Mallrat lifts the veil on her debut album: “We only want to make aspirational music”

Grace Shaw shot to fame with a song about her friends, family and beloved dog, Charlie. The artist better known as Mallrat Skypes us from self-quarantine to talk her debut album and coming into her own as a producer

“This is my Hello Kitty camera – it works. This is my Shaggy poster. It’s holographic, and that’s his signature. I didn’t meet him; I just bought it with that on it.” Mallrat is giving me a tour of her bedroom, and in between sentimental artwork and gifts from friends, novelty Polaroid cameras and lenticular renderings of ’90s reggae-crossover stars, she finds something else and gasps. “This is my present from Mark Ronson!”

She’s holding the lid of a takeaway coffee cup up to her phone’s camera. Despite being just 15 minutes’ drive apart from one another, we’re talking over Skype the first week that Australians began following the recommendation to stay at home in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19. Pop’s most influential producer left the memento in Mallrat’s green room when she supported King Princess in London last July. Despite not meeting Ronson that night, 21-year-old Grace Shaw has given his plastic gesture pride of place on the mantle in her Brunswick sharehouse. “It says, ‘Have a good show. Mark. X’.”

The move from describing each of her dinosaur plush toys and figurines (four in total) to introducing a souvenir from a star-maker like Ronson might inspire whiplash from anyone else. But the indie-pop artist has long projected an image of dreamy sweetness as a person, while maintaining laser focus and absolute ambition in her work.

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This period of isolation interrupted plans she’d made to travel back to Los Angeles where she’s been living and working, in between Australian tours, for the last few years. If it weren’t for the virus’ shutdown of the live music industry, Shaw says she would’ve been playing festivals, doing promo with American radio shows and working on her debut album: “But I’m not mad about chilling for a minute. I ordered a [Nintendo] Switch and Animal Crossing, so hopefully that will arrive in the mail today.”

Even in these early days of pandemic-inspired gaming, we’ve both seen musician friends tagging Nintendo on social media, and we wonder aloud if this is the dawn of a new influencer economy. “I hope they hit me up. I would be the perfect Animal Crossing ambassador! I’m so cute,” she laughs.

Shaw asks me how I’m dealing with isolation, before requesting suggestions of new skincare products she can try while stuck at home. “That’s on the top of my list for the next few weeks: have perfect skin.” (Other items on the list? Practise learning Japanese, “read my books that have been building up on a big pile next to my bed” and, later today, announce that her May/June national tour has been rescheduled.)

As she assures me her housemates are all bunkering down at home with her, besides one who works at a supermarket, I introduce her to a South Korean skincare brand that makes her lean especially close to the screen. Then it’s her turn. Propping her phone up on the floor, she settles in front of it and holds up a glycolic face peel that’s too powerful to be sold in Australia, a cleanser from a luxury Japanese brand and her favourite moisturiser, each one flaunted for me like a YouTube beauty blogger encouraging their camera to auto-focus on the product they’re shilling to subscribers.

“I’ve also been putting this growth serum on my brows and lashes. I think they’re definitely longer,” she says, leaning into the camera to show me despite the pixellation obscuring the detail on her cherubic face. This is important information, we decide. “NME needs to know.”

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Mallrat interview new debut album Charlie
Credit: Tash Bredhauer

In late January, during the final moments of triple J’s annual Hottest 100 countdown, the race to Number One became tightly tipped between just a few players: Flume, Denzel Curry, Billie Eilish, Tones And I, and Mallrat. After learning that ‘Charlie’, the breakout single from her 2019 EP ‘Driving Music’, placed third, she wrote a memo of its origins on Instagram. “I knew this song was special, but it took nine months of stubbornness and refusing to finish new music to convince everybody that ‘Charlie’ was a single,” she wrote.

A tender and heartfelt distillation of love for other people, the song is named for her endlessly affectionate family dog back home in Brisbane, and reveals fragments of a family dynamic she keeps close to her chest even now.

“When I said, ‘‘Charlie’ needs to be a single, this is the best song I’ve ever written’, some people would have heard it and been like, ‘Oh, is she saying that because she talks about her family in it and it’s personal and she wants to show that side of herself?’ But the thing is, I have no desire to share scary stories about my biggest fears and family. I would love to not do that, but I know how people listen to music, and I know what I like when I listen to music and what heals people and what is special: and that’s honesty and vulnerability. I did that so well when I wrote ‘Charlie’. And even though it was the scariest thing ever to release it, I knew that it was the best single on the EP.”

