After taking us through the key musical relationship on which her new album is built and the link between aiming for the impossible, choreography as truth, and tears as her secret weapon, in the concluding part of this interview, Megan Washington gets to the purpose of her art.
There’s nothing wrong with being happy and there’s nothing wrong with an artist being happy. Likewise, there’s nothing pure or elevated about an artist who is not happy, no matter what earnest reviewers and people who talk loudly in record stores say.
But what Megan Washington has on her new album, Batflowers, is what everyone should have, certainly artists whose job it is to excavate themselves should have - an examined life.
What’s that again hippie boy?
If you tell people that you’re happy and there isn’t anything else going on worth thinking about, and you are perplexed about why other people are uncertain or anxious or trying to change or understand aspects of themselves, it might just mean you haven’t looked at yourself. No, really looked at yourself.
A song that reflects part of Washington’s developing self-understanding, is one that on the surface seems too straightforward, too clear in its emotion to suggest any kind of internal struggle. But the key is in the circumstances of its birth, or in a sense its near-death.
Lazarus Drug, possibly better than anyone has done in a very long time, captures a sense of deep euphoria – which could be romantic, parental or just existential – without histrionics in arrangement or performance but somehow still feeling like if it were to burst from its Oxygene-like intoxication it would be in starbursts.
“You are devotion/Magnetic motion, push and pull/I am the ocean/Helpless/When the moon is full,” she sings. “But when you make/A perfect circle in the sky/I get so high/I get so high I’m like a planet/And I can’t come down/No, I can’t come down.”
As Washington explains, the song came mid-2019 after what was then the second attempt at recording her third album had foundered and “I kind of quit, quit music”.
“Somebody said to me, sometimes the thing that you love isn’t the thing that you are best at. And I was like, maybe I’m just not really a songwriter,” she says. “Maybe I’m not a pop songwriter.
Maybe I should just keep working on my other projects and give up. I don’t want to spend my life chasing something that the universe doesn’t want: I’ll take the hint.”
So she gave up - “in my heart” rather than publicly - preferring instead to have a medicinal toke or two as a kind of comfort. But, dammit, the weed played its insidious tricks on her.
“The problem is when I smoke weed, the only thing that I want to do is play music,” she laughs. “And I had this 20th anniversary concert for [Sydney’s] City Recital Hall, that I curated and having commissioned a few pieces from composers who are working with me, thought I should write something. I had this vibe that I would write something for them that would be applicable in a more classical, magical show and I would normally be writing to be played on the radio. So I wrote what I wanted to be true in a song, and it happened. It’s a love song.”
Earlier, Washington had revealed that a passing comment from her therapist – asking “why are you always the victim in her songs” – had forced her to look at what was driving her in her lyrics, her career and ultimately in her life. That lens went wider to the line between art and artificiality, a subject quite fundamental for her.
“When I look at anybody doing anything, ever, I think to myself are they doing this to give or are they doing this to take?,” says Washington. “When I see some people doing art I think, do they really feel that? They are taking more from us than they are giving of themselves. That’s because the lyrics don’t make sense or it’s like somebody phoned it in with a chorus that is insipid, or they are just not putting any effort into the visual aspect of what they are doing because they feel that their singing is so cool that they don’t have to wear a stupid pom-pom in their hair, or put on a dress.”
Isn’t that enough?
“I actually think that there is this weird inversion where rock ‘n’ roll reckons that giving is just turning up at all. But I come from Theatreland, I come from Movie Town, I come from Showbiz Central, where my dancing teacher, Miss Margaret, would have a fit if she saw some of the things I have worn on stage. I feel that Ru Paul has actually really been a huge piece of the puzzle: I could write a doctorate on Ru Paul, I’m so obsessed with what Ru Paul represents,” Washington says, possibly losing the thread of this answer as enthusiasm rises.
“Anyway, fundamentally, I want to give in this time. I don’t have enough money to donate anything of any significance pursuant to make any real impact, because I’m just an artist and I live in a country where the arts are being so unsupported and gutted and we are all just feeling a lot of disconnection. I feel like a lot of arts people in our country feel a lot of shame actually, because we’ve been made to feel like we are takers, but, surprise!, we are all artists so we are giving actually. And I feel like the only way to be poor and generous is to give happiness.”
Being away for six years, recording this album three times effectively, returning with a record that feels equal parts – in her words - celebration and anxiety, means Washington has come back with a more complex tale than just “I was away, I had a baby, I wrote some songs”. How are we to read her?
“I don’t want people to worry about me when they hear my music. I want them to feel like I’m offering them 53 minutes of audio cinema, and 53 minutes of dwell time for them to go to a place in their brain that is not the inside of their apartment,” she says. “I’m good, and with this record I just wanted to make something fun that would feel like an inviting and refreshing change from whatever else exists.”
But in typical Megan Washington fashion, she can do that by giving us lyrically, a variety of emotions, from euphoria to bone-deep uncertainty, and musically, leaning towards slow and intense than briskly buoyant. It is at this point that she casually confesses that “I’ve been listening to more Enya this year than you would believe”.
“As the world becomes more and more chaotic for me, I just want the music to be clearer and simpler. I’m just more attracted to a bit of shush.”
A bit of shush? If I may borrow from Peter Allen, “Quiet please, there’s a lady on stage/She may not be the latest rage/But she’s singing and she means it/And she deserves a little silence.”
Batflowers is out now.