Hand Habits on Songwriting, Getting Personal, and Wanting a Better Future

Hand Habits on Songwriting, Getting Personal, and Wanting a Better Future
Meg Duffy by Jacob Boll
Meg Duffy by Jacob Boll

I love Meg Duffy's music as Hand Habits and think their new album Fun House, out later this month, is well worth your time. We caught up over the phone last month right before Meg headed out to band practice with Perfume Genius for their upcoming tour together (Meg does double-duty in Hand Habits and backing up PG, and we talk about that here too.)

What has life like been for you over the last six months?

So up and down. I've been preparing for tours over the last couple of weeks, both with Perfume Genius and as Hand Habits. Before that I was teaching a songwriting course, and preparing for that took up most of July.

Tell me about your earliest experiences in songwriting.

Before I even recorded or released any music, I used to use songwriting as a vehicle to find out how I was feeling. I didn't even know at the time that it gave me a container for holding space for myself. Looking back, I don't necessarily think that it's sustainable when it comes to sharing music, but in the beginning I wasn't in therapy or anything. When I first started writing songs I was 21, so it was for trying to figure out how I felt and what I wanted to express.

Through teaching songwriting, I realized that in the past a lot of my music was for me and not for anyone else. It was such a deeply personal experience. After putting out Widely Idle, it struck me that other people were having experiences with my music, and that everyone projects onto songs anyway. That's when I know a song is working—when someone can have their own experience with it. As a person who's ten years older than I was when I first started writing songs, I'm interested in making them more accessible to everybody and not just myself.

As you continue to progress as a songwriter, do you feel like you need to be less artistically vulnerable? What are the pros and cons?

Sometimes, walking away from it and going deeper are the same thing. That's the weird trick in my subconscious. People [in my class] would ask me "How do you know when it's getting too personal? What are the boundaries of sharing parts of your life?" I answer that question by pointing out that 867-5309 might've really been Jenny's phone number. Jack and Diane were probably real people. With Joni [Mitchell], all of these people who are alcoholics and love addicts are characters from her life.

I don't think there's any rules in art, but I will say that, for me, if I'm going to get extra personal moving forward—and this is just how I feel today, which is the glory of all interviews—I want it to be something that I would feel comfortable talking to a stranger about. I'm having a little more scruples, but I also think about my favorite favorite music and a lot of it is very personal to the person who wrote it—but I'm not thinking, "Who is that person they're talking about?" I don't know how to write songs about people I don't know yet, but I would like to.

Was the songwriting class the first time you've ever taught a class?

I've never taught before except for guitar lessons in college. There were 200 people in the class, and I was more nervous to teach than I was to play a show for 5,000 people. I didn't really know if I was going to be able to do it, but the people who ran the school worked together to come up with a curriculum and lectures for every level of musician—from people who never wrote a song before to people who are friends of mine whose songwriting I really respect. I learned so much about my own process, and I'm excited to get into writing again with this new understanding of my relationship with songwriting.

Sometimes I hear from other writers who are like, "I'm teaching a class!" And I feel like, personally, I wouldn't know where to start when it came to teaching somebody else anything. I'm still getting the hang of it myself. What goes into switching gears mentally from practicing a craft to teaching it to others?

Most people just need permission to do it, and that was clear to me after the first class. A lot of people who signed up were fans of my music, and it got rid of this hierarchy between someone whose music you loved and you. I just told everybody, "Sometimes I wake up and I'm not inspired because songwriting is so fucking hard. Here are some ways I've tricked myself into making it not so hard." Obviously, there's a different conversation that happens parallel to that one, because it's my job now—it's how I make money, and money is a necessary evil, but when it's mixed with songwriting the practice can be really effective in ways I'm still freaked out by.

With teaching, I can't teach somebody how to be me, so it was more about teaching someone how to develop their own identity as a songwriter. One thing I learned through teaching is that you don't have to take it so seriously for it to be enjoyable, and for people to resonate with it. It can be fun, and it's a creative practice. Obviously, I romanticize my heroes—they're just at home suffering, and through suffering comes great art! I want to believe that that's not always the case though. But some of my best work comes from suffering. [Laughs] Approaching songwriting now, I can have a commentary on the suffering rather than moving from the point of suffering.

What is the balance for you with writing from suffering versus the need to write a song, especially with regards to this new album?

With Placeholder, I wrote it in pieces. Sometimes there'd be a year in between a song. The narrative was pretty disjointed, I wasn't even thinking of cohesiveness and I didn't even know that was something people do because I was traveling so much and was so de-regulated. I recorded seven songs in two days because I only had four days off on tour. It was very quick, and I would go as far to say that it was impulsive.

