MELBOURNE musicians Angie McMahon and Ainslie Wills are friends and musical admirers.
They also happen to be album “twinsies”, releasing their records within a fortnight of each other: Ainslie’s second album All You Have Is All You Need was released on July 26 while Angie’s debut Salt came out on August 9.
Ahead of the release of both records, the pair got together for a warm and revealing chat about adapting to life after a tour and their approach to recording at Abbotsford institution the Yarra Hotel.
Angie had just wound up a run of dates through Europe – and that’s where the conversation begins.
Watching Birds & Chain-Smoking
AINSLIE: How have you felt the shows have been going from a musical connection point of view? That’s quite a broad question…
ANGIE: Yeah, I think it’s actually been quite good. I guess because they’re different audiences, I feel like it’s a different experience every time. There are a couple songs in our set that I’m like- I guess I can predict how every moment is going to go. I feel a little bit weary with them, but even those ones, I still really like the way people react.
AINSLIE: They give you energy at that point.
ANGIE: Yeah, exactly.
AINSLIE: That’s awesome.
ANGIE: I’m trying to give all my energy to the songs and then get as much back from people as I can, and that feels like it’s going well. We haven’t had a bad audience that I can think of in a while, which is not to sound arrogant. [Laughs] I just mean I’ve appreciated all of the energies.
AINSLIE: That’s the great thing about playing outside of your own country isn’t it? Even being in Germany. When we were in Germany last year – I don’t know how you felt – but there was a completely different appreciation for music. They respond differently, they listen differently.
ANGIE: Yeah, totally. It feels fresh. I wonder if it’s exotic, because when I was in Germany last month I kept getting interview questions that were about Australian music and the spread of Australian music overseas. I feel like it’s an exciting thing maybe – that we’re from Australia – whereas here we’re just like, “‘Straya, mate. It’s a pretty racist desert.” [Laughs]
AINSLIE: Do you change your set order every night?
ANGIE: It’s mostly the same. I change it up probably month to month, but I do feel like when we have a good one, I stick to it. There’s a mix of the slow songs and the more upbeat songs, and I feel like they have to be a certain place in a set. Sometimes I feel that way, but then I liberate myself from it the next month and I’m like, “Oh, it doesn’t have to be that way.” Now we’re playing ‘Slow Mover’ at the start of the set, and it’s so good because everyone’s expecting it to be at the end.
AINSLIE: Yeah, I love that.
ANGIE: I’m like, “No, we’re done. It’s over.” But that’s been overseas, so hopefully I can do that in Australia, too. Because I feel like some people who come to the shows, that’s the only song they know. And then I’m like, “Oh, we better make it a big deal.” But it’s not my fave.
AINSLIE: No, there’s so many great songs in the set. Have you been writing?
AINSLIE: That’s a really silly question because I know how hard it is to try and write when you’re [touring].
ANGIE: I can’t write. Can you write on the road?
AINSLIE: I can do lyrics. If I’ve got ideas already set in motion then I can work on lyrical order and stuff like that. Just jigging stuff around, but no.
AINSLIE: Yeah, it’s such a different mindset isn’t it, being on tour? Just the energy is so different. What you’re giving out each night, meeting new people, and travelling – it takes it out of you. You need time to rest.
ANGIE: You have nothing to give to a song.
AINSLIE: When you’re not doing shows overseas, have you been just chilling?
ANGIE: I’ve found it quite hard because I’ve found it hard to come home from this tour. I don’t know if you find that, but just I feel really vulnerable getting home from a tour. Trying to pull my shit together and just get back in the groove of life. I need to burp, sorry! [Laughs]
AINSLIE: That’s going to be transcribed.
