A moment with Megan Washington
Singer Megan Washington talks about her dachshund.PT2M39S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-34buf 620 349 March 7, 2014
It is a sunny London day and Megan Washington has travelled across the city with her dachshund, Artie, from her home in Hackney to St John's Wood, to reach the famous RAK Studios where Robert Plant and the Cure once recorded.
The walk from the tube station across Regent's Park is key for both of them. Artie's gambolling means he might be too tired later to nibble at cables and wires. For Washington, the walk clears the mind and lifts the spirits.
I thought that art had to come from chaos ... I don't feel like that any more.
Looking up at the hint of clouds at the edges of an Australian-blue sky, Washington bursts into a word-perfect Don't Rain on My Parade, a la Barbra Streisand. ''Don't tell me not to live/Just sit and putter/Life's candy and the sun's a ball of butter/Don't bring around a cloud/To rain on my parade.''
'I though art had to come from chaos' ... Australian musician Megan Washington. Photo: James Brickwood
She likes her show tunes, does Washington. She loves Gershwin and Fred Astaire even more. And she loves London; she has no regrets about leaving Australia. ''I've never identified with place; I've always identified with people,'' she says. Having spent her first nine years in Papua New Guinea, before her family moved to Brisbane, she feels no pressing need for Australia.
She is a city person and has spent time in New York, as well as Melbourne and Sydney.
''I hate being alone. I want to walk out of my house and step into the human soup,'' she says.
Megan Washington at Porteno restaurant in Surry Hills. Photo: James Brickwood
She has gathered people around her to help make her second full-length album - a co-writer, a co-producer or two, some of the more inventive sessions musicians in the city, a caterer who is also her housemate and therapist. Especially therapist.
This new record might be called the follow-up to her ARIA-winning, top-three-charting debut, I Believe You Liar, except that it is impossible to ignore the scope, power and dark heart of an intervening low-key mini-album, Insomnia. The dark, obsessive, crushing aloneness of the melodically charged Insomnia provided a low point. She wrote it mostly during a US escape after two relationship break-ups - one of them particularly destructive of ego and spirit. Most of Insomnia's songs were only played briefly, then put away and sealed off - like that part of her life.
''I was deranged,'' she says of that New York writing moment.
And now? ''I've done a lot of work in the last two years, seeing a person regularly, to talk about my brain. And that works. I feel like I don't need the vices any more,'' she says, sitting on the grass across the road from RAK, lighting up the last of her vices. ''I want to live well, live long, live happy. I thought that art had to come from chaos, that your love life has to be a mess and everything - this nebulous omelette of broken hearts, lyrics and shit. I don't feel like that any more.''
Her vices are not all external or ingested. That is what Insomnia taught her. ''I realised that I was obsessed with being in love … I almost changed my personality to fit with what I believed that person required. And then I wondered why I was doing all this shit. So I stopped all that.''
It was not an emotional shutdown - far from it. As she readily admits, ''I love being in love. I always wanted to be in love.'' It has been the spur for some of her best writing. These days, however, she is working within limits.
''I'm glad that I'm a hopeless romantic, I'm happy for that. But I've stopped acting on it,'' she says. ''I don't think I have been single for this long ever. Months and months. Before, I would have just done it, met someone at a party and had a boyfriend who was a bricklayer for six weeks, and then had another one.''
There were several catalysts for the artistic and personal changes in her life since 2011's tumultuous grand highs and ugly depths. One was some time spent writing for and mentoring contestants on The Voice. She did it alongside Keith Urban, a man who ditched a few vices of his own on the way to becoming the most successful non-North American country music act of all time.
''I asked him, 'Do you find it hard to be so rigid, to have so many rules?','' Washington says. ''And he was like, 'It's not hard, it's devotion. I love what I do so much and I want to be able to do it for the rest of my life. Why would it even be remotely difficult?'''
Urban and The Voice seem odd bedfellows for Washington, but there is some sense to it. Although she is sharp-witted and, at 28, hardly innocent, she is far from cynical; she revelled in the talent show's mix of contrived drama and real aspirations, and the task of writing with and for others.
