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Interview | Brisbane Producer MJ O'Neill in Conversation About Her New Album

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Interview | Brisbane Producer MJ O'Neill in Conversation About Her New AlbumMJ O'Neill is a Brisbane producer, specialising in heavy, colourful beats spanning hip hop, leftfield, house, techno, and breaks. Previously played alongside members of Death Grips, clipping., and Donny Benet. MJ also has a tendency to turn up in surprising places like theatres, festivals, dance performances, art exhibitions, and magazines in various capacities. She tries to focus on music - but is easily distracted. Last week, she launched her brand new album which she created during lockdown, at Brisbane's very own Backbone Youth Arts. I was very fortunate to be able to interview MJ about that night and her creative process. Here's what she had to say...

VIRAG: I know that many musicians have different approache in creating their music. How did you create the tracks on your album? Were there some tracks that were created differently?

MJ: Over the past year, I've more confidently settled into an approach that works for me - I sit on the couch with my laptop, I have a TV show or movie rumbling in the background, and I just piece together beats and ideas. When I reach a certain point, I'll usually turn off the TV or just plain forget it's there. Generally, it takes about four to six hours and then there's a song.

Within that, it generally begins with an idea or a sound that I find interesting or want to try. (Or, just a sound that I love and want to come back to.) For one song on the album, it started with me just wanting to do some trilling piano chords from jazz/neo-soul. For another, I really wanted to see if I could replicate the breakbeat tunes I loved when I was a little kid in the 90s.

From there, it's just filling in the blanks and building up layers. Generally, with ideas that either push against or reinforce the initial idea. For example, the breakbeat one lends itself to staccato brass and I totally love shoving brass samples everywhere. But, the trilling piano chords went to a completely minimal and austere place, which I was not expecting.

That's my process, really. I tried messing with it a bit in 2019 and getting other people to mix and to record or taking longer with my work or not using a laptop. None of it really felt right. And, when I started playing my music live for the first time last year, people really connected with all my old tunes in a massive way and I went - maybe I should just do what I do?
Interview | Brisbane Producer MJ O'Neill in Conversation About Her New Album

VIRAG: Has it been challenging creating music and being creative in lockdown? Did you have to motivate yourself to be creative?

MJ: Yes and no. I had a bunch of plans for what I'd do when lockdown hit and how it could be helpful but most of them fell by the wayside as I simply focused on managing my mental health and disabilities. Also, my ADHD just pulled me towards different projects (e.g. I bought a bunch of art from local artists and built an art collection).

But, I've never felt I've had to motivate myself to be creative. I'm always creating something or working on some project. I have a hobby of writing a very specific type of silly comment on ABC Brisbane Facebook posts, for example. I also spend a lot of time bouncing jokes, theories and analyses around on Twitter. On top of that, my day job involves analysing business trends and finding ways to present that information in engaging ways. I'm a big playful dog. I will always be doing something. I'm pretty much incapable of not. If I haven't done anything for a while, I'll just start making my sentences rhyme when I talk to people to see if I can.

The problem is focusing that energy into a replicable experience; a 'work'. Being creative is relatively easy. Having the muscle to bend that energy and shape it into something someone else can access and consume on a repeatable basis? Very different. And, yeah, that energy is hard to come by when the world's on fire and I have a lot less people to play with. For me, it's something that can only be solved by ensuring you keep an eye on what's funny and entertaining for yourself - and knowing what gives you energy. I need to engage with people to build up my energy, so I made a point of catching up and going to a few different places with people, even as I was in my own form of album-making lockdown.

I also tried to focus on the feeling I would have when I finished the project. It's very tempting to just be like 'Man, why am I even doing all this nitty-gritty sculpting?'. When you've got an idea of the pride and engagement of finishing something cool and stupid and fun and sharing it with people and listening to it years later, it helps keep you on target.

Interview | Brisbane Producer MJ O'Neill in Conversation About Her New Album

VIRAG: Last week you had your albums launch at Backbone. How did it feel finally being able to share it with everyone? Did you feel a bit nervous about how people would react?

I made the album from scratch in ten days - so a part of me was totally thinking of ditching the party because I was so exhausted! But, it was absolutely lovely. I wasn't too worried about showing it to people - because, if nothing else, I'm good with beats and bass and my music tends to work best on a big sound system. Honestly, I was just worried about people showing up. I released music for like ten years before I started playing live and nobody really cared. A lot of friends didn't even know I made music or that it was something I was passionate about. It was only when I started playing live that people really connected with it all and noticed what I'd been doing all this time.

So, I was mainly worried I'd be playing to no-one. Which, I've done before, but carried an extra tension when Backbone were kind enough to open up for us. But, lots of people came and, even with lockdown restrictions banning dancing and having DJs playing to people sitting around tables, it was a truly wonderful night.

I hadn't really figured out what I wanted to do with the album to launch it. I originally was just going to go and press play and let people listen. But, that felt really awkward, so I ended up just introducing each song and talking rubbish to the audience in between each tune and then pressing play and wandering and having a chat with everyone. It was such a fun time.

Interview | Brisbane Producer MJ O'Neill in Conversation About Her New Album

VIRAG: I have to ask... what's next?

In this environment, any form of planning feels like tempting fate. That said, I decided halfway through the album process that I'd like to kick some form of release out every three months going forward - because I was a bit rusty, skillswise, when I started the album. I hadn't made anything since December.

The other immediate goal is incorporating vocals. I love singing and rapping but I'm very insecure about it and very unsure about how to do it as a transgender woman, having spent most of my career with a much deeper and more masculine-sounding voice. But, I'd like to do an EP in December with four vocal tracks on it.

In between now and then, I have an experiment in mind with some local singer-songwriters but we'll see if anything emerges.

I also really need to form a punk band, at some point. It's long overdue.

All the photos are credited to Backbone.


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