Washington State of Mind

Thursday, 30 October, 2014

The night before I interview Megan Washington, she posts a Facebook status. “The truth,” it reads. “I really want a tattoo but I am honestly afraid that my mother will kill me. I am twenty eight.”

“I want to get something on my left palm,” Megan tells me the next morning. “But I’ve stopped thinking about it after last night, ‘cos Mum was like, ‘Don’t even think about it. Don’t even be funny about it.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll just wait until you’re dead.’”

This is the kind of response you can expect from the inimitable indie-pop songstress. Much like her lyrics, Megan Washington is magnificently candid, unapologetic, and full of the spice that sets her apart from the many squeaky-clean Aussie music darlings on the scene today. Her follow up full-length album to 2010’s ARIA-winning I Believe You Liar, the fiercely intimate There There, is no exception. Yes, two stints on The Voice, a film role, and one mini-album later, Megan’s caramel-coated vocals have finally sailed back onto our airwaves, and not a moment too soon.

“When I was writing this record, we were listening a lot to early new romantic, sort of sweeping 80’s power pop…. bands like Talk Talk and Tears for Fears. I fell in love with that sort of lush romanticism of that era, and I wanted to do something that was as grandiose,” Megan explains.  Certainly, tracks like ‘My Heart is a Wheel’, ‘Get Happy’ and ‘Limitless’ are quintessential Washington. Elaborate, infectious indie-pop with a hint of venom, they make you want to kick off your shiny brogues and dance to the synth with smeared lipstick in a dirty bar. Megan wanted to make a “mother record”, like her favourite ones by Rufus Wainwright, or Paul Simon. “An album that people could keep coming back to,” she explains. “Like, there are ‘dad records’ and they only have to be there for five minutes and then they’re gone. Do you know what I mean?”

Still, There There is noticeably distinct from both Liar and her hauntingly melancholic 2012 EP Insomnia.  “It’s a different record to the first one, but I’m four years older … if I had done something that was similar to Liar, I would have probably been hauled over the coals for not growing enough. And now I’ve made something that’s a bit of a departure and an evolution for me. But that’s like, normal as a person for you to grow and change. It’s sort of natural, I think.”

Yes, there is a darker undercurrent to Washington’s tunes this time around. Certainly, it’s a credit to her musical prowess that such feisty pop tracks can be followed by emotional bruisers and pitch-perfect piano ballads, showcasing a poignant vulnerability and emotional maturity that can only stem from authentic experiences. With opening lines like “there’s a certain kind of lonely where you sleep in your jeans”, one can almost feel her heartache seeping through the sound. Openly admitting she has no idea what Liar’s hit “How To Tame A Lion” was about, it was only when producer Sam Dixon challenged her to write about real events that Megan realised songs were “about something.”

In a “supportive” London studio last year, she began to recall and draw on the “dark stage” following her 2010 public debut. What emerged were odes to struggling with fame, bouts of hospitalization, living with anxiety, being unfaithful, bad sex, and the perils of love and heartbreak, all of which formed There There. “We wrote it really calmly and it was really well put together and there was a lot of love in the room when I took those risks … even though content-wise it is quite intense, the memory of writing that stuff is a nice memory.” Megan has labelled penning her song ‘Marry Me’, of which her album title is named from, as her breakthrough (“or breakdown!”) moment. Confessed as a giant apology to the man she was engaged to, and then not engaged to, Washington croons, “Don’t be sorry, please don’t be angry. It wasn’t fair. There, there.” But the realisation that her songs needed to consist of moments from her own life doesn’t necessarily correlate to a fear of exposing her raw emotions. “This might sound tripe or cliché, but the truth is that something happened to me last year and I’ve just completely stopped caring about anything, really. Part of that is, I realised that I’m never going to really get it. Like, I hate, passionately, 80 per cent of what’s on the radio… And I think a part of me always thought I’ll figure it out, and I’ll get it, and I’ll understand how to be that and how to do that… but I kind of realised last year that I’m never going to like Diplo. Do you know what I mean?”

With There There debuting at number five on the ARIA charts, it seems a lot of Australia does know what Megan means. “I didn’t grow up listening to what everybody else was, I grew up listening to Judy Garland. So it really isn’t scary for me to think that everyone else is going to hear what I think about my engagement or whatever because… it’s probably the only way that I can get people to understand me. Because I just don’t understand them.” Indeed, it is that raw candour that translates excellently in There There, and makes the themes within it so relatable. “I’m not saying that I’m some great philanthropic person doing humanity a great service, because let’s be honest, if I was that person I wouldn’t be making records at all, I’d be in a third world country helping people, actually… but I just feel like within the confines of my incredible narcissism, there is probably space there for me to actually do something that’s got a point.”

This ability to make her mark has gone beyond creating music, it seems. In particular, following her Ted Talk (that went viral on YouTube) and subsequent ‘Australian Story’ episode earlier this year, where the singer revealed her life-long struggle with stuttering. Apparently, “by some miraculous synaptic function”, the human brain is tricked into bypassing speech impediments when in song. “Singing for me is sweet relief,” she told the Sydney Opera House. “It is the only time when I feel fluent.” Although universally applauded for her bravery, Megan is humble about her confession. “I seriously did not want to do that talk. Like… it’s actually quite amazing that I did it because on a different day, in a different minute, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. You just have to do shit. Everything that’s uncomfortable you should do. Have you ever done that thing where you just do not want to go to a party or someone’s dinner or something? … And then you go and you have a great time? That’s basically, like, my whole life. But you just have to remember all the other times that you went and had a great time.”

After conquering that fear, what’s on the horizon? “What I’m going to try to do next is to make a pop record,” Megan says. “This is a very new thing for me, so I guess I don’t really know if I’ve reached the pinnacle of song writing for me. I kind of don’t feel like I’ve made the best record I can make yet. And maybe I never will, and that would be a nice thing to always have ahead of me… We’ll see what happens, but I’d like to make something that they’ll play on the radio.”

Even if the exquisite There There screams ‘I’m sorry’, this chanteuse has nothing to apologise to her fans for. So if the best is yet to come, we’re in for something extraordinary.