Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #134. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Distinctly raw, honest and powerfully blunt, Melbourne trailblazer Angie McMahon shoots for the heart with her deceptively lowkey debut album.
Words by Matt Doria.
Dead centre in the Venn diagram between ‘songs that make you want to roll your car windows down and belt along to at the top of your lungs’ and ‘songs so powerful and raw they give you goosebumps on parts of your body that you didn’t think could have goosebumps’, the debut album from Melbourne-native indie goddess Angie McMahon is almost certain to go down in the annals of Australian rock legends.
Best soaked in alone, with volume cranked high and lights dimmed to let its warm and rousing poignancy truly shine, Salt is a slow-burning masterstroke of vehemence and humanity. McMahon wears her soul thin across its winding 11 tracks, some of which see her jam out with a backing band, and some decidedly coarse with just her reverb-slicked vocals searing over bright and airy strums of a semi-hollow.
And like many of McMahon’s songs, the title Salt doesn’t seem too sententious at first glance. It’s once you dive in deeper and start peeling back the layers – like the achingly relatable musings of lethargy and depression on “Pasta”, or the incandescent self‑healing that permeates “And I Am A Woman” – that its gravity starts to become clear.
“It’s basically this concept of balance,” McMahon says. “I was thinking a lot about water when I was making this record, and if you think of salt water, all that’s left over when you evaporate it is salt. It reminds me about how I feel about these songs – they’re all that’s left over from the process I went through to write and record them; from all the experiences I sing about on them. These songs are my salt.
“And the idea of balance has been very integral to me, in terms of the lightness and darkness that is on this record, and there’s that same balance in salt – it can kill and sting things, but it can also bring out taste and cleanse things. There’s cleansing in tears, and there were tears involved in making the record. There’s cleansing in the ocean, but there’s also darkness and scariness in the ocean.”
Where many artists will approach the elusive debut album as an opportunity to cram in as many of their influences, wacky sounds and show-off-y production techniques as possible, McMahon was determined to retain her signature nonchalance on Salt. She hides tension in tranquility, using ethereal and organic soundscapes to build these isolated worlds of calculated ferocity. Even on cuts like “Slow Mover” (which was recently certified Gold in Australia) – where McMahon gels with a full band of thumping drums and roaring electric guitars – there’s a palpable sense of candour at play; it feels as though the listener is sitting in the room with McMahon and her collaborators, watching the songs come to life in realtime.
Such makes the album a powerful listen in its own right – but ultimately, McMahon’s decision to keep things pared back on Salt came from wanting to stay true to her origins as a songwriter.
“I always wanted [Salt] to feel very much like myself,” she declares. “Obviously, there’s other records that I love and would hope to make records like, later in my life, which are more produced and musically intricate. But because this is my first record, I wanted it to be very much about the songs as they were when I wrote them – and way I’d written them was just by myself, with a guitar or some keys, pouring my feelings out. I wanted the first record that I put out to reflect my development as a songwriter. Because a lot of them are quite old, but they represent my growth as a musician. Even when I started messing around with production ideas, and the idea of playing with a band – like with ‘Slow Mover’ – I felt very strongly that I wanted those songs to remain simple.”
For all but a few overdubs on “Soon” and “I Am A Woman” – which were done on a Fender Mustang that was lying around at Head Gap Studios – McMahon wrote and recorded Salt on her prized Harmony H78, a semi-hollow beauty with flatwound strings that she’s sworn by as her daily driver from the moment she picked it up. Having seen it in action a few times, we can vouch that it’s an absolute monster of a guitar – soft and sweet when it needs to be, and cruel as all hell when you want it to be.
McMahon is a master with her Harmony in hand, too – unsurprising, of course, but impressive when you consider that it was only recently that she fell into the guitar. A classically trained pianist by nature, McMahon found herself turning to the guitar by way of necessity more than anything else.
“I was playing a lot of weddings and cover gigs,” she says, “But it was harder to get around, and I couldn’t really pitch myself to shows, lugging a piano into pubs and stuff like that. I was 15 or 16, looking down and barrel and going, ‘I want to play more gigs.’ I had a singing teacher who played the acoustic guitar, so I kind of just picked it up from them and started playing a few covers. It was very folky sounding, and it wasn’t until I was maybe 18 or 19 that my dad was like, ‘You need to get an electric guitar!’ My dad always fed me a strong diet of Bruce Springsteen, but I hadn’t ever pictured myself going down that path.
“I always pictured the electric guitar and the rock world living completely hand-in-hand with each other, and I never wanted to head in that direction. I was like, ‘No! I play the piano and I play folk guitar – I could never play the guitar well enough to warrant buying an electric guitar.’ But I did. I bought a Strat – I bought the all-white Strat that [Kat Stratford] had in 10 Things I Hate About You, which I hate now – and that just opened up this whole new world for me. Being able to play really open chords, and just hearing them resonate without having to do too much – that gave me so much space in my songwriting. And I just didn’t look back after that.
Wednesday October 2nd - Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne VIC
Thursday October 3rd - Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra ACT
Friday October 4th - City Recital Hall, Sydney NSW
Thursday October 10th - Miami Marketta, Gold Coast QLD
Friday October 11th - Solbar, Maroochydore QLD
Saturday October 12th - The Tivoli, Brisbane QLD
Tuesday October 15th - The Croxton Bandroom, Melbourne VIC
Wednesday October 16th - The Gov, Adelaide SA
Friday October 18th - Astor Theatre, Perth WA
Saturday October 19th - The Waratah Hotel, Hobart TAS