Annie Mac: ‘I'm happy in chaos and noise’

Annie Mac is not your average DJ. Through her Radio 1 show and hit podcast, she has championed new music and is not afraid to tackle grittier subjects such as misogyny in rap and knife crime. Laura Snapes finds out what drives her and the secret of her self-confidence

Annie Mac is busy doing her homework when I reach her by video one morning in early May. She’s due to give her weekly “rave lesson” on fellow BBC Radio 1 presenter Nick Grimshaw’s teatime show (today’s subject: the week-long Castlemorton party of 1992). I had wondered if these lessons were a sneaky way of teaching teenagers how to kickstart parties in the wreckage of the UK’s pandemic-stricken live scene, but no, Mac says it’s about “remembering the culture of how British people danced”, and, resonant now, “when people are finding new ways to feel together when they’re not allowed to gather to listen to music”.

The Irish DJ is in the “rave shed” at the end of her garden, its red walls and record stacks familiar from the Instagram live DJ sets she’s been doing with her husband, the producer Toddla T (Tom Bell), at weekends. They just had their second wedding anniversary. He’s inside homeschooling their sons, who are three and six. Occupying them is a challenge, says Mac, who is 41. “It’s about recalibrating your expectations rather than trying to genuinely be a teacher. Let’s learn how to cook pasta or do a jigsaw or make a bird feeder out of a milk bottle.” I’m taking up most of Mac’s two-and-a-half-hour working slot before they have to swap. Cramming in her workload is tough. She’s bare-faced, her curls untamed. But paring back has been good, too – the fantasy of a more streamlined life forced into being. It suits her. “I basically have three tiers of what I do in my work,” she says, with the same zippy authority she brings to her shows, “and it’s really simple and it’s really clear and it’s very regimented, and it means that when you have work, you just fucking blitz it.”

In 2015, Mac took over from Zane Lowe to present Radio 1’s flagship specialist show, five nights a week. It was a major appointment in the world of radio and a testament to her vast influence: she has been instrumental in breaking major acts – Mylo, Justice – in the UK, and credited with introducing the mainstream to dubstep. Back then she was also Europe’s biggest female DJ, though there was industry suspicion over whether listeners accustomed to Lowe’s staunch indie mindset would welcome her effusive club-kid nous. She coolly added 110,000 listeners, her omnivorous musical mindset reflecting (and arguably shaping) that of an internet-raised generation unbound by the old tribal mindsets to music fandom.

‘I’m a control freak’: Annie Mac DJing at Arcadia in Bristol.
‘I’m a control freak’: Annie Mac DJing at Arcadia in Bristol. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The radio show is tier one. Then there’s fronting a podcast, and writing her first novel, due out next year. That’s just what’s on at the moment. Earlier this year, she ran her Annie Mac Presents conference – a week of industry panels and new music gigs in London. In non-pandemic times, there would be even more: running a festival in Malta (inevitably cancelled), and DJing other summer events.

The podcast is the reason for our chat. Two summers ago, Mac turned 40. She had been presenting on Radio 1 for about 15 years. For the first time, she found herself looking back on her life, although her “decimated” memory made it hard. She started a podcast, Finding Annie, to reassemble her past from conversations with friends and peers, which helped. The loose concept introduced her to a new set of listeners unlikely to tune into Radio 1 on weekday nights, and ordained some fairly standard celeb-on-celeb chat, if admirably frank – like Mac telling Radio 2’s Sara Cox about how indignant she felt at having to push her placenta out of her already “red raw frazzled vagina” during her first birth.

Podcasting, says Mac, was about exploring self-expression and having something that was entirely her own, although the Finding Annie format had a shelf-life. After two series, she has renamed it Changes with Annie Mac, and pushed its focus outwards. In each episode, she asks a guest to share the childhood and adulthood changes that shaped them.

“You can get to the really meaningful moments in a quick way,” she says. There are celebs: Caitlin Moran on learning not to hate her body as an adult; Swedish popstar Robyn on how the next change she’s anticipating is parenthood. But there are civilians, too: a formerly homeless man-turned-Shelter worker named Paddy; Candice Brathwaite, a rare working-class, black author in the “mummy blogging” world; an 18-year-old knife crime campaigner named Jhemar Jonas, whose brother was fatally stabbed.

