Name: Hand Habits aka Meg Duffy
Occupation: Guitarist, musician
Current release: The new Hand Habits album Fun House is out via Saddle Creek.
Arcana: Musicians on Music edited by John Zorn. Any volume.
No Trees Without Branches by Steven Van Betten and Andrew Rowan.
If you enjoyed this interview with Hand Habits and would like to know more, we recommend the official Hand Habits homepage as a point of departure. You can also visit Meg on Facebook and Soundcloud.
We also recently interviewed Meg Duffy as part of his collaboration with Joel Ford, yes/and. Read it here.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
It’s been about 10 years since I wrote my first song, which happened almost in spite of myself, being that I was in school for jazz guitar and songwriting came as an afterthought to me. I was playing with a lot of songwriters, and I think I absorbed a lot of their tendencies and eventually started being drawn to the container of a song.
When I wrote the songs for Wildly Idle … and recorded them, I didn’t know I was producing in the way that I think of producers now- because that process was so explorative and insular for the most part.
I was drawn to Phil Elverum’s recordings and arrangements and felt very inspired by Liz Harris/Grouper; I love the sense of curiosity and allowed mess that seems to exist in their worlds, and wanted to merge those sonic landscapes with more traditional folk songs.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think I’m constantly trying to go deeper into what I consider ‘my own’. I read a Donna Harraway quote that says even our DNA is 95 percent bacteria or something … that what we consider even our own bodies isn’t necessarily ours.
I think about influences and how there are infinite sources that lead to every decsion, and during deep periods of abosorbtion I sometimes forget that anything I consume on a sensory level might also be spit back out in my work.
I think the best advice I’ve gotten lately is that no matter what type of music I am making, if I’m making it - it’s in my own voice, even if I’m emulating someone else. That was freeing.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I think to answer this question, I’d have to have a better sense of my identity in a more concrete way; which for me seems to be equal to reaching the impossible, definiting divinity.
With Fun House I felt very open minded and constantly surprised by the boundaries of my own identity I had been exploring through songwriting, through narration and perspective, and I think to extricate my sense of identity and my creatitivity as two separate modalities would be to negate them both, respectively.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I used to feel very intimidated by ways of creating that I didn’t understand, and I think when I was younger I would judge them or feel as though musical or technical concepts that were overly complicated took away from the expression or artistry, leaning deeply into emotion rather than perfection.
But now I am inspired by the unknown, feel more inclined to ask questions and to learn and really approach complexities with a beginner's mind. I’m often surprised by what I can create when I don’t know what I’m really doing.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I’ve gone through phases of feeling very indepedendent, wanting to do everything myself and make every decsion, to being extremely activated by collaboration and creative distribution and influence, heavily leaning into a more community oriented way of making music and trusting others to contribute to a recording or song.
When I was on my own more, I used a lot of really cheap gear and got creative. Now that I’ve expanded my tool box, even when it comes to guitars, I’m learning that it can be really helpful to have a few options to get more color out of a timbre.
It does seem to be neverending once you start though..
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Experimenting with muting and drop tunings and prepared guitar has led me to find some very exciting harmonic landscapes that come through into songs.
I tried to learn Ableton recently, still am trying but very slowly, and that is definitely a platform that I need to spend more time with to really get a sense of it’s musicality. It feels totally alien to me, to challenge the idea of what an instrument can be.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I tend to oscillate radically between wanting isolation and exploring the unknown on my own, and leaning deeply into the energies and ideas of others in a collaborative sense.
For Fun House, the writing process was mostly in isolation (with a handful of feedback sessions from respected friends) and the recording process was extremely collaborative - I felt pushed and held by my dynamic with Sasami and Kyle. (producer and engineer).
When I’m in more of a gathering/pre writing phase, I’m often talking about other peoples ideas for lyrics, for tones they are interested in, diving deep on certain rhythms, getting together to just play improvised music. I love to get together with someone I don’t know very well and see what happens musically. I find that very exciting.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Alarm goes off, typically around 8 or 830 depending on the night before. On a good day I pray, meditate, read a piece of text that is important to me. Then I get out of bed, make my bed, usually walk upstairs to the kitchen and make a coffee and an oatmeal. Sometimes I make a smoothie. I journal for about 15-30 minutes, and hopefully it’s nice outside and I can sit on my porch and do this. Sometimes I listen to something without lyrics, some ambient or classical music or percussion loops but lately it’s been choir music from Bulgaria.
When I’m not in the middle of a press cycle (which I am as a write this) my days are structured very differently and I try to give myself a lot of time to experiment; with a new pedal, making soundscapes, writing poems without editing, coming back to an old song seed idea and trying to grow it into something. I can flux between extremely social and extremely withdrawn into my creative privacy, and I often go long stretches of not playing music or songs, but gathering information that influences my work.
Last year I would write pages from guitar instructional books (Ted Greene, Jimmy Wyble, Miles Okazaki) and roll dice and use the dice to inform what position, key, or note cluster I would be focusing on. Lately I’ve gotten into the habit of learning new Logic Pro workflows and watching a lot of tutorials on YouTube.
At night, I try to read something about music or art or poetry or process. I like prompts for writing fiction and sometimes write paragraphs based off of prompts and use them as source material for lyrics later.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think every state of mind can be ideal depending on the attitude I am willing to breathe into that state of mind. Having infinite time to ‘be creative’ is useless without flux, for me. During the months of infinite time and very few tangible distractions, there were often days that just went by without me being actively ‘creative’. I think everything is creative, non action is creative, sitting and thinking or walking and not thinking and just observing is creative. It all goes in and comes out eventually.
Ideally - the addict in me wants to live inside the place where time disappears and words and melody are born without effort or force. But I am human and I think if I were given that state of euphoria constantly, it too would become stale. The fleeting nature of a spark exists only because of it’s rare beauty.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I think isolation and insecurity, grief, and fear … these feelings that can seem insurmountable and incredibly paralyzing, could be healed through music. Music provides a sense of someone else going through what you may be going through. It can create communities that orbit around playing music together.
For me - I need my music community, I need to disappear but with others playing a single note or a song or making harsh noise. I have needed desperately 3 chords to play with a friend, to harmonize with someone, to be amazed, to stand in a room with 500 or 5000 people all at the mercy of the singer or drummer or player. It’s the mystery and the fact that anyone can truly participate.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I think to put it simply, although making art can start in a more selfishly rooted place, I am driven to share it to experience connection - between myself and others, myself and the song, others with the song, and between others without me.
Songs and pieces are conductors of experience and connection and can really be tools for healing and togetherness.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think music is a catalyst for the divine, and a vehicle in which to disappear. This question feels unanswerable and the answer might be in the music.