When Æ Mak’s Aoife McCann took the stage at Kex Hostel at Iceland Airwaves 2019, her presence put the room at a standstill. Standng on the stage, she’d suddenly twist and contort her body to the pulse of the music. Her movements were jagged and visceral, a commanding flow to match the hypnotic electronic beats and her enchanting vocals.
The mix of electronic production and live instrumentation gives a powerful physicality to Æ Mak’s music. McCann describes it as trying to capture the energy she feels dancing at a night club. But interwoven with these ideas are off-kilter beats, thrilling artistic left turns, and a live show that feels both like dance party and performance art. For McCann, the band’s shows are a chance for her to express a different part of herself – or perhaps a different version of herself.
After their set, KEXP caught up with McCann to learn more about her artistic journey, the world’s she’s trying to create with her music, and becoming more vulnerable in her art. Read the interview and watch Æ Mak’s set at Iceland Airwaves below.
KEXP: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started in music and how the band came together?
Aoife McCann: I've always been a performer in musical theater and plays and I didn't know that I could write songs or I wanted to write songs. So I applied for all the muscal theater courses in the UK. I didn't get into them. I was devastated. So then I went to a contemporary course in Dublin. I did a vocal degree then and there's so many amazing songwriters and creators around me and I started to rise to perform how I wanted to perform. I just kinda realized I can actually make my own world. I don't have to be in Wicked or Les Miserables [laughs], I can build my own world. And so, yeah, I started writing and it was originally with a seven-piece band and it was very tribal and primitive and arranged by all of us. And now I work with my friend, Daniel McIntyre. So I write at home in my parents house. I just moved out [laughs]. And I take my songs up to Dan and together we create this world that I envision for myself as a performer onstage.
Is your music conceptual, in a way? Are these stories you're telling or is it more of just a feeling that you're trying to capture?
It's just a feeling I'm trying to capture. And it's the energy that I want the performance to have and the audience to connect with and me to connect with to this different version of myself that I am onstage. And so it starts with a melody and I'm kind of just dancing around the house. And then I put the lyrics in on the shape of the vocal meter, the consonants and the vowels. I'll kind of make the lyrics like that. But obviously when you're sad and angry, you write lyrics, but usually the melody comes first and then the chords and then the world of Æ Mak [laughs].
I love how you incorporate dance into your performances. Do you do your own choreography and what are you trying to convey with your movements onstage?
That kind of just randomly happened. I was never a dancer. It just felt natural, just like an extended version of expression on stage, I guess It furthermore creates that surreal world that I want to give the audience. I didn't even really plan out the moves. They kind of just happened. And now that's them.
The projects and styles you've tried have changed over time into what it is now. What drew you to this sort of like electronic and pop sounds that you're doing today?
Just the feeling you get when you're at an electronic dance show. I love Little Dragon. I'm obsessed with The Knife. You just feel primitive in your core and grounded with everyone around you. I just love to dance in clubs, cool clubs [laughs]. I just wanted to give that and I wanted to make that a part of my set.
You've described your songs as a "self-indulgent process for being honest." Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
Maybe being honest to myself. The way you put yourself to everyone around you. This version of yourself that you think you should be. I just find it therapeutic, being honest in lyrics. Even when you're stream of consciousness or writing the lyrics into the melody after and then realize some things that you didn't know about yourself, maybe you denied to yourself, perhaps. So I guess that's that both from that line that you read on the Internet [laughs].
Is that easy for you to be so vulnerable and honest in your music? Or is that something you've had to kind of build up over time?
Definitely I think just maturing as an adult and knowing yourself after your mid-20s. I think it's easier to be honest now. The lyrics are definitely more personal now. It's all about love. I never wanted to write about love or heartbreak. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to create these weird little lyrical snippets just in the base of the sound and the world that the lyrics create. But now it's kind of all about heartbreak with the banger at the back so I can kind of busted out and then get over that heartbreak.
Is there a big dance on electronic scene in Dublin right now? And what's the music community like?
There's lots of everything. It's really close-knit and it's a really small community. Everyone knows everyone. Lots of indie rock happening at the moment, like Just Mustard and Murder Capital. But there is an electronic music scene as well. There's a guy called Wastefellow. He's brilliant. We're big fans of him. Since it's so small, there's lots of everything. There's not like a massive electronic scene.
You've put out quite a few singles at this point. Are you working on a new album and what can we expect from that?
Yeah. So the live set now is quite dark and throbbing. But I haven't released the in-between, so I've kind of moved on. I should have released it, basically. So now the album is even further on different to that. I love Vampire Weekend and The Knife, as I said. So they're both kind of heavy influences for the sounds of these songs. Yes, it's going to be good, I think [laughs]. I hope it's going to be good. It'll be out sometime next year. I'm recording it at the moment with Daniel – his producer name is lullahush and I met him in college. He plays in the live band. So we're recording at the moment and it'll be released next year. It'll be nice to have a full body instead of loads of scattered singles. Just a coherent, streamlined, 'this is my body of work from the past couple of years.'
Some of the acts you've mentioned as influences for your live show and your music, they also have very visual aspects to them and aesthetics. I feel that in your set, too. Do you have like visual inspirations that you look to when you're thinking of your live set and maybe even your music?
No inspirations or influences. I just think it just comes from the same place for me. I'm quite a visual person. I think quite abstract, truly. So the videos or the movement kind of all just comes as one for me. Each of them relate to each other and I know what I want it to be, just from this buzz in my chest, I don't really know how to explain it, but there's no like preconceived 'oh this is how this should be or this is how that should be.' It just comes out as what it is.
Watch the Icelandic composer's performance at Kex Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland for Iceland Airwaves 2019.
Watch the Icelandic band's performance for Iceland Airwaves 2019 at Kex Hostel.
Watch the Icelandic band's performance from Kex Hostel Iceland Airwaves 2019 and read an exclusive interview .