ANGIE: Put the burp in. [Laughter] The first week I got home, I just couldn’t get settled and I was smoking ciggies every morning. I was like, “What do I do to calm down?” And so I’d go out and sit in my backyard and look at birds and smoke ciggies. I hate the taste in my mouth afterwards. I’m like, “This is the best and the worst thing.” And then I’d just feel even more sad, because now I’m ruining my singing voice as well. But I needed that. I could have just meditated but it was just an easy vice to pick up to come home. And now in the space of two-and-a-half weeks, I’ve gone from not smoking to chain smoking, to not smoking again to prepare for leaving again on Saturday.
ANGIE: Other things have happened in my life as well.
AINSLIE: Watching birds and chain smoking. That’s funny, because when I was living in Melbourne but commuting back to a place about two hours away, Ballarat, I would chain smoke in the car. Which is like the worst thing you could do
ANGIE: But it feels so good.
AINSLIE: I know! But I’m not a smoker, either. At all. I haven’t smoked much since then. That was over 10 years ago. There’s something really satisfying about it. It’s almost a control thing. “I’m going to do this, and this is going to make me feel a particular way. Fuck it. I’m just going to feel it, feel through it!”
ANGIE: I’m just going to have this gross thing in my body. Also rolling them, I find really calming. That was part of it for me.
AINSLIE: That’s interesting. The ritual of that.
ANGIE: Yeah, the ritual, something to do with my hands, and just slowing down. The thing about touring – because I do feel like it’s related to touring – you’re moving so quickly, and doing something physical like that with my hands is slowing down. I also went to my friend’s house and made pottery.
AINSLIE: Oh that’s cool.
ANGIE: Which is definitely much healthier and I really want to get into that. Now I want to be a potter
AINSLIE: Make pottery with a ciggie in my mouth. [Laughs]
ANGIE: Yeah, picture me in my flannel, ciggie hanging out of my mouth, one tucked behind my ear, covered in clay. Now I want to be a potter. And I just want to have a house with a pottery studio at the back.
AINSLIE: Please do that. I will come and have tea and make pottery. I love pottery.
ANGIE: Do you do it?
AINSLIE: I used to do it with my dad. He’s an art teacher. He’s retired now. But he used to have a pottery wheel at home and we could muck around on it and make pots, put stuff in the kiln. I always wanted to do glazing though but never got to the glazing part.
ANGIE: Yeah, I just did my first glazing experience, but my friend is firing them for me and stuff. I’m not really doing it. I’m curious now [about] things that you do – whether it’s after touring or just when you’re trying to get into that more creative, settled mindset. Is it art stuff, or chain smoking? Downing a bottle of whiskey?
AINSLIE: I reckon for me, it’s a combination of things depending on what the experience has been. But writing, which is not as cool as smoking.
ANGIE: It’s much cooler.
AINSLIE: Writing morning pages.
AINSLIE: When I got back from the UK last year, I was in a beautiful routine because I was jet lagged still. Even after the jet lag wore off I was waking up so early, and just feeling so good and I’d sit at my desk and do my morning pages. Have a cup of tea when no one else was up, and I felt that was a good grounding tool. But then I ended up losing that after a while.
ANGIE: Habits always fall away.
AINSLIE: I know. I was enjoying it so much I don’t know how I let it go, but I think it was just life gets in the way. That, and probably yoga is my go to.
ANGIE: Are you still studying to be a yoga teacher? Is that in the plan?
"Picture me in my flannel, ciggie hanging out of my mouth, one tucked behind my ear, covered in clay."
AINSLIE: I’m wanting to. Yeah, I would love to do that at some stage just because I want to give that feeling to as many people as possible. I think it’s a pretty powerful, very powerful tool.
ANGIE: It’s amazing.
AINSLIE: And when you hear people talk about yoga and you’re like, “You’re just really annoying.”
ANGIE: Yeah, shut up! [Laughs]
AINSLIE: Stop being so calm and collected. But I think until you experience that first hand and you use it regularly, you don’t realise the impact that it can have.
ANGIE: Totally agree.
AINSLIE: I love it. I love yoga. So yeah, I reckon those two things. Writing and yoga, and I love to cook and bake.