With Fun House, I had time to edit lyrics and ask "What is the song saying?" I wasn't afraid to look at the demons and really get in there. Because I've used songwriting so much to figure out how I'm feeling, there were drafts where I was like, "OK, this is not the final draft. I can leave this on the page and move more onto a place of acceptance and exploration rather than blame or anger." Ultimately, I'm the one who has to perform these songs, and it's been a year since I made the record and I already feel a little different. I'm trying to have more of a working relationship with my emotions through the catalyst of song instead of being like, "This one's really gonna tell them how I feel." You can only make that record so many times. I'm more interested in a discourse on acceptance, the fear of the unknown, and uncertainty instead of blame or punishment.

On Fun House you're exploring new sounds in your songwriting, but in a way that feels organic and not forced. Tell me about the artistic pathway that led you to do so.

A lot of that was Sasami's presence. Working with her, when we were doing pre-production and I heard some of the demos, I was like, "No. What? No. I can't do this." And she was like, "Why not, dude? You listen to this music, and it's still you." She really created space for the calculated risks I was taking sonically, and I felt safe—trust fall after trust fall. There was one point where I was like, "I can't yell in a song," and I just realized how much I was boxing myself in out of fear. She was like, "These are all parts of you, let's explore them." She lives with me and we've been together for a long time, so she wanted to explore these parts of my identity sonically. "You are extreme, you are sexy, you are a goofball, you are deep. Let's go there instead of playing it safe."

When we did "Fourth of July" together, that was really apparent. She could zoom out and still keep me in focus, and it was such a growing experience. I'm excited to continue exploring that with her and other people, too. My biggest fear was that I'd put this record out and people would go, "Meg's gone electric, she's not folk music anymore." But I didn't want to make Placeholder, I didn't want to play it safe. I wanted to be outside of myself and be more heavy-handed. Why not?

As you mentioned before, you play in Perfume Genius' band as well. What's it like to switch gears from your own music to being in the service of someone else's song?

I love it so much. It's so symbiotic with writing songs of my own. I really need the balance of not being in charge, because I get so overwhelmed, and when I'm not in charge, I'm such a control freak that I'm like, "OK, I need to be in charge again." Also, it keeps my musical palette so fresh. It's an open system rather than just me making creative and sonic decisions all the time. I'm about to go on tour with Perfume Genius and Hand Habits is opening, and I love not being the person who's driving the ship 100% of the time. I enjoy just participating in music with other people.

I don't want to say I don't enjoy being a performer, but I also enjoy being in the service of others. It gives me a lot of perspective to create space for everybody while also working together, and figuring out how to sing with other people has been so helpful for me from a technical standpoint as well. I feel lucky that I get to think about music in a different way than I normally do. That's really exciting to me.

Amongst reasonable people, there was this hope that we'd be able to rethink some harmful and fucked up things involving most facets of life due to the pandemic. Obviously none of that happened. But what would you like to see change regarding the touring approach in the music industry in the face of everything?

Without sounding too privileged, I'd like to see the process have the artist in mind more, because it is so taxing. Even with playing huge shows, that is not always fun. It becomes a numbers game, and I don't know how to remove that from the business of music. It's almost been two years since I've been having these conversations about what happens before a tour, and there are so many logistical plans that all need to come together. I'd love for everybody to just be a little more gentle.

So many people are just touring records now that have been released for two years, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. "Striking while the iron's hot" is just scarcity mentality in the music industry. Let's think about this in the long-term—how do we make this sustainable for everybody? Even touring the world, or just touring in a car, is environmentally bad. I don't know. I don't know how to make a positive spin here.

I mean, everything has to change. It's all fucked up.

Especially with booking agents and promotion. "How many tickets is this person worth?" It's fucking music! I understand that it's capitalism, but spiritually I don't. Why is 5,000 people listening considered greater than three people listening very intently? I don't know if that's true. From a business perspective, that's scary to say, but from a spiritual perspective, I want to believe that just one person from your hometown listening is just as effective.

It's psychotic that people are going back to doing it just the same way, and it's really frustrating. Teaching the songwriting class, I was like, "Oh, I don't necessarily have to go on tour all the time, I can just have a different life." I can be gentler with myself. I think DIY might come back in a way that we really need it to—small local tours, not these massive productions. But I don't know, man—how do people make money, then?

I feel really lucky that I have the skill set to play in other peoples' bands. I mean, Hand Habits doesn't make money. I'm not paying my rent from playing Zebulon. That's just not sustainable. I really feel for the bands that are on my level or smaller—not that I even understand how you quantify peoples' level, it's weird, but the language slips in. But there are songwriters in my class where I'm like, "I should be taking a class from you," even though no one's heard their music. I really feel for people where the illusion is still really strong and seductive in their mind—this idea of success. It's not healthy for everyone.

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Jamie Larson