Meg Mac Talks “Roll Up Your Sleeves,” Landing A US Record Deal & Her Debut Album: Idolator Interview

Mike Wass | April 28, 2015 9:00 am
Meg Mac's Stunning "Roll Up Your Sleeves"
Australian singer/songwriter Meg Mac arrives in fine style with "Roll Up Your Sleeves."

After winning the prestigious Unearthed competition for unsigned talent in Australia, Meg Mac quickly built a reputation as one of the country’s most exciting new talents with the release of her self-titled debut EP. That buzz went international when the singer/songwriter landed a US record deal with 300 Entertainment earlier this year and then drew rave reviews at SXSW. The response was so overwhelming that she immediately went on an unplanned tour.

I recently caught up with the Sydney-born songstress during a stop in Los Angeles and she talked about her breakthrough single “Roll Up Your Sleeves,” cocoon-like songwriting process and fear of losing creative control. Meg also discussed finding US representation, studying music at university and her impossible-to-pigeonhole genre. Get to know the newcomer a little better by reading our Q&A below.

There’s even more buzz about you now. What do you think triggered it?
I guess it was probably signing a deal in America. That was a big step, because I’m actually independent in Australia, and the deal I signed excludes Australia.
So, I guess all of the hard work I’d done in Australia… I can use what I’ve done in Australia, and take it overseas. It all pretty much started a few weeks ago at SXSW. I came over to do SXSW and they were like, “Do you want to do this tour?”. I had some visa dramas and stuff, but I ended up being able to do it.

How did 300 Entertainment find you?
They had been making contact for a year or something. Like, back and forth, back and forth. I’m not very into that side of things. In Australia, I didn’t sign with anyone. I made the choice not to sign with a label, so it was a big deal for me to let go of that control. I flew over in November to New York, and I met everyone, and I just felt good about it. It didn’t feel so scary.

What is it about the idea of having that bigger team that frightens you?
I think it just feels serious, and like singing to me is obviously serious and means a lot to me, but you feel pressure. If lots of people are behind you and supporting what you’re doing, you kind of feel like there’s an expectation.

When I write songs, I’m not trying to write them to go on the radio or write them to do anything. I’m just writing them because I feel the need to write them. I guess I feel like it could be a pressure, like they expect me to be able to do things that I can’t do.

It looks like you have the golden touch by the way things are going…
I feel so lucky. It’s cool, because when I think about it, all of the little baby steps from the beginning, but I haven’t taken any steps backwards so I always feel like I’m moving forward, which is really cool.

“Roll Up Your Sleeves” is already getting a lot of attention. Did you know it was special?
I knew, because it is the quickest I’ve ever written a song. Normally it takes me a long time. It still took me a while, but I just was like, I literally was just playing a note, and then I just went, “Roll up”, and I was like, “Oh, I like that”. Then, when I jumped up the octave I was just like, “Oh, my god. That feels so good.” It feels good to sing it, and every time I sing it I feel good.

What’s your process? Do you start with an idea or concept?
No, I have to kind of clear my head completely. Then, sit down. If I’m starting from scratch, I literally just have to turn the lights out… I don’t care if it’s daylight. Even if it’s a beautiful day, I’ll shut all of the curtains.

I hate the idea of anyone being able to hear me or see me, so I like being dark and in a space. Then, I just… If I’m stuck, I just play a note and then I’ll just sing over the top. Or, I sing a song that I like or whatever, and just get into it. It’s singing, so you’ve just got to let stuff out, let it happen.

So it just comes out of you?
Yeah. Lots of crap comes out of me too, but I don’t let anyone see. I don’t really… I’m not like, “I’m going to write a song about this”. It’s all really… I have to feel it. If you were like, “Write me a song today” — I’d be like, “I can’t.” If I had to write a song in front of someone, I would just be hopeless. It’s very personal and secret.

You seem quite introverted but then when you take the stage…
I love performing.

