make this record for yourself. This is the record that you need.” I was hoping that that would just be enough, and it didn’t matter how it would be received because I knew I was doing it. And now that it’s out, I feel like that’s just being reflected back, and that is how it’s being received. Whoever needs it, wherever it’s landing, the feedback that I’m getting is positive. And that’s just so special personally, because I guess I chose myself and my mental health rather than coolness – I was really worried that it was going to be corny and real cheesy, all the mantras and cinematic stuff, me co-producing it. I just didn’t know if it would all land and work, and I decided to do it anyway. I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter, but what I’m proud of is just that I set that intention and I believed in it, and I feel like it has paid off.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.