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Ahead of the Æ MAK headline show this Friday, Carla Jenkins has an in-depth chat with Aoife McCann, with photography by Katie Ball.
Aoife McCann’s newest song has feeling about it. It’s fresh and relevant and is a bit like predicting a February heatwave in January, before everyone has started talking and twittering on about it. Her voice, sounding more vulnerable and stripped back than we’ve ever heard, meets us at the song’s door:
we have it all here / tell me it’s real for you / the symptoms of fear
One line encapsulates the sound of a movement within our generation: that we have everything, that it’s hard to believe that it’s real, and that it terrifies us. And yet, despite potentially coming across as heavy, a synth and some percussion cuts in and the track becomes an anthem. It’s light, it flutters, and it moves away from its own subject matter. It’s an oxymoron of a song; knowing its exact ability but misunderstanding the impact it can make.
Æ MAK has perfected the happy sound of sadness. ‘Too Sad to Sing’ is a similar oxymoron as she cancels the validity of its title within the first second. The paradox of singing emotional lyrics against an upbeat, poppy background isn’t a songwriting technique singular to Æ MAK, but it’s certainly one that she has fine-tuned.
“I love it,” she tells me. “I think it helps you embrace and move on from a raw, negative emotion. If it’s an intimate show I feel sad, then elated when performing ‘Too Sad to Sing’; The juxtaposition between the driving electronic soundscape and the melancholic, insecure lyrics.”
Æ MAK started off as a platform of performance for McCann and her best friend Ellie McMahon. Both attended music college and both sang together until a time came when McCann was one day performing solo. Her debut track ‘I Can Feel It in My Bones’ hit our ears in 2015.
“I bus it down to Dublin every week to rehearse with the band, record, collaborate, but I grew up and live in Dundalk, and we moved out to the countryside by Carlingford when I was a teenager. The landscape is beautiful there, luscious grasslands, mountains and sea which has a massive influence over my general mental space and capacity to create.
“The Æ MAK sound does not reflect Dublin, or any city on earth. Maybe if there was an Amazonian rainforest on Mars, ruled by a witch queen… I obviously think very highly of myself. Guess I use my songwriting to create other worlds I can run off to.”
Without sounding cliché, Æ MAK does sound like something from another world.
One already inhabited by the likes of similar electronic vocalists. Think Sylvan Esso, but still entirely unique within its own periphery.
“God, I love Sylvan Esso. Thank you for the comparison. I think electronic music that you can dance to will always be in vogue as people intrinsically love dancing and feeling good bopping on down the street.
“I’m a solo artist. My vision for Æ MAK and my music career outside of Æ MAK goes beyond the boundaries of genre. I think no matter what the sound is if you’re creating something you believe in and are impassioned by that it will transfer over to others. Not all my music is electronic dance pop. It started as tribal jungle pop, it will most likely end up as something completely different along the way. I’ve been hiding away the more vulnerable songs and ideas…. ‘We Have It Right Here’ is a far cry from that sound. It’s delicate and tender.”
As I write, there is one statement that I can make knowing that it cannot be in any way discredited as untrue: we are living in political times at present. With certain words seeming to float around the stratosphere of every artistic output, it’s hard to neglect the questions that every artist is tired of being asked. We’re walking a tightrope – feeling a mix of boredom and responsibility to keep on keeping on for the side we are representing. The same here goes for Æ MAK. Take ‘Love Flush’, for example. It’s a track which ‘champions choosing your ambitions over a true love’. It’s a song about love and loss and longing, yet is also about a woman putting her ambitions first, over her romantic interests.
“We all love loving and being loved,” replies McCann echoing the ubiquitous Joycean sentiment ‘love loves to love love’ from Ulysses.
“I don’t know if writing is becoming more political or less political, there’s definitely a lot more bullshit. I don’t know if we’ll ever have another Bob Dylan, or Joan Baez as times they are a’changing. Gender politics within music is very trendy now. Some authentic and forward thinking, some not. My songs are not politically-fuelled, it’s more of a self-indulgent process for me being honest. But I guess the spirit behind them sometimes is.
“I think this generation of men, and women in particular, are a lot more ambitious and daring when it comes to what they choose to do with their lives, may that be striving towards a professional career in the music industry or becoming a neurosurgeon. Among other things this is definitely down to the progressive changes within society over the last 10, 30, 50 years; the breakdown of oppressive and sexist institutions; gender equality sitting at the forefront of social and cultural change.”
