The music of singer-songwriter Ingrid Mae has been described as ‘Dolly Parton meets Melissa Etheridge’ and that’s an apt description for an artist who marries the pop and country sides of rock and produces something that is distinctively hers. Mae is also fundamentally an entertainer and the songs on her latest album, Holy Smoke, sound like they were born to be played live, with their big personalities and hint of swing and swagger. It was great fun to talk to Mae and discover that the humour and inherent musicality of her album comes straight from her personality.
This is very definitely a country album, but your first album sounds like it wasn’t so much. What brought you to country music?
I wasn’t very happy, I guess, with the first album. Can I say that?
Of course! It’s your album. You can say whatever you like.
I think too, as I say, life imitates art because I’ve now found my real home with country music and we’re actually playing shows and we’re on the scene, it really impacts on the music. And even from the musicians I’m playing with and Brad Bergen, who’s doing the guitars, a lot of the themes that I’m writing about, it just feels like it’s more me. And I think what happened with the first one was I got a little bit in my head about what I sounded like. I’d gone to some vocal coaches just before that album and I hated my voice. They wanted to take the twang out. They wanted to take all the country out. You can hear it. Obviously my songwriting’s evolved, but even on some of those songs the way I’m singing, it sounds like I’m a private school girl and I don’t want to step wrong.
Did that whole process teach you to trust your own voice, literally and figuratively?
Yes. In the end I went to a friend who’s a brilliant singer, who’s now in Nashville, and she helped me with a couple of things to give me the confidence. She said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your voice. I love your voice. I love the timbre. I love the colour. And if you just want to get more out of your top end, this is how you do it. You’re already doing but you don’t know you’re doing it.’
When did you start singing?
I’ve sung since I was a kid. My father played in bands his whole life as well. He played in reception lounges and he did a lot of New Year’s Eves and all those Continental-style clubs that have since died – all the Oktoberfests. Having said that, I’ve done a lot of strange gigs. The actual stage time wasn’t foreign to me, because I’ve had so much exposure to singing and performing.
I would those strange gigs have also taught you a huge amount about how to handle audiences.
I spent a couple of years doing nonstop solo acoustic shows in Sydney – and when I say Sydney I mean anywhere from Kiama to Avalon. They’re sometimes three hours and sometimes it gets to be four-hour shows. I did shows in The Rocks – you know the type. You get a hundred drunken people from a hen’s night turning up and you’re playing all their favourite songs and they’re yelling stuff out and people are hitting the microphone and you learn very quickly to move out of the way so you don’t lose your teeth. So I’ve done those types of gigs. And there’s a hi-vis crowd and they’re yelling out, ‘Play some Barnesy!’ But it’s so refreshing now because I feel like I’m playing my own shows, and even though I’ll always play some songs that people know, they’re more the songs that I think suit us, suit the band, and they paint a picture.
I guess especially when you’re starting out there is that balance to be struck between getting experience of handling crowds like that and finding out what works and also finding out about yourself as an artist.
We played an after-races party about a month ago in Braidwood [NSW]. I drive the band and we had Benny on bass and Paul on drums. And we could still drive it up even with a cut-down band, you know what I mean? And as much as I laugh about some of those experiences – like a police raid behind me because someone was doing cocaine in the disabled toilet and they’re saying, ‘Keep playing, darl’ – it all prepares you well for those rowdier nights that you get. Because everything’s different. Some people really enjoy listening and hearing the stories and all of that stuff. And some people had had copious amounts of alcohol and they want to have a party, so you’ve literally got to strike a chord between both. [laughs]
You’ve played a lot of festivals as well. What’s your experience of festivals been? Do you like being outdoors?
I love it. The first one I played was the biggest stage I’d ever played in my life and I said to Paul, ‘This could be the biggest stage I ever play.’ That was at the Sydney Country Music Festival at Bella Vista. But I loved it. I was so nervous but once I started singing it went away. We were playing early on, so there weren’t that many people, but it was an amazing experience. Since then I’ve done a lot of smaller festivals and met more artists.
Producing an album is such an incredible amount of work with everything that’s involved – the number of things just have to keep track of these days. I find extraordinary when I think about it because it’s not just write the songs, play the songs, put them together. Particularly when you’re independent there are so many other factors, including social media, which take a lot of time and attention.
I wasn’t born into social media worlds, so for me it’s quite foreign. Maybe it’s my age but I find it hard to ask people or shop my message towards people. I love social media but it doesn’t come naturally to me because I always think, Oh, have I got tickets on myself if I say this? I don’t know.
I think in Australian culture it’s not that acceptable either. That’s how we’re brought up. You don’t want to be say you have tickets on yourself – heaven forbid!
Good point. I’m learning to be more open because I’m such a private type of person. Paul and I have put some stuff on YouTube and he’s done some interviews with me – just fun stuff and what am I like as a person. And it’s quite obvious in some of those that I’m not saying, ‘Look at me.’ But I’m getting a little bit better. I’m more quirky and I’m a bit of a dag as well – and, look, dags are in fashion. Can I say dags are in fashion?
