Taylor Ranston

Home Music Music Features

The Rebirth of Angie McMahon

The Melbourne singer-songwriter discusses the long but rewarding road to her second album, 'Light, Dark, Light Again'

Angie McMahon is worried. “Now that I’m promoting it, I’m kinda like, ‘Does this come across as cheesy?’”

She’s talking about her new album, Light, Dark, Light Again, which is still a few months away from release, but it’s a record that McMahon has been living with for a long time. “I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of different seasons of feelings with this record. The process of making it and sitting with it and trying to be ok with it,” she says. 

It’s certainly been a while since we’ve heard from McMahon. Her 2019 debut album, Salt, became a top 5 chart hit and earned the Melbourne singer-songwriter an ARIA nomination, and then she disappeared, as we all did, into the enervating early pandemic years. It proved to be a period of isolation and inner turmoil, but as McMahon will reveal, she’s a much healthier person as she enters the second chapter of her career. 

McMahon took her time with her second album, and it turned out to be a crucial investment. “I think I didn’t know what I even wanted it to be for a long time,” she concedes. She actually had a full records’ worth of songs ready but “didn’t feel in the right place to make it.” 

With additional time to gestate, Light, Dark, Light Again eventually became a more perceptible thing. “I needed the extra time to write, to live, to learn some stuff,” McMahon adds. “That turned into writing songs and [those] ended up pushing some of the older songs off the record. Maybe I just needed time to go through more of a proper life chapter and grow into myself a little bit.”

The extended period of time between albums greatly benefitted McMahon, but the four-year gap wasn’t her initial intention. “I think there’s that cultural idea that you need to be constantly in momentum and producing stuff. I wanted that for myself,” she says. “I’ve been reckoning with that, just getting more realistic with the voice in my head more than anything. Changing your expectations to meet the universe’s intention.”

It’s the first time “the universe” is mentioned by McMahon, but it won’t be the last. Searching for a way out of anxiety and mental strife, she looked deep within herself to find solutions. “In that big period of time between records, I had really big feelings that I’ve failed, personally and career-wise,” she recalls. “I just surrendered more to the grand timing that I have no control over, and that just made life easier.”

It was a useful philosophy to have when pandemic life was so unstable and uncertain, but it also proved useful for contemplating her art and career. “My worth isn’t tied to the work that I do,” McMahon says firmly. “It definitely took me a while to get there but I’m really happy. It just means that this process is more pleasurable.”

During the rollout of Light, Dark, Light Again, bouts of stress have inevitably still emerged, but McMahon now feels more able to deal with them. “It’s a different colour to what it used to be. It doesn’t define me anymore. I’ve had time to be still with it.”

McMahon’s story closely resembles that of Fazerdaze, the New Zealand bedroom pop musician who rose to stardom on the back of an acclaimed debut album [2017’s Morningside] before retreating from the limelight, tending to her personal wellbeing away from the suffocating music industry. She would return last year with the sublime Break! EP, a record about letting go, learning to break and accept life’s imperfections. 

“I should totally speak to them [Fazerdaze],” McMahon says with a weary laugh. “All this stuff was a big reckoning with just feeling like I’d completely fallen down and hit rock bottom. But it was also really important to feel that [way] because I got past it and I’m fine. I’m less afraid now, I think, of feeling that way again.”

McMahon is returning to Melbourne from the countryside when we talk. She’s been spending some time with her family in New South Wales, working on a farm out there. “It’s pretty rural. There’s not very good internet,” she laughs.

Escaping the big city – its noise and its people – is something she’s been doing a lot recently. Light, Dark, Light Again was recorded between Melbourne and the US, but instead of heading to Los Angeles or Nashville or New York City, she retreated to the unheralded Durham, North Carolina. Why, is my simple question. McMahon laughs. 

“When we finally got out of lockdown, I was like, ‘Ok, I’m getting out of this country!’ And I just went off to make some connections,” she explains. She eventually met noted producer Brad Cook – “your favourite indie band’s secret weapon,” as Pitchfork once wrote of him – who convinced her to come to Durham to work on her next record. 

