Hand Habits :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Even if you don’t know Hand Habits, you’re likely to have heard Meg Duffy playing guitar. The artist has played guitar in Kevin Morby’s band, sits in with Perfume Genius, and, on a more occasional basis, has lent their skills to Sylvan Esso, the War on Drugs, Mega Bog and William Tyler. But alongside their session work, Duffy has also nurtured a solo project, beginning in a handmade, folky, strummy mode with 2018’s Wildly Idle and expanding on that template with Placeholder a year later. Now with Fun House, recorded at home in L.A. with roommates Sasami and Kyle Thomas of King Tuff, Duffy is bringing in the diverse and varied experiences they’ve had working with other artists, new musical influences and the insights of their two collaborators. Safe to say, Fun House sounds very different from anything Duffy has ever done before, with dense and sophisticated arrangements, varied tempos and tales of devastating impact wrapped in warm, comforting musical settings.

Here, Duffy talks about their process, the liberating effect of working with an out queer artist like Perfume Genius and the way that the meanings of songs shift over time. “One of my favorite things about making records is that I learn about what the meaning is, later, after it’s out,” they confide. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Reading the lyrics, I’m struck by the fact that these songs are about fairly wrenching experiences, but the music is very calm, almost soothing. Did you do that intentionally, and if so, why?

Meg Duffy: The contrast between the lyrics’ impact and the instrumentation and arrangements, tones, and tempos was definitely intentional. I didn’t want to make a record that made people depressed upon first listen. I wanted some hopefulness in the arrangements.

To me, music is very healing. Sad music, in particular, can be very healing and sometimes catalytic for releasing emotions that are just under the surface and can’t really get out any other way. And so, yes, it was extremely intentional. Sasami and I worked together and bumped up tempos and made sure that there was something cathartic and not dirge-y about the record as a whole.

AD: The production is pretty sophisticated. Were you doing things differently from a technical perspective?

Meg Duffy: Totally, yes, and I think working with a different producer is a big part of that difference from Placeholder and of course Wildly Idle which I did mostly on my own. I didn’t want to make the same record. I wanted it to be different. I think as an artist, for me, it’s important to be challenging myself and getting outside my comfort zone and sort of surprise myself, even if that means entering a situation that’s a little uncomfortable.

From a technical standpoint, I wasn’t as hands on for the engineering as I had been in the past and that definitely brought some new energy, just sort of trusting that Kyle and Sasami knew how to get what we were wanting. Also, just having more time allowed us to expand the arrangements. These songs almost always start on an acoustic guitar. I didn’t want them all to just sound like folk songs.

AD: Would this be a good time to talk about Kyle Thomas and Sasami, and how you know them and what they bring to the process?

Meg Duffy: Sure, I know them just through music. I met Sasami a while ago at a show I was playing while I was still in Kevin Morby’s band. It was a benefit for Planned Parenthood. I think she was playing. She just showed up in my life. It felt very fated. And Kyle I met through Kevin Morby, because they’re really good friends, and he’d always be around. Just before the pandemic started, I needed to find a new place to live and just by fate, you know, I ran into Kyle. We all live together now in a house. That’s where we made the record. Kyle’s studio is in the house upstairs. Their contributions to the record were massive. I don’t think the record would ever be what it is now without them.

Sasami comes from a classical background. She went to Eastman School of Music and studied French horn. She has such a beautiful fresh mind for arrangements. And for production, because she’s my friend, she’s very good at identifying where I was afraid to go and then coaxing me to go there. And Kyle was a very grounding engineer. He knew how to get the tones. I wanted the record to sound like a dramatic whisper while you’re embracing someone, but like maybe you’re also in a club or something. I just didn’t want it to sound cold. I wanted there to be a warmth and I wanted there to be a safety that surrounded it. Kyle did a really good job of that. We recorded almost all the drums to tape.

We all felt really comfortable together. I hate saying that it’s a pandemic record, but because we didn’t have anything else to focus on, we all went super hard. It gave us a purpose.

AD: How long did it take? Were you still writing while you were recording, or did you have all the songs going in?

Meg Duffy: We did it in about a month. We started with a week of pre-production at the end of October. The first day we tracked was Halloween, and then we ended right around December 1.

There were a couple of things that I finished in the studio. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always had the stuff written, and then let it blossom sonically in the studio, but not structurally or lyrically really. But specifically, for the song “Clean Air,” Sasami said, “I think you should write a bridge.” And I’m not well versed in writing bridges yet. As a songwriter. But I wrote a bridge.