How does that work? Do you flip some kind of internal switch?
Because when something doesn’t exist yet, you’ve got to be in the right place to write it. The way I feel at a beginning of a song when I’m writing is different to how I feel at the end. Sometimes it takes months to write a song. It’s a journey. I feel like I learn something after each song. Then, once the songs are written, it’s like they’ve become a song and then it’s a performance. I have to turn it into a performance and I have to think how, if you’re in the audience, am I going to make you understand what I’m saying.

Did performing come naturally to you?
I think I’m a lot more confident in singing than I am in talking, and in life. It feels natural. It doesn’t feel scary.

The rave reviews can’t hurt either.
Yeah, it’s really good for my self esteem. Especially at the start. It’s pretty weird to be like, “Oh, I want to be a singer.” It’s like, “So does everyone.” I started out with one song. I was like, “I’m going to record one song,” and it was like a little baby step. I recorded it, put it on Unearthed, and then that got played on the radio, and I was like, “Oh. Maybe I can be a real singer.”

Then, I wrote every line of “Roll Up Your Sleeves,” recorded it and they went, “Whoa!” I feel proud, you know? When the good things happen like awards and stuff, it’s like I feel proud.

Have you started work on an album yet?
Yeah. I’ve done most of the songwriting. I’m working out a chunk of time, really soon, where I have no shows, no nothing. That’s going to be dedicated to putting it together. A new single is going to be released soon in Australia, but the rest of the album… it exists in my head. It’s not been recorded for real.

Will you work with Australian or international producers?
There are some people in Australia, there are some people overseas. I’m not particular about… I’ve only done the EP, so I’ve only been in the studio a handful of times. All studios are still a bit fresh to me, so I feel like… I just want to make sure that my songs are how I meant them to be, in the right way.

Your music doesn’t sound typically Australian. At least, to me. Would you agree?
I only go off what people tell me. Same as my genre, I find out when people are like, “You’re this genre”. I’m like, “Okay.” A lot of people say that when they just hear my songs on the radio and don’t know anything. They don’t know the name of the person and then they think that it’s someone and then they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. She’s Australian. I’ve heard that from people. When I’m songwriting I’m not really thinking about what I sound like.

How would you classify your music?
Yeah, it’s interesting. In Australia I’ve read stuff like “Dark Pop”.

What is that?
I don’t know.

It sounds kind of nice…
I guess I’m pop. Essentially pop, but I guess a lot of people say soul and indie soul, I’ve heard that. I don’t know. Meg Pop. I’ll use that one. I don’t know. They’re just my songs. I can see the “soul” thing. I can see how people think that.

Where did your love of soul come from?
My parents are from the UK. They’re Irish and English, and my dad played lots of soul music, but I find that I’ve always been attracted to vocalists and singers, and especially the singers with the big voices. I love Edith Piaf, and I feel like she’s soul, even though she’s 100 percent not in the soul genre — but her voice makes me feel something. So, any voice or any music that makes me feel something, like Bon Iver.

Growing up, my dad played lots of Ray Charles. I love him. There’s a whole bunch of music, so anything that makes me feel something or think about something, I guess. That’s what I like.

Which contemporary artists inspire you?
I love Frank Ocean. His songwriting is just… you think about the lyrics. Even after you’ve finished listening to the song, you’re still thinking about the song. I really like that. I don’t know. Any music that makes me feel good. I saw Ibeyi at SXSW. They’re French twins. Their performance… I was just like, “Oh, my God.” They’re so good.

Did you see a lot of acts down there?
Mostly I had to be a loser and go to bed, because I had seven shows in that week, and I’ve not ever done seven shows in one week.

That must have been exhausting.
Go to bed early. Drink lots of water. Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t eat crappy food.

Is that hard? It sounds like the life of a professional athlete.
I think the hardest thing is people trying to convince you, “Go on, have a drink. It’s fun!” And you’re just like, “No.”

