Words/Interview by Shannon-Lee Sloane – The Colourful Writer
There are some creative folk who just envelop their art. They swallow it whole and embody it in it’s entirety and then gift it to the world. Megan Washington is one such creative. I first heard her bewitching voice and music eleven years ago and I have been entranced ever since. From the early days of How To Tame Lions, to her cover of Kings Of Leon’s King Of The Rodeo that she did with The Bamboos, to the song she sung (Bed Of Nails) for the Aussie TV Show, Bed Of Roses, to her guest performances on RocKwiz and everything in between, I have tuned in and loved every moment.
Her new album, ‘Batflowers’ is set for release this Friday (August 28, 2020) via Island Records Australia/Universal Music Australia. The album features twelve spellbinding songs and I am sure that each one has a tale to tell. I had the complete honour and pleasure of speaking with Meg yesterday about the new album and she had so much to tell me about it. Unfortunately, our interview was limited to 20 minutes and we only got through half of my questions, but Meg’s responses give so much insight, that it really doesn’t matter.
My first glimmer into the musical magic that is Megan Washington was How To Tame Lions, which I believe was released back in 2009, so eleven years ago! I still adore that song. You’ve come such a long way since then, what do you recall from that time in your musical career?
“Oh like, what do I remember about that time? Oh man. Well let me think about that for a second and really answer your question. *pauses* …I wrote that song at a time in my life where I was making a really kind of strong and deliberate transition away from one genre to another. I had been a Jazz musician, well at first I was in musical theater as a kid. Then I was like, ‘wait I can’t do this forever! *laughs* so I need to learn about the music so I can learn how to write this.’ So then I got super into Jazz music and then I kind of reached this point where I was like if I don’t expand to become a pop musician as well, I will have to be a jazz musician forever and I have more opinions on more things than that. So like, *laughs* you know what I mean? I wasn’t happy with the repertoire of the genre as a singer. Because as a singer, I want to be telling my story and a lot of jazz music is African American music from the first half of the century, like a long time ago, and it had nothing to do with me in Brisbane right now, like nothing. So I started to write my own music and I think that (How To Tame Lions) was my fourth song that I ever wrote actually. It is such a simple song, it’s just like D flat, like “Dnndnndnndnndnndn” and then on top of it is just the truth. Which is pretty much exactly the same formula as Batflowers. The title song on this album, it’s the same thing, it’s just me doing something super simple and telling the truth on top of it. And I guess the way that I felt then, it’s just interesting that you mention it and I wonder why you did, because the way that I felt at that specific time in my life is very similar to the way that I feel right now. Which is kind of like, just doing a big thing! Because at the time, it was because I was ‘2009 me’ and crazy and I thought maybe if I start writing pop songs, I’ll figure it out and now, which is ‘2020 me’, I feel like I need to get back to basics. You know and just do something sort simple and big. You know, otherwise I feel like I get lost and that sort of songwriting approach that I took with that song, is something that I have found my way back into. Which is like telling the truth actually. There is this weird amazing thing that when you just actually say the real truth, it sounds to other people like weird, poetic, free association *laughs* Because you know, you have to do certain things to the real truth to make it rhyme and all that sort of thing. So to other people it sounds like free association but it’s not, and that is kind of the vibe I think. So I was finding it then and I have remembered it now, but in the middle there was like a really long time where I forgot about that bit.”
So moving forward to the present moment, this Friday you release your new album ‘Batflowers’ – your first album in six years and studio album number four. How’s the excitement levels about this new release?
