Angie McMahon’s new EP release, Piano Salt, initially seems loaded with contradictions. It’s a record comprised of older material from the songwriter’s 2019 debut LP, Salt. However, the music has been re-performed and re-imagined with just McMahon’s first musical love: the piano. This in turn, actually allows for more, not less, of the Melbourne singer’s voice to shine, making the EP feel like an even bigger, more impressive musical experience than its originating predecessor, despite being a shorter overall record. Still, one could say Piano Salt is a release of McMahon’s artistry, presented in a beautifully concentrated form, not unlike the process of extracting concentrated salt from the waters of the world’s seas and being left with the purest of crystals.
Indeed, it’s difficult not to consider the sonic style of Piano Salt through the metaphoric lens of its title term, as McMahon’s vocals are inherently bold, wide in tone, and well supported in their sung delivery. McMahon’s is a voice that doesn’t project uncertainty in performance or caution in dynamics, while also maintaining an element of poise and delicacy rather than aggression. McMahon’s timbre isn’t unlike the boldness inherent to salt, which also requires a keen awareness and delicacy of use, so as not to overpower the food to which it is applied.
Aligning such an emotionally sensitive record with the characteristics of a fundamental food seasoning might sound silly but, given McMahon’s appreciation of comfort food and the inspiration behind EP finale, “Pasta,” she says the connections are understandable.
“To me it’s exciting that the word (salt) itself, can be interpreted so many different ways,” McMahon says.
“It just felt like the right word (for my album and this EP) and honestly, it was as simple as that,” she continues. “Like, I love that it’s a seasoning that you need to balance. And (salt) is also, in these like contemporary moods, referred to as like ‘saltiness,’ you know, when you’re kind of like being sassy about something, or you’re grumpy about something, and there’s there’s elements of that in the record. (Additionally,) it’s also the idea of something that comes from the earth, that is really natural and integral to…like growth, in death, and it’s such a huge element. And so I just love all of the ways that you can think about salt.”
Of course, the strength of Piano Salt isn’t just a matter of cleverly inserted wordplay and metaphors around the songs or McMahon’s singing. The stories illuminated in many of the tracks are enlightening unto themselves, as McMahon’s recollections and descriptions of her feelings within them unfurl more like stream-of-consciousness diary entries than necessarily striving to give a conventionally familiar summarization of an experience in a perfectly sized verse. “Soon” is a terrific example of this compositional openness.
I feel like I’m living when I smell of cigarette smoke
Rich and bitter, and yesterday I couldn’t stop remembering him
Oh, what a waste of breath and time
– Lyrics from “Soon”
“I think the piano does give an emphasis (and) gives (the music) more space to maybe engaged with a sentence that is really dragging on,” McMahon explains. I guess (thinking about) it makes me want to refer to Leif (Vollebekk), who is featured on the EP,” she adds. “(H)e’s a big inspiration to me; he’s a Canadian artist who I love and who was big inspiration in terms of the playing style on this record. But also, I love his piano playing (and) I find that in his songwriting, I adore listening to his songs (and) I find that he is really good at that stream of consciousness and I guess listening to another artist do it with the piano made me see the value in (stream of consciousness) and made me maybe want to experiment with that. It’s a skill that I’m trying to develop still as I keep on writing: how to follow those stream of consciousness (thoughts) in a way that that continues to be connected and I think (the EP) was a really nice experiment (for that),” McMahon says.
Beyond the complementary dynamic between the solo piano and McMahon’s songwriting style, there’s another bit of poetic coincidence to the free flowing nature of Piano Salt. Revisiting and freshly reflecting upon previous thoughts, experiences, and emotions, seems entirely fitting as a creative direction, given the incredibly unpredictable, isolating, and ever-changing but also ever-stagnant progression of this year.
“I am someone who needs a lot and asks for a lot of space, and these songs (on Piano Salt) are so highly personal, that it makes sense to me that the lyrics and, you know, the melodies themselves, asked for space as well. They are literally just a reflection of my incredibly introverted personality,” McMahon says.
All of these thoughts, in addition to many more very particular to McMahon, definitively shaped her experience making the EP, which she describes as sonically more internalized.
“This EP is really introverted and (is) maybe just more internal versions of the (original album’s) songs, which initially were rock songs. But now (they) have this more introverted life, which is…is me you know? Like, I have this rock life and then I also have this really introverted life,” McMahon explains, before going on to highlight how the exact surroundings of her home have affected her perspective as well, due to the necessities of pandemic quarantine. Ultimately, while being incredibly difficult for so many, McMahon learned to find the good in her solitary opportunity and even felt joy when thinking about the EP within these conditions too.
“It felt like quite a such an intense time (earlier in the year). But I do feel like that gave me intensity to pour into the recordings because I wanted something to work on, you know? I wanted to––I just wanted to be creating,” McMahon says. “Like, this bedroom that you’re seeing me in, is like where I’m spending 90% of my time this year, and it’s like perfect for me, you know? I just want my own space, and I want to be able to be my stream of consciousness, and like, yeah, it’s nice to have a little record that is a reflection of that as well.”
The mix of a comprehendible sameness in the instrument-centric arrangement of Piano Salt and the conversely intangible characteristics of emotional turmoil – both the kind enhanced by the pandemic and the established stories of distress and challenging changes on the EP – feel like a full circle embodiment of how McMahon arrived at this decision for re-imaginings in the first place.
“I think I feel humbled by (the piano now),” McMahon shares. “I think I was in this place of being worried that it was cheesy or that my playing was cheesy but I was (also) hesitant around the instrument.”
“And now I’m like, ‘How dare I say that the piano was cheesy,’ like, ‘How dare I?’ The piano is so much bigger than me like there are generations and generations of incredible artists that have come through this instrument, which I loved so much, that there’s a reason I fell in love with it in the beginning,” she affirms.
In turning to a creative tool she knows but hadn’t paid much attention to in some time, McMahon is giving listeners something they can recognize, with added personal perspective that is completely new. It’s more than the typical re-recording or re-performing of music from far back in one’s catalog. Piano Salt allows listeners to hear McMahon’s inherent development of musical skill against a familiar backdrop, as well as take in the songwriter’s renewed sense of appreciation for the piano and its ability to reveal her matured emotions and lived retrospection.
“I’m just a mere little white girl playing the piano,” McMahon says. “And I am so lucky to have (a piano) in my life (and) to have the skills to be able to sit at it (and play it). And I want to keep on learning more about it, like, my relationship to it is only deepening. It is like falling back in love. I want to practice jazz, and I want to to practice all the bigger ideas and harmonies that I yeah that I just haven’t given the time to for whatever reason because I’ve been with the guitar because I’ve been on the road. I come back to it now, and I feel really humbled by it and excited at the opportunity to learn more, alongside it. I think that’s the way I feel.”