Of course. I think dagginess is perfectly acceptable. Particularly because dagginess is probably adjacent to a bit of music nerdiness. I don’t know that you get to the point of creating this kind of work without being a bit nerdy and daggy about your craft and about your background. You’ve been playing music since you were a child – that suggests that you’re really passionate about it and really knowledgeable about it.
I hope so [laughs]. I did a post the other day about Warrant’s ‘Cherry Pie’ so that probably took some points off me.
No way! Because it is all about storytelling and communicating, and country music in particular is about being authentic and the audience knows when you’re not. So if you’re daggy it’s perfectly appropriate for you to be daggy self because the audience wants that and there is that range of personalities within country music. I hope our country music industry never reaches the point where it’s all slick and overproduced and everyone’s seeing the same kind of songs, because we’d lose something really valuable.
It’s funny you say the overproduced and the authentic – we wanted this album to sound so real because we tracked it and everything together so the whole back line was essentially tracked together so we could get the vibe and we didn’t want it to sound sterile. Both Paul, who produced the album, and Brad Bergen, who played guitars, were saying, ‘Your vocal has to be front and centre, Ingrid.’ Then I’d sing something and say, ‘Does it sound whingey? Is it whingey? Is it whingey? Is it whingey?’ because that’s what I do. I put down a track and I’ll then say, ‘Was it all right? Was it okay? What do you think?’ and they’ll say, ‘Don’t change it. It’s perfect.’ You get really exposed. Sometimes I say, ‘I don’t want to hear it back. It’s fine. Let’s do the harmonies now.’ Because I don’t want to get in my head at all. Once you start getting in your head, it’s gone. You may as well just give up.
But I guess it is hard to avoid hearing it back because you, because you do have to think about what the harmonies are and all those sorts of things. So in the process of creating that song, you are there with yourself.
I had such a firm idea of what I wanted those songs to be like. A lot of the demos and stuff that I did myself have already got a lot of the parts on. They’re in my head already. So I’ve got all these tracks on my phone – I’ve probably got a thousand audio files of me humming stuff into the phone in my car. And then I’ll remember something and I’ll record it in just so I don’t forget it. And then in a week or so I’ll go through all the ones I did and say, ‘That was a bridge for that song,’ because I thought it needed a bridge, and I’ll just put them all together.
So in terms of writing songs and choosing tracks for the album, given that you are keeping that material, how do you start to decide what gets used?
With Holy Smoke I knew from the get-go what ones I wanted on there because I had this whole idea – even with the artwork of it and the vibe of it, I wanted it to be really in-your-face. And I wanted it to be a little bit western – or what my perception of what western is. So I’d written a list and we found that the see other day and it’s pretty much exactly the list of what we ended up recording. The danger with the first album was that the target kept moving and I think the target didn’t move with this, so it was more cohesive. I wrote these songs over a similar span of time and we took a Christmas and it was the bloody hottest Christmas ever to record it in an un-air-conditioned fibro house. We nearly died.
Whereabouts was the house?
Kemps Creek [in New South Wales]. It was so hot and we ended up pretty much getting 70 per cent of [the album done] anyway. The vocals were just there for tracking purposes and we ended up doing them later. But we pretty much got the guts of the songs down and then we added the colour on top. We’d also tested a number of these songs at gigs as well, so it wasn’t the first time the band had played them. It wasn’t like getting a bunch of strangers together and saying, ‘This is my song – how are we going to play it?’
The album sounds like it was made in a studio, not a house.
There were sixty acres around it. But at 11 o’clock at night sometimes you could hear big trucks. We tracked the lead guitars at our lead guitarist’s residence in Katoomba [NSW]. My partner, Paul, who’s also the drummer, is into gear and equipment so he’s got all the tools of the trade. So any excuse for him to get some more fun toys.
In terms of you playing live, do you tend to book gigs in little towns and just get in the car and go?
We’ve been really lucky with [label] Country Rocks because they really supported me and throw me into a number of their venues. They’ve got a number of venues, especially around Canberra. We’ve done a lot of private parties as well because a lot of people who hear us at gigs come up to us and say, ‘Oh, can you play this fiftieth? Can we play this fortieth?’ We’re playing an eighteenth birthday party out of a gig that we did in Braidwood. I seriously didn’t know that I was the answer to an eighteen-year-old’s birthday party [laughs].
If you’re a great entertainer I don’t think the age of your audience matters.
I should stop second-guessing myself. And a lot of rural communities are probably more open to different music. They’re not necessarily wanting Billie Eilish – they’re more open to The Eagles. I do a lot of fun songs as well when I do covers – I do some John Farnham, Not in his style, obviously – in my style!
Holy Smoke is out now through Country Rocks/Red Rebel Music.