Yesterday, in part one of this interview, Megan Washington named names and drew lines from the past in explaining how her new album, her third, emerged from what may have looked like a drought but was in fact fertile – sometimes very fertile – years.
Today – what this album, Batflowers, tells us about who she is right now, and how she used that odd beast, happiness, to achieve it.
Batflowers doesn’t repeat sounds, structures or tunes, but it feels intrinsically Megan Washington – the Megan Washington who smashed through with I Believe You Liar, the one who felt tortured on the Insomnia EP and released on There There - not a version of her re-moulded for whatever 2020 is supposed to sound like.
Yet even while you never feel like you are being made to adjust your grasp of her, you are constantly being asked to adjust your understanding of her. That’s a subtle, but difficult trick to pull off.
“That was a diplomatic way of saying it,” Washington says. “The great irony about writing, or even singing and art or anything at all, is that you think that when you become a master of it, or good at it, you will be humongous in the art. But actually, what I’m finding is the less that I care about myself, and the more that I care about what is best for the song, actually and ironically, the more ‘me’ the song sounds.
“When you are sitting there and thinking, oh my God what’s on the radio?; what would be strategically good?; I heard Billie Eilish records like this, maybe I’ll try to do that - if you’re looking out at all, at anything it’s wrong.”
In case the concept isn’t clear, here comes the handy drug reference kids!
“Like when you take mushrooms, or acid, the best way to trip is to put a blindfold on and some headphones, and then go inside. Because that’s where all the cool shit is, not out in the world where people fuck with you and have all their experience of the trip and ruin your experience of the trip. The coolest way to do it, I think, is to go in,” she says.
“And for me, when I go into myself, and this album is an example, it wasn’t really who is the best or greatest almost strategically excellent choice of producer to align me with the following algorithms and the Google searches that people who do market research do on my name, or whatever the fuck that whole universe is - I don’t know anything about that.”
Setting aside the market research, the second-guessing from the men in offices, the “outside”, what did that mean in practical terms for Batflowers, an album made as a kind of multi-pronged collaboration with writers, producers and musicians of various hues? There’s a definite attitude, or mood, to this record, and it feels singular, not the product of a committee. But that happened in the midst of a crowd.
“The conversation I had with myself was who do I want to talk to for hours a day in the middle of a pandemic? The answer was, my mates. There was no profound answer; just my mates,” Washington says. “And in the process of just wanting to hang out with my mates, the work that I did was really joyful. For me, when I hear the music, it’s super joyful. For me celebration and anxiety are my two modes, they’re my two settings, and that [album] sounds like me.”
There’s no hiding those two modes on the album. While happiness is sought, and sometimes found, there’s a prevailing seam of unease. Not so much with herself but with the very idea of certainty in anything, let alone relationships. She has said that this is a happy record, but the most telling moments are ballads whose hearts are squeezed.
“I did feel a kind of gross about putting this record out, because of how naked I feel, because it is just the truth, this is what I think. But the thing that I have worked out is that if I can satisfy to impossible things at the same time, then the song feels sort of done for me,” Washington explains. “Those two impossible things are: is it completely and utterly excruciatingly personal, in a way that if you know me you would be like, wow she really went there, that’s all true; but also, have I framed it in a way that is useful enough to other people that it could be entirely about you and your life and your truth?
“In that way, could every song be a Rorschach, in that if you were just listening and you are like, that seems a happy song, you’d be like sure, whatever. But if you were also a lyrics person and you were really looking for the real shit, there is real shit in there for you.”
It’s interesting she defines the two key elements of her art and her personality as celebration and anxiety as maybe the oddest thing about the record is that she clearly is in one of the happiest places she has been in her life – settled relationship, settled home base, a young child.
It’s as if she can’t let go of anxiety no matter what else is happening in her life. That courses through her.
“I think that the thing we are talking about when we say anxiety, is the thing that Martha Graham in her [autobiography], Blood Memory - that I love - talks about as the “blessed unrest’, the dissatisfaction, that keeps us marching on,” she says. “Look, I am really happy, but at the same time you can really only … I don’t know how to say this without sounding like Madonna in the ‘90s or something like that. Ok, when I met my therapist, he listened to all my songs - because my therapist is a genius, he’s like the real deal. He said to me, why are you always the victim?
“And I was like, what do you mean? And he was like, in all your songs someone is doing some shit to you: someone’s fucked up, someone’s hurt you blah blah blah blah. Your songs are never like oh I forgive you; your songs are always, oh you hurt me and I’m the victim. I was like, but in the music videos I am not sad - there is fucking choreography, how could I be a victim?”
Washington laughs as she tells this story. Choreography after all, for a woman whose not so secret love is classic musicals on film and stage, is possibly her truest outlet of expression. Check out her filmclips, or that one shining moment of the ARIA Awards debacle mid last decade. However, the therapist’s observations stung because it felt true.
“I listened to all my lyrics and in Sunday Best I say ‘I will take the time to make it/Just to give you the chance to break it’. All that shit was I was basically announcing that I was happy to be a human sacrifice for the privilege of being an artist,” Washington says. “Because I thought that to be an artist you had to be a human sacrifice, because that’s kind of what they tell you out there in the world when they show you movies like A Star Is Born, and you see with Amy Winehouse, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, and all these people who were made to suffer even though they were real artists.”
Can you survive being the sacrificial human? Indeed, does it help anyone? Maybe Batflowers is a sign that she’s found an alternative to that predetermined route.
“The thing about artists is - and I hope you write about this in a way that I don’t sound like a psychopath - when I sing it has been known, it’s been documented, that sometimes, not all the time, not every time, but sometimes when I sing, people cry. And that’s because I’m a little speaker and when I was sad and opened my mouth, all the sad would come out and everybody would cry,” Washington says. “But imagine if I was happy too? I don’t only want to be happy, because that’s fake, and I think that any artist who comes on and says oh my life’s amazing and everything’s amazing, they are probably lying to you because it’s 2020, and it’s not amazing.
“So I just imagined, because my friends helped me to imagine it, that I could live a good, healthy life that’s just normal and happy and fun, and make meaningful work. Because I cared about it, not because I had to method act the madness that’s in the songs.”
Tomorrow: in the concluding part of this interview, Megan Washington and the examined life.