“Excitement level is like…excitement level, I feel like that’s a weird false economy that wouldn’t really represent the kaleidoscopic sensation of what it is to be putting out a record that you really love. In a time that you think people will really need a record that has a lot of love in it, or at least might like it, which is all that anyone can really offer. I am just offering it out there into the world but I am offering it because I want to help with how people might be feeling. Which is to make a record that is 53 minutes of something else. It’s just my music, like whatever. But it is a weird feeling to be putting that out into a world and knowing why you are putting it out yet teaching yourself not to have any of the same expectations that you had before. Like normally you know, your expectation as an artist is that you are going to put out a record and the radio is going to be able to play it and everyone will be happy and listening to the radio and partying. They will all hear your music and they will all buy your tickets and they will like come to your show cos that’s kind of like how you exist right? But instead it’s coronavirus and everyone is trapped in their house and contemplating their existence and like you know, we are all on jobkeeper or whatever. This is some crazy shit! So having to just let go of all expectations, like all of it, everything and just be like, you know what? If nothing else, all I know is how much it meant to me to be able to do this. And all the people who helped me and how special that has been. And how it actually really fixed me. A lot, actually making the record,I am a lot more fixed than I was before. Because I had to work all this shit out while I was making it and I was like ‘Ohhh, that’s right, OK, OK, I’m back, OK!’ But I forgot for ages because I was just so busy trying to survive in this crazy world of ours that we live in, by the way, you know.”
It really is a crazy world and things have become crazier with a global pandemic. Which has changed the way that music is coming out in a sense. But there seems to be an increase in new music being released, which is so wonderful and so needed right now. Music is so healing, so the fact that bands, musicians and artists like yourself are releasing music right now, is a beautiful thing…
“Well I just have something to say on that and that is kind of on the record as well. I read this thing in the paper that said the number one essential worker for now is a health care worker. Which I completely agree with, of course, 1000% correct, yes. But then on the other column, it had the number one least essential worker was an artist. And I was like dummies! It’s on the same column! It means they have to exist together, the health worker has to go somewhere to have some space from reality for just like a minute or however long it takes for you to watch a movie or see a film or contemplate a beautiful painting or cook a meal, like whatever you know, like something that makes you feel like a human being. You know that is a service that we live our whole lives as artists desperate to provide because we believe in it so much that most of the time we do it for free! Artists are the dumbest thing that you can possibly be – which is usually poor and generous.”
Absolutely. I think almost every musician, artist and creatively minded person I know is incredibly caring, generous and does so much for free or at least wants to do everything for free because it’s in their nature to be that way. But you’ve also got to exist and survive in this crazy world, which of course, isn’t free…
“That’s what I mean. I feel like the balance has actually shifted and the expectation is that a lot of people in this world should be grateful to simply exist. And I don’t think that that is a feeling that I should even contemplate for myself and I certainly do not expect anyone else to live to feel like that. No one should have to feel like that.”
Tell me about the album ‘Batflowers’, tell me about the songs?
“Well, essentially, the guts of the album is sort of this, like there were a few songs that I had made, that I really didn’t even, like I didn’t even touch. Like track two, Not A Machine. So basically in March I was feeling really good about the album and about that song and everyone was going into lockdown and initially I felt like gross about even thinking about working. Because it seemed like such a desperate time. Then after you live like that for a while you’re like ok, so this is my new normal. So this is never gonna change, OK *laughs* So with this in mind, what do we do next? And that was kind of like what I got to pretty quickly and I am glad I got there quickly because I was right, nothing changed. In fact it’s worse *laughs* and I mean I just felt like I wanted to at least try to put together a record that would give me something to do *laughs* and also if I could convince myself that it was coming from a nice place or at least helpful place, then even if I was to like criticize myself in the worst possible way, I could still sort of, I mean, in the end, every artistic offering is a gift right? Because essentially you don’t really pay for it, you just like get it off Spotify *laughs*. If you really want it, you buy the vinyl so it’s kind of like whatever, I really wanted to make something for everyone who might need it. Because I really needed to make it.”
That makes perfect sense, you’ve done this album for yourself, but for others as well…
“Well like everything is. Like every creation in existence that’s human made is somebody being mad that something doesn’t exist. *laughs* Like that’s all everything is, it’s like somebody was like ‘we need a thing that does this’ and that’s just what people make, they just invent shit all the time. I just wanted to have a project that I could put myself into where I could kind of really try, actually like really try again. Because I have tried a lot of times, but I wanted to try again to make this record because I had one good feeling about one song and it was Batflowers. And I had this new feeling of like, it’s the end of the world and like no one is going to give you permission to do this, you just have to do it or not. Like ‘what are you going to do?’ and I was like, ‘well I’m gonna do it!’”
