One day last July, Meg Mac found herself in Electric Lady Studios in New York, preparing to track “Shiny Bright”, one of 10 songs destined for her debut album, Low Blows (out now). As she began to focus on her vocal take, producer John O’Mahony thought it the perfect time to inform Mac that the room in which she was standing was haunted. O’Mahony wasn’t referring to the metaphorical ghosts of legends who’d recorded in the venerable studios such as Patti Smith, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, but to the apparition of a young girl which had, over the years, been spotted in the corner. “So I’m left standing by myself, singing...” Mac smiles. “I had goosebumps.”
Fast forward to a Monday evening in mid-May, and Mac is once again in the presence of ghosts, this time from her past. Striding onstage at inner-Sydney venue Leadbelly for an industry showcase/launch party for Low Blows, it was in this very room four years ago (then called the Vanguard) that Mac played her first headlining show in Sydney. It was a nerve-racking affair, on account of the fact that the audience was populated by representatives from various record labels, each keen to snare Mac’s signature. The buzz began in late 2012, when she uploaded the first song she’d ever recorded professionally, “Known Better”, to the Unearthed website. “A Triple J presenter [rated the song on the site] and I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’ve listened to the song!’” she chuckles. “And then it would tell you how many people had listened to it, and I remember the number 17. Seventeen people had listened to the song, and I was like, oh my god. And I was imagining 17 people in my lounge room.”
Since then, Mac’s songs have been streamed more than 23 million times on Spotify alone. Clearly things have gotten a little bigger than her lounge room.
“Mum said I always wanted to be a singer,” recalls Mac. “But when I started writing songs it became my life.”
A day after her show at Leadbelly, Mac is sitting at a table in the upstairs area of trendy Newtown eatery Queen Chow, dressed head to toe in black, her pale complexion interrupted only by a shade of deep red lipstick. Her colour palette owes a small debt of gratitude to one of her inspirations, Edith Piaf, to whom the 27-year-old was exposed through her French teacher in high school. “I got obsessed with Edith Piaf, and how she would just wear a black dress. And she said she wants people to cry even when they don’t understand what she’s saying. And I was like, ‘Ooh, that’s cool.’”
That same teacher introduced Mac to the 2005 album Le Fil by French chanteuse Camille. “It was the first time I heard someone sing but it wasn’t pretty or perfect,” she reflects. “And I was like, ‘Oooh, I didn’t know you could do that.’ That was a big moment. French music was important to me, it changed the way I thought about music.”
Born Megan McInerney in Sydney in 1990 to airline pilot father Gary and mother Gladys, who works in the clothing industry, Mac is the middle child of five (three sisters and one brother). She first abbreviated her name at the age of 12 when choosing her Hotmail account, and has stuck with it partly because people kept mispronouncing her name – it’s ‘Megg-an’ not ‘Meee-gan’.
Mac’s parents were originally from Ireland before settling in London, and emigrated to Australia in the Eighties after getting married. Both are big supporters of her career, to the point where her father bought her a digital recorder so she could record each of her shows for him, as he misses so many due to work. “My brother said they listen to my album every night before they go to bed,” she blushes.
While writing Low Blows, Mac would often return from her adopted home of Melbourne to her parents’ Sydney house and the piano she grew up playing. “I’ve been playing that piano since I was a kid,” she smiles.
Growing up in Sydney’s Hills District and, later, Melrose Park, the McInerney home was filled with music. “My mum was always singing, she’d always sing Irish songs, she plays accordion,” recalls Mac. Her father’s record collection was peppered with “lots of Motown, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison”. “I remember when my dad played Ray Charles, it made me feel something,” she adds. (For the record, Sam Cooke, who Mac heard as a 21-year-old, “is probably my favourite voice in the whole world”.)
One of her earliest memories of singing was at the international Japanese primary school she attended in Terrey Hills, when she and her classmates were tasked with learning Julian Lennon’s “Saltwater”. Her first attempt at songwriting was at the age of eight. “When I was little I made up songs, and I remember writing the words. Obviously it had no music to it, but I put dashes to where the melody would go – like, this is a long note. It was about the rain.”
As a teen Mac attended the performing arts school McDonald College, where she studied acting. (“I never wanted to be an actor,” she clarifies, “acting was just fun.”) The most important musical lesson she ever learned came not from her piano teacher – she hated lessons – but from one of her sisters, who at 17 sat Mac down at the piano and showed her some chords, and how altering the position of one finger could change its mood. “Why didn’t someone tell me that when I was 10?” she sighs. “I probably would have been writing songs.”
