Where her contemporaries might try to create mood by abruptly pulling whole chunks of sound within a song, McMahon is flexible with intensity and volume, bringing her band down quietly and slowly to forge the most intimate of conditions. “I get so inspired and affected when I hear other musicians working with dynamics in that fluid way,” McMahon says. “I don’t really connect to songs that are the same volume the whole way through – to me, that feels kind of like reading a book all in capital letters. I like to be intimate and I like to yell – I guess there’s no right way to do it!”
She’s unafraid to muck with pace, too: beautiful single Pasta contains an organic speed-up, and Standout ends with each instrument slowly disintegrating on its own. “I don’t think it was a very conscious thing,” McMahon says, “but in Pasta particularly, it felt like the song needed to pick up and move. [The song is] about me being unable to pick up and move myself, so the song needed to do it for me!”
It seems that under her tender touch, McMahon’s arrangements contain as much sensitivity and pliancy as her voice. “I do like having the instruments be sensitive, “she agrees. “My guitar is a really sensitive instrument and I like how it reacts to the tiniest things my fingers do (it’s easier to play that way), and my friends in my band are so talented at following that sensitive route too. We’re all sensitive people. It comes out in the playing, probably.”
Salt is especially distinctive for its lack of harmonies and decorations, something McMahon admits took time to understand was the right approach for her material. “It took me ages to even imagine what my record would sound like, and the more I fiddled with sounds – and I had lovely mentorship from some Melbourne producers who gave me their time – the more I fell in love with the space idea. Particularly for this record, because it’s the first one and the songs are simple, and I just wanted them to be what they are. Space is really important.”
The pinnacle of the method is reflected in closing track If You Call. It’s a very lo-fi recording, containing the rush and fizz of outside air and atmospheric noise. McMahon says she and her band recorded it this way deliberately. “We were in a Scout Hall which we were using as a ‘studio’, and it was raining outside,” she explains. “I had my friend’s nylon string guitar, and I didn’t want this song to sound cheesy or clean and perfect; I wanted it to be an opportunity to bring some of the outside atmosphere of recording, and the imperfection of things, into the album soundscape. It’s a bit of an ode to Big Thief – the way they open their album Masterpiece with Little Arrow, which sounds like it’s playing on a scratched tape. I just loved the way that made me feel as a listener.”
McMahon is an impressive whistler, as heard on If You Call – she can do bent notes and tremolo and all the trimmings. “Thank you, that is very nice,” she responds to the compliment. “I think I could always just whistle, but maybe when you think about singing all the time, whistling notes is similar and easier. I used to think everyone could whistle! I don’t practise but I do really want to learn the harmonica and get good at that, to take it up a notch.”
Salt by Angie McMahon is out July 26 via AWAL Recordings.
Read our review of the album.
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