A wince warps Meg Duffy's smile as she recalls her first release as Hand Habits: 2012's Small Shifts, a ten-inch split with Peg, the Long Beach-based solo endeavor of Avi Buffalo's Sheridan Riley. Duffy, now 26, recalls her still-maturing vocals and genuine but unsubtle lyrics detailing unrequited love—the kind that seem surreal years later, when other loves have come and gone in between. "We are the same / I want to be your man, but I can't," Duffy sings on "Be Yr Man," packing a set of complex realizations about love and identity into five minutes of acoustic elegance. Though her admission feels distant to her now, it continues to hold significance for those who can't yet say the same.
"Even though I don't play those songs anymore and can't really listen to them because, you know, I judge it, people still write me and say like, this song changed my life, it's so important to me, or, I'm going through a weird sexual identity thing and it's helping me," Duffy says. "So it will stay in the world."
Following Small Shifts, Duffy placed Hand Habits on hold to pursue opportunities playing guitar with Mega Bog and Kevin Morby. Amongst a full band, Duffy stands tethered to her instrument by a desire to understand it from every angle. It's a marked contrast to Hand Habits, through which Duffy carves out space for more personal expression, both instrumentally and lyrically. But that space is also familiar, with her reflections on company and isolation as equally suffocating entities giving the impression that we've laid our heads here before.
Duffy's full-length debut, Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void), out February 10 on Woodsist, lends a cyclical sense to her current set of songs. She spent her childhood in Amsterdam, NY, a town almost 40 miles west of Albany by the I-90. After attending college in Schenectady, she made the move to Albany, where the songs from Small Shifts were recorded. Last year, a house-sitting gig in the Catskills between tours resulted in the first conceptions of her proper debut from Woodsist, the Warwick, NY label that has housed releases from Matt Kivel, Kevin Morby, Tim Presley and Foxygen's Jonathan Rado.
Don't expect much shredding from Duffy on Wildly Idle. Her riffs remain impressive as ever, honed from years spent collaborating, touring, and putting her theoretical knowledge to practice, but they take on a new direction under the Hand Habits moniker. Between gentle drum beats, she sends notes spinning around her voice, intent on keeping listeners from missing a single word. There are moments when her melodies stand alone, secure in their solitude. The album documents her interaction with this void, or her space to create—from peering around it, to paying her respects and accepting its uncertainties, to finally stepping inside.
I met up with Duffy in LA's Glassell Park before she took off for Brooklyn, where she's staying before her east coast tour, beginning with a record release show at Baby's All Right. Over brunch and the sounds of screaming children at the karate studio next door, we discussed her musical beginnings, the shame that comes with creating, and getting to know your own voice. Read on and listen to the premiere of "Sun Beholds Me" below.
NOISEY: You're from upstate New York?
Meg Duffy: Yeah, Amsterdam. It's like, really small and really shitty. They don't have a lot of money and there's a very small circle of people there. There's no music scene at all, but Albany's really cool. Sometimes it will go through these periods of no creativity, or there won't be that many bands that are trying to have shows in town or make records. But then every couple of years, there will be this extreme resurgence of cool bands and people having house shows.
Would you go over there a lot?
I moved out of Amsterdam when I was 18 and graduated and went to Schenectady for college, which is kind of in between the two. And when I was there, I would go to Albany. That was the 'big city.' Like, wow, I'm going to Albany tonight!
When did you start playing music?
I guess I was 17. I got a guitar when I was 16, but I was kind of smoking a lot of pot when I was in high school, so I didn't really play. I got one and was really excited and then was like, I'm really into smoking pot and like, dating. But then I realized that I just wanted to play music. So by my senior year, I decided that I was going to go to music school because I didn't know how to do anything else. I was in marching band, too. I played drums since I was in like the fifth grade.
What lead to that realization?