“Having spent a year or two really listening to podcasts, there seems to be an echo chamber,” says Mac wearily. “It’s everyone telling each other the same things, and they all have the same beliefs and the same politics and the same everything.” She wanted to let people who have experienced genuine hardship talk on their own terms, an impulse confirmed by the episode with Jonas. “You never hear from the kids,” she says. “The people who are brandishing the knives or running from the knife. It’s the idea of humanising them and trying to understand them in order to be able to help them.”

Power of three: from left, Annie Mac, Jo Whiley and Sara Cox, Brit Awards, 2011.
Power of three: from left, Annie Mac, Jo Whiley and Sara Cox, Brit Awards, 2011. Photograph: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s not that the celebrities are bait; her curiosity is genuine there, too. Nick Grimshaw tells me she gets the best out of everyone: “She never feels in a rush – she makes you feel like you’re really important to her.” But the podcast is a Trojan horse for her to delve into “the things that I’m trying to figure out”, she admits. “After looking backwards for a while, now I want to look forwards and outwards, to see what really moves me, and what I could put my time into in the next phase of my life.”

Let’s talk about the ways in which she’s changed. “Oh shit, I have to do the thing?” she says, surprised. Her holey memory has made childhood a blur. (An expert told her lack of sleep exacerbates memory loss: “My weird working hours for so many years have probably not helped this.”) So she starts at 17. Mac – then MacManus – always thought she’d be an actor. She doesn’t know why. She didn’t take drama at school, though she’d starred in a school play, and practised her Oscar acceptance speech. But she auditioned for the drama course at Trinity College in Dublin anyway, and “totally fucked it up, like in a comedy way”, she says. “Had to do the speech from the end of Romeo and Juliet, went into paralysis, couldn’t remember the words, was just so angry with myself.”

Afterwards she went directly to a hairdresser’s and had her bum-length hair cut to an inch long, “a very visceral reaction to my own failure”. She once said a boy calling her “mediocre” at school was the worst thing anyone had ever said to her. It seems like she had roaringly high standards. “Maybe I did,” she says, quizzically. She was surrounded by high-achieving friends at the private Wesley College, though she doesn’t think school had much to do with her confidence or aspirations. As the youngest of four kids born in five years, she had to strive to stand out. “I was quite comfortable in chaos and noise from a young age, because I didn’t really have much choice.”

The rejection was pivotal: Mac didn’t know what to do until her mum suggested applying to study English literature at Queen’s in Belfast. She got in. Leaving Dublin for Belfast was a game-changer, she says. “I found radio and I found music.” She moved to Farnborough, Hampshire, for an MA in radio before settling in London. While presenting on student radio and building up her DJ gigs, she hassled producers for meetings, and started at Radio 1 as an assistant producer on Steve Lamacq’s show at the age of 24.

Partners in grime: Annie Mac with Mark Ronson and Dizzee Rascal.
Partners in grime: Annie Mac with Mark Ronson and Dizzee Rascal. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Starting a family at 34 has been the biggest change of Mac’s adult life. “Going from a very chaotic, dynamic life of travel and fucking booming speakers and screaming crowds and chronic hangovers to a quieter life and not wanting to stay out as late…” She hadn’t necessarily wanted to slow down, but felt she had reached a position of relative career security “to be able to duck out for a while and feel like I wasn’t in jeopardy”. She was right, – she graduated from a biweekly show to the weeknight slot two years later – though still had to reckon with her own limits. In retrospect, playing Lovebox six weeks after having her first son was stupid, she says. “Not knowing how you’re going to feel, because you’ve got no experience of motherhood – I found that really hard. I’m a control freak, so I like to know where I stand.”
She kept DJing after having her second kid, driving to and from gigs in one night so she could wake up at home. On the motorway one night last year, she became overwhelmed by the feeling that she was putting herself in danger, so she cut back. Weekends are her only opportunity to put her kids to bed, so she only takes gigs that allow her to do that. “There’s a lot more factors at play than just ambition.”