After ‘Charlie’ clocked over 13 million streams, was nominated for Best Australian Song in the 2020 NME Awards (where Mallrat won Best Australian Solo Act) and placed third in the world’s biggest music poll, Shaw was proven right. “In the back of my mind I was like, this could have been Number One. I wrote the song at the end of 2018 and I was immediately ready to put it out.”

That was August; Billie Eilish’s ‘bad guy’, which topped the triple J countdown, was released in March. “So in the back of my mind I’m like, ‘Damn, if I had more time’. There’s always the what if?” But, you know, my life doesn’t revolve around the Hottest 100, even though it would be cool to win,” she says.

Mallrat’s sights are set firmly on bigger things, beginning with her debut album. It will follow the three masterful EPs she’s released since emerging in 2016, releasing clever and sensitive hip-hop-inspired songs and performing at increasingly bigger venues and festival stages with her trusty DJ, Denim Bidois, by her side.

“It’s still taking shape,” she says, fishing for the words to describe a record that doesn’t yet exist. “I’m trying to think what I can tell you about it… It’s definitely going to be good.”

After collecting production credits on every track on her last EP, Shaw has been building upon her own skills in the studio and collaborating with a host of producers, including Fossa Beats, with whom she worked on the ‘Driving Music’ track ‘Circles’; her ‘Charlie’ co-producer Big Taste; Clams Casino; Danny Harle and Tommy English.

During a session with English, who co-wrote ‘High Horse’ on Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy-winning record ‘Golden Hour’, Shaw laid the foundation of a song that assumes many costumes: a moody, Lana Del Rey-style soundtrack to being heartbroken in Hollywood; a crystal ball predicting Mallrat’s future success; and, as Shaw describes it, a “fuck you song”.

It’s called ‘Rockstar’ (or, as Shaw has taken to calling it, “Rockstar by Post Malone featuring 21 Savage… by Mallrat”) and is filled with the hope that closure – and emotional revenge – are not too far away: “Maybe I’ll fall in love with a rockstar / We’ll be married forever / I’ll forget all aboutcha / One day. Maybe when I’ve won all the Grammys / And I’ve got my own family / I’ll forget all aboutcha / One day.

After recording that chorus and the instrumental track in English’s Los Angeles studio last April, a follow-up session earlier this year served as proof of how romantic resolution is possible. “When I wrote the chorus originally, I was really heartbroken and it was kind of sarcastic, like: ‘Even when all that stuff happens I’ll still probably miss you’. But then the other week, when I finished it, it was like, ‘When I’ve done all these things – which I’m gonna fuckin’ do – I won’t care anymore’. The perspective had changed from what I originally meant.”

Shaw says this is an example of why she’s normally so tight-lipped about the springs her lyrics draw from (she wrote, on Instagram, that she “still [doesn’t] really know what [she’s] singing about” in ‘Charlie’): “Because, even for me, the meaning changes so much – let alone for different people – and I don’t want to tint the way they listen.” Being direct about the root of her lyrics also inevitably leads to more curiosity. “It’s scary enough putting all those details in the song, let alone having people then ask more questions. It’s like, just leave me alone. Listen to my music and then leave me alone,” she giggles.

“[‘Rockstar’] is still even a mystery to me,” English says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he has been isolating for a fortnight. “I feel almost like a listener because Grace wrote her vocals and the lyrics on her own and presented them to me as a finished idea. It was cool to write that way: just to have the song kept kind of mysterious. I think she was just writing from the heart.”

There’s a brooding, otherworldly quality to English’s production on the track, thanks in large part to a six-string bass he fed through a guitar pedal called Infinite Jets which, he says, “kinda smears everything in a beautiful, like, Brian Eno, angelic, long, infinite reverb that sounds like the heavens opening up”.

“[The six-string bass is] not something I usually would pull out in a session – especially with somebody I just met, and especially not through this weird guitar pedal. But Grace is kind of weird and she was excited by the same weird combinations of sounds and the idea of experimenting to create a world for the song to live in [as I was].”

That sonic world Shaw has designed for her record has very specific references that are as visually rich as they are thematically jarring: “I want it to sound like angelic children’s choirs and monster trucks at the same time.”

The Clams Casino-produced Lil B track ‘I’m God’ was a reference point for another potential album cut Shaw shares with me. Aggressive drums break through the wooziness of her vocals, with lyrics about escaping earth and trusting superstitions – making wishes on eyelashes, the clock striking 11, birthday candles. Artists like SOPHIE who lean into distorted textures are her north star, as are sweet lullabies. “I’ve always loved contrast in sounds and contrasting lyrics with the melody, like darker lyrics with a bright melody. Even in the way I dress: I wear cute, flowy dresses with combat boots, you know? I just don’t like being too much of one thing at once.”

