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In a frenetic 12 months Meg Mac has gone from Triple J Unearthed to supporting R’n’B star D’Angelo in the US.

By Michaela McGuire.

Meg Mac’s incredible year

Meg Mac
Credit: Metaxia Coustas

On the rare occasions that singer Megan McInerney is at home, her entire world is contained within just a couple of Collingwood blocks. We meet around the corner from her house, at Bluebird Espresso, before she heads a few streets away to Laneway Studios in Abbotsford to begin rehearsals for her upcoming national tour. “It’s cool there, because you can buy coffee and get loyalty stamps,” she says. Her excitement over the prospect of a free coffee might seem incongruous when one considers how much McInerney, known to the world as Meg Mac, has to be excited about: the love of the national youth broadcaster Triple J, overtures from American tastemakers, and support slots with legends of contemporary music.

Still, it’s no wonder that the 25-year-old is revelling in the small comforts of home; she’s spent half of the past eight months on back-to-back tours in the United States. Other local comforts include Collingwood’s famed vintage stores. “My favourite thing is op-shopping, but I haven’t had the time to do it this year up until yesterday. My favourite vintage store, Vintage Garage, has this one magic rack that has all my Meg Mac costumes there. I’ll walk up to it and there’ll be my cape.”

Releasing music under the moniker Meg Mac was a simple choice for the singer: “Nobody can spell, or pronounce, Megan McInerney, so it’s just easier this way,” she says, “but now I even talk about Meg Mac as not me. It’s nice to have this little project, my little baby, that is so much me, but it’s nice to have a name for it.” The divide between Megan McInerney and Meg Mac is a deliberate one. “I put a lot of thought into it,” she says. “For instance, when I go shopping, I’m never shopping for myself, it’s about whether I can wear something on stage for Meg Mac. I feel like I sing better in costume. It’s a performance and if I was to get up on stage and wear this, it just wouldn’t feel right,” she says, referring to her outfit of carefully tailored layers of navy blue. “I like the drama … A costume is like a shield, but it also connects you to people because it is a performance. At the end of the day, people are buying a ticket to be entertained.”

In the past 12 months, Mac has entertained a gobsmacking number of people. Shortly after releasing the five soul-pop songs that comprise her debut EP MEGMAC in November last year, Mac was crowned Triple J’s Unearthed Artist of the Year. Over the Australian summer, she signed to famed music industry executive Lyor Cohen’s indie New York label, 300 Entertainment, for the worldwide release of her music, had three songs feature in Triple J’s Hottest 100, and won second prize in the esteemed Vanda & Young songwriting competition for “Roll Up Your Sleeves”. This March, she played seven showcases at the SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas, and was listed by Buzzfeed as the number-one SXSW act to watch out for.

Flavorwire were unhesitant in their praise, crowning Mac “Adele meets Arcade Fire” and nominating “Roll Up Your Sleeves” as “The Song of Summer.” It’s a comparison Mac has grown comfortable with. “I guess I can see it,” she says. “Adele has a really big voice, and you probably don’t expect that of her. I think she’s pretty amazing.”

After SXSW, support slot offers came rolling in. Mac prolonged what was originally to be a two-week stay in the US to play support on English alternative dance and baroque pop outfit Clean Bandit’s tour. “I had to fly to Canada to get a visa really quickly,” she says. “It was a bit stressful.” When Mac next travelled to the US just two months later to appear on a Philadelphia radio station, her trip was again unexpectedly extended. She announced the news on Facebook: “I feel like I get surprised by something almost every day. Here is my latest surprise,” she wrote before revealing she had landed the much-sought-after supporting slot for neo-soul group D’Angelo and the Vanguard. “You just can’t get used to surprises, that’s why they’re the best.”

The tour was a nerve-racking one. “At home, people buy a ticket, and they obviously want to see me,” says Mac, “but being the support, I just came with the ticket they’d bought. Obviously D’Angelo has a lot of respect for what he does, and I think when I walked out on stage there was a bit of doubt, like, who’s this little girl from Australia?”

Mac broke her foot while on tour with D’Angelo. “This is really embarrassing, and not at all a cool story,” she says, grimacing. “I was just in my hotel room, jumping around, and I jumped off the bed and landed on the side of my foot.” Having never broken a bone before, Mac taped her foot up, bought a walking stick, and carried on for another week and a half before she finally saw a doctor in New York and learnt of the fracture. “I had to wear a moon boot, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear it on stage.”