When I got a guitar, I felt like I understood it in a way. I picked it up really fast. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I could isolate myself and it was okay, because I was learning something. And I think whether I knew it or not, it really helped with my identity. In high school, I feel like my identity was definitely music-related, through the marching band. I was also struggling with weird sexuality things and thinking, I don't really have a community.
When it was time to go to college, my guidance counselor was like, what are you going to do? That age-old question. And I said, I think I just want to play music. He was like, 'That's insane, but if that's what you want to do, you should do it.' So I auditioned to get into this community college that had a really good program. I didn't get in at first because I was like, I have literally never read music before, other than drum music.
Were you just playing with tabs at that point?
Yeah, yeah. Wow, I haven't thought about tabs in so long. But yeah. When I started teaching guitar lessons after school, I used to teach tab. I think there's a certain kind of person who has a reason to read music, but not everybody needs to read music. You don't need to read music to play a Led Zeppelin song.
I really like the idea in these microcosmic or DIY music communities that you don't need to have that training. Like, if you want to be in a band, learn an instrument and be in a band. I imagine Albany felt that way.
Absolutely. It was a little bit like that. I didn't move to Albany until I had graduated, so by then I had all of this knowledge that I'm really grateful for, but I don't usually think about it. When I'm playing a D chord, I'm not usually like, where are these voicings gonna go to? But in practice, I think it's very similar to someone who is extremely well-spoken and has read so many books and knows philosophy and psychology, but they can express a point to you without bringing any of that in. It can be very direct and simple and you understand it.
I've been thinking about that so much lately, because I'm super into minimalist music right now. And when I'm doing that, I don't think about reharmonization, but there's so much possibility for it because it's this huge landscape where you can just try things. Most of the time, that's where songs come out of for me. I feel like it's some sort of in-between state, musically. Do you listen to Grouper?
I just love how she creates this space for lyrics and melodies to appear. Then your eyes roll back and you're just zoning, accessing this part of creativity.
When you write, do the arrangements typically come first and you fill in lyrics later?
No, there's not usually a typical thing, but as of late, it's been like creating just a loop or a drone, but not a linear loop either. Just something super minimal: sometimes rhythms, but not structured at all. I'll jam over that with just guitar. I feel like that's my way of warming up or stretching to access how I am actually feeling. It creates a safe space for me to feel that way.
Yesterday I was doing that—literally just making a loop, then sitting there for ten minutes trying to just listen to it and be engulfed by it. Then I turned off the loop and wrote this song that I literally don't remember writing. I was going through my voice memos and was like, woah, this song's really good. I can't believe I wrote it and I also don't remember it.
When did you start making music as Hand Habits?
I guess in 2012 or 2013 I sort of started writing songs, but I didn't make a record or anything. I played a couple shows, but I used to play with so many different people, too. At one point I was in like ten bands in Albany, just because I wanted to be able to play every style and be playing all the time. But there was one year where I had like a full band and I did some recording because a friend of mine who had all this gear knew how to use it and was free. So we made these recordings that I was, at the time, excited about, but now I'm like, oh, that's not my vibe at all.
That happens to me constantly.
Yeah, because if you don't have access to something, you're at the liberty of someone else's production and creativity and their opinions, you know? How does that happen to you?
Just if I write or record something, I'll like it for a week, then I'll go back to it in like two weeks or two months and I can't stand whatever it is. Not necessarily because it's bad, but just that I feel differently, or have different interests or a different vibe going.
Oh yeah. It's hard. I think it's really cool when people put out a lot of content because of that, though, because it's abolishing the shame factor of yourself. You're like, well, I did make this, even if I do hate it. Some people are so against that and say, you know, only put out your best work! And I do believe that in a way, but I also believe that I want people to know I'm human and I make shitty things sometimes.
And even your shitty thing may mean a lot to someone else.
