Photo by Jacob Boll
When COVID hit, Meg Duffy had been on the road, both with their band, Hand Habits, and as a touring member for groups like Sylvan Esso and Kevin Morby. There wasn’t time to stop and think, “Do I like touring for months on end?” The answer, it turns out, was no, and so by the time they finished their stellar new album, Fun House, the looming specter of touring brought a bevy of mixed emotions.
Duffy was able to realistically evaluate their relationship to touring, and, as they explained in an interview with VMP, “I will never do another six-week long tour. I just know that I can't do that anymore for my physical and mental health.”
Like so many others, Duffy used their down time to re-evaluate their relationship with themself. The shift in Fun House, from songs about relationships to songs about the self, is reflected in this conscious decision Duffy had to re-center their perspective within the music. Now, the prospect of a few shows with their touring band, paced deliberately and with reimagined versions of Fun House hits, is a thrilling proposition: “I will say, though, that the adrenaline that I experience now playing music is exponentially higher, too, just because I missed it so much. I didn't even know how much I missed it.”
Duffy recorded the album with Sasami and Kyle Thomas of King Tuff, in the same house they share together. In that sense, the title of the album is a direct reflection of the recording process. But it took Duffy a long time to push their comfort zone outside of folk rock and into something more dynamic and ranging. “I don't really listen to a lot of down tempo folk music, or I haven't in the last two years, especially when I was home for so long. I just want to listen to dance music,” they said, with a laugh.
While Fun House isn’t explicitly a dance record, Duffy sounds freer, less encumbered by the restrictions of a genre, than ever before. It’s a triumph of an album, and one that could only have been made after a reset — whether deliberate or forced. “I was being really safe musically because of some code that I thought existed in my head subconsciously,” Duffy explained, before adding, “Now I just know you can do whatever you want.”
VMP: You began recording this album as COVID hit, after years of constant touring and recording. At this point, are you excited and happy to be getting back to that life?
Meg Duffy: I am grateful, and I am excited and happy, yes. But most people I've talked to about how it feels to even socialize or get back to work in person says it’s pretty jarring. I can't believe how much I used to do. I played my release show, and I asked a shit ton of people to play with me because I wanted it to be really special. And there are all these musicians that I've been wanting to play with for so long, and now we can all get together again. I was so exhausted afterward. I don't think I had enough awareness, or I didn't have a reference point before, just because it was so exciting. Also, I was younger.
I could sustain weeks and weeks and weeks of just constant motion. And I think now, given I've seen what it's like to take a break, my body can't really forget that. I will say, though, that the adrenaline that I experience now playing music is exponentially higher, too, just because I missed it so much. I didn't even know how much I missed it.
On that stage, is it just a different feeling than you've had before?
If you start doing something over and over again, it becomes almost routine. It's really easy to lose sight of joy, and it becomes less novel. At the end of a six-week tour, it really feels like I'm just phoning it in, and I'm going through the motions, and it becomes more like work. Because it is my job, you know? And I think now, given so much time away, I am able to tap into how much I love to play music with people; not even necessarily the performing part of it, even rehearsals have been really fun. I will never do another six-week long tour. I just know that I can't do that anymore for my physical and mental health. Now I'm more interested in how I can make it more manageable for me and the people that I'm traveling with, and comfortable and healthy and not just trying to cram it all in. It makes it so much more enjoyable, and I can be more present.
Now that the record is a few weeks old, what's the prevailing feeling with these new songs being out, as you're now rehearsing them and getting ready to bring them to the live stage?
The release show was the first time I played most of the new songs. I was playing some of them before the record came out, like some of the singles and it was so fun. It was so cathartic. And I love that because I'm not playing with the people that I played with on the record, the songs take new shape. That's one of my favorite parts about putting [together] records and then playing the songs from the record is just getting to know them in a totally different way and figuring out what the arrangement wants to be for a live setting versus a recording, because it's so different.
I'm also getting a lot of really cool feedback and a lot of people have been reaching out in a way that I don't remember happening with placeholder. Especially people who have lost parents. I wasn't expecting that. That's been really beautiful too, because I think sometimes when I'm tapping into the feeling of songwriting, it can feel like the most isolating feeling in the world. I will question why I'm writing songs about it and not just writing in my journal or something. Having other people's experiences shared with me, I don't want to say [it] validates the record, but it gives me an allowance to keep writing songs and connecting with people.
Hearing how people have their own relationships with the songs, that's one of my favorite parts of writing music and sharing it publicly, too. Otherwise, it can feel a little myopic or something.
Am I correct in interpreting that this record is less about relationships and more about you?
Yeah, totally. Everything kind of flew to the front seat. I got home after my last tour, and I remember being faced with a choice of [whether or not to] keep trying to do it the way that I've been doing it, even though the world had dead ends everywhere. It would've been pretty hard. I think I never had time to get below the surface, because of how much I was working.
What I want to touch on next is that these songs began as folk rock demos. It could have sounded more toward placeholder, but the sound is completely different. How did you come upon that choice to move away from that sound when you already had the bones of something similar to placeholder, at least in sound?
My habits and my patterns as a songwriter just happen naturally, I think. It's like handwriting. You have a certain handwriting that just comes as soon as you pick up a pencil. I didn't grow up thinking I would write songs. When my style started happening naturally, I just followed that and didn't really question it. I thought I could only write like me.
