In What Works For Me – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to celebrities about wellbeing and self-care.
I’d been intending to ask Annie Mac about the future of nightlife, given it’s been decimated by the pandemic. She’s Radio 1’s new music specialist, after all, once Europe’s highest-paid female DJ. I was going to ask how she’s been missing playing to live crowds and what’s that been like for her mental health.
But by the end of a conversation where we’d barely mentioned the in-crisis state of the music industry, we both have to laugh a bit at my planned angle.
Rather than missing live events, the Irish DJ famed for throwing some of the nation’s biggest parties with her Annie Mac Presents brand, has found solace, for the first time, in silence.
“I look back at my pre-lockdown life and I kind of shudder,” Mac says on video call from the rave shed she escapes to in the bottom of her London garden.
It’s a weekday morning in September and she has lost her trademark curls for a much shorter cut. She’s framed by a cartoonish cactus picture and painted footprints and handprints, presumably by her two young children.
“It was this constant scramble to keep everyone happy,” she says. “I was doing everything in my job as well as trying to explore these new avenues: being a podcaster and writing a book, as well as doing my normal workload and being a mum. It was pretty intense.”
Covid-19 forced a reset for Mac (her full surname is Macmanus) after 15 years of relentless sets. “It’s something I’d always dreamed of – what if I just couldn’t do gigs anymore?” she says. “What if they just stopped?”
At its most intense, Mac was DJing three parties in one night, then travelling home bleary-eyed and locking in an hour-and-a-half’s sleep. By contrast, under lockdown, she’s watched the tulips in her back garden grow. They were a present from Mac’s mother-in-law (she married Radio 1 DJ Toddla T in 2018).
“It’s so cheesy,” she says. “We’d planted them the autumn before and obviously in spring they all came up and we watched them every day grow and bloom. I’ve never done this before. It’s the same with my kids – being able to zoom in on this growth experience, it was really quite amazing.”
Would Mac ever do three events in one night again when the clubs finally reopen? “Never!” she says with a guffaw. “Me and T were talking the other day about the feeling you get when you fall asleep in the back of a car and then you wake up at like 7am and come into your house...
“You end up getting really good at naps and just napping in the day, at the weekends, whenever you can. You just go into the week and you feel fucked.”
This is not to say Mac is tired of partying – she has hopes to throw a giant (and delayed, due to the virus) 42nd birthday party next year. The idea, she tells me excitedly, is to rent a space and invite all her favourite DJs for a big blowout. “I still have it in me,” she says. “I love the idea of bringing people together and putting on a really fun party, whether it’s at my house or in a space or whatever. I very much crave that and very much need that as a person, but it’s just less.”
There’s no such thing as “all day seshes” anymore. “They’re a relic, a very much treasured relic from the past.” Lost & Found festival in Malta, Mac’s flagship event, is her one chance to guarantee spontaneity without the kids. “I love Malta,” she says. “I can just go there for four days and pretend I’m 30 again.”
With all of that lockdown downtime, Mac has been working instead on her Changes podcast, interviewing a diverse range of people about the biggest changes in their lives. Guests include journalist Caitlin Moran, author Zadie Smith and knife crime campaigner Jhemar Jonas, whose brother was fatally stabbed in 2017.
The podcast’s scope is ambitious, representative of Mac’s inherent thirst to connect. “In a post-Covid world, basic human connection is a lot harder,” she says. “I have this instinctive need to do it a lot of the time. Of course, you do it on the radio, but again there’s a lot of barriers between actually seeing people.”
Plus, she’s enjoying interacting with her newfound fans, she says. Recently, she was stopped by a woman in her fifties on a bike in the local park. “She was like, ‘Caitlin Moran. Oh God.’ I was like, ‘I know...’. The two shared a fangirl moment about the author.
Mac says through laughter: “It’s not little 22-year-olds, off their face going, ‘Can I get a selfie?’ Maybe it’s because I’m not DJing. It’s a less intense thing now and I’m here for it. I like it. It got a bit silly for a while, I think, all of that.”
