Record of the Week: Megan McCormick’s ‘Are and Be’

Listen to Part 1 of the Q&A with Megan McCormick
Listen to Part 2 of the Q&A with Megan McCormick

There’s a slightly accusatory tone to Megan McCormick’s song “Wasting My Time.” Sometimes dwelling on and repeating lines, other times hurtling through them in a blur, she’s singing about an intimate mismatch between people. Their feelings and intentions were fundamentally incompatible, and she fears that she squandered precious time and energy trying to bring them into harmony.

That’s not a song that would’ve made it onto her debut album, 2010’s Honest Words, a crisp display of pop-rock virtuosity from a twenty-something old soul (and the subject of one of my first features for WPLN). There were label expectations back then. She wasn’t in a position to indulge her more experimental sensibilities, to deliver a sticky melodic hook with the soft, bleary distortion of someone singing under water, or to pick apart the intricacies of a syncopated groove until her guitar figures seem to spiral, untethered, through space. But 13 years on, after profound change in her professional and personal lives and tons of music-making for hire, she did all that and more while shaping “Wasting My Time” for her second album, Are and Be.

McCormick handled the bulk of the songwriting, playing and production this time, and even released the album herself. The way that she applied arrestingly impressionistic treatments to her sturdy ideas is proof that artistically, she hasn’t wasted time at all, but made her way, at her own pace, to a collection of music to get lost in.

On the Record: A Q&A with Megan McCormick

Jewly Hight: I think it’s such a wild and phenomenal parallel that we did an interview for WPLN back when I was beginning doing work for radio when you released your debut, your most recent album before this one.

Megan McCormick: Yes, quite some time ago.

JH: And here we are reconvening after you have done so much more work musically—so much work that hasn’t been properly documented.

MM: True. I’m a terrible advocate for myself in that regard. [laughs]

JH: Well, we’re going to do our best to remedy that.

I noticed that some of your studio credits are collected on the site All Music Guide, but there really is no one place anywhere on the internet that lists all of your accomplishments as a live and studio player and producer, band leader, artist. How do you keep track of all of that yourself?

MM: I think I’ve got some schedule books, paper schedule books throughout the years. Just so many very vivid, clear memories that live in there.

JH When we first spoke, we talked about your rich musical background in your family, how far it goes back, how many generations. But I don’t think I was aware that you also are from Cherokee Nation. And I wondered where in your family those things overlap.  

MM: It’s my grandmother and my mom’s side of the family, and she grew up in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. That’s where the Cherokee Nation Headquarters are now. They eventually ended up out in California. My grandmother met my papa at a dance hall gig.

I think she was 18. He was 19. My papa, I think he had filled in here and there with Tennessee Ernie Ford. They ended up playing music together for years, and ending up in the Western Swing Hall of Fame. All of their kids, all of my mom’s brothers and sisters played as well.

JH: Something that struck me when I revisited our original interview was the mindset that you talked about having from a very young age. It wasn’t this abstract notion of having a dream of maybe doing something in music some day, but this sense of mission, that you needed to apply yourself and take in as full a breadth of music, actually studying it, as you could to prepare yourself to work.

MM: That stuff all rings clear to me.

My papa had made me a copy of an album by Gladys Knight and the Pips. And I would listen before bed. My mom tells this story. She heard me wailing, crying. And she ran down the hallway and she’s like, “What’s wrong?”

I just really couldn’t get the words out. My tape deck had eaten this Gladys Knight tape. And my mom’s like,It’s okay. We can buy you another copy.” And I was like, “It’s just that someday she’s going to die and people are still going to want to hear these songs.”

I felt like I had to learn them. This was very important. So that’s looking back to me being—I don’t know—eight years old. That was the weight of the responsibility that I felt. That’s almost hilarious to me.

JH: How do you how do you feel like that mindset has guided you along your path, from the time that you entered a college music program at a very young age to coming to Nashville and navigating your career since?

MM: I was very much on an accelerated path, which I kind of stayed committed to on my own accord.

When we last did this interview, it was surrounding the release of my debut album, Honest Words. Of course, I had no insight into what would become of the next few years after that album. There has been a lot going on, but I wasn’t releasing solo music.

What happened for me inside the record deal and publishing deal that I had at that time [was] I feel like I kind of arrived on the scene right as the budgets were starting to shrivel up. There were less and less resources and less risks were being taken. The label I was on, Rykodisc, ended up folding. 17 different labels folded into what was called the independent label group at Warner. There was a difficult road ahead for the girl there in that younger interview.

