Angie McMahon couldn’t tell you the last time she practised the guitar. Once she settled back into locked-down Melbourne following her North American tour supporting Hozier, the indie folk singer-songwriter had plans to become, as she tells NME, a “shredlord”, but those never came to fruition. Instead, she came to reap the rewards of slowing down, focusing on helping herself and others.
Recording a fresh project certainly wasn’t on the cards, but once the live entertainment sector shut down, her new EP ‘Piano Salt’ became an endeavour for others as much as herself: McMahon realised the process of recording the EP and launching it with a concert livestream meant she could hire some members of her crew, getting some much-needed cash into their pockets.
As its title suggests, ‘Piano Salt’ takes songs from McMahon’s 2019 debut album ‘Salt’, and reimagines them as piano-led tracks. For McMahon, the EP was a series of challenges – not least she deliberately chose the ‘Salt’ songs that would sound the most different on keys.
“I sort of feel like they are the pillars of ‘Salt’ in terms of being the singles. They were the… I hate the word ‘hits’, but they were the hits,” she tells NME.
“Some of the other songs on the record would easily offer themselves to piano, they’re a bit more ballad-y. So I just kind of felt like, because they were the furthest from a piano ballad, they felt like the right ones to do.”
The EP also contains two covers: ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen and Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’. The latter was a frontrunner for McMahon’s Like A Version performance last year (though she ultimately opted for ABBA’s ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ instead). Like A Version covers tend to shake up the originals, but McMahon liked Del Rey’s rendition just the way it was – and so did her fans.
With these covers, McMahon’s aim has never been about “giving [songs] a really interesting, new spin because I really loved the original,” she says. “It was more I loved to sing them. And then, because of the Instagram Live feature [during livestreams, when she played the covers], I was able to see everyone’s responses to those covers,” she says.
Outside of the EP, most of McMahon’s work this year has been about helping others in one form or another. Her accompanying ‘Piano Salt’ concert livestream, filmed in a studio in Castlemaine, raised more than $2,000 for Clothing The Gap’s Free The Flag campaign, which calls for the non-Indigenous-owned business WAM Clothing to give up its worldwide exclusive rights to the Aboriginal flag.
McMahon also helped out her manager Charlotte Abroms in organising a fundraiser for Support Act, which has managed to raise $50,000 so far. This is on top of her Isol-Aid performance during the livestream series’ early weeks, raising funds for the same organisation.
As a performer herself, McMahon knew firsthand the anxiety that swept through the sector in those early months. “It was so confusing and scary at the beginning because no one knew how financial support was going to arrive or when,” she says.
“That’s where Charlotte’s fundraiser came from and that’s what we were acting off of: just that adrenaline of not knowing how anyone was going to support themselves.
“That’s something I’m slowly reflecting on at the moment as well – how to be more actively involved in fundraising without directly asking the people who find me through their Instagram algorithm. It’s nice to think about and try to plan for a future where I can be an artist who positively and broadly influences fundraisers.”
“It was so confusing and scary at the beginning because no one knew how financial support was going to arrive or when”
The main cause she’s been devoting time to, however, is her own. McMahon says she often struggles with productivity and procrastination, and has been spending most of this year building up her physical and mental health. 2020 has been a “reset button”, an opportunity to get into good habits in the hopes they benefit her work in the future.
On the flipside, taking time to rest has made McMahon reflect on the destructive way we currently view labour and productivity, particularly in an industry where burnout is prevalent. Before it was co-opted by brands, the act of self-care was a radical one.
McMahon hopes life doesn’t return to the hectic, exhausting way it once was. Painting has been her creative outlet since the pandemic shut down the industry: There’s no pressure on being good or productive, which she says is “liberating”.
“So many people are so burned out all the time, and we don’t really recognise the psychological need and the human need for rest and holiday,” she says.
“Maybe we recognise it, but fear or financial problems take over. So many people are unsatisfied with the way society functions and what it asks of us.”
At one point during our interview, she pulls out her phone and searches the word “productivity” on her notes to see what it pulls up. “I’m just reading something random,” she says, “it seems to be a poem about setting goals. I’ve said ‘guitar practise’ a lot in this note.”
McMahon, like many, fell into the trap of believing the pandemic would only last a few months: an ample amount of time to ‘optimise’ yourself before the return to status quo. As restrictions lingered, particularly in Melbourne, motivation slipped away, to be replaced with lethargy. Reading more, working less, understanding her identity and its privileges all helped her realise a ‘return to normal’ wouldn’t be ideal.
“We do that thing where see time ahead of us and we think that we have to contribute more work because of it,” she muses. “The more I learn about capitalism and recognise capitalism everywhere I’m like, ‘Ugh work, that’s not what we’re meant to do, we’re free humans who should be rolling around naked in the forest.’”
“So many people are unsatisfied with the way society functions and what it asks of us”
It’s been a year since the release of ‘Salt’ and the EP aside, McMahon has no plans to release anything new in 2020. She’s become a different person since her album was released, she thinks, one who’s more deeply critical of the societal pressures that push her around.
“When I think about past revolutionary moments, there are always songs, right? It’s exciting to me to think about protest songs in whatever form they might be, and protest art, and for artists to be able to make an impact in that way,” she says. “That’s something that’s giving me hope at the moment.”
Angie McMahon might have changed, but the message of her debut single, ‘Slow Mover’, continues to ring true in the years since its release: “Friend, I am a slow, slow mover / Friend, I am a slow, slow girl / Trying to be kind, kind, kinder / Crawling in another world.”
Angie McMahon’s ‘Piano Salt’ EP is out now. Catch the re-broadcast of her solo piano concert (with a supporting set by Jensen McRae) on October 7