an interview with singer-songwriter Hand Habits
The last time Meg Duffy, the musician behind Hand Habits, was in Australia was in March 2020, just before the world irrevocably changed forever. Become the favorite guitarist of artists like Perfume Genius and Kevin Morby, however, when the pandemic hit they felt the need to rest after touring so many times over the past few years.
That’s why while they wouldn’t call their third album, Fun house, a pandemic record, it is certainly a product of this period. “Most of the songs were written between March and we started recording in November,” Meg tells me from their home in Los Angeles. Apart from a couple – ‘Concrete & Feathers’ was written a few years ago and ‘Just to Hear You’ was actually written while touring Australia and New Zealand. I played a house show in New Zealand on this wonderful little solarium. I wrote it there and recorded it when I got home.
The pandemic has turned into a blessing in disguise for them. “I had just spent so much time thinking about what to do next,” Meg says when I ask them if they thought they needed a break from shooting and working so much. “On tour, there is so much logistics involved and you also think a lot about the performance.”
“And I can be a workaholic,” they add. That’s when they grab a blue t-shirt that was lying next to them on the veranda. Meg shows it to me so I can see it. “On the eve of my outing show, instead of chilling out and chilling out, I dyed a hundred t-shirts! For some reason, I thought I had to do it, but a friend of mine said to me, “who told you you had to do it!” ” (Laughs).”
The free time the pandemic has given them has also resulted in an unexpected but welcome change in Meg’s approach to making music. “It’s the fastest song I’ve ever written in my life,” they explain. “Usually I feel like every song I write will be the last and I’ll never write a song. They kept coming, however, and I felt really grateful for that. I still am. unpacking everything.
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Fun house was produced by Sasami Ashworth (SASAMI) and designed by Kyle Thomas, better known as the famous garage rocker King Tuff. The trio found themselves grounded in Los Angeles during the pandemic and sharing a house together; that the house already contained a studio in which Sasami produced Thomas’ own record was too strong a sign to ignore. Was it good to work alongside such close friends in such a confined space? “I loved it,” Meg says without hesitation.
“It was broken down and it almost felt like we were on tour in a way. When you are on tour you really develop a language and a lexicon with the people you are with. Anytime you spend a long period of time – an unnatural period – with people in such a small space, you want to make the most of it.
I loved working this way because I was at home surrounded by my comfort items. I slept in the same bed every night so there was a structure that we all benefited from. It didn’t sound claustrophobic. I am grateful to live in a neighborhood with a lot of nature. And I also like to feel claustrophobic sometimes! It allows me to turn inward in a certain way.
It was Sasami who really pushed Meg out of her comfort zone in a positive way. Where previous Hand Habits records were noted for their sobriety, possessing a muted overall feel that matched the serious quality of the lyrics, Meg tells me they’ve tried to take it a step further. Fun house.
“I know there were a lot more intentions behind Fun house than my previous records. With Wildly inactive, I was just experimenting with a little shit mix myself and really didn’t know what I was doing. Everything I used for this record was borrowed or in the basement. I was in the beginner’s mind Wildly inactive.
Then with Reserved area, I had demos but they were quite simplified. I recorded this album in a total of seven days. And it was mainly two very sporadic sessions, I think the first day we recorded nine songs live. But with Fun house, we just had all that extra time. We did a week of pre-production and we had a long discussion about what tones we wanted to focus on, how we wanted it to sound. We spent the first three days listening to drum sounds. I’ve never had the luxury of being in such a space with all this time and planning.
Creative collaboration might be what Meg likes to do, but it’s not always easy. Although they had performed and toured extensively with Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius, they were still reluctant to ask him to collaborate. “It wasn’t my idea, it was Susami’s!” I play in Perfume Genius of course but I can be shy and I don’t like to ask for anything. So I was very nervous even though now he’s a good friend of mine. I don’t like to ask for help.
It was Susami’s trick that finally brought Meg and Mike together on “Just to Hear You,” one of the album’s most notable tracks. “Susami wrote this song as a duet because she wanted to hear Mike and I sing together,” Meg laughs.
The increased creative community that surrounds Meg on this album is why her title seems so fitting: Fun house conjures up ideas of a myriad of options, deceptive twists and turns, intriguing twists and turns. The songs are all sonically different, from the dance pop of “Aquamarine” to the bubbling beauty of “No Difference” to the hearty duet between Mike and Meg on “Just to Hear You”. I express my conviction that Fun house cannot be distilled into just one genre and Meg’s eyes light up. “The other day I quipped, ‘What is indie?’ Like I don’t even understand what it is. It seems to be sort of a catch-all term for anything that isn’t pop. I do not really understand.
The day before our interview, a conversation with Meg had perfectly clarified this idea. “I was at a party and someone was talking about a musician they said was independent. It was Rufus Wainwright! I was like, ‘he’s not independent’. I also saw someone say that my song ‘No Difference’ was a country song and I was like ‘what the hell! What about this song that seems country to you? ”
When I got home and met a family and they asked me ‘what kind of music do you make? ” I did not know what to say. I have no idea, it’s just music. But people need to name things to understand them, I think that’s inherent in our human nature. I don’t think the cataloging of musicians will ever go away.
Although they are now based in Los Angeles, Meg is originally from upstate New York. They decided to return to their hometown on the East Coast to shoot the music video for “Aquamarine”. I ask if it was a cathartic experience. “It was a little cathartic,” they agree. “It was an interesting choice. I feel like this video is really steeped in meaning, with my personal experience growing up there.
It was cathartic in some ways and in other ways – I’m not sure if I’ll be going to my hometown to remake videos (laughs). There was a lot to balance as I hadn’t seen my family in years and was working. It was a bit much. But I loved being there, it was a reminder to touch that energy and be in green nature and by the water.
As Hand Habits, Meg never distanced herself from gross self-excavation but from their presence on Fun house feels distant from their two previous albums. They still deal naturally with grief and trauma, but this time around they’re wrapped in a more ambitious and expansive style; they are still deepening emotionally but with a more controlled and empathetic perspective you feel while listening. So a song like ‘Clean Air’, Meg explains, is about accepting and accepting differences with people. “I use that word very lightly and loosely, but it’s about that sense of belonging,” they say hesitantly.
“Like when you’re in a relationship, when you feel close to someone, you can develop this ownership of their time. So the song is about realizing that it’s not always healthy or fair. Usually a relationship has an expiration date, so it’s all about lovingly accepting it. It’s about knowing that you can’t ask so much of someone anymore and that’s okay.
Three albums in, Fun house looks like Meg’s most personal work to date. “I don’t know how not to make personal music,” they think. “I don’t really know what that would look like. The path I have taken to write songs has been so personally oriented. That’s not to say that they can’t someday foresee a change in their approach to songwriting. “I think in the future I’m really curious to try and write about someone else’s point of view or someone else’s story. I haven’t tried too much yet!
There was one thing I really wanted to know before the interview: do they feel more comfortable as Hand Habits or as a session musician? “I like the two for very different reasons,” they say. “I think I will always continue to do both because I don’t like to do one thing. I think they both energize the other and balance them out. And I don’t like to put all my eggs in one basket!
This is the path they want to continue for some time to come. “I am duplicating Perfume Genius, starting November 1st. I have committed to playing on his next album and I love playing with him so I think I will continue to duplicate for as long as possible before I expire!
Fun house is now available through Milk! Recordings / Recordings from the remote control.