Unfortunately for her university career, this knowledge came just as she was about to embark on her degree in digital media. “I wanted to sing all day at the piano, and I would just sit there for hours and hours,” says Mac. “Just making stuff up. I was obsessed. My mum said I always wanted to be a singer. But when I started writing songs, it became my life.”
After quitting uni she moved to Perth to study music at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, where she could sing every day and was encouraged to think about things such as how to put a band together. By the end of her degree she’d saved $1,600, which she used to record “Known Better”. Having decided to move to Melbourne, she uploaded it to Unearthed before embarking on the epic trip from Perth with a carload of friends. As they approached Melbourne her phone started lighting up. It was Triple J, calling to tell her they were going to play “Known Better” that night on ‘Home & Hosed’. She took it as a sign. “I was like, Melbourne’s going to be good!”
With the attention of Triple J came the attention of record labels, and Mac found herself in the position of having no management and no booking agent, but plenty of label interest. Worse, they all wanted to hear what other songs she had, to which the answer was, none recorded. “It made me focus really quick. It was clear I had to work hard. It made me realise I was in the real world now, I wasn’t at uni anymore, and I had to write new songs and I had to record them. I had to do it.”
Mac recorded three more songs, one of which, “Roll Up Your Sleeves”, would pique the interest of American record label 300 Entertainment (home to Fetty Wap and Young Thug, amongst others). In Australia she signed a deal with independent label littleBIGMANrecords and released “Every Lie”, which was added to high rotation on Triple J. A ‘Like a Version’ performance of Broods’ “Bridges” in June 2014 instantly doubled her social media numbers, and by the time she released her debut EP later that year she was headlining a sold out tour of Australia. Gigs at SXSW in 2015 were followed by a U.S. tour with Clean Bandit and the main support on D’Angelo’s American run. “Since Unearthed it’s been all these little steps, but moving up,” she says.
Occasionally, Mac receives a reality check as to how far her music has travelled. “Once I was sitting for breakfast in New York, and ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves’ came on. That was weird. And my sister spent New Year’s Eve in Barcelona, and she sent me a text saying my song was playing. It’s weird to think people in other countries are listening.”
With the exception of “Shiny Bright”, Low Blows was recorded in Fort Worth, Texas, at Niles City Sound, and produced by Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, who’d previously played on and produced Leon Bridges’ album. There she explored her sound – one which falls broadly under the pop-soul banner – keen to return to the piano-vocal basics of her earliest songs while experimenting with instruments such as guitar. Writing sessions occurred everywhere from her parents’ living room to tour buses and even an Airbnb apartment in Brooklyn, as reflected in the aptly-titled song “Brooklyn Apartment”, which ruminates on the close confines in which some people live without actually acknowledging each other. It marks something of a departure for Mac, in that its narrative is written about other people. “My songs now that I’m writing, I’ve been really thinking about storytelling,” she says. “But this album’s mainly just me and my songs in my brain and very much how I’m feeling.”
There is, she says, “a dark edge” to the album, largely because “when I’m feeling a bit low that’s when I want to write”. “Shiny Bright”, for example, is about thinking “when everything’s going good, instead of being like, oh wow, this is really good, you’re like, something’s gonna fuck up. People think your life is shiny bright, but it’s like, no.” “Didn’t Wanna Get So Low But I Had To”, meanwhile, is fuelled by heartbreak and the realisation that sometimes things don’t go the way you wanted “because you’re relying on people, and people always let you down”.
If there is a light in the dark, it usually appears by the song’s end. “Because a song is written over a period of time, it’s almost like how I feel at the beginning is different to how I feel at the end,” she explains. “It’s like me working through something, and then I feel better by the end, and that’s why the end’s usually like resolution. Each song is like its own little low blow for me, and then I’ve worked through it.”
Mac’s biggest form of therapy, though, is the very act of singing. “When you sing a big note,” she smiles, “it’s the best feeling in the world. It makes me so excited.” It’s what gives this “quiet kid” who was “always a bit shy” and is “still pretty quiet” the confidence to look her audience in the eye every night. (“I don’t close my eyes when I’m singing. I like to look at everyone.”) And it’s what makes the very existence of Low Blows so thrilling. “It’s a big step making an album,” she says. “For the first time I’m like, ‘OK, I think I can call myself a singer now. This is my life now.’”
Topics: Meg Mac