Hand Habits on “Fun House,” a Career of Collaborations, and Their Voyage of Personal Discovery | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021  

Hand Habits on “Fun House,” a Career of Collaborations, and Their Voyage of Personal Discovery

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Oct 21, 2021 Photography by Jacob Boll Web Exclusive
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One could certainly understand Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy (who uses they/them pronouns) being a little bit on the sleepy side the Sunday morning we spoke. Forced into pandemic hibernation like the rest of us, Duffy has emerged with their best sounding and most revealing album to date, Fun House (due out tomorrow on Saddle Creek). But this day, they are Zooming in from the front porch of their L.A. bungalow one day removed from wrapping as guitarist, and opening act, on Perfume Genius’ much delayed mini-tour in support of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. Given the myriad of collaborations and their own projects over the past decade or so, Duffy is not known for allowing themselves much downtime, forced or otherwise.

Duffy’s longest supporting role to date was as lead guitarist in Kevin Morby’s band for a four-year stint. With the invite to join Mike Hadreas’ Perfume Genius, Duffy considers themselves a member of that band as well. Other appearances or collaborations over the years range from working with or appearing on albums by Vagabon, The War on Drugs, Mega Bog, William Tyler, Jess Williamson, Flock of Dimes, and even squeezing in a 2021 release as Yes/And with experimental producer Joel Ford. An impressive resume no doubt, but, arguably, Duffy’s finest moment to date arrives on Fun House, where they received a production assist from Sasami Ashworth (SASAMI) and engineering support and studio time provided by Kyle Thomas (King Tuff). Following 2017’s Wildy Idle (Humble Before the Void) and 2019’s placeholder, Fun House takes Duffy’s deeply personal reflections to a higher sonic plane.

Mark Moody (Under the Radar): Hi Meg, great to meet you over Zoom. Maybe if we could start with some background. I saw you open for Whitney a few years back in North Carolina and you mentioned your first guitar teacher was in the audience. Who was that and when did you start playing guitar?

Meg Duffy: That was my Uncle Joey. He had a blowout night that night. [Laughs] I grew up in Amsterdam, New York, and took lessons from my uncle when I was about 15 and also played drums and other instruments. Later, I went to college for music as well and primarily studied jazz guitar. Then I just started playing with different bands and playing with a lot of songwriters and being in the sideman kind of role, and being really happy doing that. And then I met Emily Sprague from Florist, and we were in a relationship at that time. And I just remember being really moved by her songs. I didn’t realize how people went about writing songs. It was just, for some reason, like an abstract concept to me. It feels overwhelming, but I was really inspired to write songs after that and from being really close to it.

So when was all of this starting to come together?

I guess 2011 or 2012. And I wrote a couple of songs. I think just two songs then. A really small label [Eschatone] put them out. It was a split with another friend, Sheridan [Sheridan Riley of Peg]. My memory is also really bad!

That’s okay. You’ve been involved with so many different projects, so it’s understandable.

Yeah. So then Hand Habits went through a lot of different iterations. I didn’t have my own compass or taste or identity as a songwriter because I had played with so many people. I’m such a collaborator and I like open system collaboration. I like to be inspired by other people, to bounce ideas off of other people and really influence and be influenced. And I think for the first couple of years that I was writing songs, I didn’t really know who I was as a songwriter. Not to say that I have a super clear idea now because it’s always changing, but I’ve developed a little bit more of my own tastes and distance from the community I grew up in. So I started writing songs, but I took a break for a while once I joined Kevin Morby’s band.

Kevin and a couple of people in the Woodsist community [referring to the Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere fronted band, Woods, and adjacent acts] had heard a couple of my demos. And somehow, Jeremy got a hold of them and he was like, “I want to do a record. Let’s do a record. Your songs are awesome.” And I only had four or five songs, so when I got to L.A., I used Jeremy’s request as an excuse to write more songs. And I think doing it on my own and doing my first album, Widly Idle, just at home, helped me figure out what my process was a little bit more and get a little closer to my identity. And then placeholder I recorded over a week or so, because I was constantly on tour with Kevin.

With Fun House, I had been in L.A. for seven years. I’d played with a lot of other people. I’d done a lot of session work. So with all the time after all the tours being canceled, I had a year and a half to really write songs and work on the songs and demo them and spend time with the lyrics and not feel this external, “If the wheel’s not turning, then I will disappear,” kind of feeling. I moved into this house with Sasami and Kyle, and it was just sort of a present. It felt like the universe was providing me this circumstance, and that I needed to take advantage of that. So we made the record here, upstairs in Kyle’s studio. Yeah, that’s up to present day.

