One of the most successful and popular women in the UK music industry, Annie Mac (39) has spent the last decade paving the way for the next generation of female DJs. While her empire of headline sets, prime-time radio shows, AMP [Annie Mac Presents] albums, AMP Lost & Found festivals, and most recently, Blue Planet scores, is blindingly impressive, the thing that makes her trajectory so personally inspiring is that she appears to have genuinely got there by working really hard and being a really nice person.
Between 7 and 9pm on weekdays, Annie takes Radio 1 listeners on a journey of unknown pleasures, moving effortlessly from grime to hip-hop to house to techno to indie. Her shows are so good, they make you want to stay in your car 10 minutes after you’ve arrived at your destination just to hear what her favourite new track is. It’s the grown-up version of listening to the top 40 on a Sunday afternoon when you were young so that you knew your shit at school the next day.
Then there’s the fact that we couldn’t think of anyone better to party with, and her elevated status to rave goddess since having two children. With the next AMP Lost & Found taking place in May, a new AMP album out now and a new event – AMP Sounds – running throughout February, you'd be right in thinking: how the hell does she do it? We caught up with Annie over the phone on a Monday morning to ask.
Hi Annie, how’s your morning been?
Hi! Busy. I went for a jog, I took my baby swimming, now I’m in the office having a cup of tea and getting ready for the day.
What did you do yesterday? (Sunday)
I woke up early with the kids and we went to the park and then got home around lunchtime, hung out, some friends came round for the afternoon, they left just before dinnertime, then we did 'bedtime', watched Blue Planet, went to bed. And then I was up half the night with my kid.
With two small children, how do you cope with being sleep-deprived?
I'm not very good at functioning without sleep, I get panicky and emotional and everything feels insurmountable. My partner and I are really good at sharing the work, though. Like last night, I was up half the night with my kid and then I brought him into my boyfriend and was just like ‘Have him!’ – and I went back to sleep in the other room. So we share it and that’s how we get by. If one of us has a rough night, the other one will do the school run in the morning. That’s how we get through the day.
How often do you play festivals and clubs at the moment?
I used to do gigs pretty much every weekend. Then in 2015, I got the job on the radio, which is my dream job and I absolutely love it, but it means that if I gig two nights a week and over the weekend as well, it's just… too much, because club sets start at 1 and finish at 3 or 4am, and then you only have one recovery day a week. When I do club gigs, I pretty much come home as soon as I can, so I’m asleep in the back of a car at 5am on a Sunday morning. Like in Liverpool last Friday, I got home at 6.30 in the morning and… it's just harder because you're going into the weekend knackered and exhausted after a week of work and sleep-deprivation, and then staying up all night to DJ, it’s like part-time jetlag. So I try to bunch club gigs together now because it makes it easier to have childcare come and stay over. So much of being a parent is not knowing how you’re going to feel and how things are going to go, so it’s this constant game of Tetris where you’re clicking schedules into place and finding time to fit everything in. I had another kid in January and I did festivals in the summer because… I mostly DJ on the main stage and it’s from 5-6pm or 6-7pm, so I can be home by 11pm, go to bed, get up and have a normal Sunday.
Do you still get the same kind of buzz playing at festivals? Does it feel the same as when you first started or does it feel like a job at this point in your career?
The DJ'ing part never feels like a job. Obviously, real talk, when you DJ sober, it's much harder. When you have even a couple of vodka tonics, you stop thinking so much. When I DJ, I have this very busy, intense internal dialogue in my head and I always think after a set that I need to write an essay on what’s just happened in my head. Because you're in these situations that are so bizarre and – I lead a very normal life, I’m a very normal person, I’m low-key, I don’t go to premieres, I don’t live that life – but when you switch modes and you’re in DJ/performer mode and you go to a festival and you're playing in front of tens of thousands of people and you're on the main stage, you’re not just DJ'ing, you’re performing, you have to smile and be having a great time and exude this energy and joy. And a lot of the time that’s there, but sometimes you have to get there. I feel so incredibly self-aware and self-conscious, and when you’re completely sober, you overthink every move you make, you think, ‘Oh my god, why am I here, that person down the front is on their phone, why did I wear this top, I can’t dance’ – it’s constant. A huge part of being a DJ and growing up is learning how to DJ sober. I think I’ve mastered it, but it takes longer to get into it and I still don’t know whether I’m a better or worse DJ.
