Mallrat: “When pop music is done with respect for the listeners, it’s perfect and exciting and beautiful”

Grace Shaw’s vision of pop music is vivid and vulnerable, familiar yet fresh. Debut album ‘Butterfly Blue’ is her most enthralling release yet

Every musician has a list of songs they wish they wrote, a collection of perfect tracks that inspire envy as much as admiration. For Mallrat, those songs include (but aren’t limited to) Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well’, Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’, Dido’s ‘Thank You’, and Fergie’s ‘Glamorous’ – all of which exemplify Mallrat’s platonic ideal of pop.

“Life isn’t as simple as feeling one way about one thing,” she tells NME. “One of my favourite songs that [shows] that is ‘Glamorous’ – it’s triumphant, but it’s also very lonely. All my favourites are confusing like that, or contradict themselves.

“To just have a song that’s ‘I’m angry’ or ‘I’m sad’ the whole time is one-dimensional. When you worry so much about things making sense, you miss out on a lot of really important and human detail.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Mallrat
Credit: Tom Lewis for NME

Mallrat’s multitudes unfurl on her long-awaited album ‘Butterfly Blue’, which finally lands May 13 after three EPs released from 2016 to 2019. Deeply felt emotion and futuristic production collide on these 12 songs, forming a vision of pop music that both enthralls and challenges the listener.

“It can be really insulting sometimes, what you hear on the radio,” Mallrat – real name Grace Shaw – says, sitting in a Sydney cafe while ensconced in an oversized quilted black coat. “You just think, ‘wow, the people responsible for getting this on airwaves, actually recording this and sending it out to their team really don’t value the intelligence of their listeners and are happy to just feed them mashed potatoes with no salt and no flavour’. When pop is done with respect for the listeners, it’s perfect and exciting and beautiful.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Mallrat
Credit: Tom Lewis for NME

In 2020, Mallrat told NME she wanted her debut record to sound “like angelic children’s choirs and monster trucks at the same time”. She talked to us at length about the “fuck you song” ‘Rockstar’, which she eventually released in October that year. A languid song where Shaw sings about how her future success will make a current breakup feel like nothing, it’s hopeful and hardened at once. Written over the course of a year, you can hear Shaw evolve within the song, shifting from a peacocking chorus into a more assured confidence, where she doesn’t need to posture.

‘Rockstar’ hinted at a ’90s dream pop influence, and was followed by the different-sounding ‘Your Love’. Over chopped up tropical and choral synths, Shaw sings about giving into a relationship she knows will hurt (“I know your type” is the opening lyric). She makes jumping into a bad decision sound light and airy, but the song’s outro spells out the danger: a sample of an ’90s track by Memphis rapper Gangsta Pat, namely a skittering line about having a “bullet with your name on it”.

“Life isn’t as simple as feeling one way about one thing… All my favourite songs are confusing, or contradict themselves”

That sense of mutually assured destruction resurfaces across the album, including on the title track ‘Butterfly Blue’ and third single ‘Teeth’, two songs both co-produced with Alice Ivy. The former is a tender ballad that touches on an old relationship (“When we first met I was too young for you”), Shaw – in demo vocals recorded at 3am – sounding more raw and exhausted than anywhere else. The latter is filled with ’90s grunge guitars and reverb that consume Shaw as she sings about a nebulous presence – “it” – in her hair, teeth and all around her. “When I wrote these lyrics I was playing with the idea that we talk about sex and prayer and violence and power with very similar language,” she said upon its release. “I wanted to see if I could blur all of these things into one blurry ball of energy.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Mallrat
Mallrat on the cover of NME Australia #29

Blurry, genre-defying pop is the sound du jour as labels hope to place songs on as many streaming playlists as possible. But Shaw has always shifted between sounds. Despite the obvious metaphor ‘Butterfly Blue’ offers for her artistic transformation, chrysalis and all – Shaw laughs off the urge to make the comparison herself, saying the title’s “not that deep” – with this album Mallrat hasn’t radically transformed so much as grown into herself.

Take her first release, ‘Suicide Blonde’, a lo-fi rap about an older figure in the then 16-year-old’s life, a woman who Shaw had to look after due to her struggles with alcoholism and addiction. It blew up on triple j Unearthed, as did the more humorous follow-up ‘Sunglasses’, a trip-hop track about posers all wearing the same RayBans. They hold up, though Shaw says she can barely listen to those early tracks or the debut EP they feature on.