The arc of my career at that time also coincided with some big changes in my personal, emotional and mental health life. And so that was something that also altered the path. But it was those two things happening together that really did result in me retreating for some time. And then then when I started to work more again, it wasn’t the solo artist thing. At that time, it was too much to risk, being in the center of the spotlight.

JH: It also speaks just to your tremendous imagination and musical skill that you’re able to carve out different ways of being a musician in Nashville. There is a certain ideal of adaptability among Nashville musicians. But I think that your path is remarkable when you put it alongside that ideal.

You bring such excellence to, on the one hand, these forms that really require a depth of knowledge of the canon, the techniques, the history, the culture. Like when you play traditional country, when you play roots music, when you do duo work with Amanda Fields. That’s the kind of stuff where people around here would notice if you didn’t know your stuff.

On the other hand, you’ve also been doing work in pop and rock lanes where it’s really important to have a different set of knowledge and skills to nail particular aesthetics and eras and deliver the licks and the lead parts, especially with an artist like Jenny Lewis.

MM: [That gig] came out of nowhere through my friend Odessa Jorgensen. Just a very wandering call of, “Hey, Meg, my friend Jenny is looking for a guitar player.” And I was thinking, “Surely not Jenny Lewis!”

There I was in Jenny’s band. That started a whole other era of connections and applying skills. I really had to rise to the occasion because of the breadth of Jenny’s music. I really feel playing with her has been one of the best musical fits for me, because of how many different styles that she touches. As a bandleader, too, I’ve learned so much from her throughout the years, in regard to settling into rehearsals, enjoying rehearsals for days and days, so that you really are finally feeling free in these moments on stage, you know? And in Nashville, there’s usually a lot more, ”Here’s some charts and here’s the music. See you there.” Playing with her really brought out the best in me. There was Jenny getting to know me and my intuition over time [and letting me] branch out.

But my more recent intentions with music have been to be the player on the album. Because I have spent so much of my career learning dudes’ guitar parts on albums and being good enough to come and play [those parts at] the show. Really where I’m at right now is I’d like to help make the records.

JH: So many of the of the artists that have that have brought you in to play with them or even to, in a in a setting like Love Rising, to be bandleader, have been not straight, white dudes, but have been artists who happen to be queer, who happen to be women, who happen to be people of color. I’m sure that that’s something that you that you are quite aware of, too.

MM: Yes.

It’s been my honor and joy and pleasure to be in rooms with Allison Russell, with Amythyst Kiah. To be on the stage for Love Rising and serve in that [bandleader] position, that was just such a proud moment for me. I’m not a person that is typically capable of showing up to the rallies. I have some pretty serious anxiety that can come up that makes it hard for me to participate in these social justice moments in a way that I see a lot of friends able to do to. But I could get up on that stage.

I’ve noticed, too, it’s easier for me now to draw a very clear line where I don’t have to set any of myself aside to go participate. I do my homework more now than I ever have. I’m not just going to hop on a session. I need to ask certain questions to make sure that this is a room that I’ll be comfortable in. Basically like an ethics checklist. Not because I am an elitist, but because I need to make sure that my actions align with my values, more now than ever. And that will probably keep me out of a lot of spaces, and that’s okay with me. That’s just something that had to change, in order for me to bring my full self with me wherever I go.

JH: You were talking earlier about what a different space you were in professionally and personally when you made Honest Words and how many things changed immediately after that. And listening to your first album since then, Are and Be, it really does feel like it came from a completely different place. I wonder what sort of outlet making an album offers you now, how your aims are different.

MM: Before it was my every intention to focus wholeheartedly on my career as a solo artist, whereas now, it’s much more of a cathartic kind of experience. Also, a lot of the tools that I used on this album were my grandparents’ instruments. So I have their old drum machine, a harmonizer…

JH: Did you just say “my grandparents’ old drum machine”?

MM: Yes. Yes, totally. My papa was very cutting edge, even though they were playing what they called easy listening music. They were doing Western swing, old pop standards, a little bit of country music. They played as a duo and they toured a bit still into their older years. This was their last wave of music gear that I ended up with.

The resources for recording my own music, there was nobody that was putting up money, and the money that I was making playing gigs with other artists, that was living expenses. It’s not like I was making enough to stack up, you know, five, ten grand to go into the studio and hire players, hire engineers and do all of that. That wasn’t something that was available to me after that deal was gone.