She squirms when I say she’s one of the most influential women in British music and ask if that brings a certain degree of assurance. Thinking that way is bad for your decision-making process, she says. “It’s not what drives me at all.” Creativity does, she’s learned recently. Writing her first novel came out of a “desire to create something for art’s sake”. She insists it’s the Radio 1 show that’s influential, and whoever does it after her will inherit that influence. “And let ’em have it,” she says. “For me, the radio is about music and connection, that’s what makes me wanna drive into town every day.”

But she uses her power in other ways. Label heads have credited her conferences with making them think differently about their artists’ mental health. She’s always vocal about the annual issue of gender inequality on music festival bills. (Though she’s not combative towards the industry: “That’s not how it’s going to work.”) Musician and podcaster Jessie Ware rang Mac for advice on managing a career as a mum. Last year, Mac and Greg James rebuked listeners who complained about British rapper Dave’s song Black, which confronts Britain’s persistent racist inequality. The negative response to the song was eye-opening, she says. So were requests for her to comment further. “It’s not about that,” she despairs. “It’s about speaking to the people who are suffering racism every day and can talk about it in a very eloquent way, in the way that Dave did.”

‘We are finding new ways to be together’: Annie Mac.
‘We are finding new ways to be together’: Annie Mac. Photograph: Stephanie Sian Smith

This spring, Mac tweeted her support for the victims of Bristol grime artist Solo 45, who was charged with imprisoning and raping four women. She is an ardent rap fan, and questioned how her show should address explicitly misogynist forms of rap music. It’s a historically complex issue, especially for a white woman to weigh in on. Did she feel any trepidation? It wasn’t that she was telling anyone “you guys have got to change”, she says, with a panto finger wag. “It’s the idea of there being representation from all sides. I want to hear more women rapping, talking about what it’s like to be a woman, how much they wanna shag men or other women or whatever.” The point, with everything she does – podcast guests, festival line-ups – is to leverage her profile to expand the playing field.

Radio 1’s demographic is listeners aged 15 to 29. There’s no doubting Mac’s at home there. She is a brilliant broadcaster: excitable and compassionate; knowledgeable yet never exclusive or showy. But recently she’s started to think about her future there. “I’m always very aware that Jo Whiley left Radio 1 when she was 43,” she says. “But Jo was doing the mainstream daytime show, so you’re much more visible there. The lovely thing about Radio 1 is that as a specialist DJ – Annie [Nightingale], John [Peel], Pete Tong, Tim Westwood – it’s definitely not as much of a problem what age you are. It’s very much a spirit thing and how young people relate to you.” She loves her show and has no plans to leave, but she’s curious about exploring what the BBC has to offer: “You’re lucky in that you can grow old there.” Equally, the Changes podcast is stretching her legs.

A decade ago, Mac said her greatest achievement was “that I like myself”. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard another woman say that. It’s a feeling that’s strengthened with age. “I’ve always felt, I dunno, touch all the wood” – she pats her desk and head – “pretty good about my existence, basically.” Her husband says she’s made of steel. Her friends call her “the leaker”, because she cries a lot. “But I get the feelings out of me pretty easily, and maybe that’s helpful for feeling at ease.”

Her self-confidence cuts both ways, Grimshaw tells me. “She’s good at encouraging you to know your worth.” I think that’s partly why Mac is so good at her job – liking yourself makes it easier to see the best in everyone else.

It’s lunchtime, and Mac has to swap duties with Bell. The first thing she wants to do once lockdown ends is go to Ireland. “It’s overwhelming trying to figure out when I’m gonna see my family again,” she says. Getting sweaty in a club would be nice, too. I remember reading that she’s into fishing and wonder if she has plans to go angling in the summer. That’s something she did as a kid, she laughs, a reputation that stuck after she did a Culture Show bit about gender inequality in the field. “But I do like fishing,” she says, thinking about it. “I like not knowing what’s under there, the whole feeling of anticipation. And I’m an optimist, so it suits me – it’s the idea of always hoping there’s something on the other end of the line.”

Changes with Annie Mac is available on all podcast providers


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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