Interview | Edelle McMahon’s Adventures With Narcissism
Words Cara Gibney, Image Nurse Ratched, Artwork Andy Train
Sometimes things just start to make sense. I was eating vegan cake and drinking oaty coffee with singer-songwriter Edelle McMahon. Last time I had seen her was last November. She was on stage in the Accidental Theatre at the launch of her debut album, Adventures in Narcissism, with a full 4-piece band, support from Ursula Burns, and a full house.
Two months later we were huddled round coffees on a bright January afternoon. She was talking about her various jobs. She’s a singer and guitarist who provides music for events like weddings and funerals. And somewhere between the song-writing, the singer for hire, and her previous occupation as a data analyst, there is her job as a role player.
The role playing is part of an advanced communications course that the NHS offers medical professionals who are working in e.g. cancer wards. “Medical professionals who deal with real big stuff,” she explained. “Breaking bad news, dealing with questions like ‘Am I going to die?’ It’s an amazing course to help these people improve their skills, or learn new skills, in dealing with those awful conversations.” McMahon acts as a role player to help them practice. She asks the questions and responds to their answers.
“While it is really rewarding,” she pointed out, “it can be very emotionally draining.” As a role player she would need to put herself in the shoes of someone dealing with that news. She would have to act out how they would feel. That’s a lot of emotion to process. Indeed, even her role as vocalist at weddings and funerals would be placing her in the middle of other people’s stress, other people’s grief (and happiness too of course.) I thought about Adventures in Narcissism, and I started to wonder if any of this comes out in her song writing.
“Everything goes into my song writing,” she shook her head slightly as she responded, like it couldn’t be any other way. “I don’t know about anybody else, but I find song writing great therapy. I get things that are bothering me out, and that’s probably why a lot of my song writing is quite dark. There are very dark themes. One of my friends came up with the term ‘Misery Porn’ for my music, and maybe it is. Maybe that’s my way of getting it out – whereas the positive stuff I cling onto – I don’t want to get it out there. My mum would love me to be able to write happy upbeat poppy music, but I think there is a real skill in that …”
She’s been working at weddings and funerals since she was “no age. I suppose I’ve been doing it professionally for about 20 years.” Born and bred in the village of Emyvale, Monaghan, she and her sister Paula (who is also the church organist), have been performing together at church services for a long time. “We were in the church choir since we were tots, so I have the repertoire of all the traditional hymns … I haven’t lived in Emyvale for over 20 years, but I still feel part of the community when I go home. There’s always a spot for me in the choir and they always make me feel welcome. They always make me feel like I’m part of it.”
It wasn’t just Emyvale’s church choir though that helped her on the road to becoming a musician. There was a certain Gerard McQuaid, the man who who taught her Sean-nós singing, and Bodhrán, even how to tell stories. “Gerard always believed in me,” she recalled, then started to laugh. “He always gave it to you with no salt on it, if you were shit, you knew it.” It’s a connection she’ll not forget, and she’s not the only one. “I could never repay him, and I’m not unique – he’s done so much for so many.”
But time moves on, and as she mentioned, she hasn’t lived in Emyvale for 20 years now. Indeed, the last few years have seen her more often working on her own in Belfast. Recently she quit her IT job so that she can spend more time concentrating on her own music. Interestingly my first introduction to Edelle McMahon was in those last few years. 2014 to be precise. It was an Eastside Sessions DVD of ‘local artists’ including Kaz Hawkins, Gareth Dunlop, and our own Ms McMahon. I remember I was stopped by her clear water voice against the pared back guitar, as she sang the song “Demeanour.” It was almost sultry in its heartbreak. A co-write by McMahon and Jim Johnston, the song made it to Adventures in Narcissism so many years later. This time though, despite that voice and the clever, simple guitar, the heartbreak is a shell, bombed out, with heavy drops of loss punctuating it.