The album features twelve tracks, all delivering different emotions for me when I listen to them. A stand out for me is Catherine Wheel – can you tell me a little about that track?
“So basically I have just been living my life, assembling songs, recording them, writing them and along the way I have gathered them into album shapes. And for a lot of that time, the songs that I gathered into the album shapes were songs that I thought, well just that I was looking at with a certain like commercial appeal or like a certain smoothness or like the real word I am looking for is professionalism. I think songs that sounded professional and even the lyrics were like smart and flawless. But I just don’t really feel like, I don’t hear myself in that music. I don’t go ‘Oh my god,’ like none of that makes me laugh. What makes me laugh is like real stuff or like you know, essentially when I was gathering all of the songs for this record, I realized that the only track that had made it and survived through all of the different versions and all of the different shit and all of the money that I spent and all of it, was Catherine Wheel. Which is an iPhone demo that I recorded on my iPhone *laughs* in one take, and if you listen to it really carefully, you can hear VJ washing up in the background.”
No way! That’s so cool. So it’s perhaps the most organic track from the album?
“Well I would say it is certainly the most, I mean if you talk about a record as a document. Like a record of it’s time, that is literal, like source material. That’s an original artifact. So that was the first time that I ever sung that song in full. So I had written the beginning of it and I had written the end of it and I had written a new bit for the middle. I can’t remember exactly what it was, it might have been the break or I don’t know. I changed something and then I put my phone on the thing and I recorded it and I sang the song like how I always do, cos that’s how I check how the song feels, I just play it back. And it’s that take. That’s the version that’s on the record. Every time I sing it now, because it is such a show tune, every time I sing it now, it sounds kind of way more show tuney. I have this amazing recording of that song with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera house but it’s like, well I do but it’s so massive, that it just wouldn’t fit this record. Like it’s too humongous, way too big. And I recorded like a minimalist version of it and I recorded like all these different versions of it and I just have never been able to like, fake it as good as it was the first time.”
As well as your music and voice, the album includes an assorted soundscape including a thunderstorm, birdsong, dreamscapes and 500 year-old church bells, just amazing! Tell me about these?
“That’s a cool question. No one has asked me about that. I love musical theatre. I mean I loooove musical theatre. Because it’s a whole other world. Like, it’s a whole other world. It’s a whole other world to believe in. It is like… it’s like Disneyland, it’s a magic town. I love, love love, that. The reason that I love it and the reason that artists are good musical artists is when through their artistry, they create a universe for this and to believe and like dwell in, right? So like a good example is Florence Welch, she has this amazing universe where everybody plays a harp and writes poetry and everybody looks like a real life painting. Her artistry and her flare is so complete, it is like a big universe for you to live in visually and conceptually because then you start to think of associated things like fruit in bowls and flowers and columns and all that beautiful shit that she is into and it’s great. But what I am saying is like, sonically, there is permission for us to do that but usually more in the zone of like music theatre. But in the middle, I think, in the middle of pop music and musical theatre is like a movie. But it is true though because you do use both the eyes and the ears to tell the story in movies, but it’s a bit less literal sometimes and so a lot of those moments are like real field recordings of… I mean it essentially just functions like sound design really. Which is to force the listener to listen to the next bit of the song which is a minute of rain shower *laughs* because that’s what’s required for you to get into the next song. And where all of those things are and what they create, like the rain at the end of Switches, that leads you into that static of Catherine Wheel, that’s on purpose because you’re suddenly in a new universe that you didn’t except because then it sounds like the piano is happening on top of the rain.”
In this album, I hear vibes or influences or moods from artists like Kate Bush, Madonna, David Bowie. Who are some of your biggest influences?
“I will take all three of those and please tell your friends! *laughs*. Look I have a piece of paper here and it says Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Rufus Wainwright, David Lynch, Perfume Genius, old movies, choreography, creaminess, singing and poetry, moon and stars, flowers, trapdoor, drama. That’s what it says on the thing beside the piano. There’s more people, that’s just a fragment of something that I wrote, but that’s the vibe. I don’t’ know, I mean I think this record is really about love and the cosmos ultimately.”
Pre order/ Pre save ‘Batflowers’ HERE
With thanks to Island Records Australia + Universal Music Australia