Do you think you have to be an extrovert to do your job? Not just the DJ’ing but the presenting – the talking on the radio and filling all the silences on a show. Were you always confident talking on the radio?
I really don’t think you have to be an extrovert because I just know so many successful DJs who are quite the opposite. But I am comfortable in my own skin and I’ve always found it easy to talk to people – I’m not socially awkward. I wasn’t dressing up in wigs and performing to my family when I was a kid, I wasn’t that person, but I guess I feel comfortable around people and I’ve always found it easy to talk, so being on the radio felt quite natural to me. A lot of DJs who are chronically shy end up being alcoholics, because the alcohol is what makes it seem easy and what makes them seem easy in front of people… it’s hard to be 100% yourself and to be in front of people.
I read an old interview with you in the Guardian where you said your greatest achievement was that you liked yourself. Do you still feel that way?
Yeah. The world that I live in – the world of celebrity and the music industry – can be fickle and quite ludicrous at times. I feel lucky that all of this madness happened to me later in life; I only got my show on Radio 1 when I was 26, so I had the chance to be an idiot when I was young and to go out and take risks and look stupid and forge friendships and discover my identity before I was thrust in front of people. I’m talking like I’m bloody Britney Spears… It was my choice to go in front of people but in retrospect, I’m really happy I had that time to be me, and equally with radio, I had two years working behind the scenes at Radio 1, learning what it was to be a presenter from the perspective of being a producer first, and making tea and writing notes for the presenters, so working on that side first really helped me to be empathetic to all the people around me at every level at Radio 1, and equally, not to be starry-eyed about the world of celebrity, and to appreciate what matters to me, anyway, which is real friendships and family and happiness.
You’ve interviewed some of the world’s best musicians, do you ever get starstruck or nervous about a big interview?
Oh god yeah, and it’s not really the person, it’s the pressure around getting the interview right. You want it to be a great piece, you want it to be the best piece of your career, so it’s kind of just… ambition – wanting to prove yourself, and to prove to everyone else that you’re capable. And wanting to be liked, wanting that person to think that you’re good and you’re cool, wanting that person to warm to you, which isn’t necessary, but it’s a human need. I’ve had some incredibly successful situations and some really awful situations.
How do you recover from the awful ones?
I had one recently, I can’t name the person because it’s not out yet, but there was an awful lot of pressure and an awful lot of important people in the room, and I really wanted to get it right, and they just… didn’t… they were really up for sabotaging the interview. In that situation you just have to not take it personally; you have to know that it isn’t about you, it’s about them. I was really upset afterwards and I felt really deflated, but I didn’t carry it for too long because I did a bit of research about the person and found out that it’s very common for them to be like that in an interview situation. Sometimes it’s doomed from the start – if you have someone who is typically volatile and not up for giving a good interview, and you’re interviewing them in front of their band or their people, well, they’re just going to play up to those people. But if you have them alone in the room, there’s no one for them to play up to, so it’s hard for them to be a dick because it’s just you and them.
What’s been your favourite interview? Who pleasantly surprised you?
Kendrick Lamar, he’s one of my favourite artists around right now, and the most low-key, generous, kind-spirited person I’ve ever interviewed. There are people who are egoless and just incredible and they blow your mind. I interviewed Björk a few weeks ago and she was everything I wanted her to be. Sometimes I find overfamiliarity a bit disconcerting because… we don’t know each other, so why are we going to be all huggy and kissy? The real reaction is to be mutually respectful but quite distant at the start until you know someone. She was like that at the start, ‘Hello, yes, thanks for having me’, really polite and respectful but not overfamiliar, and then over the course of the interview, she warmed up and so did I and she was so generous with her answers and I was really nervous and talking too much and asking 10 questions in one, which I always do, like ‘Hi, how are you, I love your album, tell me more about it’ and in my head I’m like ‘Shut up Annie!’ But she was so kind and she could tell that I was nervous and she was very sweet about that.
