When former upstate New Yorker and current Californian Meg Duffy joins our Zoom call, they’re surprised it’s me on camera. “I’m so much less nervous now,” they say. “Still nervous, but a little less.” I haven’t seen Duffy in almost two years, not since their show at Mr. Smalls Theater—in Millvale, Pennsylvania, an Allegheny County borough just a stone’s throw from Pittsburgh—when they opened for Whitney under the moniker of their solo project, Hand Habits. Before the gig, they’d tweeted about needing some spare testosterone for the rest of their time on tour. I’d just switched to T injections myself and had an overstock of gel just sitting in a cabinet at home. So I hid a bottle in my back jeans pocket, since the venue’s website didn’t indicate whether HRT gel was contraband or not, and slipped through security with it tucked away. Admittedly, I’d come to the show to see Whitney’s set. I was familiar with Duffy’s work, though not as seriously at the time, only by way of “yr heart [reprise]” and “Sun Beholds Me,” two endearing, unforgettable strokes of indie balladry.
You’ll find the same energy in the air at any opening act’s set in America, but there’s a certain nihilism surrounding them at Midwest and Northern Appalachia shows. Duffy’s performance focused on cuts from placeholder—their newest Hand Habits record, which had come out the previous spring—but the crowd talked through their entire slot, missing the gentleness in that night’s rendition of “pacify.” Of course, Duffy and company hustled through their half-hour set, leaving an opportunity for me to find them before night’s end. But I was anxious about the whole transaction, wanting to make sure I crossed paths with Duffy before the hurricane of the crowd blocked the exit en masse after Whitney’s set.
When I caught them at their merch table after the gig, I handed off the bottle of T as a swarm of folks passed up on stopping by and meeting Hand Habits in favor of snagging a flimsy card-stock tour poster with Whitney’s name and tour itinerary emblazoned on the front. I gushed to Duffy about “pacify” and exchanged hugs with the band. It paralleled the immediate kinship you feel when listening to one of their records all the way through, and opened the door for a friendship that extends into the present day. But when those folks wandered out into the damp, hillside suburb of Millvale, they did so unaware of their own regretful ignorance towards Duffy during a short, but urgent and palpable set. Duffy: one of everyone’s favorite rock stars, and it seemed like not one soul fleeing into the streets had even the slightest clue of it.
Duffy’s opening slide guitar on The War on Drugs’ “Holding On,” unfurling and wondrous, like a second vocalist on the track, was a defining musical moment in 2017, arriving on the heels of a heavenly solo on Weyes Blood’s “Seven Words” the year prior, in which their contribution helped encapsulate Natalie Mering’s haunting vocal performance. Between those two features sits their debut as Hand Habits, Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), an evocative record pawing at a deep, vulnerable reverence not fully realized yet. And even before all of that, Duffy was playing guitar in Kevin Morby’s band and Sylvan Esso after graduating from the Albany, New York DIY scene. Once they catalogued a prolific CV of guest spots on other people’s work and toured relentlessly, Duffy took the cult following built up from their debut and used it to put together a sophomore effort, placeholder, at Bon Iver’s studio in Wisconsin.
Despite being a masterclass composer in their own right, so much so that they are teaching an online class on songwriting this fall for School of Song, Duffy relishes the muted limelight that comes with stepping into someone else’s world and being a part of their vision. “I really like collaboration because I get to be of service and help somebody figure out what it is they’re hearing and make that happen and just provide while being in the background and enjoy it,” Duffy says. “Not a lot of people know I play on [“Holding On”] and I get to hear it and be like, ‘That’s me!’”
The last two months have been busy for Duffy’s collaborative pursuits, but with the creativity focused on their own work rather than anyone else’s. At the end of July, they released yes/and, an instrumental effort done alongside electronic virtuoso Joel Ford, intentionally without much promotion. “I tried to keep my face and my name as unattached to it as possible,” Duffy says. “I’m trying to keep it more sacred and about exploration and music and creativity. It’s a safe space.” yes/and is the other side of Duffy’s creative spectrum: formless and identity-less, shifting gears from their tonal storytelling in Hand Habits. “There’s so much mystery [in instrumental work] and everything’s an improvisation until it’s not,” they add. “Or until you do it twice, or until you write it down or say that it’s a composition.”
Less than two weeks later, Duffy announced a new Hand Habits record—born from finally sitting still and spending more than two days working on a song—on Instagram. The product is Fun House, Duffy’s groovy, incendiary documentation of feelings. It’s an honest, barebones reckoning with the self, built from the shared quarantine resonance of having too much time on our hands to analyze our pasts. In turn, Duffy spent the first half of lockdown interrogating old relational patterns, platonically, romantically and personally. “I had to rewind pretty far back,” they say. “I was doing a lot of self-exploration and approaching a lot of the anger or resentments that I have with compassion and just admitting I was wrong at certain times.”
