Angie McMahon Talks New Album Light, Dark, Light Again: “This record has changed me”
An exclusive interview with the Australian singer-songwriter about her upcoming sophomore album.
A ZOOM call with Angie McMahon starts with a handful of apologies about the time. It’s 6 p.m. in New York, and 8 a.m. in Melbourne where the singer-songwriter resides. On her end, she’s apologetic that our call means it’s technically past working hours on the East Coast. For me, I can’t fathom her end of the deal, an 8 a.m. on-camera interview. “Oh I actually got up early and I've just been dancing in my backyard, which is nice,” she shrugs. “It’s winter here and, I'm living in quite an old house at the moment, which is basically a fridge. So I just get all the blood pumping in my body, so I feel good.” This morning she’s been listening to Florence and the Machine’s latest record, “Dance Fever,” one of her favorites. “Every time I listen to it, I find something else that I love about it,” she says. “Today the song that I was feeling was like ‘Choreomania.’ The line where she’s just like, ‘Rock and roll has not been resurrected in your image’…. I'm like, ‘Yes!’"
It’s a fitting start to her morning, as the next order of business is to talk about her just announced sophomore album Light, Dark, Light Again, out October 27th. McMahon was listening to Florence when she was producing her record, and took much of it’s feelings — big, unabashedly full sounds —as inspiration for the forthcoming album, a more band-oriented production than her 2019 debut album Salt. We discuss Welch’s live shows, a bare-foot catharsis for both singer and audience. “I want to be able to do that,” McMahon says. “Just make a space where you can just be feral and just express everything out of your body.”
Here, in an exclusive interview about the new album, the musician breaks down her most “positive” outing yet, and how she made an album that changed how she views the world.
How are you feeling now that the album has been officially announced?
I've been on a journey with it, but now I feel good about it. It took a while to make and so there was all these different seasons of how I felt about it, but now I feel happy. I'm happy that it's done and I learned a lot making it so when I look back on it, I feel very grateful for that. I'm very just different. I feel like making this record has changed me. It's just one of those milestones of my adult life where I think I'm always going to look back on it and be like, "Oh, that's when you learned this series of things." So it's nice to have a record of that. And I think also now that a few people have heard it, their reactions help me like it more as well, because I'm out of my own head with it instead of thinking about the same little production detail over and over. It's more zoomed out. And I think that makes a difference. Just a little bit of external interaction and validation is great.
It's that sense of, “no one else is thinking about you as much as you are.” Obviously, this is on a bigger scale because it's a thing people are going to listen to, but no one's listening for mistakes. They're not trying to nitpick an album.
No. And they're having a completely different experience. Someone's reading what you wrote or hearing what you wrote as the whole picture, whereas you've already done that and so you're forgetting how to do that even. You can't really objectively or from a fresh new place, do that. So it's nice. This part of the process is nice, I think, because when there's other people with eyes and ears on it, it's just easier to feel validated or a bit more confident.
How'd you start working on it? When the last album came out, did you immediately start thinking about the next album?
I think when the first album came out, I had just written a song, which is probably the first song that I wrote for this next album, that was “Staying Down Low.” And that was a funny one because when I finished writing it, part of me was like, "Should we try and scramble and get it on the first record?" But it doesn't work that way because of vinyl printing, and I knew that was going to be the beginning of the next season. But then I didn't complete another song for a while, and then when 2020 happened, obviously lockdowns and stuff, we had particularly intense Melbourne lockdowns. They were hardcore for months. You can't go to anyone's house and you could be outside for an hour a day to do exercise.
That was obviously super intense in so many ways, but that was when I started probably writing in a different way because I wanted to be playing with my band, but we couldn't rehearse or anything, and I wanted to build bigger sounds. I didn't just want to be like, "I'm a singer/songwriter in my room." So I started building big demos and experimenting with drum loops and pretending that I was a producer, I guess. And that made me build the world of the record. “Fish,” which is a song on the record that it's quite big and expansive. It's got all these vocal stacks and stuff and a big drum sound, I started making that on my computer and then it just morphed into imagining a record that was going to sound quite big and cosmic.
And then it was probably another year of writing on and off, starting to record songs and then that not quite having the grasp on it yet, and then going back and writing and just really figuring it out as I went. Because the first record, obviously being your first album, you've gathered those songs over so many years, whereas this was such a new process where I was like, "Oh yeah, I don't have the songs yet." I'd go into the studio and I'd be like, "Oh no, it's not ready, it's not fleshed out."
It just felt slow and I was pretty confused the whole time. There was a good year, a year and a half where I was just really confused about what to do, but I don't know, it figured itself out.
It’s interesting that you came into it being like, "I want this to be a big band album, not just me and my guitar," but when you started at a time where it was everyone was like, "Will musicians ever tour again?" Obviously, it's come back around, but was it wishful thinking on your part? Or did you ever get frustrated thinking, "Am I doing this for nothing? What happens if the landscape of music has totally changed?"
I think that thought developed over time, because remember in 2020, I don't know if you had this, we were just in disbelief like, "Oh, this is going to end soon." I think I was writing from that place of, “can't wait to get back on the road in a few months.” And then I guess maybe I was just trying to build the gaps of that band experience that I couldn't have physically. I listened to a lot of The War on Drugs in 2020 and they have such a dreamy band soundscape. I was just feeling really inspired by that and maybe trying to replicate that feeling a little bit.
