A night in room 14D at New York’s Carlton Arms Hotel is like being submerged in an oceanic abyss. A jellyfish-like chandelier dangles from the ceiling, while a 24-hour ambient soundtrack sucks you in even deeper. It’s a representation of Johnny Mackay aka Fascinator’s subconscious mind – and you can sleep in it for around $100 a night.
Mackay – a former short-term resident at the Carlton Arms – was given free reign to design a room by the hotel’s art-obsessed owners. So he did what any self-respecting New York creative would: he turned to his therapist. “I wanted to try and find the place where ideas come from. So in a semi-hypnotic state we'd dive in and I’d always end up in the ocean, in a place between two lands.”
Between two lands is kinda the perfect description of where Mackay has been situated for the past few years, both in a subconscious and physical sense. After the dissolution of his ARIA chart-topping rock band Children Collide, the singer moved to New York from Melbourne in 2012 in a self-described moment of masochism. But he soon found himself partnerless, cashless, and bouncing from couch to couch. And that’s when Water Sign – Fascinator’s triumphant album – began taking shape.
“I was basically homeless for six months, sleeping on floors and couches around New York. That's where I started writing the record, in this really shit rehearsal studio I'd rented to store my stuff in. I was surrounded by boxes of displaced belongings and depressed as fuck.”
Over the next four years, Mackay would chip away at the record in planes, trains, automobiles and, er, a barn in Nantucket for a song writing workshop. It was there that the genre-hopping sitar jam ‘Midnight Rainbow’ began taking shape. “I wanted to write a late night meditation that could work as a soundtrack for getting stoned and cooking,” he says.
He wrote the vocals for the album’s baggy lead single ‘Sex Crystals’ in his sister’s kitchen in Brisbane, before finishing it off with Andy Szeceres (Midnight Juggernauts) in a studio in West Melbourne. Directed by Mackay himself, its Garden of Earthly Delights-influenced clip is another deep dive into his subconscious mind: a place where dancing vegetables and cult acolytes happily coexist. “It turned out looking like some kind of weird alternative creation story,” Mackay says, laughing. “I get resurrected with a séance and that looks like Bosch having a last supper in heaven.”
Mackay describes Water Sign as a collection of situational soundtracks, influenced by wherever in the world he was at the time. The album was also informed by the hundreds of records he was being exposed to as an in-demand New York DJ, playing everywhere from rooftops, to fancy hotels and on boats floating past the Statue of Liberty.
There are baroque-pop flourishes on ‘Showin’ Off’; ‘Your Money, it’s Ugly’ is a nod to Afro- beat; while ‘Baby, Gone’ is a ‘60s French pisstake with the entire lyric sheet in the song’s title. “I feel like I've been doing an apprenticeship in musicology for four years,” says Mackay of his DJ side-hustle. “DJing has given me decades worth of albums to make … It gives me ideas every time I do it. I find it healthy in the way it feeds me.
“It’s fun going from cocktail hour at a fancy hotel where I’ll have Tito Puente or something like that happening. Then head out to do a proper dancefloor set. It’s forced me to consider all the different genres you can use depending on the scenario. I started doing these mixes called: dinner, drinks, dancing, and daybreak. I had that concept in my mind when I was making ‘Midnight Rainbow’. I think I even started writing a song about taking a bath as well. Next album…”
Water Sign marks the second Fascinator release under the Spinning Top Music umbrella (POND, Tame Impala, Nicholas Allbrook). The Perth-born label and artist management company welcomed Mackay into their family during that dark period when he began writing the album in New York.
And while Water Sign is a document of those strange times, it also represents Mackay’s heroic journey from “destitution to almost not quite destitution”, as he puts it in typical self- deprecating fashion. He’s now enjoying the creative freedom his adopted home city has afforded him.
“The one thing about New York is you can walk out the house dressed in garbage bags and around the corner there'll be someone dressed in transparent garbage bags. You can't run on being weird. Everyone's going to be like, ‘Big deal.’ I did a video once where I was dressed as a medieval knight on the subway. Nobody batted an eyelid.”