BEAUTIFUL BEGINNINGS: Mat. McHugh, centre, is leaving behind his stage name The Beautiful Girls and stepping into the spotlight to perform under his own name.Mat. McHugh is answering, once and for all, a question that has followed him for a decade.

Who are The Beautiful Girls?

The announcement of a “farewell tour” on the trio’s 10th anniversary has left many fans assuming the folk-rock group are disappearing into the sunset.

But The Beautiful Girls has always been a stage name for McHugh – and he’s not going anywhere.

“People think the band is splitting up, but for me I don’t think it can split up,” McHugh says.

“The Beautiful Girls has always been a name that I have put my music out under.

“Even from the start, I had the name written on demos and then roped in a couple of mates to flesh out the sound.

“Without ruining any mystique, [The Beautiful Girls] has always been a singer-songwriter project from the get-go – but just called The Beautiful Girls.

“John Butler and these guys go out under their own names, but [the solo songwriting process] is exactly the same.”

Article continues after video for the classic track from The Beautiful Girls, Periscopes.

Since emerging from the roots music scene in Sydney in 2001, McHugh’s trio have toured the world extensively.

They have released three EPs and four full-length records, the most recent being 2010’s Spooks.

As an outlet for McHugh’s music the band have evolved with every record to include elements of surf folk, dub rock and reggae.

But in 2009, the musician released a debut record under his own name called Seperatista, and earlier this year put out a second solo album called Love Come Save Me.

Releasing music as Mat. McHugh is a clear step into the spotlight.

“I felt the time was right for me to start using my own name,” McHugh says.

“For me, that’s what [the farwell tour] is, rather than ‘splitting up’.

“Splitting up suggests animosity – I’m not sick of the guys [bassist Paulie B and drummer Bruce Braybrooke].

“I love them to death and we’ll probably continue together in some way, shape or form.

“It’s more about taking ownership of my songs and my music under my own name.”

McHugh’s decision to shed his moniker begs the question – why didn’t he record under his own name from the outset?

“That is the $64,000 question, isn’t it?” McHugh chuckles.

“The truth of it is, when I grew up I was a surfer so my peers listened to punk rock bands, noisy electric guitar bands and grunge.

“On the side I played acoustic guitar my whole life.

“The group that I grew up around – my peers that played music – nobody would even consider [releasing] their music under their own name.

“Even if they wrote it themselves – it was just not the thing you do.

“Everyone would consider you a wanker.

“I also felt that [the moniker] was a protective mechanism.

“If people thought it sucked, it would be once-removed from me.

“I guess I didn’t feel confident enough.”

The trio’s upcoming tour is called An Evening With The Beautiful Girls and is divided in half.

The first is a stripped-back acoustic performance which will be followed by an electric set.

McHugh says he still “loves” his Beautiful Girls material and intends to continue to perform those songs.

“I don’t think a lot of these songs will ever stop getting played, because I still like them – I consider them all fair game,” McHugh says.

The Beautiful Girls have maintained a strong fanbase since they rode surf folk’s wave of mainstream popularity.

At the turn of the century Jack Johnson became a household name and Ben Harper struck a chord with a new generation of fans.

In Australia the same listeners embraced the gentle musings of Xavier Rudd, John Butler and The Beautiful Girls.

The pigeon-hole of comparisons to other artists, Johnson in particular, did not sit comfortably with McHugh.

The Beautiful Girls very quickly shifted musical direction.

The single I Thought About You from the 2007 record Ziggurats, with its electric riff, was a clear statement of intention.

But McHugh’s recent music is a return to the early sound of The Beautiful Girls.

He is writing acoustic songs that are straight to the point.

“I’m always interested in doing different things,” McHugh explains.

“My primary [reason] for releasing music as my own name has been to strip my music back to its essence.

“What suits me the best is playing simple acoustic music that is based around the melodies and the lyrics and a certain feeling.

“A lot of the decisions I made in The Beautiful Girls were somewhat reactionary, because we’d get lumped in with Jack Johnson so I’d try to do the opposite.

“But I’ve come to the point where I don’t care – if someone wants to compare me to Jack Johnson or Ben Harper that’s fine.

“You’re always going to get comparisons, but I’m just trying to express myself honestly in the most appropriate way.

“I’ll be interested in doing other projects, that might be like a heavier dub record, but I’ll just put it out under a different name, rather than calling it The Beautiful Girls.”

McHugh admits that changes in the direction of The Beautiful Girls have confused their fans, particularly in Japan.

Brazil has “bay far” been their biggest overseas fanbase, their music connecting with the surf culture there, but McHugh says the folkier material always had the most success.

“I feel like I was pushing my luck a lot of the time,” McHugh says of direction changes.

“Some of [The Beautiful Girls’ music] should have come out under a different name.

“It’s been a strange series of mini-cycles where we put out a record that was so different to the one before it.

“It took a year-and-a-half of touring for people to get used to it.

“By the time they were used to [our sound], I’d change it again.

“So we were always playing catch-up.

“It was interesting and fulfilling creatively, but I got to the end of that cycle and think [acoustic music] is what I’m most comfortable at.

“I really enjoy just sitting around playing the acoustic guitar and singing some mellow songs.

“I’m a mellow guy – that’s the truth of it.”

No matter what name he has released music under, McHugh has remained an independent artist.

It has always been his intention to remain independent and allow his popularity to grow organically through word of mouth.

“That’s the manifesto I still operate under,” McHugh says.

The worldwide popularity of his music can be attributed, in part, to his work ethic.

“I never had this plan to be a musician for my, in quotation marks, ‘career’ so as soon as my foot was in the door I thought ‘whatever I can do to not blow this, I’m going to do it’.

“We’d go out on the road and while everybody else was out partying and picking up girls, I was back at the hotel writing songs for the next record.

“I come from humble beginnings, so I didn’t want to blow the opportunity.”

# The Beautiful Girls are playing The Bar On The Hill, University of Newcastle, on Thursday, September 13.

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For your chance to win simply fill out the coupon in Thursday’s Mercury and return it to the Mercury’s office by noon next Wednesday.

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