Earlier this month, esteemed multi-instrumentalist Meg Duffy released her debut album under the name Hand Habits, after several years of steady touring and recording with other artists. Known to many as the six-stringed anchor of Kevin Morby's live band, and as a member of Erin Birgy's experimental collective Mega Bog, Duffy has continuously emerged as a constant and compelling figure within today's indie landscape.
The album, Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), is a dreamy, lo-fi song cycle, written and recorded while in the process of moving from New York to Los Angeles, and its release on Woodsist represents the project's true beginnings as a focused and ongoing musical concern. On the eve of its release, we sent some questions over to Meg to find out a little more about the writing and recording process for the album, her ongoing collaborations with both Kevin Morby and Mega Bog, and her forthcoming plans for 2017.
With Wildy Idle (Humble Before the Void) coming out this week, and your joint tour with John Andrews & the Yawns kicking off on the same day, how are you feeling at the start of what must be an incredibly exciting time for Hand Habits?
I feel great! It's been a long time coming, and I've been psychically preparing for a while now.
Early Hand Habits incarnations have featured a full live band during performances. Have you assembled a similar backing band to tour behind Wildy Idle or will you be playing the new material as a solo act?
Definitely not similar to the past. [There's] very little aggression/rock indulgence and much more intention. I'm currently touring as a three piece: bass, drums and myself. We are a very quiet band.
How would you compare Wildly Idle to your previous Hand Habits releases?
I'm not sure how to compare them. My past releases - aside from the instrumentals and [the 2015 EP] This Sounds Nothing Like Tonight - feel very juvenile; like the songs of someone who was not sure of themselves, [and] therefore relying on others for taste and curation calls. This Sounds Nothing Like Tonight was my first glimpse of myself; knowing that I was capable of creating something completely on my own and feeling close to it. For the instrumentals, my vocabulary is always expanding.
The album was recorded in separate rooms in both New York and California. Did the process of moving cities, and making such a significant change in your life, affect the overall writing, sound and shape of these songs?
Absolutely. I was feeling the newness of Los Angeles, and the isolation that came with it. I slowed down in every way. I took more time to do things and trusted in exploration. I met a few very crucial people in the first couple of months who filled me with perspective shifts.
Who, or what, were your primary influences during the writing and recording process?
My bedroom, [LA-based artist] Robbie Simon, the slowness I mentioned, my partner at the time, Linda McCartney, and sharing a bathroom.
Who else did you collaborate with during the recording of the album?
[Quilt's] Keven Lareau, Mallory Watje, [Avi Buffalo drummer] Sheridan Riley - who is always blowing my mind musically, and who I feel constantly inspired by, however brief and infrequent we get to engage musically - Jeff Bailey, Avi Buffalo, and M.Geddes Gengras who mixed the record.
What are your favourite tracks on the album?
Hm. Probably "Book on How to Change" or "Sun Beholds Me".
I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about the ambient, almost spoken-word interludes that appear throughout - "Greater LA (scene)", "Cowboy (scene)" and "Time Hole (scene)". What are their significance in terms of the overall sequencing and narrative of Wildly Idle?
The music for those scenes are chopped from a 48-minute long exploration between two guitars and synth that Avi Zahner-Isenberg [Avi Buffalo] and I recorded at my house. We thought of it as 'Endurance Improv', and the goal was to push each other, and learn from each other, within the freeness of experimentation.
The poems, which I also loosely edited to bring the listening experience closer to the listener, are three of my favourite poets and friends: Catherine Pond wrote "Cowboy", Kayla Ephros wrote "Greater LA", and Lucy Blagg wrote "Time Hole". It felt crucial to have a wide range of sonic stimulation, including some aspect of spoken word/non-planned music. I respect my friends in the literary world, and I always feel in a state of awe when watching them perform, or read, in a world I don't have a concrete handle on.
You've noted previously that there was no deadline in finishing the album for Woodsist Records. How long did the writing and recording process take overall?
About seven months, mostly because I was also touring pretty extensively with Kevin [Morby] at the time of tracking.
What is the significance of the album's title?
I was on a plane from New York to LA, and, as usual, in a heightened emotional state while off the ground. On my first tour with Kevin, our friend Jessica Pratt was opening, and in a song of hers, ["The Game I Play"], I thought she was singing, "Idle wild," and I thought it was a cool word combination. When I complimented her, she was like, 'That's not what I say: it's "Why do I". So I wrote down those words a bunch of times in my notebook.
I was originally oscillating between Wildly Idle and Humble Before the Void as working titles, because the void aspect has always fascinated me. [There's] something about the unknown that terrifies and intrigues us; exciting us with it's possibilities to conceive the most raw form of vulnerable creativity. Feeling thankful for those gifts, I realised I didn't have to choose between titles, and that so much of my life is parenthetical anyway. It seemed fitting to include that in the title.
Who crafted Wildly Idles artwork and what does it mean to you personally?
Robbie Simon, who is a dear friend that I was living with, in a house, during recording. He heard 80% of the notes recorded, since I lived above him. He had the concept originally, and we worked through it verbally, but not too deeply because I trust his vision, and admire his art a lot. He wanted to recreate my bedroom since it's such an 'indoors' record, and I had made that apparent; I didn't want an 'outside' cover to be representing the music. Since he literally took photos of my room, that I recorded and wrote in, it's an incredibly personal piece of art.
