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.”
“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.”