''There is this great saying that when you make art with another person, you actually create a third person,'' she says. ''And that third person, it's their voice.''
The second catalyst was her first film role, alongside one of those former boyfriends, Tim Rogers, of You Am I, in theatre director Michael Kantor's The Boy Castaways, a somewhat trippy tale of desire and death, laced with popular song. Washington's role as a guide and a muse for four male characters was tailored for her, though she resisted at first. She eventually took it on because she had decided ''2012 was my year of yes''. ''Yes'' turned out to be easier to say than she expected, and easier than the film's lukewarm reviews.
Finally, there was the bearded, genial and tall Sam Dixon, now her occasional co-writer and co-producer on the as yet unnamed album. He insisted on telling her she was good at this music lark. She says this affirmation was a ''huge thing'', but he calls it a natural thing.
''As a collaborator, to work with an artist who already has a writing voice, a clear idea of what they are writing about, and isn't stuck for inspiration, makes for a song that is much easier for people to connect to and sounds real straight away,'' says Dixon, who has co-written and played with fellow Australian songwriter Sia, and for artists including Christina Aguilera. ''I knew that was the type of artist and writer she was.''
In the studio, Dixon takes everything in calmly. He says little but nods appreciatively as Washington shows a more sophisticated edge to her voice as she puts down a vocal for Yellow and Blue. The song is a ballad with a subtle rhythm that kicks in harder during the chorus but stays within the grasp of the listener.
That relative simplicity, a common theme in the new material, is a sign of Dixon's quiet hand at work and the two-way strength of this new working relationship.
''She's so schooled and has an amazing understanding of harmony and melody, and can do crazy key changes and modulations 'til the cows come home,'' Dixon says.
''But the one thing I really wanted to do was use that if it was necessary, as opposed to having to do it. She could have said no to that. The fact that she gave me that trust was amazing. And that, in turn, has given me confidence that I didn't have before.''
With her own Dixon-fuelled confidence, Washington says: ''I finally don't feel - apologetic is the wrong word - but accidental about being good.''
Or, she has ''a real desire to be excellent''. That is not so much about ego as a preparedness to let go, to reach for something without tempering it with a willingness to fail.
''I always balanced any success with proper destructive behaviour. If we had a big show,
I'd get super-drunk; when we played the Big Day Out and there were, like, thousands of people to see us, I was convinced they were all there to see me fail. I'm not alone in that, but it's no way to live, and it's also no way to make music.
''But this record has come from a place of absolute devotion, scholastic, monkish, researched thought. It's come from a clean place,'' Washington says.
It has also come from the recognition of some home truths. Take, for example, Washington's theory that the lyrical tropes of solo artists can be summed up in a couple of words. She says Florence and the Machine is romance and death; Nick Cave is morbid beauty; Katy Perry is cupcake teenage. Her own work is not exempt from the observation.
''When I think about what I wrote about most before this album, especially [on] I Believe You Liar, [my trope was] intelligently miffed. I was just a bit miffed,'' she says with a laugh. ''Slightly annoyed.''
This time around, she started writing in February and was still going in July. The relentless nature of daily writing meant she tapped out her usual sources.
''I bored myself [and was forced to look elsewhere from] the middly, biddly, wordily, Cole Porter-y shit that I do.
''And that's when it started to get really good. The stuff I wrote in February, March, April, that's not here, we're not recording it. It fatigued my shtick.''
So, instead of shtick, there is something else. Washington has marked the change by releasing her music under her full name, not just her band-like surname. It is more than a cosmetic change.
''In a public sense [the early recordings] looked like me, but conceptually, philosophically … it was a lot of all of us,'' she says. ''This record is not like that. This record is mine. Mine. So very mine that it's not Washington, it is Megan Washington.''
As Streisand put it: ''I simply gotta march/My heart's a drummer/Nobody, no, nobody/Is gonna rain on my parade!''
Megan Washington plays the Lost Picnic festival in Centennial Park on March 23. Her single, Who Are You, is out now.