“I came to song writing relatively late,” she told me. “I always used to think that I was just a singer, that I was a conduit for other people’s songs, that I wasn’t a songwriter, that I had nothing to say.” Luckily, she received the encouragement she needed to start creating her own songs. “I started co-writing separately with my friends. Jim Johnston is a published poet and lyricist and he writes with many different people. We have been really good friends for a long time.” Her other pen-mate is Paul Wilkinson with whom she was in the band Jackson Cage. “When the band broke up, me and Paul would get together and jam. Then we started writing some stuff together and I realised that maybe I could be a songwriter. It was an enormous surprise to me.”
Some of these long past collaborations can be found on Adventures in Narcissism. The track “Calendar Days” for instance was one of McMahon’s first co-writes with Johnston, and Wilkinson helped to arrange it. “The album from the beginning of writing probably was five or six years,” she recalled. “I was starting to write the songs then I went into a studio for the first time in February 2014.” Her initial idea was to record an EP, but McMahon found herself so comfortable and even encouraged in Millbank Studio with Michael Mormecha in regard to the creation and ownership of her songs, that this initial plan started to change over time and became the album she released in November ‘17. “I funded it myself, so I would save up a wee bit – going to the studio for a few days – and then save up another wee bit.” Slowly, and meticulously, she pieced Adventures in Narcissism together.
“It’s certainly not a concept album,” she explained. “There are a lot of different styles on it.” All but one of the tracks apart from one very specific song, and in many ways that makes sense. “A Haunting” is the only one that I wrote all by myself. It’s probably of all the songs on the album, the most personal. It’s about depression. I’ve suffered depression on and off since my 20s. But I didn’t realise, I just thought feeling like a dick was my default setting and it was normal. Not long after I started writing songs in my mid 30s I finally saw an amazing counsellor and she really helped me equip myself to change my life.”
“I wrote it when I was in a really really dark place. I won’t say that it’s how everybody feels when they are depressed, but I suppose it’s a series of images – it’s how it feels for me. That feeling of being “haunted by the litany of shame,” is one of the lines that those who suffer with low self-esteem, or depression, will probably recognise. And I think that probably most people will recognise that “litany of shame.” When you’re feeling low, [it’s] that list of all those things that you’ve done in your life that you use to beat yourself up about. All those things that you’re ashamed of that you kick yourself with when you’re down, you get into that spiral.”
During a pause in the conversation I check that it is OK for me to mention her depression in the article, and I am given an emphatic “Yes! People need to talk about this. People need to be open about the fact that there is a mental health crisis in this country … a lot of people are genuinely suffering from this general malaise, depression, anxiety, because of how cold and hostile the world can seem. Yet at the same time we are constantly being bombarded. There is a PR war being waged against us so that we will buy stuff. All it comes down to is that we will buy things, then buy insurance to protect our things. So we are also being bombarded with this idea that it’s not OK to be sad … or not to be young, or not to be thin, or whatever. Hate your body! Buy things to fill that hole! And none of it fills that hole. There is no spiritual pay off with stuff.”
The song that follows “A Haunting” on the album however offers a very different mood. “The next song, “Ships Will Sail” is not necessarily breaking out of that, but it’s the closest thing to a happy song that I have. It’s about being true to yourself and taking risks. I have written a lot on that theme, on being true to yourself and following your dreams, for years. Yeah, it’s about cutting off all your hair, taking the leap, going off and having the adventures.”
The evocative figure on the front of the album was designed by artist Andrew Train (also well known on the circuit as singer Giraffe Stairs). In the end it was actually one of a series of three images that Train designed as he ruminated on the album after McMahon gave him a copy to listen to. For McMahon, she could not have asked for more. “I think it really does reflect the album,” she told me of an image reflecting five or more years’ of Edelle McMahon’s musical life.
2018 has a lot to offer. With a new album “more or less written and ready to record,” and a notion to perform in each county in Ireland over the course of the year, Edelle McMahon is mapping out her own musical journey. See for yourself – some of those shows are booked already:
7 Feb: Gigging NI’s Songwright session at The Sunflower with support from Mandy Bingham
24 Feb: Fealty’s Back Bar Sessions with Stephen Macartney (Free entry)
15 April: Ards Guitar Festival – supporting Saffyre at the Ivy Bar in Newtownards (see festival program for details)
Check out a typical night with Edelle McMahon at Belfast’s Sunflower Folk Club …