AE Mak Talks Self-Production, Her Debut Album, and Letting Loose

Photo by Collective Dublin

By Clare Martin

Aoife McCann, better known as AE Mak, has always stood out as one of the more idiosyncratic acts on the Irish music scene. She’s always defied the labels of genre, though art-pop falls closest to her stirring, avant-garde songs. Her voice swings dramatically between euphoria and heady moodiness, no doubt informed by her time as a theatre kid before attending BIMM Dublin.

“I was always a performer and I always sang and now I write,” she says of her songwriting. “I don’t know, it’s just who I am, I think. There was no big backdrop to why it happened. It’s just what I do.”

McCann’s latest EP, Class Exercises, is a decided departure from her previous releases, throbbing with party-ready beats. She imagined the EP as the types of tracks you might show your friends at a house party, leaving pandemic-weary listeners with the “hope of craic.”

“The future is parties. It’s gonna be like the Roaring ‘20s now in the next year. I think everyone’s going to be letting loose,” she explains. “It’s a dreamer EP, I think that’s the main theme in everything that I write and make… As anyone who makes music, you just want people to feel good and to feel inspired and feel hopeful, don’t you? Just general hope.”

Class Exercises also represents a new sonic chapter thanks to the fact that it was McCann’s first time producing her own music. For years, lullahush, aka Daniel McIntyre, has taken care of the production side of AE Mak’s output. When the pandemic hit, though, that all changed. McCann took an Ableton course last summer and started self-producing “out of necessity at the beginning,” she recalls. “And then it became this whole different thing where I felt, Fuck, I can do this on my own. I don’t need anyone to make my records for me.

Photo by Collective Dublin

“Jamie” was specifically made for the Ableton course (putting the EP’s title Class Exercises in context), with artists like Jamie XX, Purity Ring, and M.I.A. used as specific references for the sound. This was a whole new experience for McCann, because “usually other music doesn’t influence my music. I just make stuff off-the-bat in a moment of energy.”

She gets a sense of empowerment out of production now, too, citing the dearth of female producers in the Irish music scene. 

This desire to strike out on her own is nothing new for McCann. When the AE Mak project began, they were a seven-piece band made up of people she met through her vocal degree at BIMM Dublin.

“I think when you’re that young, and you’re just starting out, you don’t really know what your focus is or what you want. I just had lots of brilliant people around me in BIMM, so I was like, Let’s start a band! And it was great,” she remembers. 

She looks back on the time fondly, but appreciates the freedom of being a solo artist. “There are so many problems when you have a band, especially when you’re the one writing the songs, because it becomes everyone’s project,” McCann says. “And you’re kind of like, Well, I feel like this is mine. I don’t want to compromise. As you get older, you just learn to own it. And you’re like, I want to do it on my own now.

This desire to manage her own image and music isn’t just about being a self-professed “control freak,” but also her keen understanding of how the creative industry treats artists and their work as commodities.

“It’s important that you have your hand in everything you do, because it’s you that’s being sold,” she remarks. “So why would you let people sell you to the world with their ideas or with their input? I know loads of artists do, but I personally wouldn’t.”

This last year, though, McCann relinquished some of that control so that she could focus on the music production side of the EP. Her music has always had strong visual elements, from her unusual, evocative dancing to the elaborate music videos. I reminded her of the “Dancing Bug” video with Le Boom, filmed in Stoneybatter and rife with colorful outfits, which she jokingly describes as “West Side Story meets Coronation Street or something.”

For the Class Exercises EP videos, McCann worked with visual artists like Mark Logan and Collective Dublin for “New Friend” and Julie Weber for “Jamie.” “New Friend” takes McCann and her co-stars—including a clown—on a fever dream journey through city centre. The filming was just as wild as the video itself, with McCann and the others piled into a red Mitsubishi.

“We were firing around the motorways, with the Jeep in front of us and a camera out the window. Me, clown, and Jeanne behind me,” she recalls.

As they barrelled through Dublin’s Port Tunnel, security people took notice and rang the guards.

“We were hanging out the door like standing up and our arms back and then they rang the guards. They rang the police!” she laughs. “So there were like four police vans coming after us down the motorway and they pulled us over. Eventually they were like, There’s been a complaint for reckless driving. But we weren’t reckless driving, we just looked fucked and mad out of our heads.”

