“Make It Cosmic! Send It In To Space” Angie McMahon Interviewed

Australian singer-songwriter talks about her gorgeous new album…

Angie McMahon’s second album ‘Light, Dark, Light Again’ was released a month ago and she is finally able to look back on the years of lockdown, the heartbreak and the epiphanies that shaped the album. Speaking from her makeshift studio space at the back of her home in Melbourne, the songwriter is tucked in between instruments hanging on the wall behind her. It’s an early summer evening and the bats are stirring outside her window. 

“I was going through a deep unknowing” says McMahon regarding the past few years. “I felt so lost, and it was kind of liberating to be like actually I know fucking nothing. I just started to absorb stuff like a sponge.”

Just some of the things McMahon absorbed during this time: The documentary Fantastic Fungi about the microscopic world or mushrooms (“you see them as rot and mould but actually they’re creating new life”), Robin Wall Kemmerer’s novel Braiding Sweetgrass (“she marries the world of science with poetic indigenous storytelling”), as well as Jungian psychology and a book of Buddhist teachings. They all make their way into McMahon’s music, which is similarly introspective and wide-eyed. 

‘Light, Dark, Light Again’ can best be described as an indie-folk-rock album with a warm, new age glow. It sounds like listening to Waxahatchee while browsing a boutique filled with books of affirmations, herbal remedies, and incense – in the best way possible. It has been warmly received by fans and critics. 

By the time her debut ‘Salt’ came out in 2019, McMahon had already started making a name for herself on the Australian scene. Her deep, world-weary voice and detailed lyrics made her music feel lived in, like your favourite stained jeans. A standout track on the album was ‘Pasta’ which opened with the memorable lines: “My bedroom is a disaster/ My dog has got kidney failure.” 

But six months after her debut came out, the pandemic struck, and Australia was plunged into a long, intense lockdown. 

The time in isolation led to “a bunch of epiphanies that came from slowing down and resting for the first time in a long time.” She grappled with her mental health, a relationship meltdown, and reckoned with a hard lifestyle that was taking its toll. Gaining the confidence to start writing and recording again felt like an uphill battle.

A lifeline during this time was a song writing group she started with Melbourne artists Ruby Gill and Hannah Cameron. “I was struggling and in a rut, but it was so beautiful to have other people’s minds and to bounce ideas off my friends” she says. The guiding principle was to tap into something raw and primal, to “get into the dirt of yourself, get into your animal body,” she says. 

The song ‘Exploding’ came from these sessions and it is a song about accepting the chaos of the universe and the chaos within. The song builds and builds until it erupts: “I hope I’m always exploding” she yells into the void. It feels like watching a star explode through an optical telescope – it’s tension-and-release song writing that you feel all the way to your fingertips. “If the alternative is heavy holding/ I hope that I’m always exploding” she repeats.

‘Exploding’ is an example of the album’s expansive soundscape, which has often been described as cinematic – but it’s less front row at the IMAX and more gazing up at a starry night, mouth ajar and mind racing. Similarly to The War On Drugs (a band she cites as an influence), the washy reverb and wall of sound has an all-enveloping effect. “Make it cosmic! Send it into space!” is what she would shout to producer Brad Cook while mixing the album. 

Comparing herself to an exploding star is exactly the kind of macro to micro imagery which Angie McMahon does well. It’s as if the William Blake quote of “seeing a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour” is the album’s North Star. 

The songwriter intertwines herself with nature throughout the album. There is birdsong recorded from her garden in Melbourne (‘Making it Through’), as well as deeply personal lyrics about weaning off of antidepressants (‘Serotonin’). How does nature affect her song writing?

Angie McMahon takes a second to collect her thoughts. “The nature imagery, like the stars and all that enormous magic, is probably what I have been using to process really big feelings, like longing, sorrow and pain”, she says slowly. “I think of feelings in waves for example, and if I feel uncomfortable, I think of myself as a tree”, an image she builds on in the self-love anthem ‘I Am Already Enough’. “Trees have to withstand so much weather, but they grow in every direction.” 

She continues: “All the moments of connection and transcendence I feel with nature, they then lead me to be able to be authentic or just honest about the most basic things – which then turns into intimate songwriting.”

McMahon was also surrounded by nature while recording, as the album was mostly recorded at Brad Cook’s studio in the mountains of Durham, North Carolina.

Renowned multi-instrumentalist/producer Brad Cook grew up with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and has produced for the band, as well as working with The War On Drugs and numerous singer-songwriters like Sharon Van Etten, Waxahatchee, Jess Williamson – to name a few. Pitchfork called him “your favourite indie band’s best weapon” and he has undoubtedly been important in shaping the sound of contemporary Americana. 

Despite Angie being born and raised in Australia, America as a place and sound, looms large in her music. “I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it that deeply more than that the records that made their way into my life and really stuck with me happen to be American records,” she says. She cites Dylan and Springsteen as important influences, and she has recorded covers of Neil Young, Tom Waits and Lana Del Rey. 

“I think Australians need somewhere to dream big,” she says and adds: “I also think I sing with an American accent, which is actually quite common for artists here. A lot of us are embarrassed about it,” she laughs. 

But the album is undoubtedly rooted in Melbourne. When she sings about “flocks of birds changing form/ from a wave to a fist to a storm” in ‘Mother Nature’, it is the specific birds she saw while lying on her back “having panic attacks” in her garden in Melbourne. And when she sings “I wanna be a tree”, it isn’t a red maple from North Carolina, but a large, Australian gum tree that she sees, withstanding the weather and growing in all directions.

Angie McMahon’s ‘Light, Dark, Light Again’ is out now on Gracie Music/AWAL Recordings and she is playing in London on June 24th at Lafayette. 

Words: Harry Thorfinn-George
Photo Credit: Bridgette-Winten

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