The McInerney family home in a leafy Sydney suburb was always filled with music. The entire clan of five children, “pretty much a year apart” in age, all sing. “Mum plays the piano and the accordion, and was always singing. She taught everything to us in a song – the first song I learnt, actually, was a melody of the letters in my surname, so we could learn to spell it.” There was even a song to find a parking space, but she declines to sing a rendition. “It was so lame,” she says, laughing. “It worked though – we always found one.” Her father listened to and played a lot of music also, introducing the children to Sam Cooke and Edith Piaf. Although music was a shared passion, it is only Mac who has pursued it as a career. “It wasn’t a family of musicians,” she says, “rather it was just that we all really liked music.”

Characterising herself as “the naughty kid” who learnt piano but didn’t do any of the homework, Mac says she still can’t read music. In high school, long after she’d persuaded her parents to stop sending her to piano lessons, it all fell into place. “My sister knew how to play chords on the piano, and one day she said, ‘It’s really simple, you just go like this,’ and showed me a major chord, then a minor, and that was it,” says Mac. “I’d play chords again and again, and then I realised that with two chords you could make a song, and then it all started.”

By the time she enrolled in the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts’ contemporary music degree, at age 18, Mac had “a million” lines of songs saved in her smartphone. “Uni was when I first started piecing together a real song.” MEGMAC’s “Known Better” – a diary-style apologia for a failed relationship – was one of the first songs she wrote.

“I really liked the idea of going far away,” she says of her decision to study on the other side of the country. “I feel like when you’re in a place for a purpose, you’re more focused.” Following this logic, she chose to move to Melbourne as soon as she graduated, rather than returning home to Sydney.

“I feel like I’m in Melbourne for music, so I work on it. If I went home, I predict that I’d be living at home, working for my mum. Melbourne feels like my home, rather than my family’s home. It’s something I can make for myself.”

Mac finally feels confident enough to say that music is her job. “I always believed in myself, but there was a little part of me that asked, ‘Am I being silly? Is being a singer a real thing that can happen?’ But now it feels real, so I feel more settled in calling myself a singer.”

Last month, Mac played a sold-out headline tour around Australia to celebrate the release of her most successful song to date, “Never Be”. A collaboration with producer and rapper M-Phazes, the gospel-infused song perfectly showcases Mac’s enormous vocals.

 

At the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, she takes to the stage in a golden cape, a metaphor for the gilded musical barrage to follow. If her costumes are a mix of vintage treasures and carefully cultivated personal style, so is her music. Mac has grown up in a world enriched by limitless musical plurality and talent-show pageantry, and her performances are equally a homage to giants of Philadelphian soul and Australian Idol. Her songs are characterised by meticulous production, with layers of backing vocals, strings and echoing claps buttressing her voice to showcase her breathtaking vocals.

In the gloom of the Corner the crowd raise beers in salute and yell their approval between tracks. But as Mac moodily stalks from one side of the stage to the other, and ever-richer production spills from prerecorded backup tracks, there are moments when it seems as though Mac, somewhere beneath critical buzz and that phenomenal voice, is still learning to let herself go. 

Her innately talented voice, now highly trained and deeply soulful, may be tempting her to material beyond her desire to make a personal connection with her audience. At one point, she performs a note-perfect interpretation of Bill Withers’ 1971 classic “Grandma’s Hands”, a song about his grandmother, born into slavery. The lyric is fuelled by the agony and hope of the African-American experience, but its emotional impact isn’t lifted by the life experience of a 25-year-old girl from Sydney.

Mac describes the pressure to release her first album as feeling like “a cloud over my head”. This year, she has made a concerted effort to finish writing dozens of half-formed songs. “I’m really, really bad,” she admits. “I don’t sit down and write a song in one day – all of my songs are written over months. I live with them for quite a while, and I’m always working on a bunch at the same time.”

Mac will head to the US this month to begin recording, but is reticent to say too much about the album in the making. “Even now it makes me nervous, talking about it, because I talk about it as though it’s this thing, but it doesn’t exist yet.

“I’m not concerned with hoping that it’s good,” she says. “I’m more interested in trying to make sure that, in the moment when I’m at the piano all by myself, in the dark…”

She writes in the dark?

“I always am in the dark,” says Mac. “Even if it’s beautiful and sunny outside I’ll shut all the curtains, and light one candle.”

This is her favourite part of songwriting, she says, and one that she hopes will translate to the recording process and connect her to her burgeoning admirers. “I really am trying to make sure that what I write in that moment of a song’s first creation… that I carry that through to what everyone else gets to hear.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "Feelgood Mac". Subscribe here.

Michaela McGuire
is the director of the Emerging Writers Festival, and the author of Last Bets.