Thankfully, no one was arrested. “I think the police actually got a good laugh out of it,” McCann observes. “You could see it. They were like, What the fuck is this?

The video for “Jamie” may not have incurred any run-ins with the law, but is just as strange in its own way. Weber and McCann are both fans of Suspiria, Aldous Harding, and David Lynch, which informed the surreal black-and-white video. Weber’s fascination with Balinese dancing also inspired the captivating, finger-focused choreography. 

“Jamie” was shot at the An Táin Arts Centre in Dundalk, Co. Louth—a town that’s boasted an impressive number of enthralling musical acts in recent years, AE Mak included. Just Mustard, who played SXSW this year, and the rap group TPM number among other exciting Dundalk exports. When I ask why she thinks Dundalk has become such a creative hub in recent years, McCann’s not quite sure.

“I think it’s ‘cause we’re a border town. We’re not really loved by the South and we’re like, hated by the North,” she says with a laugh before continuing, “Dundalk gets a bad rep in terms of how safe it is socially, but musically, everyone’s like, What’s happening in Dundalk? It’s fucking amazing. I don’t know. We all grew up in The Spirit Store.”

McCann may be based in Dundalk at the moment, but she’s relocating to Berlin for the summer to make music there for a bit. She’s working on her long-awaited debut album.

“It’s really good. It doesn’t sound like Class Exercises at all. It’s more back in the indie pop world,” she notes. While she’s certainly producing the album herself, she’s hoping to work with a co-producer in L.A. to finesse the record’s sound. 

Besides her album, McCann is excited to return to in-person performances. She describes her ideal first gig back as being at the Grand Social in Dublin.

“It’s only 300 people, but I always played my best shows in the Grand Social and there’s something about the number 300,” she explains. “I just think it’s the best group of people to perform to. It’s just real close and intimate and sweaty and just good craic.”

Before we end the Zoom call, I ask McCann if she has any advice for fledgling musicians. She answers with self-deprecation and sincerity.

“Just take your time. There’s no rush, like,” she says. Then, laughing at herself, she adds, “Believe in yourself. Take your time, don’t rush and find—Oh my god, I’m gonna sound like such a loser—find your voice. Find what you want to make and what you naturally make and what you’re good at. It took me six years to get here and I’m finally happy with what I’m making. So yeah, just take your time. That’s my advice. Take your time and enjoy it.”

March Music Roundup: Our Favourite Tunes This Month

March may have felt like another shitty notch in the COVID belt, but the one silver lining has been all of the brilliant music by Irish artists. From the RTÉ Choice Music Prize broadcast to the numerous St. Patrick’s Festival live streams, we weren’t left wanting for entertainment. A closed-set performance may not quite itch the same scratch as in-person gigs, but they’ll do for now.

Even more impressive, though, is the sheer output by musical acts that soundtrack our daily walks or dances around the kitchen. Check out some of our favourite music releases from March below, which are also on the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

AE Mak — Class Exercises EP

The new EP Class Exercises by Aoife McCann, better known as AE Mak, serves as a tribute to the house-parties-that-never-were, thanks to the pandemic. McCann pushes herself on her self-produced release, heralding the start of a stranger and even more wonderful era from the avant-garde pop artist. — Clare Martin

Ailbhe Reddy ft. Sacred Animals — “City Unfolds”

Ailbhe Reddy, whose debut album Personal History received an RTÉ Choice Music Prize nomination, teamed up with Wexford native Sacred Animals on “City Unfolds” to add some moody synth pop to her folk-infused sound. Reddy conjures up the image of a lonely cityscape at night—“Oh, street’s empty / Back of a taxi / Stretching before me”— on the melancholic track. — Clare Martin

Awkward Z. — “TRAPPED”

Awkward Z.’s latest single may be called “TRAPPED,” but the South Africa-born, Wexford/Waterford-based rapper proves that his creativity is anything but stymied. Over guitar and robust trap beats, the Anomaly Collective member recalls triumphing over personal struggles: “I was trapped in a dark place / and I made it / I can’t tell you how much I spent / now I save it.” — Clare Martin

Babylamb — “Mister Magic”

If you’re hankering for some colourful bubblegum pop euphoria, look no further than Babylamb and their effervescent single “Mister Magic.” The queer four-piece—made up of Tobias Barry, Rían Stephens, Laoise Fleming, and Cian King—bring their playful attitude to this sugary, incredibly catchy tune. — Clare Martin

