Nashville's own katie MAC explores the desires that hurt us most on her poignant new EP, "Self Sabotage"

By: Heather Bushman

Why do we always want what’s worst for us?

Even when our better judgement is screaming at us to turn the other way, it is human nature to give into our vices. For some, it means staying up during the ungodly hours of the night despite an early morning lecture; for others it means putting that homework off for just once more episode in a Netflix binge session. For those like katie MAC, Nashville’s up-and-coming pop prodigy, it means going back to the type of boy that means nothing but trouble.

Perhaps the worst part of decisions like these is that we’re completely conscious of the consequences. We know we’re walking into a bad situation, but we just can’t stop ourselves: we want what we shouldn’t. katie MAC knows this all too well. “Got a certain type,” she admits in the chorus of “Self Sabotage,” the title track of her latest EP. “Kind to make me cry, kind of lose my mind.”

Self Sabotage is an exploration into our destructive tendencies and the underlying insecurities that incite them. Fueled by synth-heavy production and MAC’s dynamic vocals, the five-track EP is an excellent piece of modern pop and a mirror for listeners whose experiences feel eerily similar to the ones katie MAC depicts.

The EP opens with the title track, complete with an ascending synth line, deep electronic bass, and tasteful vocal modulation. It sets the tone from the start: fun and fresh but entirely self-aware, even self-deprecating at times. Here, MAC tackles her toxic relationship tendencies, wondering why she always seems to fall for the boys that bring the most complications. Her vocal work is especially smooth and supported, specifically when she digs into her lower register for the verses and when she reaches her falsetto to decorate the top of the more layered moments.

“Till It Hurts” continues the trend both thematically and sonically, with MAC pleading with her partner to show any kind of emotion, even negative ones. The use of layering and modulation adds a hint of nuance, and it’s particularly impressive on the line “even when we fall out.” With these extra elements, the song stays crisp and interesting, never feeling stale or repetitive because of the constant variety. The bridge is the highlight, where the beat cuts in half, the chord structure changes, and MAC lets her voice soar through the added layering. “Till It Hurts” addresses the fear of a dry and boring relationship, but the song itself is anything but.

MAC gets in touch with her Nashville roots on “No Fun,” a track with a twangy guitar riff at the forefront. It’s one of the more playful cuts on the EP, outlining an easy relationship where neither person is particularly concerned with labels. The writing is clever, with lines like “you’re way too young to be stressed out, I’m way too drunk for your mom’s house” almost winking at the listener as MAC glides through the verses into a more staccato chorus. It’s endlessly catchy, “we could, we could put a label on it. I would, I would if you really want it” guaranteed to stick. “We’re probably in love,” she admits by the end, and it feels like we’re watching our favorite rom-com couple ride off into the sunset after an hour and a half of will-they/won’t they misadventures.

Self Sabotage delves deeper into its namesake on “Talk Me Down.” The track is dedicated to the person MAC trusts to take care of her when she gets in her head. “When it gets too loud, I need you to talk me down.” She bares it all here, “I hate that I get anxious, nervous, we should be hanging out.” Undeniably apologetic, “I got it in my head now that you won’t stick around” feels like a plea for the person to stay despite MAC’s self-perceived shortcomings. In the end, though, it’s hopeful. The instrumentals are upbeat despite the cautious lyricism, a muted guitar intro line giving way to pizzicato strings and rolling snares that sound nothing short of cinematic. “I’m working on it,” she says. 

“Worried About Me” ends the EP on a darker note. The track is decidedly more exposed than its predecessors, airing out MAC’s insecurities and anxiety over her future. In one of the most blunt lines on the entire project, she confesses, “I think too much, cause what if I’m not good enough, what if I don’t measure up.” Voicemails from concerned loved ones make up the intro, overlapping and running together to the point where it feels like a singular message. Though there are multiple voices, the message does feel singular in a sense: we’re worried about you. Evidently, MAC’s worried about herself too, “worried ‘bout me, never get sleep” echoing over a slow synth chords and decorative bell tones in the chorus. The openness here only strengthens her connection with her listeners, upping the relatability factor significantly. It’s a moment of vulnerability that, after joining MAC on her emotional journey, feels entirely earned.

It’s clear from this EP that katie MAC understands both her audience and her genre. The production provided by MAC, Kipper Gray and Will McBeath lends itself to the minimalist “bedroom pop” style that’s come to prominence over the past three years or so. Though more upbeat, the project is almost reminiscent of early Billie Eilish, a major player in movement toward a more alternative form of pop. This angle is apparent here, as well as the pop landscape in general. Gone are the grandiose displays of massive musical moments that characterized the 2000s and early 2010s, when a pop song felt larger-than-life. Instead, pop music has become smaller, more intimate. On Self Sabotage, it’s in the form of rounded synth melodies and light vocals, in steady bass lines and decorative ad-libs that add dimensions without feeling obvious or intrusive. Pop music is evolving, and emerging artists like katie MAC are evolving with it.

This evolution is also palpable in the subject matter of Self Sabotage. Pop music isn’t a sunny celebration of our euphoric escapades or a montage of life’s greatest moments anymore. Artists have taken off the rose-colored glasses and tapped into something real, raw human emotions that the “best night ever!” compositions of the last decade could never depict. The superpower of Self Sabotage, for all of its musical prowess and lyrical maturity, is its vulnerability. In baring the deepest and darkest parts of her soul, MAC creates a bond with her audience, one founded on their shared experiences. She’s not living in some pop-star fantasy with night clubs and fast cars and fountains of champagne, not at all: she’s an average 20-something trying to navigate all of the ups and downs that life throws her way just like everyone else. It’s this kind of pop music, the kind where artists say things like “they’re all getting married, shit is scary” and “I’m the type of girl where when it feels right, I’ll find what ain’t right,” that makes a listener want to keep listening.

Refreshingly honest and forward-thinking, Self Sabotage is the type of project that continues to propel pop music into a new era of intimacy. It’s not easy to be confronted with our flaws, and it’s tempting to turn to the idealism of an earlier time, but facing ourselves through the works of others is what makes music such an incredible arena for genuine connection. katie MAC, stripped of any pretenses and authentic above all else, accomplishes this connection here. Self Sabotage may be an exploration into MAC’s counterproductive tendencies, but on it, she makes all the right moves.

Special thanks to katie MAC, Gramophone Media, and for the early listen! Listen to Self Sabotage wherever you get your music!