Mallrat interview new debut album Charlie
Credit: Jason Koerner/Getty Images

This melding of the heavy-duty and gauzey is reflected in the dissonant, distorted guitars English laid down under Shaw’s meditative vocals during their first session. “There’s moments where [‘Rockstar’ is] really beautiful and kind of angelic, and then there’s other parts that sound much more angsty and grunge-y in a way that seems to be kind of lurking underneath the pretty textures,” he explains.

It’s in the creative safety of the studio that Shaw feels at home, and where she sees her potential spill out before her. She began asking “a million questions” of the friends who worked on her second EP, ‘In The Sky’, and has continued peppering producers with questions during sessions. “I literally am taking notes – I hope that’s not weird!”

During this downtime, she’s planning to fit out her bedroom with “proper speakers” so she can bunker down and make beats for other artists. She’s confident in this arena (“I could make a beat every day that’s good”), but has a sense that establishing herself as a producer might take more convincing.

“I feel like producers are often keen to collaborate – like, I’ll give them a melodic loop and then they’ll do the drums. But I can picture how that would go down when the song comes out: Oh, they just sampled her. She’s not really the producer.”

I ask if she’s making this assumption because she’s already earned a profile as a singer and would be positioned as a featured vocalist, or for another reason. She laughs. “It’s just ‘cuz I’m a girl. So if they sample my vocals – which I helped choose and pitch and treat and everything – it would probably look like I just sang and then they did everything with it.”

What Shaw says she’s lacking in technical knowledge right now, she more than makes up for in the strength of her ideas and her willingness to play and experiment – something she’s noticed can be absent with more established producers.

Recently, she was taking turns working on a track with a rap producer she admired, and he stopped to ask her questions about what she was doing. “The veil of mystery, that they know something I don’t, just dropped.”

“When I work with producers that I’ve always looked up to or that I was really excited to work with, and we are both producing, I’m like, I’m actually really good. Actually working with some of the best producers in the world and being like, I’m as good, maybe better, is such a weird feeling. It feels arrogant. But it’s also… true?”

This level of confidence is unusual considering Shaw was raised in a country where vocalising your talent is often frowned upon and determination is stamped down, rather than encouraged, especially in young women.

“I remember Grace saying so early on that she wanted to make beats for Post Malone,” says Tim Nelson, from the Brisbane band Cub Sport. “And this was before she had really built up her skills, but she just knew and believed it.”

He first met a teenaged Shaw when she went to one of his gigs as a fan. Now, they’re each other’s favourite artist and frequent collaborators. Shaw co-produced and engineered a track called ‘Break Me Down’ on Cub Sport’s upcoming record, ‘Like Nirvana’.

“That has always been something that has stood out: she’s super humble but at the same time not afraid to talk about being good at stuff,” he says. “It’s like a very beautiful form of ambition.”

He tells me he’s dreamt of seeing Shaw on stage with Kanye West, who’s been one of her idols forever. When she’s describing her dream of filling her record with the sound of a choir, we get to discussing Shaw’s trip to The Forum in Inglewood last year to experience West’s Sunday Service in person. When I mention plans to visit LA later this year, she makes a bold promise: “Well, I’ll start working with him and then I’ll get an invite and then you can be my plus one.”

Despite her current isolation limiting her ability to travel far beyond her room, there’s one label she’s keen to avoid. “Bedroom pop is such a funny umbrella. Like, you can apply it to any indie cute kid if they’re under like 23.”

It almost seems less a genre or DIY descriptor these days, I suggest, and more a shorthand for young people uploading songs about the minutiae of their lives to the internet – artists like Clairo who are fluent in the Gen Z language of a life spent online.

“I feel like the best example of that is Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’ album,” Shaw agrees, “because it’s so many people’s favourite album, and so many people feel like it’s their own secret diary, you know? But my friends and I were joking the other day [that] everyone’s always trying to make something relatable and they can’t. It doesn’t come naturally. And we were joking, like, ‘We’re done making relatable music. We only want to make aspirational music!’”

Somehow, I get the sense that even as Mallrat’s music pivots from daydreams and emotional disappointments to future Grammy wins and a place alongside the industry’s best, there’ll still be plenty of heart to grab onto.

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