You covered all my material. We’re done.

Okay, great. Yeah, we’re done. Nice chatting.

I’m kidding, but that’s great background. So now that you’re further into songwriting, what do you get the most out of today, playing guitar, composing songs, writing lyrics?

I mean, it’s really all of that. I was just on tour with Perfume Genius and I play in that band now. And I was also opening as Hand Habits, and that’s my favorite thing to do because it sort of takes both of the things that I love so much and puts them together. I get to play my songs and they get to take their own life on with new players. I was using the Perfume Genius band as my band and that was amazing because they’re such great players and the songs get to evolve. So I get to really feel nourished by doing that and having my moment. And then I get to just dip out and be supportive of Mike [Hadreas]’s band, more of a cog. And I really love doing that. And I was talking to Mike about it too, and I made the joke, “I can let loose more in Perfume Genius because I know the material better than my own.” [Laughs]

But with Hand Habits, I’m playing guitar and singing, so I’m not as present in the music because I’m trying to think about these two things that require a lot of energy, and I don’t want the guitar to be uninteresting. But then with Perfume Genius, I’m supporting. So I really like both.

I think it was shortly before placeholder came out that Kevin Morby had come out and said something to the effect of, “Time to kick Meg out of the band for them to go out on their own and do their thing.” And I know you already had an album out at that point. But was that a little bit of hyperbole or was that really the nudge you needed to get going?

I think with Kevin, it really was smart. It was time. I think we both needed something new. I spent four years in that band, and it was a lot because Kevin tours so much. He tours more than anyone I know. It’s crazy. [Laughs] I keep telling him like, “You don’t have to do this. You have a house now. You don’t need to keep doing it this way,” but he likes it. I was feeling like time is a finite source, and I was touring with him so much that I was only ever opening for him or trying to squeeze in these little headlining tours on small budgets in between tours. And it was just a lot.

Kevin used a parallel, and there’s stories like this all the time. He was in Woods for a long time and had to make the leap. And if he never did it, he would have never focused on his own solo project. Same with Adam Granduciel, who was playing in Kurt Vile’s band at the same time The War on Drugs was launching. He was both opening for Kurt and playing in Kurt’s band, and I remember his manager saying, “You have to quit this band.” And now The War on Drugs are a huge band. [Of note, Duffy played slide guitar on The War on Drugs’ album A Deeper Understanding and most memorably the “Holding On” single].

There is definitely some truth to “If you don’t give it a try, then you’ll never know.” And it’s ironic that with the pandemic and the timing of joining Perfume Genius’ band how things changed. I didn’t even have a new record prepared when I agreed to join that band. But then all of our touring got canceled, and I was able to make Fun House.

Right. Interesting. And you touched on this, but I’ve heard you comment on the last 18 months during the pandemic. And I think you had said some things that at the beginning, it was a very lonely, difficult time for you.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, in the beginning-beginning, it wasn’t that lonely. I was in a relationship. I was living in North Carolina for a little while. It was a weird time. We were all kind of orienting to the situation. I definitely was in fight or flight mode. And we were all like, “What the hell is happening?”

But then, I came back to L.A., and it was a little disjointed. I had moved into this house in L.A. before I went to North Carolina. But I kind of just dropped my shit and then left because I had been on tour for so long, leading up to the pandemic. I had sold my car. Everything was just a mess from being on the road. And I didn’t really realize how exhausted I was and kind of manic from all that touring. And so, when I got back to L.A., it was the longest I had ever sat still. The relationship I was in I ended because I knew it had to. I just needed to sit with myself. It was really scary, but necessary. And all of this grief and pain and memories that I would not really let myself think about or sit with for too long needed to be addressed. I allowed all of it to come out. And I was in this house. I got home in July. And then, we didn’t start doing pre-production until October. So the whole summer, I was just writing.

So when did you meet Sasami and Kyle in the midst of all this?

I live downstairs here and they were already living upstairs. It was a good balance. I wasn’t completely alone, and I’m really thankful for that. But musically, what was happening in the house was Kyle and Sasami were always working on music. And I could hear them through the floor because it’s a pretty old house. And I would come upstairs and be like, “That sounds so good. [Laughs] What’s going on?” Kyle has a really nice studio here. And I’ve known Sasami for a long time and we ended up doing the “4th of July” song together and I viewed it as a trial run just to see if I could work with the people I live with.

