No longer a stranger

Annah Mac, whose single <i>Celia</i> has been nominated for the 2011 Silver Scroll Award.
Annah Mac, whose single <i>Celia</i> has been nominated for the 2011 Silver Scroll Award.
From a Southland sheep farm to the big smoke, Annah Mac might have travelled a fair few miles but, with her debut album looming, the journey might just have begun, writes Shane Gilchrist.

A swag of music awards; a move from the South Island to Auckland to further her career; a record deal with major label Sony; songs with a sweet centre... no, this story is not about Bic Runga. All of the above applies to Annah Mac.

On discovering the similarities she shares with Runga in regards early career arcs, the Southland songwriter who spent her high school years as a boarder at St Hilda's Collegiate, Dunedin, responds with the same enthusiasm that spills out of the dozen poppy songs on her forthcoming debut album Little Stranger.

"That's cool. I didn't know that. I sort of missed Bic Runga. I was into Brooke Fraser," the 20-year-old artist (full name Annah Macdonald) says via telephone from Auckland.

To mark her album's release on Monday, Mac is playing a one-off Auckland show later that week. Though she hopes to take her songs on tour around New Zealand at some point, exactly when has yet to established.

In fact, that's not unlike her career. It's early days, Mac acknowledges.

"I want to make my mark here. I've had a lot of radio play and exposure but there is a long way to go yet."

Let's take a look at her recent track record:

The only unsigned artist to feature on the first edition (2009) of the Great New Zealand Songbook, which included her song Home, Mac released her first single Focus in late 2009, the song spending 27 weeks in the radio charts top 100 and reaching No 3 on the New Zealand Top 40 chart.

In early 2010, having moved to Auckland from her parents' farm in Tokanui, Southland, at the start of 2009, she signed a royalty-based contract with Sony Music, then subsequently completed her debut album, aided by American producer Brady Blade, whose New Zealand connections include Opshop and Brooke Fraser.

Soon after finishing recording, Mac got a chance to test the songs on her debut album, her live band (which features three members of now-defunct outfit The Electric Confectionaires) supporting American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson at her April 2010 Auckland concert, which attracted an audience of 10,000.

To cap off a successful - and busy - past couple of years, Mac's latest single, Celia, has been nominated for the 2011 Silver Scroll Award.

Still, Mac should be used to prizes: during her second year at St Hilda's, at the age of 15, she won the Play It Strange secondary schools songwriting competition for Blue Butterfly; the following year she walked away with the Smokefree Rockquest female musician award; those trophies sit alongside three Gold Guitar Awards, the first of which she'd won before turning 9.

Raised on a sheep farm at Tokanui, about 60km southeast of Invercargill, Mac took to the stage at the age of 8, joining her two younger sisters and others in gigs at a local hall. It was a childhood filled with family jams on various road-trips, including annual sojourns to the Tamworth Country Music Festival in New South Wales.

"It's just such a great platform," she says of the Gold Guitar Awards, held in Gore annually. "I don't know any other place where a kid can stand on a stage in front of thousands of people. By the time I got to high school, I was writing original songs."

But that's the past. At 20, with a debut album a couple of days away from hitting shop shelves (and/or the cyber equivalent of a shelf), Mac is more than a little restless.

"It's a very exciting time in my life. The album was two and a-half years in the making," she says of Little Stranger, which involved no fewer than five studios, although the majority of the album was completed in Auckland at Roundhead Studios (owned by Neil Finn).

"There were lots of producers and engineers. In that time I've been able to hone my skills and learn a lot off them. But, you know what? Just because you record overseas doesn't make it a better album. I really love the tracks we recorded in Nashville and elsewhere, but the tracks recorded here are just as good.

"It's definitely a culmination of the experiences in my life that far. Obviously, I put them in a way I can share them. A lot of them are about people and/or places," Mac says of Little Stranger, for which she had about 60 songs assembled.

Asked if she is a particularly prolific songwriter, Mac offers an honest answer: "only if I keep busy," she laughs, adding she's a "master procrastinator".

"I'll usually come up with something when I'm on public transport, a train or bus, or when I'm in a meeting. It's frustrating, but that's the way it works. The busier I am, the more I tend to write songs."

The songs on Little Stranger are largely upbeat, which is perhaps unsurprising given Mac penned much of the material as a teen contemplating a bright career.

Celia, for example, is sunshine in a bottle, an obvious single with its joyous playground chants set to a busy rhythm and driving bassline; in contrast, Pohutukawa Trees takes on a dark-yet-sweet R&B vibe, while Silver Friend and Baby Don't Change are dreamy, highly textured mid-tempo pop ballads.

"Celia was the last track we did following two and a-half years of recording. It's probably a culmination of all the work I've put in and is a good indication of where I'm at," Mac explains.

"The girl in question is a friend of mine. I wrote the words a long time ago. At the time, a lot of my friends at high school were struggling to balance their old friendships with new ones, including boyfriends and heading off to university."

Mac is familiar with that juggling of priorities.

"At the end of my sixth form, I had two options: I could have gone to music school at Berkeley in the United States or I could go to Auckland and wait around to see if I could get a contract. I decided to go for Auckland."

Though she had been in contact with Sony, who had requested demo recordings following her Rockquest and Play It Strange successes, Mac's decision to head north was not without its risks.

"There had been talks but I just went to Auckland on a whim. I thought that if could show them I was passionate enough about it to move ...

"My dad drove me up. It was a really special trip because he basically 'saw me off'. When I first moved up I was living in Ponsonby; now I'm living way out west. I started off working wee jobs, in bars and stuff, which wasn't great. But I was able to support myself financially.

"I think if I did it now it might be a little bit more daunting."

• Hear it
Annah Mac's debut album, Little Stranger, (Sony) is released on Monday.



Add a Comment