Shifting Moods

Arlington prodigy Margot MacDonald’s musical mélange.

Margot MacDonald.

Margot MacDonald’s “Speed of Sound” is one of those magical pop songs that builds a little world inside your ears—a swirling mass of layered vocal harmonies wrapped around a melodic hook that can linger in your head and on your lips all day long.  

As the opening cut of Canvas, the Arlington singer’s most recent album, “Speed of Sound,” sets a high bar. But that challenge is met by the remainder of the set—a diverse mélange of tunes, ranging from pop to rock to country, with MacDonald’s husky, soulful vocals at the center of the changes. “To the Ground” and “Pretty Little Cage” strip it all down to a dreamy acoustic and her commanding voice, while “Bubble Wrapped Heart” is a bouncy, country-tinged love song. There’s variety and melody to spare.

The fresh-faced MacDonald, who plays piano and guitar, is only 24 years old, but she’s already an industry veteran and a winner of the Washington Area Music Association’s Artist of the Year award, her 11th WAMA win. Her musical output has surveyed a range of genres, including hard rock and opera.

“I can actually say that Plácido Domingo was my first boss,” MacDonald says with a laugh.

A self-described “hyperactive child,” she joined the Washington National Opera company at age 10, when Domingo was still the company’s general director.

Young Margot auditioned after her second grade art teacher, Miss Green, told MacDonald’s parents that she had musical talent that needed nurturing. “My folks kind of scratched their heads and said, ‘Oh well, OK. Let’s get her some music lessons.’”

MacDonald has been a songwriter since she can remember. “Miss Green would let me write songs for projects instead of essays,” she says. “I caught the bug early and continued to write. While I was still with the opera, my songs fell into the hands of producer John Jennings, who ended up producing my first album.”

Yes, at a time when most kids are still navigating the safe use of playground equipment, MacDonald was releasing her debut solo album. “It was kind of folky soft-rock, a collection of songs that I wrote when I was 10 or 11, mainly about following your dreams and other things a 10-year-old would be writing about.” She is quick to add, with a giggle: “My influences have changed so much over the years.”

MacDonald’s breakout album, Walls, released in 2009, was a move into harder modern rock, complete with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”

The material on Canvas was inspired by experimental U.K. songstress Imogen Heap, “especially in her use of the convergence of music and technology,” MacDonald explains. “It inspired me to use the loop pedal, which is a big part of the new album.”

She began playing the instrument in 2009, in anticipation of a multi-artist Christmas concert at the Kennedy Center, where she performed Heap’s holiday song “Just For Now.” She was hooked. “I became totally sold on the creativity that it gave me to use the voice as an instrument.”

Looping allows MacDonald to, in effect, sing with herself by adding and repeating vocal parts. Manipulating these effects is not unlike learning another instrument, she says. “It’s a lot of multi-tasking. But like the guitar or the piano, once you get the movements and the muscle memory, it’s a lot easier to give yourself over.”

When it came time to record the material that became Canvas, songs influenced by the looping, MacDonald’s long-time producer and family friend, Marco Delmar, had to adjust.

“It did present a challenge in that we wanted to preserve the intimacy of the live sound,” says Delmar, who co-owns Recording Arts Studio in D.C. and has produced MacDonald’s last three albums. “Margot’s biggest thing has been trying to figure out who she is, and recording is always a process of discovering that.”

Of late, MacDonald has been winning attention outside of Metro D.C. Her appearances at national showcases, such as the 2013 CMJ Music Festival, have won her plaudits from National Public Radio, and she’s building an audience in New York City, where she performs monthly. Canvas breaks other territory for her:  The singer used crowd funding for the first time, raising nearly $15,000 on IndieGoGo to make her new disc.

“I just went out and asked, ‘Who wants to help me do this project?’ I had seen a couple other artists do it. I then took a lot of time to make sure I was truly conveying what I intended to do. Because that’s important.” MargotMacdonald.com

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