“It’s like watching a video of yourself on Photo Booth from when you were 15 or something, like, ‘what the fuck are you doing’?,” she says. “But, also, respect to baby Grace. I think I hear just someone who is really excited to be making music and figuring it out and just learning as she goes.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Mallrat
Credit: Tom Lewis for NME

One person baby Grace met was Tomas Gaynor, who makes music as Allday. Shaw would regularly shout him out in interviews as a key inspiration, and they soon became friends and then collaborators: Shaw appeared on two tracks on his 2017 album ‘Speeding’, and he on her ‘In The Sky’ EP highlight ‘UFO’. “The Grace I first met was young – she was 16, and she was already seeing the future of her music career and manifesting things,” Gaynor tells NME. “As soon as I met her, I knew it’d come true in some way. She has a gravitas about her.”

On her second EP, Shaw began co-producing songs, crafting a distinct sound that mixed nostalgic indie pop, cloud rap and dance snares – music made for feeling it all at once and thrashing around in your bedroom or at a music festival. ‘Charlie’, Mallrat’s biggest song to date and Number 3 in triple j’s 2019 Hottest 100, is a perfect example. Named after Shaw’s dog, it jumps between scattered images of her parents’ difficult marriage, pining after someone and drinking too much tea. It’s gentle, warm pop that’s hopeful and tragic all at once.

NME Australia Cover 2022 Mallrat
Credit: Tom Lewis for NME

Shaw has previously told the media she doesn’t know what ‘Charlie’ is about, though that may have been deflection: last year, she tweeted that she doesn’t love talking about her own lyrics. “I believe [a] song should have value on its own and without an explanation,” she wrote. “If it needs an explanation, the execution of the idea probably wasn’t good enough.”

When pressed a little more, Shaw admits there’s another side to it: explaining her lyrics would reveal more than she wants. “Sometimes things are just a bit too personal,” she says. “Putting them in a song is quite scary and vulnerable enough, and to try and expand on them or extrapolate meaning from them is hard… And it’s often not just about one thing, so to explain it, you sound like a wanker.”

“I just sometimes think that people can rest on their laurels a little bit, and I’m not interested in that”

That jumble of meaning – the ‘Glamorous’ effect – is key to Mallrat’s magic. she ties giant, pop lines about love and obsession to mundane images or scenes. Take ‘Drive Me Round’, a 2019 track Shaw calls one of her all-time favourites. Ostensibly about a restless late-night car ride, the song vividly captures two lonely people keeping each other company, even if it’s not healthy: “All the roads are empty, boy I love you plenty / And ya drive me ’round, and ya drive me ’round / You got a sports car, two-seat, you and me.”

“I think I’ve always maintained a very childlike view of things and found beauty in things that maybe aren’t beautiful to everyone else or noticed details like that,” she says.

“How do I put this? I really love when lyrics have moments of ‘this is what I’m thinking, this is what I’m feeling’, but then it cuts through with ‘this is what the walls look like around me. And this is what the carpet feels like underneath me. And this is this thing I see, and you are this’. And I think without those real-world injections lyrics can become forgettable.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Mallrat
Credit: Tom Lewis for NME

Tim Nelson, who has collaborated with Shaw on multiple Cub Sport albums, says Mallrat ties with Leonard Cohen for the title of his favourite lyricist. “When you combine that writing with her vocals and production it really is magic,” he tells NME. “Equal parts comforting and arresting… you can be nodding along happily or sobbing to the same song depending on what you need from it at the moment.

“I often get intense goosebumps listening to Mallrat, or at her shows, or when we’re in the studio together. She says I have a low goosebump threshold, but I think it’s the universe responding to the magic she brings through.”

‘Butterfly Blue’ standout ‘I’m Not My Body, It’s Mine’ is a lullaby filled with goosebump moments. The title inspires ideas of bodily reclamation and self-assurance, but no feminist declaration is made or landed on. Instead, Shaw sings the title softly alongside lines about breaking a car window, standing on a roof and being so happy she could cry. The gaps in meaning are filled in by cinematic synths and a twangy steel guitar, before muffled drums rise into a hazy release of wordless, Auto-Tuned warbles. Denying the listener an easy narrative and clean resolution, ‘I’m Not My Body, It’s Mine’ instead offers an ineffable feeling of contentment and confidence, from which we can take whatever we need.

