A couple of years ago, Angie McMahon tried to kick music. She was nearing the end of a literature degree, and had taken the opportunity to study abroad, in England, in the hopes that it would focus her learning. Taking English literature had been her second choice – just after graduating high school, she unsuccessfully auditioned for a music college. “I can’t sing jazz, and my technique is terrible,” McMahon laughs now. “I played them a sad breakup song I had written instead, and they were like, ‘This is not going to get you into the course.’”
But the set-back was only minor: studying literature appealed to her too. She had long enjoyed reading, ever since she was little – her father, who works in law, loves books, and she grew up surrounded by them. “I always loved writing,” she says. “It was always songwriting I was most drawn to – but I did the degree because I wanted to get better at writing, and have more knowledge of books.”
But the degree had been hard. Or, maybe not the degree itself. It was more juggling music – the thing she so loved – with her studies. Working out which one sustained her: that was the puzzle. And self-doubt only made it harder. “While doing the uni degree, I went through periods where I was like, ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not brave enough.’”
So, away from home, studying overseas, she decided to see if it was viable to drop music altogether; to test how much it would hurt to abandon that part of her life completely. “I did almost no music while I was there,” she says. “I dropped it for three or four months. I had a guitar with me, but I didn’t pick it up. And in a way, that was actually really good. When you’re overseas, that’s when you have your self-realisations.” She laughs. “I came back from that feeling more confident about myself just generally. I was like, ‘Get over yourself, you’ve had a big breath, now you can try harder.’”
It can be a scary thing to come to terms with, the idea that there are these parts of yourself that you desperately need to indulge. But it can be joyous too. One day you just wake up and there it is: the understanding that the course of your life is set. “Realising I wanted to make music made it so much easier after I graduated, because I knew that had to give music a good shot,” McMahon says. “It was hard, but I was so ready.
“And it’s a nice feeling, in a way. Making music is hard, and scary, and will take a long time, but you never have to worry that you’re doing the wrong thing.” She shrugs, contentedly. “You can just do it.”
Last October, McMahon released ‘Slow Mover’, an extraordinarily elegant and intelligent song about indecision and the aching desire to be kinder. The song is a stunning work – a compact piece of art, so sharp it could draw blood – but that never guaranteed its success. After all, there are a lot of perfect pieces of art that go under the radar, or draw only modest crowds; a lot of songs that have to wait decades to be properly appraised.
Not ‘Slow Mover’. In one of those beautiful, rare cultural moments that see great art recognised in its own time, ‘Slow Mover’ caught almost immediately. But as much as McMahon was deeply honoured by the suddenness of the success, she felt dangerously unprepared for it too. “I struggled,” she says. “I was crying a lot and I was really anxious; really overwhelmed. I went to a therapist for the first time. There was so much to process. I was not coping at all; there was too much to think about; too much to schedule; too many things to put in my brain.”
McMahon pauses; takes a sip of her coffee. She’s sitting towards the back end of Bondi’s Gertrude And Alice, stretching out across the table. It’s a Friday, the day outside is muggy and oppressive, but in here it’s as cool and as still as a church, and the books – teetering in piles; packed tightly into shelves – only enhance the space’s sense of reverence. There’s something about being surrounded by all that literature that changes the lilt of one’s voice, so McMahon talks gently, only slightly louder than the soft folk being piped over the shop’s speakers.
“All these plans started happening,” McMahon continues. “You have to plan releasing the album, and plan the next three years, and plan your international career. I want to be the best songwriter and performer that I can be. But it’s so easy to say those things, and when it’s real, you just go, ‘Fuck.’ It’s weird to have ambition and then have things put in front of you.
“It would be ridiculous to complain about it, but it’s just overwhelming. The reception was just lovely. And that was overwhelming. And the industry is such a big one – made up of so many moving parts – you suddenly feel like you need an opinion on everything. It’s like, you need to learn how to belong in all these new spaces. You need to learn how to be again.”
McMahon records a lot of voice memos these days, and on planes, as she tours the country promoting ‘Slow Mover’, and her precise, subtly furious follow-up single ‘Missing Me’, she listens back to them. “I have 2,000 voice memos on my phone. None of them are labelled.”
They’re songs – or rather, they’re the mutant, half-formed things that come before songs; automatic writing exercises, rambly and long. “There is one that is like ten minutes. When I heard it, I was like, ‘What is this?’ It’s just me in a songwriting mood: I clicked record on the phone, and then it’s a stream of consciousness thing. There’s just all this shit. At three minutes in, I’m listening, and I’m like, ‘That’s not a chord. And what words did you just sing?’ But then seven minutes in, there’s something I never would have got to otherwise.”
It’s a songwriting lesson McMahon has found valuable to learn – that you have to silence your inner critic, and accept that sometimes it takes six minutes and 59 seconds worth of nothing to create something, even though you have no idea how good that something is going to be.
“You have to drop the judge,” she says. “You have to get rid of that voice for a length of time – a day, an hour. And then you have to put on all these different hats throughout the creative process. There’s the writing hat; the editing hat. You have to treat the song in different ways.”
McMahon needs the creative process. She knows that; accepts it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t also that worry in the back of her head that there might be some vanity to what she does. After all, Bob Dylan might be Bob Dylan, but he’s not a cure for cancer; Leonard Cohen was a singer, not a heart surgeon. And there are times when McMahon finds herself concerned what she’s doing is so much indulgence.
It’s not necessarily about writing something that is going to change politics.
“I had this existential crisis this other week where I was like, ‘My job is so selfish, because it’s only for me.’ There’s enough music; no-one needs to hear more songs about sad shit. I’m not serving anything. And I think it can feel that way for a lot of people, creating things.
“I was talking to my dad about it, and I was like, ‘Do you think it’s worth all this stress?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, because people want art. They need art. People want things to connect with, and new things to connect with. And as the world changes, art needs to change. We have to keep writing things and developing things.’”
Noise disturbs the quiet of the café: at the table next to McMahon, a woman has surprised her friend with a birthday cupcake, into which a lone sparkler has been stabbed. She’s singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her friend, and soon, McMahon starts singing along too. The music rises to fill the space. And suddenly, it’s like this neat little illustration of exactly what music can do has manifested itself out of nowhere – music in its most primal, unsophisticated form. There’s this song – one so simple a child could sing it – and it is doing something to another human being; making this woman smile over the top of her cake and its sparkler, which is burning down to a blackened wire nub.
“It’s not necessarily about writing something that is going to change politics or the structure of the world,” McMahon says when the song is done, while the two women start sharing the cake. “You’re writing something that will touch people. It’s a good thing to remind yourself.” She smiles. “I’ve had to remember that. People want art. They really want it. And it’s an important part of our lives.”
Angie McMahon will play the Oxford Art Factory on Saturday July 7. Head here to buy tickets.