Rin McArdle has arranged to meet NME just south of the Adelaide CBD, at a cafe near her old house, to discuss her new self-titled album. We grab a coffee and head over the road to the public park where the winter sun gives the light a crystalline clarity.
Neutral spaces like a park or cafe are common interview locations, but this is different. You see, when McArdle lived here she was trying to kick a heroin addiction with the help of an insomnia-inducing Suboxone prescription. As the excruciating hours of sleeplessness ticked over through the night, McArdle looked forward to the morning, when she could cross the park and be welcomed by the cafe staff.
“I’d walk across in my pyjamas and every single morning they’d be like: ‘Hey Rin!’ and give me the biggest hug. I’d be feeling like shit, just so tender,” says McArdle. “If it wasn’t for the people that were there at the time I don’t know if I could have done it.”
McArdle is wearing her trademark bush hat and sports an axolotl tattoo. She is very, very funny, in that way in which sometimes one must laugh at the world to comprehend its cruel absurdity. But she’s not about to mythologise that darkness.
“I hate that there’s this romanticised rock’n’roll thing. My life was fucked. The only reason I’m able to play music now and make a record is because I am so far away from it. I’m not making music because I did heroin. I did heroin because I have lots of trauma,” says McArdle.
McArdle played every instrument on her album. She had written the bulk of the songs before heading to Holes and Corners studio in Melbourne, where she’d pull 12-hour days with the engineer Sam Johnson before sleeping on the couch. Over four days, McArdle constructed each song’s skeleton, beginning with guitar chords, followed by the rhythm section.
On paper ‘Rin McArdle’ is a piece of classic guitar rock. But there’s something else that’s hard to nail down. It could be in McArdle’s urgent delivery, maybe her guitar’s rottweiler growl, or in the vulnerability of its tender moments. Whatever it is, it’s working.
Of particular note is McArdle’s choice to double-track her voice, overlaying two different vocal takes. It’s jarring, as though you’re hearing two people sing from one body: the inner voice that’s rarely shared and the outer voice we give to others. Despite her talents, the self-effacing McArdle is eager to separate virtuosity from virtue.
“My life was fucked. The only reason I’m able to play music now and make a record is because I am so far away from it”
“A lot of the worst people that I’ve ever met are extremely talented at one thing or another, like music or whatever. So I really don’t hold that as a marker for being a successful human being,” says McArdle.
She sees similarities between the intoxicating charisma some performers wield and that of the evangelical preachers she encountered as a young person attending a pentecostal church in Adelaide. She remembers one in particular, the late Sy Rogers, whose sermons often discussed his abandonment of his own homosexuality.
“He was very charismatic. It was quite palatable, he was very personable, which I think is more dangerous,” says McArdle, who is herself queer and turned away from the church in her early teens. “I remember being super little and being like, ‘I’m so excited to see Sy’, because he was so entertaining. And then I got older and I was like, ‘oh my god, that’s so fucking damaging’.”
Adelaide was also where, after getting clean, McArdle began a relationship that changed the course of her life and now forms the backbone of the album. Talking about these experiences is one of the few points in our conversation when McArdle becomes tongue-tied: “I didn’t know what coercive control was.”
“It just fucked me up really badly,” she says. “I felt like all of my autonomy was taken… I felt like I’d worked so hard to get off drugs and be the kind of person that I wanted to be and it was stolen.”
McArdle wrote the track ‘October’, a deceptively epic outpouring, during a particularly painful period. “You pretend to be me / while you’re pretending to be / as innocent as you seem / I’m quiet in my defiance / you’re so loud over my silence,” she sings. It’s one of the record’s quieter moments, floating in a resigned sadness. “I was in the most emotional pain when I wrote it,” McArdle says.
One of the hardest parts was McArdle seeing others using her past to discredit her claims: “‘She’s crazy. She’s an ex-drug addict. She’s making all of this up.’ And I’m just screaming into a fucking pillow, begging for people to believe me.” McArdle becomes increasingly animated and incredulous as she recounts her experiences, emotions powerfully expressed in an unrelenting stream of spoken-word lyrics on the song ‘Perpetual Propensity’:
“It’s taken the last years from me
I just want to be believed
You took it all so easily
I am ashamed, I was not free
I was not me, I could not breathe
so frozen that I could not speak
my life is just a pillow scream”
It was in a community of musicians in Naarm/Melbourne, the city she now calls home, that McArdle found the kinship and trust she needed to relearn after having her life turned inside out – but it took time.
At first, McArdle kept the turmoil to herself for months: “I was so terrified of not being believed or people thinking I was crazy that I didn’t tell anyone.” The first person she opened up to was Camp Cope drummer Sarah ‘Thomo’ Thompson. “It was from that day that I didn’t feel alone in the world anymore.”
“[Courtney Barnett and Camp Cope] became my protectors and comrades. It went beyond what a normal friendship entails”
It was Thompson (whose Camp Cope bandmate Georgia Maq appears on the track ‘Something Blue’) who convinced McArdle to finally share the album. It was 2021 and Courtney Barnett’s ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’ and Camp Cope’s ‘Running With the Hurricane’ albums were yet to be released. They decided to have a listening session at Barnett’s house. Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa was there, too. Numbers on scraps of paper were pulled from a hat.
“I picked three, so I had to fucking play my record after theirs,” remembers McArdle. “I got really drunk because I was so nervous. But they were just really encouraging. Little things like that kept on giving me the confidence to actually make the decision to release it.”
“Thomo took me under her wing and introduced me to a bunch of lovely, lovely people and they’re the people I feel saved my life,” she adds. “[Barnett and Camp Cope] became my protectors and comrades. It went beyond what a normal friendship entails.”
McArdle’s album goes to some dark places. But listen to the cathartic track ‘Chances’ and you’ll hear what she found on the other side: support, belief, friendship, camaraderie and deep human connection. “As much as it’s crushing and devastating, you can come out of these things with a real sense of empowerment.”
‘Rin McArdle’ is out now.