Throughout the process of making Honest Words, there was so much [of my stylistic identity] that was not contained on there, because there was a sense of, “Yes, you are extremely eclectic, but let’s at least try to pare this down to not throw too much at people at one time.” But there was just a lot more of an indie or lo-fi personality to me, that wasn’t going to be fitting onto that album. Those were things I wanted to be included [on the next album]. I always wanted to be cooler.

I thought Honest Words was such a maybe overly mature beginning.

JH: Yeah, it was it was a lot about Megan McCormick, the old soul.

MM: Exactly. But I was like, “But what if I’m a wreck? What about that part of it?”

I definitely was able to risk more and show more of myself without feeling hindered [this time].

Also, I wasn’t really feeling like I had it in me as a 37-year-old human to go around begging [record labels] to pay attention to what I was doing [this time]. The older I get, the harder it is to be like, “Hey, guys, just want to let you know I need some cash,” or, “I need your attention.” It gets harder and harder to do that for me.

JH: Making Are and Be was a six year process for you, so it must have been piecemeal.

MM: Yeah, it was a slow process.

I never set out like, “Okay, these recordings will be a part of an upcoming album.” I [thought] I wasn’t going to release music anymore as a solo artist. Because [I’d experienced] the steady climb up to what felt like this sort of pinnacle moment when you have a team of people that have convinced you, “This is your time. This is your moment. It’s all happening.” And you’re like, “Yeah, I’m going to be a star.” [Honest Words] wasn’t a massive success. There was the build up and the letdown.

It coincided with some big changes for me in my mental health, so it was like a double ego death. I’m here now, humbled by both of those experiences.

JH: You have brought your abilities to a lot of musical settings where the approach is more naturalistic, where it’s really about the parts that you play. But on Are and Be, you’re showing us how you explore whole other sides of music making and manipulating sound and playing around with effects and surprising ways of using instruments. There are arrangements on here where you almost deconstruct the song and then put it back together again. How do you feel like you pushed the boundaries?

MM: The type of exploring that I was wanting to do, it would require enough time, instead of, “Start your co-write at 10 a.m.” I think the type of muse I was going for was to wait until something came to me, instead of being like, “Hello, I’m on the clock. Where’s the muse?” It was really just waiting and patiently moving through it, so that I didn’t feel that impending doom of a deadline or delivering a song, a certain style, to somebody to get the stamp of approval.

JH: Do you think that led to the album having more of an informal and intimate feel?

MM: Yeah, definitely.

I dedicated the album to my sister, because she truly sat through and listened. There’s probably been 14 different mixes of [the song] “Rake Me Over the Coals.” By the time I landed on the last mix that I was sending off to mastering, I pulled up one of the first mixes. And I’ve got to tell you, it didn’t sound hardly different at all. Not much had changed. So that’s how I know I was sitting on the precipice of taking another risk and putting myself out there. It just felt like a huge risk until really my partner convinced me that there really wasn’t anything to lose,

JH: I think it’s worth getting into what you meant by the album title, Are and Be.

MM: I kept thinking, “Whoever you are, wherever you are, is who you should be.” I just kept spelling it out A-r-e and B-e. And then I got super paranoid down the road that there would be a misperception of appropriation of that genre of music [R&B].

I’m heavily inspired by so many different things. But it was really more about being anchored in, “Who you are is okay. You don’t have to dress it up. You don’t have to change it.” And that’s what I was trying to get away from.

JH: I love the fact that we are talking about the ways that your family legacy is present in music that is so cutting edge and experimental. Usually, when you’re thinking of lineage and pointing to things handed down across generations, it’s with music that registers as more traditional. What are the family connections to your song “Head Over Heals”?

MM: It started with the drum machine beat that I’m pretty sure also is exactly the intro of a Steely Dan song. So I built that and then ended up using Grandma and Papa’s harmonizer. You can set how you stack the chord. So I built out a lot of the first part of that song, just a track. And then I wrote to it. I had the guitar hook in mind and then I started writing lyrics. My sister Shelby sings on that one. I would guess it’s hard for outsiders to hear the difference [between us], but there’s a slightly different tone. It mostly just sounds like me five years ago. She’s five years younger.

That song goes through the eras. It feels like the whole story [of the last 13 years] could be contained in that one song. It’s a poetic song, but also it’s very truthful. It applied to so many things I felt free to let go of in myself and in familial relationships, in past personal relationships. By the outro of it, it was me utilizing some of the more synthetic tools that kind of wouldn’t have been present earlier on in my music. That’s the whole shebang, I think.