Clannad ft. Denise Chaila — “In A Lifetime”

Celtic pop group Clannad’s re-release of their song “In A Lifetime” featuring Denise Chaila (filling in Bono’s role from the original 1986 single) is a moving intergenerational musical effort. Over haunting harp and with Poison Glen as their atmospheric backdrop, Moya Brennan and Chaila’s voices weave a beautiful tapestry. We’re so used to Chaila’s quick-witted rapping, but “In A Lifetime” reminds us of her impressive vocal chops. — Clare Martin

DYVR — “Holding Back”

The electro-pop track is the first off DYVR’s upcoming EP Part 3 and serves as a lush, thoughtful look at “the masks we wear in order to feel like we’re part of the world,” they explain. Glittering synth propels the melody forward and the thumping beat rattles in your chest, urging you to move. — Clare Martin

Gender Chores — “Night in the Woods” 

Landlords are bastards,” shouts grunge-punk band Gender Chores on their latest single “Night in The Woods.” Drawing influence from the riot grrrl manifesto, the Co. Down group blend loud guitars, hard-hitting drums and direct lyrics to bring awareness to socio-political issues. The track nails that familiar feeling of not being able to afford rent in an accommodation market designed to exploit: “For 1000 a month / you could live in this shoebox.’’  — Ellen Pentony

HAVVK — “No Patience”

Led by frontperson Julie Hawk, HAVVK return with the second single from their upcoming album Levelling. No stranger to political and social themes (“Always the Same,” “Glass,” and “Once Told”), the grunge-rock trio’s song “No Patience” is more introspective and personal. — Ellen Pentony

Lenii — “Straitjacket”

Lenii’s dark, heady pop single “Straitjacket” is both hypnotic and unsettling, with the melody on the chorus careening off the tracks. “Zip me up just to shut me down / Too loud so you shut my mouth,” the Cork artist sings in her high, crystal-clear voice, recalling how society often treats those who dare to break the mould. — Clare Martin

Maria Somerville — “Seabird”

For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to have the sea within 5km, Galway artist Maria Somerville has you covered with her atmospheric cover of Air Miami’s “Seabird.” Just put on your headphones, close your eyes, and drift off on imaginary waves as Somerville serenades you with her gorgeous voice.  — Clare Martin

M(h)aol — “Asking For It”

Intersectional feminist band M(h)aol—made up of Róisín Nic Ghearailt, Constance Keane, Jamie Hyland, Zoe Greenway, and Sean Nolan—tackle rape culture head-on with their powerful single “Asking For It.” All proceeds from the song will be donated to Women’s Aid. — Clare Martin

NewDad — Waves EP

NewDad—made up of Julie Dawson (vocals, guitar), Áindle O’Beirn (bass), Sean O’Dowd (guitar), Fiachra Parslow (drums)—weave together Waves shoegaze-tinged tracks with hazy guitar and drums that oscillate between laid-back and stirring. Their dreamy slacker rock has arrived just in time as we’re getting that grand stretch in the evening. — Clare Martin

Pat Lagoon — “Put It Away”

Snappy drum machine and pensive guitar open up Waterford artist Pat Lagoon’s latest single “Put It Away.” The rapper and singer gets vulnerable on the track, opening up about his own self-doubts and the self-destructive desire to compare himself to others with lines like, “I’m just surfing a wave / Don’t know if I’m paving a way / I got some friends that are local / Got some feens going global.” — Clare Martin

Susie Blue — Boys Boys Boys EP 

Derry native Susie Blue mixes dream-pop with grit and emotion on the EP Boys Boys Boys. This is the first release to be self-produced by Blue, working alongside Jonny Woods from alt-rock Belfast band Wynona Bleach. The result is a crossover between SOAK, CHVRCHES and Ailbhe Reddy. Boys Boys Boys is packed with thick synth, layers of guitar, electro-drums, and a lot of proud queer yearning. “May God Forgive You” and “Pretender” are particular stand-outs.  — Ellen Pentony

Saint Sister — “Karaoke Song”

Saint Sister (Morgana MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty) have released their poppiest single yet, “Karaoke Song,” inspired by a night out two years ago when the pair celebrated MacIntyre’s birthday by singing Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb” in a Parnell Street karaoke bar. The track comes from their sophomore album Where I Should End, out on June 25th. — Clare Martin