We were extremely lucky to work so well together. There was so much intentionality and care that went into making the album. I was so happy with the way that it sounded, because I had been talking to a lot of people about doing the record but then a lot of the options disappeared because of COVID. I was talking to Jeff Tweedy. I was talking to Andy Shauf. I was going to maybe go to Toronto. I was talking to all of these people about maybe going and doing a couple of weeks at their studio and then it was like, financially, it just makes sense. Everything’s right here. I just have to walk upstairs.

So it felt fated in such a beautiful way and there was something about recording from home, but it’s not a home-recorded sounding record. It sounds really good. Kyle has an amazing gear collection and an amazing ear and Sasami does as well and I feel really fortunate that I was grounded throughout the whole thing.

Right. So can you talk about working with Sasami a little bit? I first saw her when she was with Cherry Glazerr playing keyboards. I saw them live and I was thinking, she didn’t seem to have a serious bone in her body, and she looked to be having the time of her life. And then she puts out this beautiful music of her own and what she has worked with you on.

She can be serious. She’s goofy, but in the studio she can be really serious. And I take music seriously because it’s my entire life. She also went to music school. She studied classical French horn and because I think we both studied, in an academic sense, we know that it requires a certain focus. But honestly, her playfulness in the studio helped me because I can be a workaholic in the studio and really serious and she would be like, “Chill!” But also she would push me. She gave me the permission to do things that I think left to my own devices I wouldn’t have done, just literally out of fear.

Cool. Good. Get to share the workload a little bit too, I guess.

Oh my god. Yeah, I mean, she over prepared. She would say that that’s her Korean side, and I need that too because I can get kind of lazy and have a tendency to just say, “It’s fine, it’s fine,” and move on. She did all the horn arrangements and string arrangements. And yeah, it was amazing. We really pushed to make it the best that it could be. I feel no matter what happens with the record, in terms of how it does, I feel really good about it and I feel like we made something beautiful. She and Kyle both just came in with such care and determination and you can hear it in the record that a lot of time was spent on it.

Yeah, no. I was going to ask you about that little passage together of “No Difference” and “Graves.” I just love those two together. But the background vocals on “No Difference,” it put me in this context of thinking about all that you’ve done in other people’s bands and to support other artists and then here’s this chorus behind you kind of lifting you up. Who’s singing there?

It’s James Krivchenia from Big Thief. Griffin Goldsmith from Dawes. They both played on the record. Christian Lee Hutson, who also plays on the record, and Sasami. And Mike from Perfume Genius was the final touch on that one. Sasami kind of snuck that concept in and it was such a slick move where James came in to do the drums and then she was like, “Let’s get you to sing this one line.” And I was like, “What’s that?” And she’s like, “Just want to get their voice on it.”

It’s so interesting because it seems like such a simple thing but it just really elevates the song to a different level.

It really does. I’ve been practicing solo to do this on tour with Andy Shauf, because I’m going to be solo, and I really miss my boys choir.

Sharing what you are comfortable with, can you talk a little bit about benefiting from therapy and this album being kind of along that vein?

I think the amount of time that I had stationary benefited me by being able to do therapy and other kinds of modalities of healing. There was so much grief [to work through], and not to overly talk about my own trauma, because everybody’s traumatized. But I grew up with a lot of addiction in my family and my mother committed suicide when I was really young. And I think my desire, as a musician, to be working all the time was also distracting from just kind of getting to know myself. And touring is exhausting and it’s addictive and it’s exciting. A lot of adrenaline every night. So then when you come home, like I’m experiencing right now, I feel kind of depressed because I just was doing the same thing every day with all these people, and you develop these really tight bonds. And then you separate, and it’s natural to have some sort of a comedown, but to have that much time off [due to the pandemic] and to come down without going back up, yeah. I started going to therapy every weekend.

And I really was sitting with these parts of myself that—I don’t want to say I was ashamed of— I’m not ashamed anymore because of therapy, because I try to stay away from shame and guilt. But all of these doors of memory that were closed and just getting to know myself on a deeper level and allowing myself to move through some grief. While also allowing myself to be okay with uncertainty and do some radical acceptance of myself and just let go of certain patterns and ways of living. But I was allowing myself, with a support network, to shine a light on these parts of myself that I was running away from all the time.

And so for these songs, I feel like these are the most personal songs I’ve ever written. I was over-exhausted with writing songs that were blame songs or personally victimizing songs. And I feel like on placeholder, I was like, “Wow, you replace me. I’m sad.” And I think my intention going into writing Fun House was that you can’t blame other people for the things that they do. Everybody’s just living their lives, and they’re trying to do what’s best for them. I wanted to just turn it back on myself and write from my own experience rather than externalizing and trying to control those things that I can’t.

