Photo by Paige Clark
And She Is A Woman: Angie McMahon On 'Salt' & Arguing With Men About Gender
Folk-pop performer Angie McMahon has a remarkable voice. Yes, she sings for a living, but the Australian singer/songwriter's trill is immediately captivating, deep and husky and reminiscent of everyone from Danielle Haim to Fiona Apple to Florence Welch. It's also quite unexpected coming from someone with such a slight frame and unassuming presence.
To American audiences, the 25-year-old may appear to have come out of nowhere, but McMahon, who releases her debut LP, Salt, today via Dualtone, has been in the game for the last six years or so, playing around Melbourne with a local soul project called The Fabric. She's also no stranger to playing to massive audiences: In 2013 she won a local songwriting competition to open for Bon Jovi on the Australian leg of their Because We Can tour, and as of now, in addition to playing the festival circuit (she's heading to Newport Folk Festival this weekend), she's currently prepping to go on tour with GRAMMY nominee Hozier. Her music, meanwhile, covers tried and true topics like relationships, but also looks at major themes of the day: On recent single "And I Am A Woman," she tries to communicate the nuance of a woman's experience to the opposite sex.
Ahead of her set in L.A., McMahon sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about her debut LP, processing her experiences through writing and attempting to argue about gender with men.
I imagine the first thing most people think when they hear you is, “Wow, what a voice!” Is that something you get a lot?
I do. Sometimes if people haven't heard me sing and they hear me speak first, because my voice is kind of nasal. I think I speak like a kid sometimes, and then my singing voice is different. But yeah, I think I just shaped that around singers that I really loved, and I didn't even really notice that I was doing it when I was younger. k.d. lang is a really big one for me, the deep vocal work that she [does], and the deep emotion that she can bring up. I think when I started listening to her, I was just like, "I want to be able to do that."
Did you grow up singing?
Yeah, sort of. I grew up playing piano when I was quite young, and then that turned into really loving covering pop songs and singing to myself. I didn't really learn singing, [or have] singing lessons, until I was maybe 18.
I was always singing along in the car when we were going on family drives and stuff. We'd go out into the bush for a bit and listen to CDs. I was just constantly singing along, and constantly making my mom replay [songs, saying] “It's my favorite song.” I was like, "Again!" Even driving up and singing. I was probably pretty annoying as a sibling.
Did you start playing guitar around the same time?
Yeah, I started playing guitar. It comes back to covering pop songs, and wanting to have the option of performing, picturing myself as a performer and starting to think about talent shows and stuff, maybe like 14, and not wanting to take a keyboard everywhere.
So I started learning guitar based off of my piano skills, and YouTube and stuff. I can't remember exactly why, what it was that triggered it, but I think it was probably the music that I was listening to, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen my dad was playing in the car. It made me want to be able to do that instrument. I still listen to those records, and want to be able to play the way that they play. I want to learn harmonica so I can play, just reach that sound space. But yeah, that's where the guitar came into it. I haven't had guitar lessons ever, and I'm really not very good. I'm not saying that out of humility. I know that my skill level is at a certain level, and I really would like to excel.
How many years were you playing around Melbourne before you started touring internationally?
I was always doing solo gigs here and there, but not very seriously, just whenever they would come up. That was probably from when I was about 17, 16 or 17. I'm 25 now, so maybe there was five years before I was looking to start the band. I was also in another band [The Fabric], which was a really good way for me to build experience and to keep singing, and to learn how to interact with boys in a band, and be in a band space. That was a soul group, so there were nine of us. There were eight boys and then me singing, and that went for three years from when I was 18 to 21.
Did you go to school for music?
No, I didn't. The uni that I was at had a music school that I didn't get into. I was doing English there and literature, [but] my extra subjects were music stuff, which is kind of the best way to go about it because I got to do the fun songwriting [classes] without having to do the assessments and intensive jazz training. It basically was a jazz course, and I can't sing jazz. I'm just not adept at that technique. I mean I had really good teachers at school, really good. I had a trumpet teacher who was a really big mentor for me in high school, and I had my piano teacher who was always really patient and lovely. All the teachers that I had mentored me in such a lovely way, but I didn't have a specific music course that I completed or anything.
Do you intend for music to be a living?
Yeah. I'd never really thought of it financially, but as a pursuit, just the way that I want to spend my time. It's always been what I was thinking about. It was kind of a source of an existential crisis, because my work ethic for a lot of my life, a lot of my teen years, was just not very good. It was this thing of always picturing myself on stage, and wanting to perform for my life and write songs, but not having done enough of the work for that to materialize.
When I was finishing my degree and stuff, I'd gone through my whole English degree, sitting in every lecture theater, just picturing myself doing music and writing song lyrics in my notepad and stuff. It was just this fairy land, and then I finished my degree. I was faced with nothing that I wanted to do except music. I had to give myself a pep talk, several pep talks over the years, and some from my parents as well. But basically switched into the mode where I was like, okay. I have to look at the business side of the industry, and I have to understand what I'm willing to work at, and what I want to achieve.