I was also picturing festivals and crowds and stuff like the Florence feral energy that you were talking about. I was picturing that world and how we might perform to that world because it was informed by just having toured some of the Salt songs and wanting to expand and create a bigger sound. So I'm not sure if I really had my finger on the pulse of reality.
After you're creating these sounds, when it comes time to write lyrics, did you have an idea of thematically what you want the album to all tie back to, as a general thesis or something?
The sound of the record, I probably understood early on, but the theme of the record I didn't understand until quite late in the process. This was over a period of two years. And in that time, I went through a lot of emotional turmoil and growing pains. So within that, and then on the other side of it, although I'm still having growing pains in my emotional body, but the songs that are on the record are a selection of a whole lot of songs that I was working on. And the ones that I chose, the lyrical directions that I chose to follow, I think were the most positive skewed ones.
I realized that it was helping me most to sing and write about positive thinking and choose the mindset that was going to be the most healthy for me to keep singing and performing and almost manifest into my reality. So there was a lot of personal work going on around my mental health and my relationship with myself. What became the theme of the record was how I could have a positive relationship with myself and my thoughts, and also what kind of resilience I had and understanding my own resilience. And so the lyrical theme, it had to come after some lived experience. I didn't understand it at the time. It was retrospective.
I think sometimes we forget we can have really deep and personal connecting songs that are not all doom and gloom. Especially back in 2020, that's something that we weren't really getting a lot of.
I wanted to listen to positive music. Previous me would've thought this was so weird, but I started listening to positive affirmation recordings, which is just choirs of beautiful voices being like, “I am enough.” That was the music that I was needing. I needed art that reaffirmed life and hope, so I think I was leaning into that. And also just trying to balance the reality of what was happening. There's all this darkness that was happening too, and to not be repressing that, but maybe more conscious of how I was framing it and how I was going to want to look back on it. That was just an interesting development as an artist to keep trying to process stuff that I was finding hard and then send it back out into the world in a way that felt helpful.
Sometimes the helpful thing is just to say it exactly as it is and be like, "This is fucked and I hate this," but it was almost an experiment in what I wanted to choose to think about. And then definitely I was picturing myself singing stuff on stage later down the track and being, “What would you want to be saying over and over again?” I was just looking for life lessons in podcast world. And so much of what I took away from that was that you can choose your thoughts and your energy and that has a really powerful impact on your wellbeing. What do you want to put the spotlight on? And what do you want to focus on? So where I could and where it felt realistic, I chose positivity.
Some of the lyrics within the album certainly feel like positive affirmations, or even mantras, as they’re repeated over and over again, like with “Letting Go.”
I hope the journey of it feels like, "Oh, it's about letting go,” and then by the end you are letting go. I started as a piano ballad, that one. A lot of the songs that I write do start that way, more introspective and melancholy feeling. When it came to figuring out how to end the song, I just needed something simple like a mantra. It's actually something that does happen on the record a lot. There's quite a few songs that find their way to a repetitive mantra. But then I just realized that it needed to be a higher energy song, so I turned it into a rock song. I guess I was also inspired by Bruce Springsteen. I'm always listening to a lot of Springsteen.
Since this is your sophomore album, were you conscious or wanting at all to have a bridge to the previous record?
I think it naturally happened. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to evolve from the first album, which felt like it lived in one world, and just wanting to achieve everything that I could possibly achieve musically in a recording in the second album. I wanted to make this perfect, enormous, amazing thing, which is just not realistic. It’s perfectionist brain, to want tick so many boxes to be like, "Oh, I did my first album and that is what it is, and now I want to tick every other box of everything I've ever been inspired by and everything I've ever pictured for this project." And that didn't happen. But that's good because I'm still motivated to keep making records and I want to make a pop record, and I want to make a ambient meditation record, and I want to make so many different types of songs, which was a nice thing to have in mind as I was making this one, because I was thinking big for it. I wasn't thinking it's got to be like the first one.
But then I think naturally, there are parts of it that do bridge that gap. There's a couple of tracks that are recorded with my band in Melbourne who were on the first record. There's a couple that were co-produced and mixed by my bass player, Alex, who made the first record with me. And so that carries over that part of the world, but also, I think, hopefully, expands upwards a little bit more and outwards a bit more, but I don't really listen to my first record. It feels like such a previous version of me that I'd probably have to go back and listen to it to tell you how much they have in common.
When you're listening to this new record, does it already feel like a previous you or do you think you're still very much in living in it?
I think I'm living in it because I think I've tried to write the songs that I needed, and I think I still need those lessons. I'm still the same person struggling with the same subconscious style of thinking, and I haven't fully solved all my problems. Some days I've listened back to this record and been really grateful for that version of me putting that down because I'm still trying to lean in and embrace that positive version of myself. It's been a slow process to make it, and I definitely have written and thought about new songs and a different creative path as well. But I do still feel thankful that I'm connected to this creative version of me in the record, which is nice. I'm grateful for that.