A couple of the songs were pretty old, like “Concrete & Flowers” and “False Start” and “Gold/Rust.” Those three were songs I had already demo’d a couple of times and hadn’t really figured out what they wanted to be yet. Songs like “Control” and “Clean Air,” I wrote them two weeks before the record. I had this burst of working on music right before, and it was nice to have a deadline to finish them.

AD: I missed the last album, but I remember your earlier work being very stripped back and folky with a little bit of Americana in it. This is very different. Were you listening to different music? Were there different influences in play? Or was this just the way you wanted to do it?

Meg Duffy: Totally, it was a combination of both. When I started touring and playing music, the main focus of what I was spending my time on was playing with singer-songwriters who played folk music. Like Kevin Morby is a folk artist. That was where I started out once I left my hometown. And in the van, the music we would listen to was Americana and folk music. And then I started doing my own thing and just getting interested in more types of music. Even yesterday, I feel like I finally came to my Bjork moment. It took me so long to be open to that different tone. I think I just didn’t have…I don’t want to say it’s a maturity thing. But I’ve been just allowing myself to zoom in or zoom out, depending on the pieces and really put different things into my algorithm that I want to incorporate.

Also playing in bands that were not Americana/folk bands totally had an impact. I just wanted to immerse myself in those worlds and expand into them instead of boxing myself in. Playing with Sylvan Esso changed the way I listened to music or even approached how I play the guitar. I learned to play without just playing chords. You can’t really be strumming a cowboy chord in that band. It doesn’t really work.

And then playing in Perfume Genius was the same. The palette is so much more expansive. I really feel myself going in that direction. And also, I will say that right after we recorded Fun House, I realized that I was incorporating this different stuff, and it’s just fresh. I love folk music. I love this more unplugged primitive approach to the song, you know, as a craft, as song. But I’m excited by things I don’t understand. As I continue to dive into that sentiment it just keeps getting more expansive. It’s like the ocean. If you keep zooming in, there’s more creatures and then if you zoom out, there’s this macro system happening. Music is very similar.

AD: I know you are an extremely well-versed and versatile guitar player. Did you play all the other instruments, too. I hear you started out as a drummer.

Meg Duffy: I did start as a drummer, but I haven’t played drums in a very long time. No, I only played guitar and sang. Maybe I put one tambourine thing in. I think with Wildly Idle and most of Placeholder, too, aside from the basic tracking, I played a lot of the overdubbed instruments on that record. I’m so much more interested right now in letting other people’s voices shine and seeing what they bring to the table. Similar to the way that other people have trusted me. Like, play what you want.

AD: Who did play on this record?

Meg Duffy: James Krivchenia from Big Thief played drums on a couple of songs. Griffin Goldsmith, who plays in Dawes and who I met on a William Tyler session plays a lot of drums on the record. Most of the percussion. James did a couple of percussion takes. Daniel Aged plays bass on a couple of songs. Dave Hartley from War on Drugs plays bass on a couple of songs, and Sasami plays most all of the synths.

AD: There’s quite a bit of that.

Meg Duffy: Yeah. She definitely had a hand in the arrangements and instrumentation. She did all of the string arrangements as well. And then all the strings, every string that you hear was played by Lauren Elizabeth Baba who came in and created an orchestra out of one person. It was really impressive to see.

AD: Why Fun House? There’s such a lot of serious material here?

Meg Duffy: I’m still sorting that out, too. It keeps revealing itself to me in new ways. One of my favorite things about making records is that I learn about what the meaning is, later, after it’s out. It comes with my own meaning at first, but as I listen, it definitely changes for me. Which is the beauty of having a relationship to art.

But Fun House, it started as a joke. Just because we’re all living in this house and it’s really fun. To be literal. But then also, I love the deceptive nature. There’s the contrast, too, with this record. It’s not an extremely fun record. It requires attention, I think.

Also, the symbol of a house and the architecture of a house is a theme in my life. I moved houses a lot when I was growing up, so I’m usually the person that stays in their bedroom. Throughout my adulthood, living in LA, having roommates, I’m always the one who’s in my room. And for the record, thematically, lyrically, production-wise, I wanted to get out into other rooms. I really wanted to explore these other rooms of myself, of my identity, of musical spaces that I can take up. Also, not be so heavy-handed with the tempos, the arrangements, and the moods that I was putting people in. I still want it to be an enjoyable experience, listening to music.