“I’d never been somewhere in the States which was so green and peaceful and quiet, but still had a really bustling community,” she remembers. Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan lived nearby and would wander down the road to Cook’s house to record with them. Several other bands also lived and worked in the town, according to McMahon. It would sound so twee – Meet Me in the Bathroom by Wes Anderson – if it wasn’t all true. 

Away from the bustle of bigger cities, McMahon found herself surrounded by nature, music, and allowed herself to breathe. “It felt really homey and grounding. The nature was so beautiful. I wouldn’t have chosen North Carolina but I’m so glad I ended up there. The universe had a plan for me to get there – I didn’t choose it, it chose me!”

In Cook, she found a producer fully willing to take her at face value. When she asked for water sounds to be added into a song, or for voice memos featuring bird noises to be included elsewhere, he was utterly unfazed and wholly accommodating. “Brad put bird seed outside the studio to get more to come,” McMahon laughs, “and then he’d try to record the sounds.” 

The McMahon who made Salt is almost unrecognisable to the one behind this new album. “I feel like an evolution of the same person,” as she puts it. “With the first record, being a bit more green with everything, I was so scared to feel like I’d failed, whereas now I’m like, ‘Oh, well you actually have to fail.’ She acknowledges the youthfulness of some of her lyrics in 2019, but is just as quick to note her growth as a songwriter four years later. “I think on this record, I have a more grounded, self-reflective approach. There’s heartbreak and pain, but I don’t think I’m blaming other people for it. I think I’m turning the lens on myself.” 

Sonically, too, things are different on Light, Dark, Light Again. “I did want to go much bigger, into a more cosmic, expansive feeling. There’s a lot of production stuff and synth stuff on this record, but it’s still complimenting the singer-songwriter thing.” 

She offers a good comparison to explain the thematic differences between her two albums. “It (Salt) was more like, ‘Oh my god, life is painful! Why is everyone shit and why do I have these feelings?’ I think the ‘why’ behind this new record is, ‘Why am I so afraid? Why am I frozen?’ Kind of trying to figure out more about myself.”

Angie McMahon

Credit: Taylor Ranston

McMahon wants to tell me about something. “Have you heard of the window of tolerance,” she asks. I haven’t. An excitable monologue follows:

“So basically, this changed my life! This beautiful therapist explained that we all have this window inside [us] when we are in our calmest state. You can manage decisions, you can manage big emotional moments, because your nervous system is neutral. That’s when your laugh sounds the most normal and your voice and everything. When you’re outside the window of tolerance, that’s when you’re in fight or flight. That’s when your parasympathetic nervous system is activated. There’s all of these things that you can do once you learn or realise that you’re outside your window of tolerance to get back inside. She had me draw this diagram that explains what that looks like, and it was just so helpful to have the context that like, ‘Oh, there’s actually a grounded sense of place that I can be aiming to get back to.’”

She continues as I make a mental note to properly research the concept later. “At the time, when I was working through this, I was perpetually outside my window of tolerance. I think a lot of people are. You can basically just live outside the window of tolerance all the time, just be jumping between fight or flight. I think that’s what I was doing and I was  like, ‘Why can’t I make decisions about anything? Why am I forgetting everything? Why am I constantly feeling like what’s wrong with me?’

Learning about such a key psychological concept eventually had an impact on McMahon’s music. “It gave me a centre to aim for, and then in the writing and the art, it became a lot about trying to get back to that state by processing things,” she adds. (If McMahon wishes to explore a second career, she could, like Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, become a therapist: she talks calmly, even soothingly, and I find myself willing to open up to her as she speeds towards Melbourne.)

We won’t be able to appreciate the fullness of Light, Dark, Light Again for a month or two yet, but its first three singles – “Saturn Returning”, “Letting Go”, and “Fireball Whiskey” – feel like the ideal encapsulation of McMahon’s personal journey over the past few years. Taken together, they offer a triptych detailing her relinquishing of anxiety: processing old, toxic coping mechanisms, accepting imperfections into life, and being reborn into a new, healthier existence. 

“Saturn Returning”, McMahon maintains, had to be the first taste of the new album. “I was worried about it because it’s more cinematic than anything I’ve put out as a single before, but it definitely felt like the truest way to represent this next chapter.” 