Naturally, Shaw is politely cagey about the track, though she says it’s one of her favourites. “I think I’m proud of it because it doesn’t sound like anything else, and the way that the feeling and production of the song turns halfway is so unpredictable as a listener,” she says, “I’m really proud of the melodies in the freestyle bit at the end. How did I even think of that?”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Mallrat
Credit: Tom Lewis for NME

It’s not often you hear an artist admit they aren’t ready for something, like when Shaw tells NME she’ll only completely produce her own music “in a few albums’ time”. She initially wanted to produce ‘Butterfly Blue’ entirely on her own, calling it “an ego thing”.

“Not in the sense of, ‘I’m hot shit, you all stink’, but that production was my first passion,” she explains. “And then as I surrounded myself with people that made music, I realised how much I had to learn… So I had catching up to do. And then, I was like ‘I’m gonna produce my album and prove to everyone that girls can be the best producers ever’, but then I was like, ‘hold up, I’m not there yet’.”

She ended up co-producing and co-writing with Stylaz Fuego, Jam City, Alice Ivy, Japanese Wallpaper and Tommy English, among others – and working with one of her heroes, Azealia Banks, who features on fourth single ‘Surprise Me’.

“I was like ‘I’m gonna produce my album and prove to everyone that girls can be the best producers ever’, but then I was like, ‘hold up, I’m not there yet’”

Banks’ scene-stealing verse – featuring characteristically audacious lines about Louis C.K. and how “the pussy tighter than Nicole Kidman’s face” – transforms Mallrat’s tropical-pop longing for a lover to step up into a boast about deserving better. When it drops, the question online for both Banks and Mallrat fans alike is ‘wait, how did this happen?’ – especially given Banks’ track record of hyping collaborations that are later pulled.

Shaw lights up at the chance to discuss Banks, adding that the first album she bought with her own money was the rapper’s debut album ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’. “This collaboration was really serendipitous, she did this livestream a couple years ago where she was just going about her day and listening to music, and then she starts playing my music and puts on ‘Charlie’. And then she’s like, ‘this is this girl Mallrat. She’s got some really good music’,” she says, putting on a loose New York accent and pausing between words as if she’s memorised Banks’ exact cadence on that livestream. “Then she turns it up and she’s like, ‘actually, she’s got some really fucking good music’.”

After “a few unseen DMs”, Shaw finally connected with Banks, and asked if she would jump on ‘Surprise Me’. Banks was a “dream to work with”, Shaw says. “She just kept rerecording her verse to make it better. She has a real, genuine passion for music and cares so much. She’s really become a mentor and has been sending me all this incredible advice and feedback over the last few months as well. I really admire and respect her.” Ever the production nerd, Shaw cites Banks, Vince Staples and Yung Lean as some of her favourite rappers for their ear for sound: “You never really know what their vocals gonna be on.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Mallrat
Credit: Tom Lewis for NME

“I also admire people that aren’t afraid to make mistakes,” she says, referring to Banks’ many controversial and derided statements across the years, “because I, in the past, have been quite the opposite. I’m a Libra” – she laughs – “so I’m very considered and I don’t wanna upset anyone.”

Closer to home, Shaw cites Cub Sport, Golden Vessel, Lonelyspeck and Amyl and the Sniffers as artists she’s excited by – then cracks a joke that the short, non-exhaustive list will no doubt be interpreted as ‘Mallrat hates Australian music’. She’s quick to clarify she doesn’t; she loves Australian music, which is why she demands more from it.

“There are some really incredible artists [in Australia], but I think there’s also quite a lot of homogenous stuff across different genres,” she says, pausing to get her words right. “I just sometimes think that people can rest on their laurels a little bit, and I’m not interested in that. I think it’s boring. The whole point of an indie artist is to be doing unexpected things and pushing boundaries. You don’t have to be a curated pop star.”

Mallrat’s ‘Butterfly Blue’ is out May 13 via Dew Process