Interview with Michael Aldag

I'm meeting Michael Aldag IRL so we can talk about the internet. It's one of those perfect New Brighton mornings: flinty sunlight, Cornettos clenched in every fist, breezes sharp enough to make your eyes stream. Considering so much of Michael's music is tied up with the pain of online communication, to say nothing of his accidental sideline as a TikTok star, the fresh air will probably do us both good. "I spend most of my life looking at a phone screen," he admits.

At least New Brighton is distracting. He's heavily nostalgic about the place, having spent many solitary evenings here over lockdown, staring out across the water lost in thought. When it comes to his hometown of West Kirby, though, he's less misty-eyed. "I never did much there. Sometimes me and my mates would go the park where pensioners played bowls, and hide in the bushes throwing grapes," he reflects. "Once we got chased by this old man, which was one of the biggest rushes of my whole life."

Glossing over that particular episode, Michael's back-story has a wholesome ring to it. He kicked off his singing career as a shepherd in the school nativity, joined the Philharmonic Youth Choir at fourteen, then picked up an acoustic guitar to play open mic nights. The early songs were more earnest than his recent material, penned with a degree of maturity he now finds absurd: "I was a very small, ginger boy, and it was quite hard to get taken seriously. So writing songs felt like a superpower. I could play an open mic and people would start listening. They'd say, ah, you sound like you've lived so many lives!"

At sixteen, he discovered Logic and started producing his own music, replacing stripped-back compositions with big synths and tight hooks. His writing developed a wry edge, satirising peers in songs like the Lorde-inflected Arrogance, and Trust Funds (picture Common People if the guy took the path of least resistance and just lapped up the freebies). Being accepted onto the Levi's Music Project and LIMF Academy allowed him to experiment even further.

Musically, his influences are stadium-leaning. He loves Bastille and The 1975, but above all The Killers. It was their biblical-experience live shows which first convinced him to give music a shot. He elaborates: "It's the level of emotion. There's always a point in the song where it's really heartwrenching and climactic, which I love. When I saw them live, I realised I wanted to have that effect." He's equally devoted to the confessional lyrics of Phoebe Bridgers, and rap artists like Headie One. It all boils down into honest, quirky and idiosyncratic songs that nevertheless activate whichever muscle makes people want to wave lighters in the air and clamber onto each other's shoulders.

But when lockdown happened, TikTok became his stage instead. He started creating droll clips about people his age enduring Freshers Week in breakout rooms, or uploading pictures of giftwrapped cars they couldn't drive. It's the same posturing he dissects in his lyrics. As Entitled puts it: "My crisis is bigger than yours is/When I cry I look gorgeous, and you should too". This plainspeaking critique of the online rituals of his generation struck a chord, and his following swiftly rocketed.

Blowing up on TikTok, however, meant building a purely virtual fanbase, only encountering followers months later when fully-formed crowds materialised at his first live shows: "It was weird to see all these people that had just been a number on a screen actually there singing the songs. I kept taking out my in-ear to listen because it was the biggest buzz ever." Most of us didn't emerge from lockdown to a roomful of people screaming our name, but TikTok's front-facing, deceptively intimate format made fans feel they knew him personally. Thinking back to the shy kid singing grizzled ballads in bars, would he say he was always a class clown? Or is this something he's grown into?

"I'd like to say I was a class clown, but I don't think anyone would agree. I was just annoying."

Well, if TikTok counts, you're having the last laugh.

"Sort of, I guess. Certified class clown!"

Then we pass a barbers, and he flinches. He's protective of the red curls that make him immediately recognisable, and no, he would not like to risk a portrait in the barber's chair. We agree the trauma of bad haircuts runs deep.

I had a friend with hair like yours as a teenager, and he spent his life fending off girls who wanted to touch it and straighten it at house parties. Is it the same for you?

He nods vigorously. "Pensioners mostly. I was in Morrisons and a lady came up and grabbed it. During Covid. She went 'Ooooooh, lovely hair', so it wasn't just a grab-and-walk-off, there was context. And at a festival this lad recognised me in the crowd and kept leaning over to ruffle it. I was like, alright errrrrrr, cheers, but stop now!"

Besides women in supermarkets thirsty for his hair in a locket, plenty of people seem to want a piece of Michael Aldag. Talking to those around him, I hear about producers phoning from LA, clothing brands cramming his wardrobe, young girls swooning on the front row of sold-out shows. And speaking of front rows, in September TikTok swept him and various other creators off to London Fashion Week, which inspired bitter broadsheet column inches about teenagers bagsying the best seats.

At nineteen, he's still in the thick of everything, so the songs are often "super raw" and charged with emotion. Tonsillitis and Divorce are particularly lacerating, because writing them got him through a major break-up, not to mention lockdown. He battled through endless drafts before getting to the heart of what he really wanted to say. "I was at rock bottom, but I found some kind of solace in writing," he says. "And once I'd written them I was like, cool, I can move on from this whole situation!"

