It’s been almost three years since Megan McInerney – AKA Meg Mac – released her debut EP, and in that time the artist has traversed the mid-20s hump; now 26, the lyrics from the titular single of her new album, Low Blows, suggest a specific lesson learned: “’Cause I don’t say when I don’t like it… I won’t say ‘no’, even when I wanna”.
“When I was writing that song, it was my first time realising that it’s your responsibility when you don’t speak up for yourself,” the multi-instrumentalist says. “In the moment you might feel awkward or uncomfortable about it, but later you’re the only one that has to deal with it – the one that will suffer. I was realising that it’s up to me to take control of what I want to do, rather than just being upset when things don’t work out.”
The piano on the track is all square chords: powerful and definite, without decorative vagaries. It’s the practical result, Meg says, of the way she learned: “I taught myself how to play piano so that I could sing songs – my songwriting has always been really simple, block chords. It’s just how I’ve done it since I was a teenager, and it’s turned into what my sound is now. I don’t know how to move my fingers, I only know how to just hit it hard, and make shapes.” Her demos begin almost exclusively as a recording of herself on the piano (“on my phone – not very professional”), and she asserts that she can hear the difference in her vocal approach between being at the piano, versus not. “I feel like I perform better when I’m playing,” she says. “When you go into the studio or do a show, it’s really different: you’re holding a microphone, someone else is playing the piano. You’re not striving for perfection; you can’t help but feel the movement of the song, feel the motion.”
In the studio for Low Blows, the piano wasn’t always used conventionally. On the off-beats of the swaggering Ride It, there’s a noise which simultaneously sounds like a whip-crack, and also that metallic fizz a tram makes when its cables catch together. Meg explains it was the result of a rather nifty idea her producer came up with at Sing Sing studios in Melbourne. “We got a spoon inside the piano, and scraped the strings,” she says. “My job was to hold down a chord, so that when you did the spoon-scrape it was the right notes. We were sticky-taping some keys down because I didn’t have enough fingers to hold the chord. It was a team effort.”
The real instrument at front and centre stage of this record is, however, Meg’s voice. Particularly in Kindness and Grace Gold, the way Meg curls the end of her phrases (like running scissors down a ribbon) is extremely distinctive, as is the way she utilises all the primary colours of the human voice. “I really love singing without words,” she says. “Something can still have meaning even though it’s not a word, or isn’t continuing a phrase. My album is made up of oohs and aahs! But there is a huge difference between an ‘ooh’ and an ‘ahh’. I love using vowels – you can do so much with them, I’ve discovered.”
Low Blows is out July 14 on two kinds of vinyl and CD, via EMI.