Have you ever felt that you've had to work harder as a woman to get where you are?
Being really honest? Not really. I just did my thing. I've always been aware that there’s been fuck-all women in the industry. And since I've had kids, the innate unfairness of being a woman has really struck me, because I have to take time off work for kids, and I love work, I’ve built up my career, and I'm self-employed, I'm the director of my own companies, but when you have a kid, you’re the one that has to physically have it. There was so much about being pregnant that I found inspiring and enlightening, but there was also a lot that I found confusing, because I've always been someone who has felt really free in being able to do my own thing and push forward, and there’s something about being pregnant that’s really fucking mindblowing because you realise that, no matter what you do or how far you go as a woman, your body is a baby-making machine and it takes over. It was quite shocking at the start because I was like, fuck, is this all I'm here for? Then you have to remember that you are still the person that you were before you had a baby and you are still someone who loves going out and playing music and doing radio shows and loving young new music, like grime. Just because you’re a mum, it doesn't make you an old soul, it doesn't make you live a certain way or be a certain way, you can still be everything you were before. So after I had a kid there was this period of ‘Oh it’s ok, I’m still me, thank god. I just had this baby and he's amazing and he can still grow up and be a happy kid and I can still do my thing.’
What was it like coming back to work after maternity leave?
Taking time off work was so terrifying for me the first time around and having other people do my radio show was really scary because the music industry is fickle, they move quickly, and you wonder, ‘Will people miss me, will they care when I come back?’ but they did and they were really delighted to have me back and I realised that people were invested in me and that the work I’d done had been worth it. So then you come back and you’re more focused than ever because you don’t have much time so you smash it, you have three hours a day to get everything done and you’re so focused and it’s amazing and you’re so inspired. And then with my second baby, there was that, but also there was the realisation that I'm not a fucking machine. I'm juggling 18 things at once at the moment and it’s hard. I took on this job last week where I'm soundtracking 30 minutes of offcuts of Blue Planet, it was really exciting, I learnt iMovie, I was editing the audio and putting amazing music to this amazing video. But on top of that, I'm launching a festival, doing five shows a week, doing interviews, with my kid teething, and I was going home at night, getting into bed, opening my laptop and trying to edit on iMovie. Anything new that you take on just topples everything.
I spent my 20s clubbing and raving and now I feel like I'm slowing down a bit and my friends have stopped going out so much and that makes me sad. Was there a time when you slowed down, and what is your advice on clubbing into your 30s?
It's only really kids that have slowed me down in terms of clubbing and the reason is because late nights are just so hard when you have kids. So maybe I’ll have another revival when I'm 45 and the kids have grown up! I think that with clubbing, it’s about picking your nights, not forcing yourself out, only seeing people play that you really want to see, who make you feel invincible. When you're in your 30s you know what you like and what you need to be happy, and you’ve also got a little bit more income, so maybe it’s about saving and going to a really sick festival like the Worldwide festival or Dekmantel in Amsterdam, so choosing what you do and doing it in a slightly more high end way, so you’re still getting the music and the buzz but you’re not putting yourself through the madness that you did when you were 23.
Can you recommend some female DJs for us?
Yeah, Jayda G is my current obsession, she plays everything from TLC to old disco to really good techno. Then there’s a girl called A.G coming through who’s a grime DJ, really technically gifted. There’s an army of young female DJs coming through, it's so exciting. For my festival this year, the one I do in Malta every year [Lost & Found], I wanted to see how many women I could book on the lineup and still make it a ticket-selling festival where people are going to know the names and it was really interesting because you have such a limited amount of women on the top tier, so if one woman can't do it, you can't replace them with another woman because there isn't another woman. So it was a really interesting exercise to try to do, I think I’ve got a third, there’s something like 56 people and I've got 18/19 women, but that took a real conscientious, deliberate effort to do that, to constantly go back and say ‘Yes but we need another woman’. But most of the women I've booked are on the bottom tiers so it does make me excited for the next five years because by 2020 there’s going to be so many incredible women. People don't comment on it now and say, 'Oh I see you've got loads of women on your lineup' because they are good and celebrated for being good, not for being women.