I know that you're about to put out your debut, Salt. It features a lot of tracks that were on your EP, A Couple Of Songs. What was the thinking in including most of the EP songs on the LP?
Well, we were ready to put [an LP] out, and then we met Dualtone and wanted to have a chance to release it probably in America. It's such a big country and such a big industry over here, so we really wanted to work with Dualtone. They were so great, but we had to figure out a way to promote the singles that have already been released across the world. That's where the Couple Of Songs EP came in.
It's interesting for me, because these songs on the record, they are on the album, so it's almost like, at this point, a lot of the album has been released. I guess that was for the sake of having a way to kind of push it into this market, and we just kind of came out with a couple of songs EP on the fly. I was like, "Well, why don't we do a little EP?" That's where that kind of came from, but I'm glad we did it that way, because I feel like the songs have their own individual life.
I remember there was an artist who I loved when I was younger, who put out an EP that I was just obsessed with, and I couldn't wait for his album to come out. When his album came out, it wasn't nearly as exciting to me as the songs on the EP were. I just wished that those songs had been on the record. It was just one of those things where I watched that happen as a fan, and as an artist, I just want to put out an album. I just want that to be the first collection of songs.
What's the thought behind the name Salt?
I don't have one answer for that, but I always knew that that was what I wanted to call it. I tried to come up with other names that made a bit more sense where they were from the album or something, but nothing else quite fit. I went with that word because to me, it represents a feeling of balance. Looking back on the songs, which are this collection of experiences that I had, romance and friendship and growing up, up until I was 22... To me, it looks like what is left after all of those experiences. It's the remainder of what I went through growing up.
It's similar to the way that salt is what's left over when water evaporates. Then it's like salt is in your tears. It's like salty tears, and salted wounds. It can sting, and it can bring out taste, and it can cleanse things. I think a lot about the ocean, and the way that it's terrifying and also so liberating to swim in. It's just all of these kind of metaphors that circle for me around salt as a mineral.
I'd also love to get your perspective on your most recent song, "And I Am a Woman." What was the thought behind that title?
There's no single thought for me behind this song either as well. It's such a big concept to tackle. It's just something that I'm being more and more interested in as I grow up as a songwriter, and as a person. It's maybe the moment you are content.
That was the most recent song that I wrote for the record, even though it was two years ago. The whole song came from this heated conversation about women's bodies in public spaces, and a real disagreement with this person about what we're entitled to with equality, and all that kind of stuff. I was so frustrated, and the lyric about being in my home is very much about being in my personal space, and in my body, or in my safety, or whatever. Then I guess the second half of the lyric, "and I am a woman," it almost felt like the most obvious thing.
How am I going to word this? You know when you're having an argument with someone? Arguing with men about gender, or discussing the misunderstanding of something that to you is so obvious. It's so frustrating, and you're just like, "To me this is the most obvious thing. Based on my experience and my life, you should focus on the standards," and they just don't. "And I Am A Woman" just feels like this really obvious thing to say, that carries so much weight, but is also really simple.
It's interesting. So much of the music industry and live industry, it's just male-dominated. I love the boys that I work with, but sometimes things just happen where you just need someone who shares this experience to understand why this affects me, and why it's a manifestation of how many times this has happened to me over my life. Things are just becoming louder now, and we're understanding what we are entitled to more and more, what we shouldn't lay down for. So it's the frustration at that same time is building, because the change is so small. I want to be more fluent in that discourse, and I want everyone to be more fluent in it so we can talk about it more and more.
Yeah. I love her. She's an inspiration for my songwriting, for sure. She captures this humor and kind of relaxed personality type that I really relate to. Maybe it's a Melbourne thing, or maybe it's an age thing, but basically her music is awesome. I also think the tone of her songwriting has inspired me. There's a realness to it that is so exciting.
When you're writing, are you interested in projecting a tone of honesty?
I think it's more satisfying for me to write something to complete a lyric or whatever that is really honest, and with rhymes, and says what I am feeling or going through without realizing that's what I was feeling or going through until I wrote it down, so the satisfaction that comes from that. Then if I'm able to lace in humor or a double-sided metaphor or whatever, those kinds of things, it's just so satisfying. For me, [songwriting is] very much a way that I process my own experiences. Until this point, and it might change, but all the songs basically have been autobiographical. I think that that will keep developing. I have a long way to go in my songwriting, which is exciting for me.
What's next for you? Are you working on future recordings?
I find it hard to [write] well touring, and it's been a lot of touring in the last year, so I haven't completed a whole bunch of new songs. I would really like to be able to take the time to do that. It's basically the next year, I guess, is going to be balancing how much touring we can do, and how much time I can take off to write, so that's just something that I'm figuring out. It's also you can't force it. Just because you take the time off doesn't mean that's when you're inspired. The rest of the year we're touring the album in Australia, and then I'm coming back here to tour with Hozier, and then that basically brings us to the end of the year. So hopefully after that I can take some months. I'm really feeling like writing again. I think it's got to do with putting out the first record. It feels like a clean slate. I'm ready for the next thing.