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Mallrat on The Musical Metamorphosis of 'Butterfly Blue'

After years spent as one of the country's most impressive artists, Mallrat has reached new heights with her debut album, 'Butterfly Blue'.

No matter how you look at it, these past few years have been pretty big for Grace Shaw, or Mallrat, as she’s known to countless music fans the world over.

It was back in 2016 that we were first invited into her world, with the somewhat ironically-titled Uninvited. But almost immediately, her arresting and infectious combination of indie-pop and hip-hop turned heads. From there, things began to snowball quickly.

As her profile rose, so did her catalogue. 2018 brought with it the In the Sky EP, featuring singles such as the Allday-featuring “UFO, “Better”, and “Groceries” (which were certified Gold, Platinum, and 2xPlatinum, mind you).

But it was in 2019 that Mallrat truly exploded. Her Driving Music EP ended up reaching #10 on the ARIA charts, while lead single “Charlie” would become her most successful release to date. Going Platinum, it reached the singles chart, hit #3 on triple j’s Hottest 100 for the year, and even resulted in a Simlish version for The Sims soundtrack.

Of course, as this success continued, questions were raised about when we might receive a full-length album from the stunning artist. As it turned out, we didn’t need to wait too long for an indicator. While the stunning “Rockstar” arrived in 2020, “Your Love” and “Teeth” accompanied the news that Butterfly Blue would finally arrive in April of 2022.

Slick, smooth, and the product of many years spent as a truly stunning artist, Butterfly Blue is – quite simply – an amazing record. With influences from the pop, rock, and folk genres, Butterfly Blue also includes a number of surprising influences, including distorted effects recorded from discarded children’s toys, a flipped recording of a children’s choir performing “Lisztomania”, and chopped-up Gangsta Pat bars. The result is something truly unique.

“I’ve always valued music that is interesting, beautiful and unpretentious,” Mallrat explained in a statement upon its announcement. “Something timeless and not reactive. Butterfly Blue was made with that in mind. It’s a demonstration of not pretending to be anyone else.”

Featuring appearances from the likes of Azealia Banks and influence from The OC soundtrack, Butterfly Blue is arguably the sound of an artist reaching her current peak, with forewarning that there’s plenty more highlights set to come in her illustrious career.

Ahead of the release of Butterfly Blue, Mallrat spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about the creation of her new record, her desire to always be a pop star, and recruiting a musical idol for of the album’s most memorable songs.

So first of all, I’d love to start with the standard question lately: How are you? How have you been managing with these last couple of years? Have you been keeping safe and well?

I’m good. The last couple of years were boring, to be honest, which is quite a mild take away from it all. So I’ve been pretty lucky.

Obviously we’re here to chat about your debut album. But before we do that, let’s briefly talk about what came before. You released your first EP in 2016, and two more have followed since. When you first released Uninvited in 2016, did you have any idea about the sort of journey that would follow, or at least, hopes for what would follow?

Well, no [laughs]. I had no idea what it would look like, but I had in my head that ‘I’m going to be a pop star and I’m going to be and I’m just going to be like an amazing songwriter’. So I was always very ambitious, but I didn’t know the specifics of what that would look like and how that would progress. 

Obviously that’s lofty ambition, so when you were sort of starting off, did you often find yourself with folks telling you to sort of reach for things that are a bit more accessible? Or were you always just trying to aim high?

Yeah, it wasn’t even ‘I want to’, it’s like, ‘I’m going to’ [laughs]. I don’t know. In my head it seemed like a natural course: “I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I’m going to just be a star. I really believe in my songwriting ability and myself. And it’s going to figure its way out”. So that’s how I’ve always kind of thought about it. 

When you started seeing that sort of success, that must have been quite validating then?

Yeah, definitely. It’s been a really cool ride, and it’s really exciting to think that the album’s not even out yet.

From there though, how did you find that success? Was it a bit surprising that everything you did was so well-received, or was it more like, “Well, I’m working hard, so it makes sense”?

Yeah, I guess it happened so gradually that it makes sense when it’s happening. But when you look back over the years, it’s kind of incredible. But as it’s happening, it’s just step by step by step, little bit by little bit. And so it feels normal or manageable or something. 

Driving Music came out in 2019, and the world has been a bit wild in the time, but when did you first start looking toward working on an album? Was there always a plan for an album? Or did you think it might be more EPs and singles as time went on?