You've spent much of the past two years on the road with Kevin Morby. How did you first come to meet Kevin and join his live band?
Another band I was playing in, in Upstate New York, had gotten asked to open for Kev, and we had a pretty strong connection immediately. After his set, I told him if he ever needed another guitarist I was available and not up to too much. He sent me the record he had finished, [Still Life], and was planning tours for. I learned the bass parts, and in February of 2015, I drove across the country to start my first tour with him.
Did you know the other members of the band - Justin Sullivan, Cyrus Gengras, and more recently Nick Kinsey - prior to joining?
Last year, Kevin's Singing Saw took off in a big way, with his overall exposure and live audiences growing significantly as the year went on. How was it experiencing this first hand, and what were your Singing Saw tour highlights?
It was really cool being part of a project that was in such a flux and transformation. Kevin had put a lot of trust in [drummer] Justin and I as a band, and that felt like such an incredible time going from playing small clubs to big festivals within the course of a little over a year. My favourite time on that record was probably going to Iceland, and taking a small band vacation.
What are your favourite Kevin Morby songs to perform live?
"Singing Saw", "Beautiful Strangers" and "Destroyer".
Both yourself and Justin helped with the recording of the song, "Tiny Fires", written and recorded following Singing Saw's release. I was wondering if you've contributed to Kevin's forthcoming album, and if there are any plans to record a full Kevin Morby Band album in the future?
Sure did! We all worked on the next record together, pretty collaboratively in terms of arranging and playing. We spent a week in a beautiful studio, up near Stinson Beach [in California]. That record feels pretty KMB [Kevin Morby Band] to me.
If you had to pick a name for the band [à la, Bob Dylan & The Band] - what would it be and why?
The Creeps; this has been discussed. In the age of internet spying, I'd say it's appropriate to admit your indulgence in creep mentality. In a safe, non-harmful way, of course.
After performing with Mega Bog in a live capacity, you recently joined the project in the studio for its second album, Happy Together, released earlier this month. How was it working with Erin Birgy in a studio context, and are there plans for you to perform live again with Mega Bog on your forthcoming tour together?
I'm currently in the van with Mega Bog right now! Working with Erin is always a learning experience for all of us. We push each other and try to find balance. She can be very direct in describing what she wants from a piece of music, and I've learned a lot about how to lend to an arrangement from working with her and the many players of Mega Bog: Derek Baron, Matt Bachmann, Aaron Otheim, Zach Burba, Jeff Tobias, Will Murdoch... On our tour coming up, we'll both be playing in each other's bands. Erin is playing drums in Hand Habits and Matt Bachmann's playing bass, and I'll be guitaring with them. Kind of a dream line-up tour.
What are the key differences between playing in Mega Bog and Kevin Morby's band?
They are two very different animals, with very different approaches to music - how it should be performed, written, and listened to. Not in a 'Good vs. Evil' way at all, just opposite schools of thought. With Kevin it feels tapped into the rock/folklore American narrative, and with Mega Bog it feels more of a radical, music-as-a-political-and-personal-vehicle-for-the-listener-as-well-as-the-performer [situation]. I have to be pretty focused as a player, since the music is challenging within the arrangements and structurally. With Kevin. it can be more of a wheelhouse that I can loosen-up and lend to the song in an autopilot way, but feel solid in the melody and rock energy that can be tastefully indulgent. I get to play a lot of slide with KM and that's something I really enjoy; and loops, which are my musical meditation. With Bog it can be too in the moment/a live conversation for the loops.
Last year you also appeared on Weyes Blood's album, Front Row Seat to Earth, and Amber Arcades' underrated debut, Fading Lines. How did these collaborations come about, and do you have any other recording projects lined-up?
Just playing music live seems like the ultimate gateway to collaboration, and, [with] most of my friends being musicians, [Weyes Blood's] Natalie Mering was opening for Kevin Morby on a tour and that's where we met. I met Chris Cohen, who produced that record, at a show we both were playing in LA and have worked on a song with him. Amber Arcades was making a record with my friends in Quilt who also play in my band sometimes, John Andrews and Keven Lareau.
I had the pleasure of working with Avi Buffalo on some instrumental music that appears on my record, and I played on the [new] in-progress War on Drugs record. I hope to work with more women on collaborative projects this year. I've talked about making some music with Rachel Neveau from Soft Eyes and John Andrews & the Yawns, because we connected musically on this last tour.
Finally, I was wondering what you are looking forward to most in 2017, and what your hopes are for the future?
Definitely those collaborations with more women. I want to make a guitar record; a really indulgent shreddy guitar-only record. [I want to] write more songs, and hopefully start to record them at some point. I'm looking forward to taking Hand Habits to Europe and the UK, and seeing a lot of friends that I only see on tour. Actually, I'm excited for SXSW this year, and I'd like to get a home base again, eventually. I'm imagining the most wonderful bedroom somewhere.
Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) is out now on Woodsist