“I thought it would be easy to put together a ‘best of’ – how hard could that be?” chuckles Mat McHugh, singer, guitarist, songwriter and founder of the project he launched nearly 20 years ago to which he gave the name The Beautiful Girls. Well as it turned out, putting together a vinyl double-album that represented the very best of the recorded output of The Beautiful Girls from across five albums and three EPs proved a little harder than he ever imagined.
“Often it came down to a choice between what was a popular track and what was a track that artistically I felt held more weight,” he explains. “I threw the selection process out on social media and asked for other people’s opinion, which was probably a really bad thing to do in hindsight because everyone had their reasons for one thing or another. But it’s been a really good exercise. I’m not the kind of person who looks in the rear view mirror too much. When you’re in the thick of it you don’t really view what you’ve done for what it is. You just want to move to the next thing as quickly as possible. But having a bit of space to look back on it, it was good.”
Right from the beginning, soon after he returned from overseas in 2001 and began recording the songs he’d been writing on a trusty four-track recorder, McHugh has seen The Beautiful Girls as a collective rather than a band, a songwriting project for which he’d bring in players as each set of songs required. “Those tapes ended up in the hands of a couple of friends,” he remembers, “who agreed to come and play some shows with me. That was the beginning The Beautiful Girls.
“When I write a song, particularly because I perform all the stuff on these tracks, I just take so many hats on and off. Like, ‘Today my job is the bass player and the keyboard player,’ and that’s it. That’s all I think about, and I try and reference bass players and keyboard players that I might like. There are just so many artistic and aesthetic decisions to make at every point that you have this schizophrenic jumping in and out of roles all the time. And then there are the lyrics, which are a whole other perspective, being representative of a kind of sound and a style and a place and a time.”
For McHugh, at the core of The Beautiful Girls is that sense of a place and a time and the sound that best represents them. “I’d been playing around forever but The Beautiful Girls as a project became well-known relatively quickly off a certain set of circumstances,” he admits, “the timing and the zeitgeist or whatever, because it was all pointing towards this roots music explosion. There were the John Butlers and the Jack Johnsons and we were really kind of in that. The first record I must admit I was so happy that anyone was listening to the music I was making for the first time in my life that I just wanted to stay there, and you can hear that in the early stuff. After that first record, I felt I’d been elevated to a certain position where a lot of musicians who I feel are far more accomplished than me hadn’t reached, so I was determined I would work my arse off to try and deserve it. That’s when the graft, the hard work came in and I really tried to differentiate this music and the songs from anything anybody else was doing, anywhere really but particularly here in Australia. It just became more and more powerful as it went on. It would get deeper lyrically, production-wise and in everything. It’s been a crazy journey.”
Across those albums and EPs, The Beautiful Girls have created quite the diverse body of work, but it all somehow fits together within the genre McHugh created for himself – Seaside Highlife.
“I kind of coined that term because, for me, that was the number one goal. To have a sound to call our own. Pretty early on in the piece I felt it wouldn’t be authentic to pretend this music came out of Brooklyn or Brixton or anywhere else. It was born of where it was born. Our first shows actually began by jacking into the council power supply at the skate bowl in Avalon, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, throwing massive street parties. My heart is so wrapped up in the culture of east coast Australian beach life, the culture into which I was born and raised, that I thought – okay, what does thatsound like? What does myculture that I was immersed in sound like, if I was to mash it all together and make it into some sort of sonic recipe? Punk Rock, Reggae, Hip Hop, Dub, Acoustic, Soul – music that lifts you up and takes you out of your immediate surroundings. I know for me personally, growing up in a single-parent low-income suburb by the beach, the music and the art the culture that our crew of friends created around ourselves elevated us and helped us to transcend the things we really needed some escape from. It made our little World seem a little more magical. We wanted a place we could escape to – no racism, no fashion, no division, no hopelessness, no bullshit, no fake glamour, no violence at home, no minimum-wage jobs, no career anxiety, no rock stars, no judgements, no hatred. Just friendship and music and love. To me, that was the only dream – still is – Seaside Highlife. More life.”