Well, I think just because of the way my contract was structured, I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to do these EPs, and then when they’re done, I’ll think about an album.” So, because I am someone that’s always so obsessed with one song at a time, rather than like a whole album at a time, my biggest life goal has been to make an album. My biggest passion is making a song perfect, and that’s all I can think about. I have tunnel vision on that for a bit. And then it’s like, “OK, that’s done, now onto the next song. I’m going to make that perfect”. And I don’t always look at it [in terms of] how they’re put together after that. So for me, it was just like, “OK, it’s finally time to do an album now, I’m going to make it fucking good.” [laughs].

I assume then that if you’re the sort of person who focuses on one song at a time, the overall sound of what you make wouldn’t be necessarily important, but rather, the whole process involved in releasing a body of work would just be longer, right?

Yeah, literally [laughs]. It doesn’t really add to any air of mystery around an artist like you’d hope. But honestly, it’s just how I think about things. 

Making an album is however a different undertaking to a single or an EP, so with the fact you didn’t particularly think of it as an album, was there still a particular theme in mine? I read how the titular ‘butterfly’ represents “reinvention, freedom and fleeting beauty” apparently, so was there a plan to incorporate that from the start, or did that just become apparent as the songs presented themselves?

It presented itself later. I’m not really sure how to expand on that. I mean, it’s not a very literal reference to butterflies in the theme of the album. I don’t even know if there is a theme to the album. It’s just something that is just an animal that I’m very drawn to, and I think they’re quite magical, and I think a lot of human experience can be kind of compared to butterfly metamorphosis. I don’t know, I’ve just always found it fascinating, and it’s such a special, fleeting moment of beauty when you see a butterfly. And I am the sort of person that always puts more meaning into it than there probably needs to be. So it’s just something that I’ve always found special. 

Looking at the record from a songwriting point of view, there’s some truly gorgeous lyrics on here. There was a quote from yourself about how you’re not a fan of lyrical metaphors, and it’s all about describing the scene as it lies. It all feels so visceral and relatable, and this album just feels full of that. Do you feel your lyrics have sort of grown as you’ve grown as an artist? To listen to your back catalogue, it only feels as if your writing just gets stronger and more powerful each time.

Thank you, that’s really kind. I hope they’ve grown and evolved [laughs]. I think over the last few years, I’ve been reading as much as I’ve ever read as well, so that’s probably expanded my vocabulary a little bit. And I don’t know, I think words are such a powerful tool, and I always try my best to use them properly and especially so with songwriting. So I I think they would have grown, but I’m not really sure how to tell you they have.

On the same token, it feels like such a vulnerable record. Do you ever have any apprehension about being vulnerable in your lyrics, or has it also become easier as time has gone on?

Well, I feel like I said all the scary stuff in “Charlie”, so after that it’s been pretty easy. And also I believe that generally the things that are hardest to say are the most important to say. So I also try to keep that in mind when I feel a bit of apprehension about sharing something. And also I have to trick myself sometimes into finishing songs by telling myself that no one’s ever going to hear it and that it’s just for me. But then I’m lying to myself because it’s just something I say so that I actually finish it and write good lyrics [laughs]. 

I was also reading about you’d mentioned not wanting to make music that sounds pretentious, and wanting to just embrace your own sound and vision. How important is that to you as an artist? Because obviously any artist is a sum of their own influences, but this album, it just feels so unique and so fresh. So I would suppose that’s what you were aiming for? 

Yes! I think the pretentious thing – not wanting to be pretentious – I think a lot of people say they care about good writing and lyrics, but a lot of people who say that also only say it because they want to look smarter than everyone else, or seem smarter than everyone else. And to me, that can usually lead to bad writing because you end up being dishonest and using words that are way too long that don’t actually make any sense and are not the best description of what is around you and all these different things. So I think that just saying, “I don’t want my writing to be pretentious” is just a quick way of summing that up and just trying to be clever, but also honest and not try and make the writing about how I want people to see me. 

Of course, honesty is definitely the sort of thing that is the most important thing when it comes to good artistry, isn’t it? And of course, we can’t go past the influence of The OC soundtrack either. I think you’d previously saying how your parents brought that home and it had a big influence on you?

Yeah, we had all of the compilation CDs.

I think I heard it was Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” that really affected you?

