There’s this pure sense of accomplishment once you realise what you’re good at doing. It’s not a feeling that everyone gets in a lifetime, and this exclusivity perhaps makes the discovery that bit more fulfilling. It may be premature to ask 22-year old Canadian artist Mac DeMarco, who he’d like at his funeral, but his response is in some way indicative of this select accomplishment. "It would be great to have my sworn mortal enemies. It’d be funny to hear them be like ‘”finally that motherfucker’s dead”’. The path to self-actualisation is tiringly laboured and making enemies is all a part of it.
"I was fresh out of high school. My friend was like “if you want to make a whole bunch of money and move away, you should do this”’. He took up his friends suggestion and delved headfirst into the strenuous profession of roadwork, ‘it’s like shovelling stuff all day, using these giant presses – you have to have some sort of muscle mass to do that, and I was this scrawny little punk at the time. I couldn’t cut it, and all the guys I worked with fucking hated me". They called him ‘little bitch’.
Why did they hate him? Because no matter how much your teenage years were the worst of your life, clique politics go beyond which table you sit at during lunch at secondary school. They sensed physical weakness, yes, but they also knew that he didn’t belong with ‘them’. He jokes about his tenure as a ‘real working man’, but the laughs remain because he knew it would be temporary. "I mean, I was trying to make music for 4 -5 years and survive, up until now. Those jobs were just a means to me being able to do what I wanted, which was make music. For me it was like, “I’ll do a crappy job for a month, then I won’t have to work for 3 or 4 months and just work in this”’.
His home city of Edmonton is progressive in its own right, but it’s not one of the ‘chosen cosmopolises’ of the world. Via Vancouver, his travels set him on a path to acceptance at the age of 20. Montreal, the buzzing cosmopolitan city, filled with ‘little bitches’, if little bitches are people fuelled by the arts as opposed to testosterone. I wonder if he’s the type of guy in arty tumblr photos, glaring into a copy of Kerouac in the middle of a deserted field; the word ‘wanderlust’ emblazoned on the picture, post-photoshop. ‘Not really’ he says, ending hopes of tumblr fandom, "I just wanted to live [in Montreal] to hang out but I think the biggest factor is that it’s one of the cheapest places to live and I like having a house and coming back to it – I haven’t really been there that much lately but it’s nice to come home too".
The Dean Moriarty, rebel without a cause type figure, he is not. Though our memories of DeMarco are press photos with him seductively posing into a mirror as he amateurishly applies lipstick, don’t take the laughs for incompetence or self-deprecation. It’s a case that his outwardly lax personality doesn’t correlate with his inward confidence. Underpinning all his decisions thus far is the self-assurance that music is his calling.
His brand of neo-classic, rustic pop songs is testament to this. While appealing to classic pop structure, his first of two releases this year, Rock ‘n’ Roll Night Club, has a zany and unhinged air about it. "I just write songs about what’s going on in my life…well I guess I did just release that record which is super weird and is the first thing anybody had ever seen of me so. But I was kind of going crazy for that album though. I was sick and kind of losing my mind, but for the most part my songs are just about what’s going on".
Still, a self-confessed fan of The Beatles (and Coldplay "They’re best for driving, a lot of people would be like 'what are you doing man”'but it’s the most epic music") he prefers to write love songs, "I’ve got a girlfriend who I love, but in the past I was just writing in general. Some of the love songs used be kind of anti-love, you know like ‘I hate you’ - it’s either one of the two. I mean the great thing was most of my ex-girlfriends would still come to my shows and I would publicly humiliate them".
As these former flames know, DeMarco is unadulterated. He quickly followed up 'Rock ‘n’ Roll Night Club' with the recently released '2'; both records are the results of unmediated spontaneity. "With 'Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightclub' all the songs were recorded in like a week. I would just press record, make something up – they’d all take like 3 hours’. He prefers to work in solitude, ‘I used to like jamming with people but as soon as I started writing my own songs I’ve always been able to work completely alone. It’s just nerves and being able to just make an idiot out of yourself". Perhaps there’s a sense that he wants people to see the finished article? "I like the rough copy to though. When I’m doing some kind of demoing process or something, I have to make sure I make them sketchy because when I make a recording that’s a good demo and try to re-record it I have a lot of trouble and don’t like it".
This organic process seems especially potent today. DeMarco’s songs have a beautiful simplicity and though the current musical tide seems to be in the way of contrived, mathematical electronics, he shows that, with the right ear, spontaneity can still produce some of the best sounds. Reviews of his second release '2' have picked up on this but does he buy into the ‘praise and blame’ circus having found himself on the right side? "Oh yeah, I’m having a great time! I love hearing people talk about my music. It’s funny and interesting for me. My ego is just inflating like a fucking hot air balloon but you know, it may be the only chance I get in my life so I might as well enjoy it".
Whether a good or bad rating, reviews often seem impossibly self-confident. Is it possible to get a DeMarco record completely ‘right’? "When you read them, is there a sense of detachment?" I ask, "the music has come through your internal thought process and some external body is just picking it apart"… "Yeah, reading that stuff online, it’s interesting seeing what other people take from it. Even lyrics that are straightforward- people either totally miss it or take something completely different. It’s also really cool when people get exactly what I was saying". In a nutshell, how would he, the curator of the music itself describe his art? "It is extremely pimped out".
We both laugh at this somewhat ill-fitting description of his music. Still, this holds true to the live element of his show. Songs like ‘My Kind of Woman’ may allude to a lone spotlighted figure on stage, sat on a wooden chair, wielding a guitar sketchily inscribed with ‘this machine kills fascists’ as an ode to the sensitivities of Woody Guthrie, sans protest - but don’t expect this. "If someone’s paying to come see us I try to do my best to make sure it’s an enjoyable experience". By enjoyable he means: "Just a lot of us being complete jackasses on stage. Playing shows is a good excuse to get drunk and the way I feel about it is if I’m not having an outwardly good time and don’t invite the audience in, other people are going to have trouble having a good time too."
It’s due to keeping his goals and not getting trapped into being a cog along the conveyor belt of divided labour between people who can’t stand him, that DeMarco can now say he has a good time working. "I’m really lucky now that I’ve come into a position where if we tour and I keep releasing music I can support my lifestyle without ever working – which is really amazing". He continues, "It’s like with music, I’m proud of what I’m doing and I’m willing to work at it. But when I’ve worked for anybody else I’ve only every given them a half-ass effort. Like I give no shred of an ass".
Other than the fear of the alternative life, music is important to DeMarco because it satisfies him, "I guess it’s the only thing I can really do. I mean I’ve tried doing other things and I’ve wondered if there’s a job for me out there other than music, that I’d actually give a shit about. But I always come back to wanting to write and record music. It’s the only thing I want to do".
Words by Michelle Kimbasha
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'Mac DeMarco 2' is out now.