Tonsillitis opens by invoicing an ex for lunch, petrol and six months of bellyaching, then describes his granddad's funeral going by without so much as a call from the other person. This is a recurring theme in the songs: people are permanently online, yet fail to connect. Does he think everyone is so used to passively watching life unfold from a screen that they forget to reach out when it matters?

"Yeah, you can have so many interactions with people that are just surface level," he muses. "It's complex because it's easy to message a lot of people, and mistake that for something more meaningful than it is."

Divorce is even more brutal. Rather than projecting a picture-perfect relationship, the lyrics hold up a girl's mother as a damning blueprint of their future together, with flash-forwards to her sourly heaping on criticism and boring him senseless with Botox chat while he's left "crying in our bedroom because we're selling the apartment". It's a song in which absolutely nobody is living their best life. What a relief.

Michael agrees. "I tend to be a bit meaner in lyrics than I probably am in real life. But I just want my music to be honest, you know? If I was too scared, I'd write generic songs that wouldn't upset anybody, but also wouldn't move anybody, in any way.

"There are some songs you're afraid for people to hear. I play everything to my sisters first, and I had to leave the room when I played Tonsillitis, because it was too awkward. It's so on the nose about what happened."

Has getting your heart broken been good for you in the long run? You got songs out of it.

He brightens. "Yeah, I think it actually has! It was really lonely, and I had a lot to stew over.  But it's in those times of real grief and loss that you finally find out who you are."

Recent single Ghosted takes a more playful tack. It's about two people second-guessing each other online: they pore over each other's stories and shower each other with likes, until communications suddenly and inexplicably cease. The video is a riot of colour one minute, a washed-out swell of grey tracksuits the next: a comment on the ways people use social media to portray life at its most bouncy and hyper-saturated, no matter what else is going on. Considering the girl in question hates his songs and recoils from his star-sign, getting ghosted should come as a relief, but instead he's left obsessively refreshing her Snapchat score.

Is having a high Snapchat score bad? (I manage not to say "Chapsnat" but it's uncomfortably close.)

He laughs. "If your Snapchat score is high, it means you're very active, you've sent a lot of texts. I've known people with really high scores who just ping things to everyone. It's like they're running a network of drama."

A pause. "I'm complicit in this. I'm by no means playing god, and saying everyone's doing all these things wrong. If you have a high Snapchat score, maybe you just talk to your friends a lot, and I'm bitter that I don't."

Except now he's in the position where people are pinging things at him from every platform. With so many eyes awaiting your next move, you're inevitably going to amplify some features and minimise others, a quandary he's all too aware of: "You present a caricature of yourself to protect who you actually are. That's what Ghosted is about, you're trying to build this thing online that you have to keep up. At the risk of sounding like I'm doing GCSE English, it's a façade. I'm definitely guilty of that.

"Social media is a useful tool to harness, especially for music. But your stability and happiness are also on the line, so it's very intricate and weird."

Still, a bit of online mythmaking is better than letting chats shrivel up and die, a frustration highlighted in the imaginary dialogues of Conversation, and TikToks with titles like 'when someone replies to your text with yeah aha'. It's all too easy to commiserate. On MSN it was so awful when people torpedoed the conversation with 'true' or 'fair enough'.

He shrugs. "Yeah, at that point it's like pitching jelly up a hill. The conversation's dead. You just have to start valuing your time, so if somebody hits you with an 'ahaha' then just be like, alright, that's the end of that."

Surely a drop of self-doubt is required to write as scathingly as Michael Aldag does about being ignored, or tearing your hair out over half-arsed DMs. But at the same time he doesn't seem hesitant at all. Between our conversations, he bounces in front of the camera as though he was born for it, the New Brighton waves lashing over his trainers as he leans in to catch the best light. Later in the café, I watch him gnaw obligingly on a piece of toast from every angle, the shutter going full-pelt.

He's soft-spoken, but eager to engage, tugging a chain between his teeth as he carefully weighs up each response. He recognises things are taking off, but seems self-deprecating and occasionally embarrassed by the hype. He reels off his immediate plans, which include photoshoots with LFC, a forthcoming single and two gigs before the month is out, but admits to feeling stressed by the realisation he can never switch off.

So let's fast-forward around a week. Like any musical tale worth its salt, this one finishes up on stage: he's been booked for Live at Leeds festival, and dutifully brings his A-game. At intimate venues like the students' union bar we're stood in, it's hard to predict if a soaring crescendo or big chorus is going to land – but Michael's got the measure of the place. He dominates the stage, raising the microphone high above his head and belting out every line from the heart. Hangovers melt away. The pop gods are appeased.

And then the sad songs arrive, with a disclaimer. "If you don't want to be miserable, you can just go on your phone", he tells the crowd with a grin. Finally, there's your permission from Michael Aldag to go ahead and ignore him while he's spilling his guts. But honestly? You'll be much better off if you just stick your phone on flight mode and hear the guy out. Alienation and affirmation, only a screen's width apart.

2021. Appeared in Bido Lito