We spoke with Meg Duffy of Hand Habits about her new album.
You've been playing lead guitar in Kevin Morby's band for a few years and also played with Mega Bog. With Hand Habits you transition to the lead figure on stage and in the writing process. Are you more comfortable as the centerpiece of a project or do you prefer to play a vital, but secondary role?
I've been doing Hand Habits in many iterations since about 2012, and simultaneously have always been in a ton of bands as a catalytic sonic figure on guitar. I enjoy both parts of my brain that are activated with the different roles so it's hard to say I prefer either! When I'm in other song writers' bands, I don't see playing lead usually as a 'secondary' role, probably because most of the projects I've been in have been pretty collaborative and free thinking, giving me a lot of room to try new voicing, new sounds and textures, and to go outside of our comfort zones together as a musical conversation. It's incredible how a feedback loop of inspiration the two roles can be. I also studied jazz for a few years, and in improv settings there's never (or rarely) any hierarchy of importance. I like that way of openness and try to remember that when playing and arranging Hand Habits shows. Of course, the song writer always gets to be the most preferential, there's a personal relationship with the songs that nobody else can ever share. Also when I'm writing a song for/as Hand Habits, I always hear other parts. Especially for non vocal melody harmonizing (on guitar) and the rhythm section. So when rehearsing with a band (which hasn't been a consistent group of a people in a while!) I try to give the space for personality of the players. I take comfort in knowing everyone is enjoying the music that I've facilitated.
How has playing and touring with another artist helped you evolve as a songwriter for your own work? How do you determine or divide your creativity among different projects? I would imagine you would have to reserve certain aspects of your guitar work for your own songs, right?
Being in other touring projects definitely showed me the vast landscape of song. Some songs are so direct and yet extremely powerful emotionally, which is something I've always gravitated towards - simplicity. And others call for angular, bratty, upper register melody and choppy chords with syncopation, and there is such satisfaction in the physicality of that. I think it's important to bring to a song what the song is asking for - or songwriter. In my own songs, I don't always find it crucial to be flexing a guitar muscle. You can hear that on the record. Some people who haven't heard my own songs probably think it's like a Jeff Beck record or something a bit shreddy, but I was more focused on melody and what I had to say lyrically. I get to play lead guitar a lot, so with Hand Habits it's nice to relax that a bit.
Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void) is out on Feb 10 on Woodsist. This is your debut full-length release. How long have these songs been developing? Is this album something that came quickly to you or was it a slow, patient assembly of work.
All of the songs except one, were part of a batch I started writing after moving out of Upstate NY. Two I wrote in Saugerties with the encouragement of Keven Lareau who plays drums on them and bass on one. Those are "All The While" and "In Between." We were house sitting in the Catskills for some friends on tour and got into this routine of waking up and working on each others music all day. It was right before I moved to LA and I felt like I was in the middle of an important transition period. I was out of a relationship that had been on going for a long time. After those two songs came to life, and I was in LA with not many friends other than the Kevin Morby crew, suddenly I had a lot of time on my hands. Jeremy had heard I think one of those songs from the Saugerties sessions and asked me if I wanted to do a record. I didn't have many 'new' songs and was honestly a bit nervous about when more would come to me, but there was this shitty, beautiful nylon string in the house I moved into and I slowly but surely started writing the songs on the record. It was in between touring with Kevin Morby and Mega Bog too, so a few were started on the road. I added "New Bones" pretty last minute.
What was the recording process like? Did you have to find time between commitments to your other projects to get in the studio? Who helped with the recording and production?
I did all of the recording myself in my bedroom and living room in LA, with the exception of the two mentioned in Saugerties. Keven Lareau helped with recording and co-producing on those. Initially I wanted to fly Keven out to LA since we work really well together, and get a house swap or something outside the city to stay in focus, but I didn't have the money to do that. Then I was trying to come up with a way to go back east, and that didn't work out. I got momentarily frustrated and then was like fuck it, I know how to use ProTools, I have so many musician friends who have gear, and I was always meeting more, I can just do this myself. So I borrowed some gear, a lot from my friend Ari who actually lived in the house for a little while, and started religiously watching YouTube tutorials on the things I didn't know how to do. So many of my favorite records were self produced and recorded and engineered, and more often than not I cringe at shiny compressed clean recordings. They have their place of course! I love the classic albums, don't get me wrong. But I had to do it with what I had and stop making excuses. I got super lucky with the job I was at, letting me take a month off (last February) to record. I was on the road A LOT last year, so there would be big breaks. I wouldn't even listen to the songs for weeks to get perspective on them. Doing most of it on my own too gave me a lot of freedom. I was learning a lot and would get better sounds and start songs over again because they started sounding better the more I did it (duh). There was one song that was really frustrating me, "Book on How To Change," with the drums. I couldn't get the feel right and didn't have access to a full kit, so I sent that one to Sheridan Riley who is a dear friend and the best drummer I know. She sent it back like, either that day or the next and I remember walking around and listening to the mix and smiling. She added atmospheric swells as well as this tight beat. I think there was a track titled "Chains" or something. And then the last thing that happened was mixing. I mixed while recording to the best of my ability with literally no outboard gear and horrible speakers, and then Ged Gengras did the rest. He really boosted the record into reality for me. We did all the mixing/mastering in two days and I cried a lot (haha). I barely had to tell him anything, he has impeccable taste and understood what I wanted right away. I'm actually listening to one of his records while doing this interview!
What were some creative influences during the songwriting process for this record? What motivated you to create this album?
I go through periods of binge listening to a few records and not listening to any 'song' based music at all. Everything that Phil Elverum has put out is constantly giving me new ideas and excitement about music in general. The record he did with Julie Doiron especially. And Liz Harris aka Grouper is always in the rotation. I remember hearing one of her songs for the first time and playing it over and over again and thinking how comforting it was to listen to and that I wanted to make music that made people feel a similar way. I think I was listening to a lot of Jana Hunter's recordings too. Being in LA in general was inspiring because it was so so new to me, being an East Coaster. All that sun all the time felt so good (even if I was indoors a lot). My housemate at the time and dear friend, Robbie Simon, lived below me in the basement room and the only thing separating us was a thin floor and an air duct that was basically like a tin can telephone to each other. He designed the record artwork and layout. He has great musical and visual tastes that were always floating up through the floor. Making the record motivated itself.
The singles that have been released from Wildly Idle seem very intimate, personal, and honest. If the songs are as truthful and genuine as they seem, is it ever difficult to put your emotions out for the world to criticize and draw their own conclusions about? Is there a level confidence you had to develop before being able to release this type of record?
People will always draw their own conclusions even if there's direct clarification. Focusing on the rawness of how the songs come out of me, that is important to me. I'm learning how to trust myself. Worrying about what people will say can be a dark wormhole that I really don't want to travel into! Plus, music journalism is more often than not ONE person's opinion being thrown into the blogosphere or whatever, imagine having that much power? To taint someone's self worth or career? I'm grateful for the people who have constructive criticism and I'm aware that you don't always have to alter yourself based on it.