It has been turbulent few years for Angie McMahon since she last played a show in Los Angeles — at Hollywood’s name-breaking Hotel Cafe a little over four years ago.
Though everyone across the globe was affected by a worldwide pandemic, the Melbourne, Australia singer experienced some of the strictest lockdown guidelines anywhere in the world. Just four months before the world shut down, she had opened for Hozier on a US tour playing the biggest venues of a career that was really taking off. She had received lots of award nominations in her home country despite its independent release, her Chrissie Hynde meets Florence Welch vocal prowess catching the praise and attention of major publications across the world.
Then everything came to a stop.
Though at times daunting, McMahon talks as though it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“There wasn’t as much pressure, of what’s around the corner, no one knows,” McMahon told Pass The Aux a few hours before she’d play her first LA show in four years at DTLA’s cozy yet vibrant Moroccan Lounge. She was wearing an awesome vintage Emmylou Harris shirt she had thrifted some days earlier in nearby Silverlake.
The show that night marked a return as she nears the release of her much-anticipated sophomore effort Light, Dark, Light Again (out October 27 via AWAL).
“It took a little bit of crawling back from that state, but I was grateful to just be able to chill.”
Unfortunately the flip side of all that time to chill was a dearth of creativity. Ironically, it was somewhere nearly 8,000 miles away that McMahon was able to tap into in the form of the Los Angeles songwriting workshop School of Sound.
“I had a couple friends who had done it,” McMahon recalls. “I think they had just done a Buck Meek one. They have a different person every month do a course. My friends just loved it and so I signed up for the next one and we all did it together.”
Those Zoom sessions with other songwriting pals helped break up the monotony of a lockdown that kept her indoors at minimum 23 hours a day.
“I had just lost motivation one point for a while to write,” McMahon said. And that was the thing — being with friends and having someone I really respected give these prompts to write songs. That was kind of how I got the juices flowing again. Courtney Marie Andrews was running the course that we did and she’s so great. When that month ended we just tried to keep it going amongst our friends [including that night’s opener Mimi Gilbert.”
In a Pass The Aux review of her first album four years ago, my friend Andrew Ledford described McMahon’s playbook as “raw emotions, loud riffs, simmering tension, an enviable gift for boiling complicated feelings down to essential, simple observations.”
The singer said that made her want to cry when read back to her, but it’s indeed true. She makes it seem so easy how she connects big overarching feelings all of us experience like being forlorn or having self-doubt to things like how people sometimes say it’s OK to eat food that’s going rotten but it might make you sick and she doesn’t like getting sick (on “Fireball Whiskey”) and eating pasta even though she might be allergic (“Pasta”).
It’s almost like a Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope. For those who don’t know this term, it came from Ali lying on the ropes to tire out George Foreman a fight nobody thought Ali would survive, then exploding with his own offense to finally finish Foreman. McMahon’s rope-a-dope comes in the form of lulling you into a sense of what her music is behind her catchy and cheeky verses before hitting you with an Ali-sized hook that will get stuck in your head for weeks.
McMahon took a step forward in terms of production on the new record compared to Salt. She always knew she wanted to be more expansive when getting her second swing at recording a record.
“I always wanted to be able to expand into a different place with each and every record I made,” McMahon says. “The first one I think I was just developing my sound and confidence and even just being in the studio. Then having done that, now I get to be a bit more loud and brave.”
For Light, Dark, Light Again, McMahon linked up with producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, The War on Drugs, Whitney) at his studio in Durham, North Carolina. The Aussie singer spent about 15 days recording the record, a drastic change from her first album which she spent months and months working on.
“I realize so much of what I and probably what everyone struggles with, the roots are in us not being compassionate enough to ourselves. When I started to think about that more it really started to become a strong theme that rooted itself in all of the songs.”– Angie McMahon on the theme of her new record
“I was really being challenged to not care so much about some shit,” McMahon said of the experience. “It was a great workflow but I am a really slow decision maker and a perfectionist. It was a good challenge for me because sometimes I don’t get anything done because I am that way. Every morning I would meditate before I went to the studio because I was just trying to be present and not worry about the outcome and lean into what I was learning. We had a good balance and it was a great experience.”
You could say that McMahon was learning that “it’s OK to make mistakes” — a mantra that comprises the hook in lead single “Letting Go”. You can feel the freedom in the way she sings that line over and over, as if the first few times she says it, she’s just trying to accept that fact, and by the end of the repetition she’s saying it with her whole chest in full belief.
“Healing and self-compassion, it’s the practice I am trying to lean into and what my therapist keeps pushing me towards,” McMahon says of all the positivity that appears on this record. “Some days I am better at it and some days I’m not. But I realize so much of what I and probably what everyone struggles with, the roots are in us not being compassionate enough to ourselves. When I started to think about that more it really started to become a strong theme that rooted itself in all of the songs.”
When it came to talking to the emotions she was experiencing as she neared playing live for the first time in several years, you could sense a bit of nerves. “I’m excited, I don’t feel very gig-fit right now. So this is gonna be maybe a little bit loose. I’m just leaning into that. This is sort of just dipping my toes into the record. I’m just gonna surrender to the chaos.”
You could sense a little anxiety as McMahon took the stage later that night in front of a sold-out crowd, which she tempered by making self-deprecating jokes that earned laughter. Then — the rope-a-dope again — as she’d preempt a song by saying she’s never played it live and she doesn’t know how it’s going to go with just being her on stage — and it would be a home run every time.
Angie McMahon captivated a packed room for the duration of her set, a look of awe on everyone’s faces around me. It made me think back to something she had said towards the end of our interview.
“I probably need these songs now as much as I did when I was writing them, which is kind of cool, a little full circle. I’m grateful for the songs that I wrote because I still need them.”
Judging by the crowd’s reaction, we all need them.
Words by Mark Ortega
Photos by Zoe Sher