It’s also the symbolism of a fun house, too. It’s this consented risk that you take. You know that you’re going to be manipulated. You know that things are not going to be what they seem. But you pay for it. You consent to it. There’s something about a calculated risk with consent that was really a theme with making this record.

AD: I really like “Aquamarine” which has a verse about discovering something unexpected about an older relative, maybe your mother. Did you find out that she played guitar recently? Is that what that’s about?

Meg Duffy: I did, yes. Well, I found out that she played guitar when I was 27 and I’m 31 now.T hat made it into the song, into the story.

AD: Did that surprise you when you found out that you had this thing in common with your mother?

Meg Duffy: Yes, it really did. It changed my whole perspective of what I understood my identity to be. In terms of lineage and my bloodline. Certain traits I might have attributed elsewhere, mystically actually, just fell from my mother.

AD: There’s really a lot in this album about the difficulty of communicating with people, even or maybe even especially with the people you love the most. Was that something you were thinking about?

Meg Duffy: Definitely. Yes. How do we ever really know that we’re understanding each other? How do you know that you’re on the same page as someone? And sometimes, I see things while I’m still working them out. I think that my relationship to music is the same way, and it gets complex when you have to put out music and people want to talk to you about it. I’m like, I don’t really know yet? I’m still working it out. But I think that that’s parallel to my relationship to the people that I’m close with in my life. It’s constantly in motion and it’s constantly being figured out, and it’s hard.

AD: There’s a real rock song near the end, “Concrete & Flowers,” which has almost a Crazy Horse feel. You said that was one of the older songs. How did that one come about?

Meg Duffy: I taught a songwriting class a couple of months ago with friends who started a school called School of Song. It was interesting to teach that class right before going into a press cycle and having to talk about why and what songs are about. I think before this record, I wouldn’t really think about what they were about. It was just figuring it out through a song. But I realized that something I like doing and I think it’s helpful for me, in a poetic sense, is to use a lot of different perspectives and change the perspectives stanza by stanza. There are a lot of poets that I really admire that do that, like Rosie Stockton and Louise Gluck. Every line is from the perspective of a different person, and it jumps timelines. To me, that style of writing is more like real life. It’s pretty hard…like in your brain, your consciousness, it’s hard to just stay in one moment. We have all these mindfulness practices because it’s so hard to be present in one moment, with just what’s happening, because of the way memory works. So, for “Concrete & Flowers,” that was an old song that had a bunch of different scenarios. I wanted to touch on all of them and trying to do that in the song is really hard. And the demo of that song, I had it for so long. I loved it. It used to be so slow. It was so slow. It was not a rock song. It was this baleful ballad. I can’t tell you how slow it was. I saw a video of myself playing it recently, and I was like “Oh my god.” And I didn’t want there to be rock songs on this album.

AD: It’s different from everything else on the record.

Meg Duffy: Yeah, and that was definitely Sasami’s suggestion. She was like, “This record needs a rocker. You have that in you.” I do. That’s my default. I can unleash in that way. It’s very cathartic, but I have always saved that energy for other people’s bands. But I think, philosophically, Sasami was like, yeah, no, you’re going to honor yourself with this energy that frees you the most. And then Kyle, too. It’s like the three of us. That one feels very much like it encapsulates all three of our strengths in this cool way. Sasami makes those sort of CSNY backing vocals that come in towards the end. Kyle played the bass and a lot of guitar on that song. He’s doubling me. His vocals were doubling me the whole time. Yeah, and it took me a while to really go there. Like to get on board just because I’m shy with the space that I take up, sonically, and that one really helped push it over. It was just, all right, we’re going for it. It will be fun to play live. I feel like I’m going to explode when we play it live.

AD: The part that just breaks my heart is in “Control” where you’re singing over and over again, “I can change, I can change, I can change.” Which just seems so sad because, number one, most people can’t change and number two, you shouldn’t have to do that to please someone you love. Do you think people can and should change to stay in a relationship?

