When I meet up with Angie McMahon in NYC on Monday afternoon, she’s fresh off a midday Paste session, and several days into a string of US appearances coinciding with the release of her debut record, Salt. Things are hectic, but you’d have no idea, because the singer-songwriter (whose voice has been glowingly compared to the likes of Florence Welch and Tracy Chapman) is borderline-incomprehensibly gracious and lovely during our hour-long chat. She’d also probably be inclined to wave off that compliment; in spite of being ultra-talented, she seems incredibly humble, a quality she attributes (at least partly) to being Australian. “It’s part of the culture, and I find it to be quite grounding.”
With modesty, however, comes an inevitable fear of “tall poppy syndrome” (a term brought to my attention by a visiting friend from Melbourne last fall), or the monster which seems to lurk under the beds of many well-intentioned up-and-comers as they build careers, driving the edge of the humility knife all the while. “You have to be careful you don’t say the wrong thing or seem ungrateful, because then it’s like you’ve turned into something else,” she says. It’s a delicate balance well-illustrated (intentionally or not) in the lyrics of McMahon’s “Pasta”:
“Now I am simultaneously on top of someone’s pedestal, and also underneath someone else’s shoe.”
From where I stand, high horses couldn’t be further away from McMahon’s orbit, especially considering her personal brand is one built on a disarming sincerity. The aforementioned “Pasta”, for example, invites listeners into a world of disheveled bedrooms and loneliness and carbohydrates; it’s not glamorous, but it’s real. We have all been lost, eating a bowl of (in my case, cold) spaghetti. And in an age where it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish falsity from actuality, this is a welcome breath of fresh air.
It’s relatable tunes like the ones featured on Salt that have earned McMahon a quickly growing international audience (to which I belong), though she’s by no means new to the game. Music has been a permanent passion, stretching back since before she can remember. When I ask if there was ever an itch to pursue anything else (even something fleeting and outlandish, like an astronaut), she says this has always been it. And from humble beginnings singing for fun and uploading covers of her favorite songs in her bedroom, she went on to land major opportunities, like opening for Bon Jovi following a 2013 Telstra competition win (aged just 19 at the time), and supporting big-name acts ranging from Alanis Morissette to Mumford & Sons.
This almost beyond-belief trajectory might leave you scratching your head as to how you’re maybe only just catching wind of her now. But the patient (and somewhat bafflingly quiet) ascent was intentional; she says, “I think it would’ve been a real hustle to come off that [Bon Jovi] tour and follow it up, and I just wasn’t ready in any way. I didn’t have people around me who spoke about the music industry, I didn’t have songs that I believed in, and I didn’t have a skill level that I believed in. It just didn’t make sense to put all of my energy into that.”
Fortunately, having the self-awareness to wait was well worth it; through serendipitous meetings with beneficent people, the team McMahon had been missing started to come together. “It’s been a lot of luck and really good timing, a lot of really great people involved.”
For example, her singing teacher introduced her to John Castle, a producer who became a mentor figure, and who helped her to record her first single, “Slow Mover”.
Castle went on to introduce McMahon to her current manager, Charlotte Abroms, who McMahon often admiringly mentions in interviews. “She’s got really great instincts. She has this terms she uses, ‘kind faces’, where we try to only work with people who’ve got kind faces, or have those kinds of people around us. It’s just been a good benchmark,” she says with a laugh.
The only thing missing was the band. “I was very conscious of the fact that I was going to need a band for songs like ‘Pasta’ and ‘Keeping Time’ to be what I wanted them to be. Which was exciting, but it was scary, because at that point I was in a room by myself, completely safe.” Despite the apprehension, McMahon found her bandmates at the bar where she was working, and she has had nothing but positive things to say about the experience of working with them.
Of course, it’s one thing to be vulnerable with trusted members of your team, but it’s quite another to open yourself up to the rest of the world. Although in that regard, any internal worry (while understandable) seems wholly unfounded; the songs she’s released have been very well-received thanks to their raw honesty and charm, and it’s McMahon alone who seems to be her own biggest critic. “I’ve had periods where I’m really harsh on the songs, harsh on myself,” she says. “But that was particularly in a phase when I’d just finished the record and spent so much time with it analyzing the songs and myself that it was just this creative whirlpool of self-doubt. Now, the way that I feel about the songs is much more positive, just in terms of being able to have snapshots and reflections of myself at a certain time, and of my songwriting developing.”
However fleeting or snapshot-esque these moments may seem on a personal level, the narrative has certainly been striking a more evergreen chord with audiences all over. And McMahon’s genuineness spills out into other areas, like her social media presence. Is there anything that’s off-limits when it comes to sharing in songs or online, then?
“I think for self preservation, it’s important to keep some things…I guess private, but also just process them on my own time and under my own eye. Songwriting is maybe a safer space for me, because if I write a song that’s very personal, it’s going to be really cathartic, even if it’s covering the untouchable topics. And if I don’t want to release it, I don’t have to. But I do feel like those are often the best songs, are the ones that people feel scared to write. So with songwriting, I feel like there’s a benefit to oversharing. And with social media…I think there’s definitely a benefit to being personal, but I don’t think you need to overshare.”
Oversharing or not, McMahon’s commitment to authenticity (and her immense talent, let’s be real) is what makes her such an exciting artist to follow. In terms of what’s next, she says she hasn’t had much time to devote to songwriting what with touring and all, and she hasn’t decided on what, specifically, she’d like to make next. As far as sonic predictability goes, though, you can throw that right out the window; she says, “I’d love to make a bunch of records that sound really different; I want to go in different directions musically, and really experiment with different sounds, because I’m inspired by different types of sounds.” Whichever way the creative winds blow, her voice (both literally and figuratively) seems to be situated firmly at the helm of the ship, and I, for one, am glad to be a passenger.