You got incredible write-ups. Do you sense the buzz building?
Yeah. My Twitter has never been as active as it is these last few weeks. At the shows, I’ve noticed people and you can tell that they’re listening. You can see their eyeballs looking at me. You can feel people getting… You can totally tell when you don’t have an audience’s attention and when you do. I was surprised by it. The fact that the audiences were supporting me.

Do you notice a difference between Australian and American audiences?
Yeah. I feel like here, you catch more people that are in their own bubble. Listening and into music, but they’ve got their eyes shut and they’re just like… they don’t care who’s around or where they are, and I’ve never seen anyone like that. It’s not like they’re not paying attention. They’re having a moment to themselves and I’ve never seen that before in Australia.

People cut loose here. I’ve seen some strange things at shows.
In Madison, Wisconsin there was a horse in the audience. Not a real horse. A guy with a horse head. I was singing the first song and it’s so hard to sing when you’re laughing. I don’t know if anyone knew, but I was like, “I’m not going to be able to get through this set.”

That’s so bizarre. Who decides to go to a Meg Mac show dressed as a horse?
It was because there was this basketball game. I didn’t start until 11pm, and I was the support act, because the game was on before me and they won, so everyone was just like getting into it.

What’s next for you in America?
Well, I’m heading back to Australia on Thursday. I guess the EP has only just come out here, so hopefully people are enjoying it. I’m coming back here in May to do some radio stuff. Some visits. There will be some live performances and promo. Then I’m trying to block out some album time.

Do you have a rough idea when it will be released?
I would ideally like to have it out by the end of the year, but I don’t know if that’s possible. Definitely going to get all of the hard work done in the next few months.

Will there be songs from the EP or are you starting with a clean slate?
I want a clean slate. I’ve got so many songs. Some songs that are older, but I’ve just been waiting. Some songs I’ve been playing at shows, but I just haven’t recorded. So, I’ve been testing them out in audiences. If people like them, I’m like, “Yes, I have to record this one.” I kind of think about it as songs and then I guess, when all the songs are there, and it feels like a body of work, it’ll become more clear what the combination is between all of the different songs.

When did you decide to take singing seriously? You studied music at university, I think.
I wanted to be a singer since I was really little. Then, when I was 17, I had just finished school, and I went to do a Uni degree. One year, and I hated it.
When I was meant to be working, I was songwriting. Not for a reason. I wasn’t like, “I’m writing songs,” I was just singing and recording stuff on my phone, and that’s when I was like, “I’m going to go to Uni and study music, and be a singer.” Then, I went to Uni and did a music degree. Before I finished, I recorded “Known Better” and then it all happened.

What does a degree in music actually entail?
It is weird. Even when I was there, I was like, “How is this a degree? It’s really fun.” Theory and all of that stuff. What I got out of it was more meeting people and being in an environment where it’s okay to sing. Everyone else is into the same thing as me, so it was cool. You have to do singing lessons, performance. It was a performance course, so you were marked… the biggest percentage of your marks comes from performance. Then, you have to play with bands. It’s not just singers. There are drummers, bass players.

That sounds really cool!
Yeah, it sounds like a movie or something.

After experiencing that freedom, and anonymity — how do feel about marketing yourself or being marketed?
It’s good that I release music under Meg Mac and not my name, because I feel like I can talk about Meg Mac and it’s not me. I think it has to happen. I think some people plan it, but I just wear the clothes that I’m into, and I like dressing up and wearing capes and things. I like wearing lipstick. I like having big eyebrows. I make the music I want to make it and I dress the way I want to dress. You have to be careful. There’s definitely a difference between me now and me on stage, and you’ve got to make the music sound like the picture. I’ve definitely be on the Internet and been like, “She looks cool,” and I’ll listen.

I do it all the time…
I guess if I was wearing something that was totally not me, you might not match it with the music. I think it kind of happens naturally. You end up having to put pictures on your Facebook at the beginning. I’ve definitely… you know when you go back in Facebook? I was looking at some of the statuses I was making and I’m just like… my first pictures and stuff were not as true to what I am now, but that’s just because I was growing.

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