Absolutely. That's happened to me. The first thing I ever recorded was with my friend Emily [Sprague], who plays as Florist. She recorded these first two songs that I ever wrote, and they came out on a split ten-inch with this other band, Peg. Listening to them now, I'm like, man, I was so sad and in love and feeling like I didn't know where to place it. Even though I don't play those songs anymore and can't really listen to them because, you know, I judge it, people still write me and say like, this song changed my life, it's so important to me, or, I'm going through a weird sexual identity thing and it's helping me. So it will stay in the world. Because that's incredible.
So how did you pick the songs that are on this record now?
There are two songs on the record that I see as the beginning of this songwriting cycle: "All The While" and "In Between." They're the more full-band stuff. And those were actually recorded and written in upstate New York. Me and my friend Kevin [Lareau], who is in Quilt and also plays with me, were dog-sitting and house-sitting in the Catskills. It's super nice and there's nothing to do. You can walk to the river, play with the dog or play music. So we got into this routine of waking up really early, having breakfast, and just working on each other's music all day and into the night. That got me really into recording all the time. I had done it a little bit on my own, but was in the process of moving a lot, so I didn't have a space to set up my stuff yet. Then I moved to LA, set up in this room, and one of my friends sent those two songs to Jeremy [Earl] at Woodsist. He was like, I love the stuff, we should put something out. And I was like, okay, I don't have that many songs, but I just set up all of my shit in my room and it happened. I was writing up until the end of recording. "Nite Life" and "New Bones"—I wrote those at the very end of it.
How did you finally cut yourself off and finish?
Well, Jeremy didn't give me a deadline or anything. Everything was very casual, which I was grateful for. I would just send him stuff and he would be like, sounds great! Having a lot of freedom really helps. I had to face myself a bit. I didn't really show the stuff to that many people because I was like, if this is bad, I don't want to know. I would just make a mix and take a walk and be like, what does this mean? I had to trust in myself and think, okay, I'm learning how to do things that I didn't know how to do last month.
I think every song is different. Some songs, I just couldn't work on anymore. I don't like to spend too much time recording because I think songs are always changing, too. I wasn't trying to take it too preciously.
How does it feel to play and sing the material that you've written, versus performing in Mega Bog or in the Kevin Morby Band?
Super different. I just started playing solo since I came out here. I used to be so scared of it, but now I really like it because it's so personal to me. Performing in any band is personal in a way, because I have control over my sound and the group's sound. I will bring something or ruin something. But this feels different in a way. There's more responsibility. When I'm just shredding in a band, I don't determine the vibe. There's a communication or a conversation among the people that are there. It's just like talking to a bunch of strangers at once.
And you're more in control of the conversation when you're alone.
Yeah, yeah. And I'm trying to be really honest, like saying I'm nervous if I am. I'm still learning how to use my voice in a way that feels and sounds good, too. Usually when I'm performing my songs I'm like, I hope my voice sounds good because I'm okay with the guitar but…[laughs]. I realized that actually hearing your voice in the monitors is pretty good. I used to not like to hear it, but now I'm like, crank it.
It's interesting how you describe singing as using your voice in a way that feels good, because I think that's what learning to sing is. I don't think some people happen to be good at singing—they just know how to do it.
Dude, even listening to my own shit, I sound crazy. I'm like, pushing, you know? And now, singing really soft and just being more comfortable with my range works for me. I also recently started playing everything I have a step down from standard, so I just tune everything to E flat. That's really helped, even if it's just the placebo of thinking it's a little lower. I don't actually know what my range is, but it feels easier.
It's hard not to push yourself.
It is, especially when you write melodies that you're really attached to, or feel attached to those frequencies. That's why in tuning down, I still feel like I'm writing in this upper little register that I like to find melodies in, but I can actually sing along to it. But everybody can sing. When I first got a guitar, I would sing Tegan and Sara songs, like, this is going to be so cool. My aunt, who I lived with, would be like, please stop singing. Just stick to the guitar. Stick with your gift. I think I used to be really obsessed with hitting a note, but it's not about hitting notes. It's more important to just do what feels comfortable.
Cory Lomberg is a writer based in LA. Follow her on Twitter.