Being the “bastion of fun” was odd at times. “Sometimes you feel a bit conflicted at that because you have two little babies at home and you’re just in a different place. I feel a lot more comfortable in the fame that this brings me now, this radio and this podcast, it’s a bit more soft round the edges.”
Now that Mac’s gig break has become reality (bar a few streamed sets from her rave shed throughout lockdown), she finally has time to be creative. She had always wanted to write a book – and lockdown has birthed it.
“I’ve written little blurbs a lot all the way through my life,” says Mac, who feared her debut novel, Mother Mother, wouldn’t be taken seriously by publishers. “A lot of people said I should have written a memoir first and I really understand that probably, professionally would have been the sensible thing to do.
“But I haven’t, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Mac got a tip off for a literary agent and was overwhelmed when he liked her story. “It had been very personal up to then, just my own little private thing,” she recalls. “When he said it, I cried in this bar in Fitzrovia. I was surprised by the strength of feeling I had by how much I cared what he thought and how much I was happy that he thought it was okay.”
Mac found writing the novel surprisingly rewarding. “I loved learning, it sounds so fucking cheesy but this story, I didn’t know what was gonna happen,” she says. “You’d just write and you’d come back to it the next day and you go, ’oh right, so that’s where the story’s going.’”
She says of her creative process: “I was trying to describe it to my husband. It’s like you do a sketch, a black and white sketch with a pencil. And then you’re colouring it in and you’re drawing some bits out. It felt a bit like that: you don’t really know what your hand is going to do, you’re just kind of going with it.”
The DJ says she is impulsive, a trait which probably helped her start the book in the first place – and have the gusto to send it to publishers. Would this five-times-weekly radio show host, and arbiter of new music taste, ever turn her impulses to making new music herself?
“It didn’t feel right for me to do that,” she says after a quiet moment and trying to start a sentence a few different ways. “I also love such a wide breadth of music I genuinely wouldn’t know where to start... I think there’s something, in the same way as the writing, there’s something so magical about going into a studio with nothing and coming out with a piece of music. It fucking blows my mind.”
Despite making her peace that “at this point in my life it’s not gonna happen”, Mac played a new song a few days before we speak by Romy from The XX and experienced the unusual sensation that, sonically, this was her bag.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard it?” she asks. “It’s like a Robyn-style emo dance banger, but it’s really warm and euphoric. I thought to myself, that is the kind of song I’d love to make. It’s so uplifting and beautiful. But I don’t think that often, which is why it was kind of remarkable with that song.”
A few minutes later, and we’re still on the topic. “Maybe it will be something I do when I’m older. I love the idea of doing it but right now, it feels too excruciating, the idea of doing the radio shows and then being like, ‘guys, I’ve released a tune!” I can’t. I can’t.’”
Her good sense for self-policing was lost for a few years between 2015 and 2018, when Mac says she was living in a kind of fog. “They were the years when I had two small children, I was getting a lot of sleepless nights,” she says of her DJing schedule. “And there was lots of other things I wanted to do in broadcasting beyond music but there was just no time.
Her youngest began sleeping through the night around the time Mac turned 40 in 2018. “I didn’t realise at the time but I was coming out of a fog and suddenly I had clarity again,” she says. Mac is attempting to hold that balance moving forward by “just doing less” of the manic stuff, but in cutting so much of it out with the pandemic, she is reminded, daily, of her love for new music.
Leaving two small children behind every night to go to the studio will never be easy. “There’s been times I’ve got in the car and sometimes cried,” says Mac of her daily drive into central London to do the show.
But when she gets to the studio, she’s always energised by the environment. “What I find is once you’re there, once you’re in the studio, like no matter how you feel, how shit, how tired, how uninspired, once you’re in there and once you’re playing music to people, everything switches.
“I never walk out of a studio feeling worse than when I walked in. I always feel better. The very physical act of being in a room with no one for two hours, just to listen to music. It’s a treat when you think about that aspect of it, you know. I’m literally just getting to blast music in a soundproof room for two hours, and chat. Ideal. I’ll take it.”
Changes is available on all podcast providers. Mother Mother released in May 2021 (published by Wildfire, Headline) and is available to pre-order now.