She followed it with “Letting Go”, her most sonically ambitious song yet. I tell her that it reminded me of the soaring physicality of The War on Drugs and Bruce Springsteen’s style of rock. “I love those artists so much!” she exclaims. “Songs that make me feel like I’m moving. I initially thought I was going to make a whole record like that, but this is the one that came out. I was listening to so much War on Drugs [during recording]. And I grew up listening to Springsteen.” 

The towering rhythms of “Letting Go” are oceans away from her habitual intimate singer-songwriter style, and yet the new sonic palette still suits McMahon’s words. It ends with the simplest of mantras but McMahon’s voice shakes with passion, understanding: “It’s ok, it’s ok, make mistakes, make mistakes,” she sings, and the more she repeats it, the more lived-in the mantra sounds, the more grounding it becomes. “Letting Go” then ends abruptly – the mantra, evidently, has worked. 

“It’s me trying to lull myself back into the centre (the feeling persists that this album is as much for McMahon as for us; as it should be). I was saying that [mantra] to myself a lot in that period of mental strife.” Living alone at the time, McMahon found herself trying out different methods of caring for her mental wellbeing, including speaking to herself. “It included putting a hand on my chest and saying out loud, ‘It’s ok, it’s ok.’ Those are so powerful and I’m so glad it comes across in the song. It’s a powerful moment because I really believe in positive, simple language.”

Released today, “Fireball Whiskey” essentially gives away its subject matter in the title. It’s the most tender of the three singles, McMahon mellowed by memories of her former self, squandering time to bad habits. “”Fireball Whiskey” touches on using alcohol to navigate my anxiety,” she says, “and also just realising over time that caring for your mental health is so important and will affect the way you can love and be with people. I think I’m afraid of change and didn’t know that about myself, but the process of writing this one helped bring it to light.” 

Why is McMahon, when she’s clearly adopted so many positive coping mechanisms, still concerned with her album being mocked as “cheesy”?

“I spent a lot of time in my head just being like, ‘Is this record shit?’” she says. “Part of me is scared about that self-compassion, encouragement, and language being lame or something!” Earlier, when she talks about spirituality, she sounds a little trepidatious. 

But it’s a different world that McMahon’s second album enters. The New Sincerity trend has been around for decades, popularised in the ‘90s when David Foster Wallace wrote of new writers “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes… accusations of sentimentality,” but sincerity did seem to starkly rise to the surface of pop culture in the post-Trump years. Ted Lasso became the biggest comedy on TV, eschewing actual jokes for warmth and genuineness; the greatest French writer of his generation, Édouard Louis, gained a following for his savage-but-sentimental depictions of his parents’ lives; Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift and myriad other music superstars made community and sincerity key. Even Sufjan Stevens, transformed into the doyen of breathlessly sincere indie-folk by Carrie & Lowell, is returning with new music this year. 

The world is perhaps a safer space, then, for McMahon’s songs about self-compassion and connection to the universe to be received. When most of us are seriously caring for our mental health more than ever before and trying to be better versions of ourselves, we’re made more receptive to McMahon unspooling her mantras, spirituality, and philosophical wonderings. She agrees. “I’m really glad there are more cultural conversations happening. I think it makes me feel more confident in this record, although I was not scared enough to not make the record because I did! I’m glad that there seems to be a place for it. You never really know how something is going to be received.”

The reaction to the first few songs has made McMahon feel more secure about the full album’s eventual reception. “I’ve really appreciated the bits of feedback that I’ve gotten so far, from even just a couple of people, saying ‘I really needed to hear this’ or something like that. That’s the world that I want to be in – we say positive things to each other that are encouraging and can create hope.”

For perhaps the first time in her career, though, it’s really not about external validation. Because Light, Dark, Light Again really is as much for Angie McMahon as it is for her fans. And she’s already accepted how she feels about her own record. “You never feel like your creation is perfect. You have to just let it be.”

Angie McMahon’s Light, Dark, Light Again is out October 27th via AWAL (pre-save/pre-order here). 

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine