Q+A: 5 minutes with Rona Mac

More than a road trip wayfarer, independent songwriter Rona Mac conjures a brand of self-defined music from the comfort of her mobile studio, a caravan, in West Wales, UK. Most recently, she shared one such creation with the world; her latest introspective single, ‘Sense’, is beautifully tragic.

Stream / Download: Rona Mac – ‘Sense’

Describing the experience of living with mental illness, she touches all-too-human wounds, tracing their edges with her chilling voice and a sharp pencil. BBC Radio Ulster‘s presenter Eve Blair articulated the experience of listening to Rona aptly, saying, “One of those voices and one of those songs that when I heard it just stopped me. Whatever I was doing, I just stopped and had to listen to her.”

Utterly stopped, we asked Rona Mac a few questions:

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

I don’t know how I’d function without it. It’s the only way to articulate ineffable feelings, of which there are many! For me, visual arts are cool but it’s music and lyrics/poetry that catch my breath. Arts are a space in which we can expose our gooey, raging, raw, and beautiful human selves. The rest of the time we’re just surviving and caring for ourselves and each other. But within art, we get to spread, feel, and create.

Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?

The song always comes first for me. Lyrics and melody, or a solid riff. Production is then bringing it out of its shell and putting a dress on it.

Does your material feature any collaborations?

Yeah, this single has piano played by a dear friend James Minas. We are working on an EP together actually, but this piano contribution was a beautiful little collaboration. I don’t know James too well, but what I do know of him is very real – he’s not afraid to show his feelings or go straight to the core of things, and he knows the dark edges of life. This song was written after my Mum attempted suicide, and I know he has lost loved ones to suicide, and I also know he liked the song when I played it live – so I sent it to him. He sent it back with this piano and that was that! It’s perfect.

What’s on your current playlist?

  1. Dizraeli – ‘Take me dancing’, ‘My Mama’.
  2. Kae Tempest – ‘I Saw Light’, ‘More Pressure’, ‘Grace’.
  3. Scott Matthews – ‘Elusive’.
  4. May Erlewine and Woody Goss – ‘Palm of My Hand’.
  5. Fontaines D.C – ‘I Love You’.
  6. Jess Hoop – ‘Sed of Wonder’.
  7. New Young Pony Club – ‘We Want To’.
  8. Courtney Barnett – ‘Before You Gotta Go’.
  9. Eli Smart – ‘No Destination’.
  10. Rosie Lowe – ‘Birdsong’.
  11. Dijon – ‘The Dress’.
  12. Sammy Copley – ‘Irish Goodbye’.

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

Intimate – the more intimate the better. I like to be as vulnerable and truthful as I can, with very little ‘act’ or ‘pretence’. This can make gigging very exhausting and scary! But it’s super nice to get a genuine laugh or knowing nod from someone in the crowd – some shared ground. I want to feel as normal as possible.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

My sound is always evolving as everyone’s is. But as a DIY artist, with no training or prior music tech background, I learn so much for each release. I’d say though, I love layering up the vocals, and I love a kind of crying guitar winding its way through the track. But yeah, it’s largely about vocals and then adding a bit of grit and crunch somewhere.

Live, I use looping, beatbox, a Midi synth keyboard, guitar effects pedal, and vocal effects pedal. I try to recreate everything live rather than have samples or backing tracks.

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

My recording studio is my little Caravan. I used to live in it, and now it’s a recording studio. I bought it for £100 about three years ago, and it’s still going strong (and covered in silicone to keep it watertight haha). My studio is currently on the road to my parent’s house, sitting alongside my other job – a small market garden which I help out at. So often the day is interspersed with dog walks, a bit of gardening, and a cuppa with the ‘rents. 

Other than that, I try to keep it as freeform as possible, producing and inventing as I go along. A lot of my recordings have the sound of howling wind and rain somewhere in there as, despite all my efforts – it’s in no way soundproof! It’s a noisy little tin can. And of course my dog, Gannet, is always curled up on the sofa. He features in there too! But that’s a part of it all, I think.

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?

Nope. It crept up on me, and it’s still creeping now! I knew I wanted to make an album – that’s where it all started. In 2019 my life was a blank canvas, and I knew making an album was something that I’d always wanted to do so I did it. At this point, I’d never heard of a release strategy, press release, publisher, booking agent, distributor etc.! But it all went remarkably well, and I’ve been riding that wave ever since.

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

My shoes–I always take them off, but it’s best they don’t stray too far.

Any emerging artists on your radar?

Sky Barkers, Minas, Wil Owen, and Dan Bettridge!

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Unfortunately, emotional distress! Or just a good old day with nothing planned and a guitar nearby.

Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.

My kit is all so basic. It’s boring to list. However, I’d like to say that all of it is second-hand. I firmly believe that having the next best bit of fancy kit isn’t going to change anything. I’m constantly skint so yeah… I have an acoustic bass with a massive chunk missing that my mate found at the Tip – it sounds great to me! My most sentimental bit of kit is an awful guitar left from my late best pal who passed a couple of years ago. It’s horrible to play and won’t stay in tune but alas, it’ll be in my next album for sure. 

In no particular order: Fender Tele, various guitars acoustic and classical, some kind of bass guitars, an RC 300 loop pedal, Zoom guitar pedal (super cheap! best I’ve ever bought), Boss RC-30 vocal effects pedal, Mac laptop, and a Behringer UMC204HD interface, Roland TR1 electric drum kit, Rode NT1A Vocal Mic, Akai Mini Play midi keyboard.

Any side projects you’re working on?

Yeah actually! I’m working on a few collaborations with Wil Owen, Dan Bettridge, and Minas. I’m also singing in a band called Los Pulpos Del Diablo – a 12-piece jam band with a kind of jazz, funk, rock, world fusion.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

Getting braver, and learning new ways to express through sound. 

There’s so much to learn, and I am super chuffed with the amount I’ve learnt in the last 2 – 3 years. The business side of it is a total minefield, and I’m slowly getting to grips with it all and making more informed decisions.

Break down the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?

Three singles and a tour before the summer, then a summer of gigs, to be followed by another single or two and finally an album in November.

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