ANGIE: What do you bake?
AINSLIE: I bake cakes. I love tea cakes. It’s such an old school thing to make. They’re the best. Simple. Lots of cinnamon and butter.
AINSLIE: That’s probably my go to. That’s something I could whip up really quickly baking wise. And then cooking wise, I love stir fries and comfort food. Pasta.
ANGIE: I’m trying to get into yoga … Anxiety and the depression fully runs in my family, and I’m like, “This is something I’m going to have to deal with for my whole life.” Yoga is one of the only things I look at – apart from medication – that’s a tangible, actual routine that solves it. I was going to say before – when you were talking about the morning pages falling away – that’s one of the things I find hard about the music life, is actually having a routine. And I think yoga, if you do that every morning, that feels like you’ve got a really good base.
AINSLIE: Absolutely. It sets the tone for the day, it really does, doesn’t it? And that lack of structure is a real thing, isn’t it? When you have had touring schedule and you’re going from one place to the other … Then when you get home, post tour blues can be a real thing. Because you’ve got no structure it is important to set yourself back into some kind of something.
ANGIE: Yeah, and I find when you’re on tour, you’re sharing the experience with everyone. So everyone has a lot of the same experiences throughout the day … Then you get home and you’re back on your own. You’re back in your own life. You have to run your own routine and schedule, catch up on all the life things you’ve missed, and do a fuckload of washing. It’s also like you’ve been craving alone time, but also all the company you’re used to drops away drastically … It’s just weird.
AINSLIE: It is. I think a lot of the time it’s seen from the outside as this amazing ride … I’ve always felt a little bit guilty about – not complaining about touring, but just talking about the realities of it. It’s awesome and a great privilege to be in that position, of course. But it’s work.
AINSLIE: It’s not sunshine and rainbows all the time.
ANGIE: No. It’s hard work and it’s kind of 24/7. Even when you’re resting, it’s like you’re resting because you have to get up early and move to the next place. But I guess the other thing is I think it’s so important to balance the gratitude, and the talking about the hardship of it. Because I’m the same. I feel so grateful and this is what I’ve always wanted to do. But at the same time – because it’s so related to mental health and you can become blue so easily – it’s so isolating, a lot of the experiences. So that sort of thing which everyone is just realising – well not realising, but talking about more – with depression and stuff, it takes away so much of the anguish when you actually verbalise it. And just being able to share the experiences with people, talk about it. I feel we’re lucky being in a generation that does that, I guess.
AINSLIE: That’s more transparent?
AINSLIE: Absolutely, I agree.
ANGIE: Even though it can come across as complaining, for the people actually having those conversations – and also the people hearing them – it’s just so much more illuminating.
AINSLIE: Yeah. It removes the divide.
ANGIE: Yeah, because I mean people are depressed all over the place and keeping it to themselves, and that’s when it gets really hard.
ANGIE: Really, really bad.
ANGIE: Let’s talk about albums.
ANGIE: I was going to ask you about yours … In creating an album, what are the most significant memories that stand out?
AINSLIE: I would say recording. The album was done in lots of different locations and it was kind of staggered over a long period of time. There’s a song called ‘Suzie’ on the record, the vocal track that we used was my demo vocal that I recorded in my little North Melbourne studio at the time … There was a desk, an interface, and a microphone. And it was literally me sitting, kicking back on my chair doing a handheld vocal for that … That song was particularly exciting for me because it came from a book that I’d read. A Patti Smith book called Woolgathering. And I’d read that book, and it was all about her childhood. It was very nostalgic, and I digested the book really quickly and then wrote the lyrics to ‘Suzie’ … So that’s a moment that came to my mind straight away, but also because we kept the demo vocal for the record. That was a really important decision to make. In the past I think I’ve strived to have everything fairly polished, and feeling a little bit too like I am removing the warts from the warts-and-all kind of approach. So that was a significant move for me, and that happened several times in the record where it’s been either demo vocals that have been kept, or one take vocals. So nothing’s been comped together. Which I’ve done a lot of in the past.
