Pic by She Is Aphrodite
If you want to understand why Megan Washington emerged this year with her moving, powerful and emotionally rousing new album, Batflowers, you need to know how she got there and what she left behind.
In the first leg of a three-part interview, Brisbane’s premier pop writer walks us through the key moments, and the key relationship, that rescued a project that had already died twice.
Who are you Megan Washington?
Gone for some time – long enough to have some people wonder if she had disappeared, and for others to forget and move on – and not short of options for making art without turning herself into public property, a return was never guaranteed.
For that matter, a return to the person she was, or who we thought she was, grew less and less likely. Marriage and a child tend to have that effect.
But return she did. From this perspective, as she takes in the early reactions to her third album, Batflowers, and at this distance, six years on from its predecessor, There There, the recording of that second album in London “feels like another universe ago”.
Or you could say three prime ministers ago, definitely one child ago, maybe even half a career ago. And, as it turns out, a wholly different version of herself ago.
“I don’t really identify with that person anymore,” Washington says of the 28-year-old who was living south of the Thames, travelling to the city’s north – including a restorative walk each day through Regent’s Park with her dachshund Artie - and making the record which seemed destined to push her from a breakout star to a cultural fixture.
But does that disconnect hold for the work too? There There was cruelly, definitely unjustly, ignored in Australia, its move away from overt new wave pop, the relative complexity of its music and lyrics, proving too difficult for what passes for thinking in radio despite it being on most measures a superb record.
“I love that album. I don’t know why nobody listened to it,” she laughs now, as if it doesn’t still rankle. “It’s like that thing where they say all you really have is the work, and your career is what happens in the wake of you doing the work. A career is not something that’s in front of you; a career is behind you and right now you are just solving today’s problems.”
So There There hasn’t been consigned to the remainder bin of her history then?
“I think making that record really helped, was hugely important where I am now, because I made that whole album with Sam [Dixon – her producer and occasional co-writer]. And that unlocked something fantastic in me because Sam is a really powerful energy, he’s really amazing,” Washington says. “I feel like if I hadn’t made There There, I certainly wouldn’t have made Batflowers. Sam is an absolute pillar of this record and what you can’t hear in the music is the five years of friendship.
“That’s actually the real achievement, if you know what I mean. Music is what happens after the fundamental thing, which is that we are friends and we like hanging out with each other and doing stuff - one which is making records, and writing songs.”
What’s not spoken in that answer, but permeates it, is that for all that Dixon is a strong presence in all the work he does (including Paloma Faith, Adele, Kylie Minogue and Jack Savoretti) his strongest impact has been to give Washington the confidence to be in control of as many aspects of this new album – writing, producing, photography, video - as she could.
That’s not something you get from a lot of men, a lot of producers, and certainly not a lot of male producers.
“And I would also add, not only do I agree with what you are saying about his role in that, I’ve got proof,” she says. “To make this record in lockdown in its final stage, there was this moment where I had this conversation with Sam that really changed everything. It was in about April and I was on Stradbroke Island recording the vocals for a song [with another collaborator on the album] and there are all these conversations that happen in the studio, like you might say to the producer ‘should I sing this intently or lazily?’ and they go ‘I reckon blah’, and you just do ‘blah’ and whether or not that works somebody else has done a bit of the decision-making for you and it feels more like a conversation then something intentional.”
The problem that day was she was communicating by email and that didn’t really allow for smooth and immediate feedback on each vocal take. So there she was on her own with the music program Logic, trying to make decisions about multiple vocal layers and approaches and struggling to clarify her thoughts. She called him in the middle of the night, laying out all her thoughts.
“And he heard me out, going ‘uh huh, uh huh, yes, yes’ and then said ‘so what you have to do is decide how you want your vocals, and sing them’. And I would say that essentially that is our entire friendship in one,” Washington says. “So much of the confidence I have comes from someone that I respect immensely, whose taste I trust immensely, saying ‘you do you loser’.”
Not just “you do you”, but you do you and don’t worry, you will know.
“That’s some Mr Miyagi shit,” she says half laughing, half in awe. “That’s the thing though, the permission that you give yourself actually determines what you do. I remember my sister told me this thing, that I’ve always loved: she was in some church service and a priest said, now as you leave church today make sure as you go out into the world you don’t commit the greatest sin on earth. And she thought, okay what’s that, adultery? Murder? What’s it going to be? And he said, not fulfilling your true potential.
“I think that’s true actually, because I think that all the stuff that we are all obsessed with, all of the stuff that everyone is on about, is about acceptance. You have to accept yourself and just imagine for a second that you just being yourself might be enough to solve the problem.”
Is it really that straightforward? Is that what had held her up? As it happens, yes, as Washington reveals something quite startling about the genesis, or at least the previous lives, of what we now know of as Batflowers. And what we now know as Megan Washington version 2020.
“I dunno, having somebody that really believes in you like that - and I’ve had a few people that make me feel like that now, and they’re all on the thank you page of Batflowers - has made me feel, has made me realise I didn’t have to reinvent any fucking wheel. Half the songs that are on this album I’ve had them for forever.
“See this is the thing, I made this record almost twice before this album. This is the third assembly, that’s why it took so long. I kept making records and then not releasing them because they didn’t feel right. So many of the tracks that on this album are the demos: I didn’t even need to rerecord them. Achilles Heart, I recorded like eight times, but all the songs were fine anyway.
“The only thing that was missing from my album assembly process was I didn’t have any of Sam’s [co-written] songs on. Not because we weren’t speaking, but because he lives in London and I live in Australia. Once I started to explore those songs with him, that’s when I got my colour back.”
Tomorrow: in part two of this interview, Megan Washington explains how her personality and her art, is defined by two poles: celebration and anxiety. And why when you’re tripping, the best journey is inwards, not out.
Batflowers is out now.