With placeholder, from a recording and production standpoint, it felt like filling in the blanks. I had demos, and I was working with Brad Cook for that one as a producer. But he delegated a lot of the creative decisions to me in terms of production, and it was like color by numbers. All the pieces were pretty much there, and I think we were just leaning into that.
With Fun House, I was working with Sasami as a producer. I had sent her all these demos and she was like, well, ‘What kind of record do you want to make? Let's talk about it.’ I was like, ‘I don't want to just make a second placeholder.’ That was clear to me. I could have just got a four-piece band and all the songs were really slow just because I've realized now, after making this record, that that's my impulse, to be so slow. We upped the tempos a lot. We talked about textures and I didn't want to just do the sophomore synth record, but I wanted strings, and I wanted to have some drum machines sort of echoing some of the rhythms.
I don't really listen to a lot of downtempo folk music, or I haven't in the last two years, especially when I was home for so long. I just want to listen to dance music [laughs].
Sasami came back with her own sort of demos, and we did pre-production. It was this beautiful collaborative puzzle piece that came together where it took a lot of getting out of my comfort zone and there were some things that I was super jarred by. At first I was like, ‘I can't do this. This doesn't feel like me.’ She was like, ‘Well, why not? Does it not feel like you, or have you not done it yet?’ Having that perspective was really helpful.
I'm going to carry that for whatever I make next. There are no rules. I was being really safe musically because of some code that I thought existed in my head subconsciously. Now I just know you can do whatever you want. Working with Mike [Hadreas] on the Perfume Genius stuff and just getting to know him and his process has been refreshing. Something he says all the time is that you can do whatever you want. There are no rules with music. I guess I just had never really zoomed out. I was only looking at one part of the picture.
Living in a house with Kyle [Thomas, King Tuff] and Sasami, were you able to separate living from working? Was that a struggle at all during the record?
It could have been, but thankfully by the grace of God, no. We had a pretty specific schedule. We had set hours we were working in the beginning, like from 11 to six or seven. During the last week it was nine to nine. We live together and we are great roommates. They live upstairs and I live downstairs, but we share a kitchen.
I liked how communal it felt, and it felt like we were really making this record together. It didn't feel like they're doing something for me, which I just struggle with sometimes. It's like an -ism, I'm sure. But yeah, we all joke all the time. That could have gone so poorly, just living together. I think we had good boundaries, and so it really worked. Nobody could go anywhere, so we were already used to living and seeing each other every single day and occupying this space, not by choice but by force of the world. It was like, “Well, we might as well make music together. We're locked down and there's this studio here.”
This may be simplistic and wrong, but when I was reading about you three living together and making a record, I was like, oh, this sounds like a very fun house. Was that part of the meaning behind the title?
Totally. I think the title is super layered. I wasn't going to call it that, but I wrote down the words Fun House just when we were doing some rough mixing, and I sat on it, and I like how it's so layered. It literally is a fun house to live in. I needed that fun. I like thinking about the architecture of a house and how it relates to the soul and the self and how there are all these different rooms that you can occupy. I also like records that don't really have anything to do with any lyrics. I think that's cool, because it's like a painting or something.
One of my favorite things about your career is how much you love playing with other musicians, both with Hand Habits and in other people's bands. What is it about your approach to music, or maybe just your ear or the way you approach music, that makes you such a willing and able collaborator?
It's helpful to hear your perspective on my career. I think just because I'm so close to it, sometimes it's hard for me to see and I don't realize that that's what my life is like in some ways. When I was 18 living in upstate New York and thought, “I want to move to LA and, like, be a session guitar player,” that’s an ambitious ask. I do feel really grateful that I get to play with these amazing musicians and just am constantly challenged.
I think that I'm really open minded when it comes to music and I don't mind being told what to do in other people's bands. Something I've realized playing with Kevin Moby and Sylvan Esso and now with Perfume Genius or Flock of Dimes, they all just let me do whatever I want for the most part.
There must be something there that's my style or my taste or something. I don't really know. I think, again, it's like hearing your own voice: you can't ever really hear it as an outsider.
I think that I'm adaptable, musically. Also, I over-prepare. I was actually talking to Jenn Wasner about this because she was in town. I was joking about how I was nervous to start rehearsing, because I always feel like I'm going to be the weakest link in the band. She was like, “But that's why you're always the strongest link, because that fear motivates you to be over-prepared.” I think that there's something in there, too, where I do take it seriously and know that if I'm as prepared as possible, then it's just going to elevate the entire group.
What you said earlier about recording and not wanting your collaborators to feel like they were doing something for you, that's so interesting, because I feel like you could have that approach as well with artists you work with. But I guess you don't feel that way when it's you working for somebody else.
Yeah, and I'm sure that's really indicative of something in my personality. I like being of service, and I like working. I like providing in a musical sense and serving the song and serving the energy. I learned that really early on, when I first started playing guitar. This influences the way that I inherently write folk songs or whatever. When I first started playing guitar for other people, that was my entrance into music. I didn't start by writing songs, I started as a hired gun. I played with a bunch of singer-songwriters in upstate New York. We would play at coffee shops, at bars, go on little mini tours and play house shows. It was really where I learned to be supportive. I think that that really carried over to now. Because I wasn't writing songs yet, I just really wanted to be involved. That really trained me for continuing to do that in a different way and with other musicians that I respect. It's hard. It's also just hard to ask for help and it's hard to accept help. I'm really comfortable with that, when I’m helping others. I'm trying to be better at asking for my own work, too.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.