ANGIE: That’s awesome. It’s so liberating.
AINSLIE: It really is. It really is amazing when you’ve been doing music for a while like we have, I might be projecting onto you, but you do listen with the equivalent of a magnifying glass. Everything is so heightened, and every little thing you’re like, “Ugh I can hear that thing.” And it’s like no one else can hear that – they’re just looking for a vibe.
AINSLIE: No one else is listening to that. And I think you’ve got to have a level of a standard that you’re trying to reach, because you have to be happy with it and you have to live with it. It’s part of your catalogue of work. But yeah, it is nice to let go of that sort of approach of cleaning everything up and making it sound…
ANGIE: Very intentional?
ANGIE: I feel like I’m just learning this too. When you’re making the record, you want to be as equally invested in that as you are in that perfection of a take or something, because if it’s not there – even though you can’t put your finger on it – as a listener you can tell when there is or isn’t that vibe.
AINSLIE: That intent.
ANGIE: Or maybe it’s more that when there is one, when there is that really raw energy, it’s so exciting to hear.
AINSLIE: Hell, yeah.
ANGIE: And those are my favourite recordings. When I think of them – whether they’re accidental or just the right take, or the right choice. It’s so exciting to me to know that you made those choices, and then to go and listen to the song. I feel like I know why you chose this, and the energy of it is right. It’s just understanding the vibe more. That’s what is exciting to me.
AINSLIE: Yeah, it is a thing, but it takes a while. I think it’s because you are again, exposing yourself within a recording, too. You’re exposing your shortfalls. But it’s not even that. That sounds a bit dramatic, but I think that’s why sometimes we strive to perfect something. The other thing I’ve found comfort in is it’s a documentation. It’s like someone’s taken a picture and sometimes you have bad hair in a picture, and that will stick sometimes. And you’ll be like, “Okay, well that’s there and that’s documenting that time.”
ANGIE: But it’s real.
AINSLIE: It’s real, yeah.
ANGIE: And its funny because you know that the record is going to exist forever. But I find that the satisfaction, it’s almost like you expect to be satisfied if you get everything perfect. But also looking back on the mistakes that I kept in mine, or the particular decisions that I made that were based on vibe or instinct. Those are the decisions that I’m the most…
AINSLIE: Connected to?
ANGIE: Connected to and sure of, because I’m like, “Hey that was me actually being chill for once.” And that’s documented. Or that was me actually getting something right – even though it’s not what I thought was perfect at the time. That’s my learning documented. And those things are almost more exciting to document than perfection.
AINSLIE: Absolutely. Well said, well said … So in the songs you’ve documented – let’s call it documented – are they the songs you’ve written recently? How long did the recording process take for you?
ANGIE: They’re actually all written quite a while ago now … I made a SoundCloud playlist and I thought, “This will do.” I mean, I was like, “Maybe I’ll add some more?”, but basically it was the start of 2017.
AINSLIE: Wow, yeah.
"I'm just lucky to be in a situation where I can create. It's such an amazing thing to be able to do ... I think some people go through all sorts of trauma in their life and they don't have an outlet."
ANGIE: Basically that’s when the songwriting for this record stopped … And then the recording, we did it similar to you – fragmented over time- and we started with a few songs and were sussing out how we were going to go about it I think, and mixing. And also just getting used to playing the songs with the band more and doing live shows more. It was all kind of happening at the same time. So the actual recording, and we went on tour as well, so the actual recording was over six months or so I think.
AINSLIE: What’s your standout memory or moment? Do you have a song that you’re like, “I’m so connected to that song, and I’m so glad that it came to life and that it sounds the way it does.” It’s like choosing a favourite….
ANGIE: Yeah, a favourite child.