Soda Blonde — “Small Talk”

“Small Talk” throbs with ‘80s-esque synths, reminiscent of other retro-inspired acts such as Tennis. O’Rourke’s voice is the real show-stopper here, though, beautifully conveying yearning and evoking the likes of Caroline Polachek. — Clare Martin

sohotsospicy and darkmavis — sodarksospicy EP

It would have been easy for Irish DJs to feel disenchanted with the closure of venues and to stop producing altogether, but sohotsospicy and darkmavis have delivered a body of work that makes one hopeful for the state of the Irish electronic scene. The insatiable beats hit off some neural groove rendered in a basement club pre-pandemic. — Doireann Ní Dhufaigh

Sprints — Manifesto EP

There’s something so familiar and authentic about the music Sprints make. Their lyrics are to-the-point, unpretentious, and accessible.  While their EP Manifesto doesn’t make explicit references to Dublin or Irish culture, Sprints offer relatable observations of what it’s like to live in the capital right now. — Ellen Pentony

Tolü Makay — “Used to Be” 

Since the release of her cover of the Saw Doctors’ N17, the Nigerian born Offaly artist has captured the heart of the nation with her rich, soulful vocals. She brings much needed diversity to the Irish singer/songwriter landscape, which has been largely dominated by white men in recent years. Her latest release “Used to Be” is a heart-breaking piano ballad about letting go of someone you once loved. — Ellen Pentony

AE Mak Crafts Party-Ready Tunes on New EP ‘Class Exercises’

Photo by Collective Dublin

By Clare Martin

How many gaff parties have we missed out on in the last year? The good ones, the mediocre ones, the ones that you half forget about until a mate brings them up months later? I miss all of them, even the shite parties. We were together, and that’s what mattered.

The new EP Class Exercises by Aoife McCann, better known as AE Mak, serves as a tribute to the house-parties-that-never-were, thanks to the pandemic. Despite usually performing solo, McCann’s sound has always possessed a communal spirit. Her singular vocals and playful art-pop beats feel like a call-to-prayer for every weirdo music kid. She manages to reach that core part of you that wants to dance, sing, and express yourself in any way possible.

The previously released single “Jamie” starts us out with some daytime pop, the type of song you’d put on while walking around town so you can feel yourself. McCann establishes herself as an adept, engaging producer on the track. The entire EP is self-produced, thanks to a month-long Ableton course the Dundalk artist took with She Knows Tech. “Never had I self-produced before last summer so this is a new freedom,” McCann says of her newfound skill, and on “Jamie” you get that sense of sonic exploration. She uses her own voice as a percussive instrument, layering it with a throbbing beat and high, warbling synth. The bright, spacey track feels made for throwing your head back to feel the sun on your face. 

“New Friend” is the EP’s showstopper. Heavily distorted, buzzing synth hypnotically draws you into the song and is eventually joined by clanging percussion, giving a slightly industrial edge to her sound. Muffled snippets of conversation are tucked into “New Friend,” evoking the sensation of eavesdropping at a party. McCann says the track is about a new relationship and “not being able to face the fear I have that comes with labelling my sexuality and bringing it into my everyday life, keeping it in this dark, sexy-manic dreamscape to explore in.” She certainly captures the feeling of throwing yourself completely into a mad night out to escape realities we’re not ready to handle yet. 

The bacchanalian banger is made all the better by the trippy Mark Hogan-directed music video, which involves a clown and unsettling face-warping reminiscent of the mushroom-addled scenes in Midsommar. McCann and the crew were even stopped by the guards during filming. Shenanigans aside, “New Friend” will certainly be on my first post-pandemic party playlist. 

Closer “Spacer” is comparatively subdued, but most songs would be next to “New Friend.” The plucky intro feels like watching the sun rise over the city after a long night out, tingeing everything with a warm golden haze. The track is an ode to being a carefree dreamer, as McCann declares, “And I was always a spacer in the right ways.” Of all the songs, this one feels the closest to classic AE Mak. 

With Class Exercises, McCann takes the time to explore her own sound and personal experiences, to our collective benefit. AE Mak pushes herself on the EP, heralding the start of a stranger and even more wonderful era from the avant-garde pop artist.