The rise of superstar Dublin DJ Annie Mac

She’s the Dublin DJ who secured a prime slot on BBC radio and hung out with Sam Smith even before he was famous. Claire Droney meets the very cool Annie Mac.

I HAD expected someone else. 

On air and online, she’s a whirlwind of curls tied up in 1950s hairbands, tight, coloured leggings, ‘Woooo!’ and ‘Party!’ soundbites and shout-outs, while fans post photos of themselves clubbing, using her tagline ‘Raving’.

There’s a host of celebrity pictures too — Annie Mac posing with Duke Dumont at Coachella, Chris Martin at a re-purposed church in Hackney, and Kendrick Lamar in studio. 

She’s known Sam Smith since he worked in bars, she discovered Jamie xx and Disclosure, and Janet Jackson recently tweeted a thanks for playing her new song.

So when a quiet, curly-haired woman in flats and a long black coat, wearing a backpack, wanders into the cosy rooftop bar from the mayhem of Oxford St, it’s a surprise.

“Coldplay are not my friends. I don’t have their numbers and I wouldn’t know them on a personal level to call them,” she laughs, when asked about her celebrity pals. 

And although she’s off to meet Sara Cox and Nick Grimshaw (‘our Grim’) later for cocktails in Soho, Annie Mac is adamant that she doesn’t lead a celebrity lifestyle.

“I also don’t see myself as a superstar DJ because I think there’s things that go along with that title that imply that you act like a superstar and I don’t really. 

"I lead a very normal life and I drive a proper low-key car, and I’m not flashy,” she says.

“Having gone to those parties or premieres in the past, they’re always pretty dry and I’d rather have a night out or dinner with my pals, who I don’t get to see enough as it is. 

"I find that world quite fake and vacuous. Time is precious and I’d rather spend it with people I find stimulating, honest, and real.”

These days it’s less partying and more drinking tea while listening to new music in the shed at the end of her garden, going home straight after the show, or meeting friends with kids in playgrounds at the weekend. 

After all, it takes energy to run a business. And Annie Mac is big business.

Having taken over Zane Lowe’s BBC Radio 1 weekday evening music show almost a year ago (attracting more than 100,000 new listeners since then), Mac’s feet have barely touched the ground. 

As well as presenting her radio show five nights a week, Mac also runs her company, Annie Mac Presents (AMP).

The brand releases a hugely popular annual compilation album; hosts the award-winning Lost and Found festival in Malta; as well as organising gigs and club nights with Mac at the helm (her High-5 UK tour sold out in seconds). 

She also works as a club DJ, playing at international festivals including Coachella, Sonar Stockholm, Creamfields and Bestival. 

It’s a long way from her early DJ-ing days of driving across America eating pick ’n’ mix in the middle of the night, playing to small crowds, or being dropped off to gigs in her friend’s mum’s car.

“Quite often I find it all a bit overwhelming to be honest,” says Mac, at the tail end of the busiest year of her life. 

She spent Christmas in a state of “happy boredom”, binge-watching The Bridge with her family, partner and music producer Toddla T and two-year-old son, Oisin. 

Although she did manage to fit in a sold-out gig in Dublin’s District 8.

“I do like to be busy and I do like to have a plan — I come from a family of doers,” she says.

BORN in Dublin in 1978, she was influenced by her family’s musical tastes. 

There was James Taylor and Elton John (her parents), U2, Thin Lizzy, and The Pogues (her two older brothers), and pirate radio dance and techno (her sister). 

Hearing Moloko’s ‘Fun for Me’ for the first time made a teenage Annie MacManus reel.

“I remember thinking it was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and it was so exciting and soulful and edgy and different and Róisín Murphy was so cool,” laughs Mac, 37, who says she behaved like a “proper fan girl” when interviewing Murphy last year.

After completing a degree in English literature in Queen’s University, Belfast, (she loves Bukowski and Brendan Behan), she did an MA in radio in Hampshire.

She worked both behind the scenes and as a DJ in radio for 10 years before getting her current show, which she describes as “mind-blowing”.

“This job was the one I never really let myself dream of because I didn’t think it was feasible. 

"I didn’t think Zane Lowe would ever go because he’s so good at what he does, and I’m not sure Radio 1 would’ve ever asked him to go,” she says.

“So when I got the show it was all a whirlwind. I feel very grateful to have had a chance to do it.”

Being a taste-maker is hard work though. Mac curates the music she plays on her show during afternoon listening sessions with her team; attends live gigs at least twice a week after work; and spends a few hours a week trawling the internet for new music.

“I think it’s important to not just stick with what you get given, because there’s only a certain amount of bands who are signed to labels and a certain amount of artists who can afford to pay for someone who’s going to promote them on the radio. 

"So it’s really important to try and give everyone an equal chance,” she says.

“If I’m in two minds about playing a track, I always try and go see the band and that kind of seals the deal for me one way or another. A lot of the time you need to see a band in order to really make a proper decision about them.”

She currently rates Mura Masa (electronic music producer), Billie Marten (folk singer-songwriter) and Elf Kid (grime MC and rap), and advises young musicians to try the art of “gentle reminders” to record companies.

“It’s about maintaining and cultivating relationships with people and also being really active on your own terms. 

"Evan [Duthie, 14-year-old DJ who recently played alongside Mac at the O2 Academy in Glasgow] sent me the first track that he made…and Monki [current resident DJ at AMP events] just came to my parties and asked could she sit in on a show and just kind of built it up from there,” she says.

ALTHOUGH she is well established, Mac describes herself as being “brutally self-conscious” during live DJ sets.

“It’s just the physical aspect of performing in front of 20,000 to 30,000 people on main stages at festivals — it’s terrifying! In radio, there’s no one there apart from your team,” says the DJ who advocates thorough preparation as a cure for nerves — as well as a vodka-tonic while on stage.

“The main thing is to do your homework, and feel confident about what you’re going to do.

“On those big main stage sets I have a really good idea of how I am going to start and how I am going to end…and I know the records inside out, I know exactly how many beats there are. 

"Just know your stuff and try to connect with the crowd as much as you can,” she says.

Adamant that she wants career longevity, Mac recently praised singer Adele for not ‘shilling’ for any company who offers the highest bid.

“All I want is a long, steady career and I think sometimes when you do too much you put yourself at a risk of being overexposed.

“I’ve got much better in the last few years at being brave enough to say no to gigs I’m not sure of — big money gigs,” she says.

She did worry though, about losing her footing on the career ladder when she took the summer off to have her son two years ago.

“I was terrified of losing all the stuff that I’d built up, all the trust and the relationships, but it was the best thing I ever did.

“The year after having my baby was an incredible year for me in terms of people seeming to want to embrace what I was doing. I think sometimes it’s good to take a step back.

“Over the years I’ve got a lot more selective about the work I say yes to. It has to really feel worthwhile at a creative level and at a financial level to make it worth leaving the house for, basically,” she says.

Yet she still has a very large to-do list, which includes writing, producing TV documentaries, and the RTÉ series Other Voices.

“Just being able to do something that I love and make a living out of it is such a privileged position. I feel very lucky,” she says, before heading to the BBC studios for a three-hour gig on her Friday night dance show.

“It’s funny how life turns out. But I’m happy with my lot.”

Annie Mac is on Radio 1 from 7pm, Monday–Friday. See Annie Mac DJ at Annie Mac Presents Lost and Found Festival, March 31-April 3 in Malta. See lostandfoundfestival.com



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