ANGIE: I think I have two. ‘Missing Me’ was the second song that we recorded. And that went towards the end. Gormey [Alex O’Gorman, engineer] and I were experimenting with synth stuff and delay, and all this stuff that I just hadn’t done before on any kind of professional level. And I knew it was going to be released, that was really exciting. Because I would do something, and I’d be like, “What about this?” And it would be validated. And then it went into the song. ‘Slow Mover’ was the first one [recorded], but it was literally just a live band, so it wasn’t as experimental. But then ‘Missing Me’, we were experimenting with the end of the song and going a bit hectic with effects. That was so exciting to me because it made me feel like I was creating something that had life to do it; a recording I knew I couldn’t quite replicate live, but it was so exciting. So that was my first recording experience like that. And then the last song on the record [‘If You Call’], I wasn’t going to put it on. I thought it was really cheesy, and then we decided to put it on and I’m really glad. We just did the one mic in a room thing with a nylon string [guitar], and it’s pretty gritty sounding.
ANGIE: There’s rain in the background, and it felt like a nicer way to end it. It was a nice contrast.
AINSLIE: I was talking to someone yesterday about… that is the most important thing, being creatives or musicians, is that we have to be, it’s the most un-profound thing, but there has to be space for pushing into the next [realm]. Do you know what I mean? Imagine if someone said you have to create nine versions of songs that sound similar to ‘Slow Mover’. It’s like, “Kill me now.”
ANGIE: No thank you.
AINSLIE: It’s so important, and so exciting to push into like, “Oh wow this is a new thing, this is a new sound, and I’m creating it, and I’m building it with people.” I think that’s such an important thing for longevity is feeling like the creative process can be anything. You can serve the song no matter if it’s a kazoo sound that you want on it … You want kazoo? Go for it!
ANGIE: How much kazoo was on your record?
AINSLIE: There’s a solo. There’s a couple of solos.
ANGIE: There’s a kazoo solo? [Laughter] To wrap it up, do you feel that way about your record? That you got to get to new spaces with it?
AINSLIE: So I feel like part of my musical history in collaboration with Lawrence [Folvig] has been such an awesome combination of what he can do well and what I think I can do well. I suppose the album exhibits some really dense, sonically layered songs that I love to play, and all that sonic layering comes from Lawrence’s influence and I love that. Then the other side of it, there’s a song called ‘Clear Air After the Storm’ which is just me.
ANGIE: I love that song.
AINSLIE: Thank you. This is me playing piano and singing. There is a string section as well, but I think what I’m wanting, or what I feel like I’m moving towards now is that more stripped back approach. I’ll always have a love for the sonically layered stuff because it’s so moody and it’s something that I could never ever have created by myself. And I hope to continue to do that in some way, but what it taught me more than anything is that I want to get back to simplicity. And what we were talking about before with vibe, and that being so important, because my whole record’s about self acceptance. I’ve been through the mill, and at the end of it I feel like, “Okay, well you don’t actually have to do much to create something that’s vibey and feels good.”
ANGIE: The way I read that is metaphorically, or musically or whatever, is all those layers of you processing this self acceptance is documented in the record. And then you get to come away from it with maybe that one song that is the arrow to the next album. That’s so cool to have all of that processed and represented in that way, and also for you to have a purpose to create something else and a vision of where that’s going to go. That’s basically what you want out of creating a record.
AINSLIE: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like we’re constantly stepping stones, from one thing to the next, just learning it as we go. It does feel good. I’m just lucky to be in a situation where I can create. It’s such an amazing thing to be able to do. I’m not saying that I’m amazing at it, more the actual ability [to create]. I think some people go through all sorts of trauma in their life and they don’t have an outlet. It is the most healing thing to be able to create, and make, and record and then the bonus of having people respond to that. Even if it’s someone coming up after a show or whatever it is. It’s a magical thing.
ANGIE: It’s the best thing.
AINSLIE: It is.
ANGIE: We got to the gratitude. And that’s the way we’re going to leave it.