Meg Duffy: I don’t think people should change to stay in a relationship. But I think people can change for themselves. And to me, that song is more about not judging past behaviors. Knowing that it’s all behind you. That song is about knowing something needs to change and really having that sense of “I can’t really live like this anymore.” Whether it’s fear, insecurity, addiction, or obsessions. It’s about releasing a pattern and knowing, “Okay, this is possible.” But no, I don’t think people should change to stay in a relationship. I think people should change to stay in healthy relationships with themselves. To me, that song…that song really helped me. It became, for me, such a symbolic song. It made me feel capable of getting outside of the boundaries of fear that the human psyche wants to box us in with.

AD: It’s probably me bringing my baggage to it.

Meg Duffy: But that means it’s working.

AD: I really love the harmonies in “Just To Hear You” which is the one with Perfume Genius on it. I know you’re touring with Perfume Genius next year. Could tell me about your relationship with them and what speaks to you about their work?

Meg Duffy: I met Mike at a festival in Madrid when I was on tour with Kevin Morby. We had mutual friends but we had never met. I remember seeing him, and I was like, “Hey.” And he was like “Hey.” And I said, “I’m Meg,” and he said, “I know who you are.” I was like, oh my god! Because I think he’s just paved the way. For so many queer people to just have a model for somebody who’s just doing whatever they want. He’s channeling experiences that haven’t been given a voice in that way before.

I feel so inspired by Perfume Genius. He and Al (Wyffyls) have told me that when he started out when he would play shows, he would just be pacing before, terrified. It would just be him on a piano sitting next to Alan. He had extreme stage fright and played these very stripped down, personal songs that were devastating. Now when he’s on tour, he’s rolling on the floor, grinding the chair, strutting across the stage. He completely embodies what’s coming out of him and follows it. It’s like a portal. I think that’s such a powerful thing to see and to be adjacent to.

I started rehearsing with Perfume Genius before recording Fun House. We were rehearsing for about a month for the live stream. They were the only people I played with music with for a year in that capacity. And even in rehearsal, Michael is full on. I just had never had that model for me up close. Coming from this Americana, introspective, folky scene, and then seeing Mike and all the places you can go with music. It really cracked me open. And also, I had never been in a band with mostly queer people. I was so used to being the only woman-presenting person at the time, the only queer person. There’s such a safety that I feel. I feel so safe in a way that I haven’t felt playing music ever. Even like the first show I played after quarantine, we played in Big Sur and it was Hand Habits opening, and I had never looked out into a crowd of mostly gay people. I was like, wow, I’m not worried about how I’m being perceived right now, and the way that has usually been such a large part of performing for me. And so, yeah, it’s such a beautiful model to have his encouragement. I also just feel really supported. Mike and Allen really care about music and they care about the people that they play music with.

The harmony, too, Sasami had written that and she said, I think you should sing this with Mike. I remember this being pretty early on in our friendship. I was so nervous to ask him and he was like, of course. It was just funny. He was in Kyle’s closet with his clothes and gear, singing this amazing harmony. He did it two times. It was amazing. Just singing with him has expanded my capabilities, what I feel like I can do singing, which has been really fun. Learning his harmonies, it’s so expansive and has so much character and is so unique and having to blend with him has been …it really leveled me up as a singer. Playing in that band has changed my relationship to music in such a deep way.

AD: Do you feel like you’re closer to embracing what’s unique about you as a result of working with him?

Meg Duffy: Yeah, and that didn’t really occur to me until recently. We played at KEXP last week and hearing Cheryl Waters just say to Mike, because they’re from Seattle, hearing her say, “You used to just be sitting and so shy, and now look at you, you’re dancing.” I was like, wow, I feel so inspired by that. I feel like my proximity has given me permission. He and Sasami have pushed me in these really loving ways. I have permission to do whatever I want now. Just because of my own insecurity and fear and self-doubt, I never thought I was allowed. I’m actually allowed to do a lot.

AD: Do you have a favorite bit, or a sound, or a lyric, or a moment, on this album?

Meg Duffy: I love that question. I mean “Graves,” that’s probably one of my favorite songs just because it feels like one of the ones I don’t really remember writing. There’s this meme of Sufjan Stevens where he’s crying, and the meme says, “Made myself cry with my own damn song,” and that when I hear it, I’m like, oh right. Also, there’s this fill that totally riles me up every time I hear it in “Concrete & Flowers,” that James did. It’s sort of cave-man-y, like stupid, and for some reason when I hear that, it really ramps me up and sends me. But it changes. I played a release show in LA, and I had the whole big band, there were eleven people playing with us for the night. There were moments that just blossomed in such a different way than they do on the record.

For heads, by headsAquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page.