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Angie McMahon journeys through the cycle of grief in album 'Light, Dark, Light Again'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Life, as we know, can get tough. Relationships end. Hearts break. And it can take a lot to process all of that. Singer-songwriter Angie McMahon is no stranger to that. Her debut album, "Salt," explored what it means to feel and the connection with others that comes with that. In McMahon's new album, Light, Dark Light. Again, she's turning inward and carving a path towards rediscovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTING GO")

ANGIE MCMAHON: (Singing) I might be prouder of me than I ever have been.

RASCOE: Angie McMahon joins us from Melbourne, Australia. Welcome to the show.

MCMAHON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So I'm wondering when this process of digging deep and sorting through all of these feelings began because it doesn't sound like an album, like, you cranked out in, like, a two-week frenzy. Like, how did you go from processing emotions to music?

MCMAHON: Yeah, I think it's something that I've always done. And in between my first record and this record, there was, yeah, like, a four-year gap. And in that time, I definitely had a bit of a life crisis. I experienced, like, the lowest low that I've ever hit. And I knew that I would use songs to find my way out of it.

RASCOE: So you say you used the music to kind of process what you're going through. And this transformative period in your life - it included a breakup. How did you translate it? And then, I guess, was there a song that came to you first?

MCMAHON: There's a song called "Fish" on the record, which was one of the first ones that I wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FISH")

MCMAHON: (Singing) I was squeezing your self-esteem like dirt coming out of your skin. While you were loving me, you were suffering.

I think what was transforming in me as a writer in that time was that I wasn't feeling like I wanted to write about other people so much or blame my hurt on other people. I was more leaning into looking at myself and my own behavior. And I think that sort of set the scene for the rest of the writing process.

RASCOE: Well, let's talk about the first track, "Saturn Returning," which - I mean, that one did sound a bit, like, mournful to me, like, you know, kind of thinking about what's lost but also like a celebration and, you know, kind of a rallying cry to live.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATURN RETURNING")

MCMAHON: (Singing) I'm gonna love every inch of this body, the limbs that are writing each day of this story. I'm gonna surrender my keys to the universe. Please always catch me the way that you caught me.

Yeah, well, it is both those things. It's like it's a mourning track, and it's also a way to elevate myself. Like, it felt really authentic, like, to be letting go of pain and figuring out how to do that by really looking at it and acknowledging it. And I did a lot of it through, like, a newfound love for nature, I guess, and, like, a new, like, sort of spiritual understanding of the wisdom of nature and how, you know, the waves are always going in and out, and the trees are always growing. And you don't know which way they're going to grow, but they're still beautiful. You know, all these, like, kind of corny things that were really helpful to me.

RASCOE: You know, there is this quiet feeling to some of this album, like, you know, a stillness. And as you talked about nature sounds, you know, running water, birds, and then kind of a piano or a guitar sort of weaves itself in there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGIE MCMAHON SONG, "FIREBALL WHISKEY")

RASCOE: Did you spend a lot of time outdoors while you were writing these songs?

MCMAHON: Yeah, I did. I mean, I had a garden, and I was lying in the garden a lot of the time, just staring at the sky. And I was - I mean, it sounds silly. It sounds so simple to say it out loud, but I was just coming to understand that those things, like bird sound and water sounds - like, they're always there. They're, like, this constant color that is always there if you look for it. And there was something really kind of inspiring and transcendent in that for me. I just - I guess I was feeling less distracted and more present. And I love them, and they felt like a door back into music and a portal back to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGIE MCMAHON SONG, "LETTING GO")

RASCOE: You have a line in your song "Letting Go" where you have that mantra, it's OK to make mistakes. And it seems like that was a moment where you were really letting go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTING GO")

MCMAHON: (Singing) Make mistakes. It's OK. It's OK. Make mistakes. Make mistakes. It's OK.

RASCOE: Was it through the making of the song that you arrived at that?

MCMAHON: Yeah, totally. It was. It was a hard song to finish because I really loved the chorus. I had the chorus for a long time before I had the rest of the song, and I couldn't figure out where the song was meant to go. I was, like, completely stumped. And I guess I just started, like, singing what I needed to hear without the intention that that would be what the song was. You know, it kind of felt corny as I was singing it out. And so that's why it kind of turned into, you know, yelling that line over and over because I just needed that. Yeah, it was just, like, one of the beautiful moments of surrendering to like, exactly what I needed at the time.

RASCOE: This is an album that's very - it's thoughtful. It's very - it's crafted and, you know, with deep meaning and all these things. Is there any part of you that after this maybe wants to just, like, make a dance album or something that's just not as, you know - I mean, although I guess I've talked to people who make dance albums. They say that they're very deep, as well. But you know. You know what I mean - just something in a totally different direction.

MCMAHON: I totally do want to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM ALREADY ENOUGH")

MCMAHON: (Singing) Behind me where I buried my head, while I was drowning. I was drowning out the sounding of the warning.

I found in the last couple years, for the first time in my life, how important it is to get out of my head and into my body and stop intellectualizing everything. And I started dancing and running to, like, straight up pop music. And it was so healing. And yeah, that is one of my visions - is just to lean into, like, the physical, energetic world of music and explore that a little bit more as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM ALREADY ENOUGH")

MCMAHON: (Singing) I'm a living, breathing Earthling. I am already enough. I am already a living...

RASCOE: That's Angie McMahon. Her new album, "Light, Dark, Light Again," is out now. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCMAHON: Thank you so much for having me. It's so lovely to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM ALREADY ENOUGH")

MCMAHON: (Singing) Beneath us in the subterranean ether, we'll be introduced to the echo creatures. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Lennon Sherburne