McCann is, to the extent that one can afford not to be without causing controversy, not interested in the #MeToo era having a place within her work. This isn’t to say that she disregards the movement, of course she doesn’t. But she is disinterested in how the movement has become an inter- view topic – something to talk about, and not do anything about.
“Male privilege is of course still a blatant reality, but I am personally against dwelling in it or entertaining the drivel that surrounds it. I am looking forward to a time when a question like that isn’t asked, isn’t relevant anymore, but I know the conversation must continue for now. In general, being asked about my gender in music somewhat makes me feel uncomfortable, fed up as of course I want to be critiqued, celebrated, connected with through my work.”
We’re all guilty, and we all trip ourselves over. I ask does her gender influence her work?
“I would like to say hell no it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter that I am a woman. My gender doesn’t reflect in my work. But of course, it inherently does, as does the creative expression of men, and those who identify as non-binary.
“I have always been defiant and strong- willed, triggered by anything I thought unfair or unjust. This may not have anything to do with my gender, but it definitely feeds into my drive to succeed within the music industry as it is male dominated, so my gender and the politics around gender doesn’t massively affect my creative expression. We’re all human with hearts, brains and dreams, but I’d say my work ethic and drive is definitely affected by it, in this context.”
For Æ MAK, the most important thing is the music, serving as a language that has saved her when verbal communication has failed.
“I don’t have a favourite thing to write about,” she tells me. “I’ve always been in love with melody and harmony, little earworms and hooks; the majority of the time it’s the vocal melody that I start off with. The visual art and the music go hand in hand and influence and shape each other. When I’m writing a song the movement, performance, video and artwork are conceptualised at the same time almost every time. That’s why I see each song, each single release as a whole artistic project in itself.
“I find this is the best process for me and I end up writing lyrics that help me understand how I’ve been feeling about something or someone that hasn’t been clear at the fore- front of my mind. I’m not the best at articulating how I feel at the best of times, I just can’t seem to find the right words. A lot of the time, I feel I’m doing myself an injustice when expressing myself verbally in the moment. Songwriting helps me with that.”
Like every language, the final product is never something that stands alone and the same goes for that of Æ MAK’s work, which is fully realised when all the different parts – sound, lyrics, visuals, influences – come together in live performances. It’s about the energy of the piece.
“The goal is always to create something I’m excited about. Something that gets my chest buzzing, my mind lost in a visualisation of the stage performance for that song.
“It’s honestly all derived from this energy buzz I have in my chest. I can’t explain it any other way than that. I started songwriting to perform the way I wanted to. I wanted the energy I feel when performing on stage to go hand in hand with the songs and the soundscape, which happens to be at the edge of pop at the moment.”
They say that pop music is like a mirror, always held up to reflect the times in which it’s created. Maybe it’s because it has the power to both unite the quiet voices sing- ing along in a mundane office, as well as the excitable voices of hundreds of people in a club; it is played in cars, planes, trains, shops, dentist surgeries; it’s the backing track to so many days as they chug on, being days. Æ MAK’s music is pop music, yes, the kind of music you’d listen to on the commute as well as in a club or at a gig. But there is a movement about it, an idea that at any moment you could scratch the surface and realise that you had wholly misunderstood the meaning behind the tune you were bopping to. It’s a flux, a lump in your throat where you have to stop your limbs twitching and your feet tapping. McCann agrees.
“I think my sound will be in constant flux which is how it should be for any artist’s creative health and for the excitement of the audience. Each song has a different energy and its own story to tell, so the sound should be a home to that. My voice I feel is also in constant flux, which I’m learning more and more about through recording demos with Dan [McIntyre aka Lullahush].”
There is something about Æ MAK’s music that moves its sound to the edge of pop, placing it on a sort of pop-precipice. It is so close to transmuting into something else, when you make out the strains of her angelic voice acting as drum or synth. Perhaps that’s what it is – the fact that McCann uses her voice as an instrument that gets right to the kernel of your heart?
“I don’t think it knows what it is. Because I know it so well and can shape and move it in different styles and tones, I feel it changes for each song, which I’m learn- ing to accept and embrace. I don’t have to have one style, one voice. I’m excited at the thought of that, it’s freeing.”
Aoife McCann brings her Æ MAK project to The Grand Social on March 8.