It’s incredible. And I think I listened to the music before I was allowed to watch the show because I was quite young. Yeah, I just became quite obsessed. It was my favourite CD that we had. I was really obsessed with “Hide and Seek”, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that, like, I didn’t understand that there was technology that Imogen Heap was using to layer her voices like that. I remember asking my mum, “Is she singing all of that? At the same time? And mum went, “Yeah!” And for me, I thought she meant she was harmonising with herself at the same time, and she managed to split her voice into all these different voices on her own. So I would sit in my room going [vocalising] trying to do them both at the same time. It was so mind blowing when I learnt that there was technology that could do that for you, and I think it has been a theme of my obsession with production; how can I use vocal layers in a way that is kind of magical?

That actually makes a lot of sense. Because that is indeed an intricate song, and that song feels so warm and comforting to listen to. And that is indeed a feeling you get from your own music. I can see the influences, even if they are just tangential rather than direct.

I have this theory that I always incorporate into my music, which is that when you hear a vocal in a track it makes you – even if the vocal isn’t saying any words, even if it’s just humming or it’s like a chopped up thing pushed to the back of the production. As soon as you hear a human voice, you feel a little bit emotionally connected to what you’re listening to. So I always try and sneak layers of vocals into the tracks before a lyric even comes in.

That’s actually a very interesting concept. And I guess as a segue between the likes of The OC soundtrack and vocals, I never remembered The OC soundtrack featuring the likes of Azealia Banks, but that’s obviously just a testament to your unique vision [laughs]. How did she get involved on the track “Surprise Me”?

So she is somebody that, when I was a teenager, kind of ignited my love for rap music. I remember I was watching Rage or something when I was at a friend’s sleepover. I would have been about 12, and it was just before I was about to leave my friend’s house and Azealia Banks popped up on screen, “212” with her Mickey Mouse jumper on. But I missed the beginning credit that said what the artist was and what the song was, and I didn’t know how to look it up for ages. It was probably a year or two I was searching for that song. And then when I finally found it, I became absolutely obsessed with her. Then from there, I just completely fell in love with rap music. 

So she’s always been a really influential and special artist to me. So that’s the background to my love for her, and Broke With Expensive Taste was the first album I bought with my own money and stuff. Which is quite a funny choice for a little teen. But anyway, so that’s the background for my love for her. 

And then ever since I realised that, with my music, I could dream of working with other people, she’s been someone I’ve dreamed of working with. And I didn’t really know how those dots were going to connect. But a couple of years ago, sometime at the beginning of lockdown, she did a livestream and she played “Charlie” in it. And she was saying how much, she was just saying these really nice things about “Charlie”, and someone sent it to me. And then I messaged her and she didn’t see the message, but I kept messaging her [laughs].

And I had this song “Surprise Me” that I had written, and I knew it just needed another person’s voice on it to keep the energy up. So one day again, like probably a year-and-a-half after this livestream, I was in the studio finishing up the production for “Surprise Me”, but I still felt like it needed another voice. So I DM’d her while I was in the studio and this time, she replied. So I sent her the song and she was just so incredible. And yeah, I could go on about working with her. But that’s how it came to be. 

That must have been such a validating, full-circle moment for you?

Yes! It was so exciting for me. 

There’s also something so intriguing about this mix of hip-hop and dreamy pop where we hear your voices, and then hear her soon-to-be-classic line; “He said my pussy tighter like Nicole Kidman’s face”.

[Laughs] It’s a pretty iconic verse from her! People are going to love it.

I also feel I need to mention the bonus track that features on this record, which is a cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”. It’s such a gorgeous song, and your cover is just sublime. How did you first come across that song, and what made you decide to cove rit?

I’m trying to remember how I first heard “Fade Into You” because Mazzy Star are on The OC soundtrack, but it’s not “Fade Into You”, it’s their song “Into Dust”. How did I come across that song? I don’t remember how I found it, but I have loved it for a really long time. And whenever we do covers on tour, that would be the song that I would cover. And it just felt really natural to sing, and it’s on my list of songs that I wish I had written. It’s like, “Thank You” by Dido, or “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star, “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman and a couple of others. “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift as well. 

And I don’t know, I feel very connected to “Fade Into You”. It feels really nice to sing, and we just recorded it for fun one day. So I wanted a bonus track on the album and it was the perfect candidate.

Mallrat’s Butterfly Blue is out now.

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