The last time Meg Duffy, the musician behind Hand Habits, was in Australia was in March 2020, just before the world irrevocably changed forever. Having become a favourite guitarist for artists like Perfume Genius and Kevin Morby, though, when the pandemic arrived they felt in need of a rest after touring so extensively over the past few years.
It’s why while they wouldn’t call their third album, Fun House, a pandemic record, it’s definitely a product of that period. “Most of the songs were written between March and then we started recording in November,” Meg tells me from their Los Angeles home. Apart from a couple – ‘Concrete & Feathers’ was written a few years ago and ‘Just to Hear You’ was actually written on tour in Australia and New Zealand. I played a house show in New Zealand on this beautiful little sun porch. I wrote it there and recorded it when I got home.”
The pandemic turned into a bit of a blessing in disguise for them. “I had just spent so much time thinking about what I was doing next,” Meg says when I ask if they felt they needed a break after touring and working so much. “On tour, there’s just so much logistics involved and you’re also thinking a lot about the performance.”
“And I can be a workaholic,” they add. It’s at this point that they grab a blue t-shirt which had been lying beside them on the verandah. Meg holds it up for me to see. “On the eve of my release show, instead of chilling and taking it easy, I dyed around 100 t-shirts! For some reason I thought I had to do this but a friend of mine was like, ‘who told you you had to do that!’ (laughs).”
The free time the pandemic afforded them also wrought an unexpected but welcomed change in Meg’s approach to making music. “It was the fastest I’ve written songs in my entire life,” they explain. “Usually I feel like every song I write is going to be the last one and I’ll never write a song. They just kept coming, though, and I felt really grateful for that. I’m still unpacking all of it.”
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Fun House was produced by Sasami Ashworth (SASAMI) and engineered by Kyle Thomas, better known as the acclaimed 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 was producing Thomas’ own record in was too strong a sign to ignore. Was it fine to work alongside such close friends in such a confined location? “I loved it,” Meg says without hesitation.
“It was grounding and it almost felt like we were on tour in a way. When you’re on tour you really develop a language and lexicon with the people that you’re with. Anytime that you spend an extended period of time – an unnatural period of time – with people in such a small space, you want to make the best of it.
I loved working this way because I was at home surrounded by my comfort items. I was sleeping in the same bed every night so there was a structure that we all benefited from. It didn’t feel claustrophobic. I’m grateful to live in a neighbourhood with a lot of nature. And I also like feeling claustrophobic sometimes! It allows me to turn inward in a way.”
It was Sasami who really pushed Meg out of their comfort zone in a positive way. Where previous Hand Habits records had been noted for their understatedness, possessing a general muted atmosphere that fitted the serious quality of the lyrics, Meg tells me they tried to go bigger on Fun House.
“I know there was a lot more intention behind Fun House than my previous records. With Wildly Idle, I was just on my own experimenting with a shitty little mix and I really didn’t know what I was doing. Everything I used for that record was borrowed or in the basement. I was in the beginner’s mind making Wildly Idle.
Then with Placeholder, I had demos but they were pretty simplified. I recorded that album in a total of seven days. And it was mainly two very sporadic sessions, I think in the first day we tracked nine songs live. But with Fun House, we just had all this extra time. We did a week of pre-production and we discussed at length what tones we wanted to focus on, how we wanted it to sound. We spent the first three days just getting drum sounds. I never had the luxury to be in such a space with all that time and planning.”
Creative collaboration might be what Meg thrives in doing but it doesn’t always come easy. Despite playing and touring with Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius extensively, they were still reluctant to ask him to collaborate. “It wasn’t my idea, it was Susami’s! I play in Perfume Genius obviously but I can be shy and I don’t like asking for anything. So I was really nervous even though now he’s a good friend of mine. I don’t like asking for help.”
It was the craftiness of Susami that finally brought Meg and Mike together on ‘Just to Hear You’, one of the album’s standout tracks. “Susami had written that song as a duet because she wanted to hear Mike and I sing together,” Meg laughs.
The increased creative community surrounding Meg on this album is why its title feels so apt: Fun House conjures ideas of myriad options, deceptive twists, intriguing turns. The songs all feel different sonically, 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 belief that Fun House can’t be distilled into any one genre and Meg’s eyes light up. “The other day I facetiously tweeted ‘what is indie?’ Like I don’t even understand what that is. It seems to be a sort of catch-all term for anything that’s not pop. I don’t really understand.”
The night before our interview took place, a conversation Meg had illuminated this idea perfectly. “I was at a party and somebody was talking about a musician they said was indie. It was Rufus Wainwright! I was like, ‘he’s not indie’. I also saw someone say that my song ‘No Difference’ was a country song and I was like, ‘what the fuck! What about this song feels country to you?’
When I went home and ran into some family and they asked ‘what kind of music do you make?’ I didn’t know what to say. I have no idea, it’s just music. But people need to name things to understand them, I think it’s inherent in our human nature. I don’t think the cataloguing of musicians will ever go away.”
Although they’re now based in Los Angeles, Meg originally hails 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 that was a cathartic experience. “It was a bit cathartic,” they say in agreement. “It was an interesting choice. I feel like that video is really drenched in meaning, with my personal experience growing up there.
It was cathartic in some ways and in other ways it was – I don’t know that I’ll go to my hometown to make any videos again (laughs). There was a lot to balance because I hadn’t seen my family in years and I was working. It was kind of a lot. But I loved being there, it was a reminder to just touch into that energy and be in the green nature and by water.”
As Hand Habits, Meg has never distanced themself from raw self-excavation but their presence on Fun House feels distant to their previous two albums. They’re still naturally processing grief and trauma but this time round it’s wrapped in a more ambitious and expansive style; they are still excavating themselves emotionally but with a more controlled and empathetic perspective, you feel while listening. So a song like ‘Clean Air’, Meg explains, is about acceptance and accepting differences with people. “I use this word very lightly and loosely but it’s about this feeling of ownership,” they say hesitantly.
“Like when you’re in a relationship, feeling close to somebody, you can develop this ownership of their time. So the song is about realising that’s not always healthy or fair. A relationship usually has an expiration date so it’s about coming to terms with that in a loving way. It’s about knowing you can’t ask that much of somebody anymore and that that’s ok.”
Three albums in, Fun House feels like Meg’s most personal work to date. “I don’t know how to not make personal music,” they consider. “I don’t really know what that would feel like. The path that I’ve taken to writing songs has just been such a personally-oriented one.” That doesn’t mean they can’t foresee a change in their songwriting approach one day. “I think in the future, I’m really curious to try and write about someone else’s perspective or someone else’s story. I just haven’t tried too hard yet!”
There was one thing I really wanted to know coming into the interview: do they feel more comfortable as Hand Habits or as a session musician? “I like both for very different reasons,” they say. “I think I’ll always continue to do both because I don’t like doing one thing. I think they both really energise the other and balance them out. And I don’t like to put all my eggs in a basket!”
This is the path they want to continue on for a while yet. “I’m doing double duty with Perfume Genius, starting November 1st. I’ve committed to playing on his next record and I like playing with him, so I think I’ll continue to pull double duty as long as I can before I expire!”
Fun House is out now via Milk! Records/Remote Control Records.