Right. Okay. Thank you for sharing all of that. So there’s a line in “Aquamarine” where you say, “I didn’t know she played guitar ‘til I turned 27.” I assume that’s about your mom. It resonated with me because of things I found out about my own parents later in life. It’s just amazing how these things surface.

I mean, that’s what that song is about, right? It’s like those questions of, “Yeah, why did it have to be that way,” but I understand. It’s hard to talk about the past. It’s hard to dredge the lake of trauma. People don’t want to talk about pain. And so I think finding out information as an adult, it started to color my own sense of identity. And with “Aquamarine,” that song specifically, that was one of the songs that just came out. I had reconnected with a cousin of mine that was on my mom’s side. I don’t have much family on that side, so a cousin sent my dad these paintings that my mom had made. And I started connecting with my cousin via email. And I just went really deep into wanting to know about my mother, ask these questions that I had always been afraid to ask.

So I started just going in really hard and asking all these questions. And she was sending me these really long emails that were about my mother and all of this stuff. And she was like, “Yeah. She played guitar. She was always singing.” And I was like, “Wow, what?”

I mean, it just seems like such a positive thing, and with your own talents, that somebody would have told you that sooner.

I know, yeah. And maybe my dad did, but I was just too angry as a kid to hear it or something. Because I used to be so angry at everyone in my family. Growing up is hard, and raising children is probably really hard. And I try to have more compassion these days for all of those people. And how do you tell a four-year-old that their mother died? It’s just hard.

But when I found out that she played guitar, I really was like, “I’m connecting with her in such a deep way through music.” It all started to make sense in a way too why I’m so called to make music because sometimes people connect with the songs, right? And maybe you can relate as a writer, but it’s just like at a certain point, they don’t feel like mine. And I also have a hard time believing that people connect with them because it’s so personal.

Yeah, I understand. But I think, like I said, that line of yours made me think about something with my own parents. And the details of a story don’t have to be the same for people to resonate with what you are saying.

Exactly, yeah. Having that feeling and getting that reciprocity through people listening to the songs, in some ways, it feels really healing because I’m giving people the capacity for connection with their whatever they’re moving through. And I think that that’s beautiful. And learning about her for some reason just kind of contextualized a lot of what I’m doing in this really beautiful way and it’s not about me, you know what I mean?

Right. I totally get that. So are the aquamarines in the song, is that a physical thing? You mention a certificate of authenticity. And then on “Gold/Rust,” there’s a line in there about leaving behind earrings. So I didn’t know if there was a connection between those songs and if there was a real object behind them.

Yeah, I have them. You want to see them?

Sure. [Laughs]

[Duffy proceeds to duck into their house and comes right back out with a felt lined box with a pair of leaf shaped gold earrings that they hold out to the camera. Each inset with an aquamarine at its largest part.]

Well, yeah, my cousin sent these. There was just a painting my mom painted and this box of earrings. And there is no certificate of authenticity. That was made up. I just like the way it sounded. Aquamarines are my birth stone and this is the only heirloom I have from my mother. Aside from a few paintings that are at my dad’s house.

Okay, cool. And then, I know at the beginning of the “No Difference” video, you’re with your dad there briefly. So, can you talk about that relationship a little bit if you are comfortable with that?

It’s so complicated. I mean, that trip to film that was really special to me and I think this record too. And with therapy and stuff, what I do feel comfortable saying is just I’ve just learned to have so much compassion for him too, because he lost a lot and his life is extremely painful. And so the veil of how fair it was for me to be angry at him started to dissolve rapidly from therapy and I just came to have more compassion. And so, yeah, I love my dad. He’s human. He’s made mistakes, I have too.

So it seems maybe appropriate to close on asking you about the song “Graves.” You sing, “Don’t go digging up graves,” so is that advice to yourself or someone else that you are speaking to?

I think it’s advice to myself. I think it’s also fitting that it’s the last track of the record [Interestingly, the song is earlier on in the digital version of the album, but is the last song on the vinyl version, which track order is more as Duffy intended.] I did a lot of digging. And I think that message, yeah, I just was trying to remind myself not to keep excavating the past too much. But at the same time, to me, that song is about memory and kind of accepting that people don’t want to always go back into the past. Dredge all of this pain up. I wrote that song when I was in North Carolina, too, and it was an early song that I wrote for Fun House. And it was interesting how the rest of the songs came from what fits best as the last song.

We covered a lot and I really appreciate you being so open to sharing what inspired you on such a beautiful album. And get some rest!

Thank you. Thanks for making a safe space to talk about these things.

www.handhabits.band

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