In April 2020, Duffy had just moved into a house with multi-instrumentalists Kyle Thomas and Sasami in Los Angeles, as Thomas was working on production for his next King Tuff record. “Every day, in this house I was spending all of my time in, I was hearing them make music,” Duffy says. “Finally, I was like, ‘Damn, that sounds good. I guess I have to make another record.’” When the trio put out the EP dirt earlier this year, it was their trial run together, as well as Duffy’s way of testing the healthiness of making a record with the same people they share a domestic space with. The final result was everything Duffy wanted in a creative partnership: an anchor of empowerment through spatial familiarity, emphasized by Sasami’s unflinching, thoughtful vision and generous guidance, which helped Duffy shed the limitations they once perceived their identity to be pushing up against. “I think the fear of becoming someone I’m not is always something that comes up,” Duffy adds. “Not that I don’t always know who I am, but I think Fun House is about figuring out how to even talk about identity. And I didn’t have to leave my house to make the record I wanted to make. That was also really grounding for me, being home.”
The way Fun House came together was much different than placeholder. “I recorded [placeholder] in between Morby tours,” Duffy says. “I’d be home for four days, fly to Wisconsin, do two days in the studio, record seven songs, fly back to tour. There was not a lot of thinking about how songs could be presented.” Where placeholder followed a linear musical tone and lyrical balance, Fun House is more expansive. The record is not just an amalgamation of memories Duffy had previously forced closure onto long before lockdown hit, but it’s equally the result of a newfound reintroduction to self-care. “In this period of trying to make sense of my life, I was turning over these boxes of memories that I had never really allowed myself to think about,” Duffy recalls. “Specifically about my mother passing away when I was young, it’s made its way into my songs before, but not in such a palpable way.” But Duffy is quick to note that Fun House is not a record explicitly about grief or suicide. “I allowed myself to say things that I think, in the past, I would have been too afraid to even think about.”
When Duffy introduces us to songs like “Aquamarine” and “Graves,” they immediately take aim at how the truth about family members is affected by memory, and how new facts emerging from the past can change your perspective on the present. “They shift the way I see myself and how I contextualize myself in the world,” Duffy explains. “Especially my mom’s death and how I was interacting with it as a child versus how I interact with it now, and how that encompasses and informs, deeply, how I think of myself.”
Fun House is the first Hand Habits record to showcase teamwork in such a grand gesture kind of way. With Duffy heading up the songwriting, Thomas planted behind the boards and Sasami lending her vision and vocals, the trio welcomed their friend Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, into the fold. Hadreas sings on “Just to Hear You,” as well as “No Difference,” where Duffy battles with whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. “I had spent so much of my life in scarcity and longing for something, feeling like there’s not really a difference between having it all and having nothing,” they say. “We always want to be seen and heard and understood. But me fixating on not being seen is actually blocking my view from seeing that person, too.” For the song’s music video (dir. V Haddad), Duffy returned to their hometown in upstate New York, filming motorcycle sequences with their dad and revisiting old haunts. “It was really hard and psychedelic to go back to the place of my birth, where these rooms of memory actually exist and thinking about how I used to be so tense in wanting my family to understand [me].”
Fun House’s scope is unrelenting. From the muted electronica to the Neil Young-esque Americana, Duffy uses the record to explore parts of songwriting they’d previously dismissed as impossible for them to achieve. The centerpieces of placeholder (“yr heart,” “jessica,” “pacify”) were all fortified in the same headspace of urgency and timeliness, whereas Fun House, in its entirety, organically sprawls into songs that touch almost every inch of Duffy’s emotional carbon footprint, releasing a battlecry of complexity, while remaining stoic in articulating the human existence without withholding responsibility or romanticizing fallibility. “You can only write so many songs that are like, ‘You hurt me.’ And looking at that, I was like, ‘There seems to be a common denominator here. I’m involved,’” they acknowledge.
The final line on Wildly Idle was, “When I get new bones / I’m gonna grow.” Now, four years later, Duffy has made good on their promise, reckoning with how society has compartmentalized their identity in a way that no longer feels authentic. Fun House is a record charmingly drunk on the flourishes of autonomy. It touches on grief, suicide and transness with the intent of not letting the listener attribute the entire thing to one of those boxes exclusively. “In the past, songwriting was a way to victimize myself and justify my anger,” Duffy says. “But [Fun House] allowed me to shine a light upon certain memories that have informed the narrative of who I am with a more compassionate frame, and understanding that I’m not terminally unique.”
What is unique, though, is the power Duffy’s songwriting holds, in that, though they once dismissed it as impossible before Fun House, they understand the magnitude of what a pop song can do; how to evoke mass-resonance in explicitly personal work, most highlighted by lines like “My body, a question that hangs on her lips” in “The Answer,” or “In between the words you / choose, I saw the real you” in “Control.”
Even after finishing a reflective record wrought with emotional back-bending and a camera fixated on their personhood, Duffy won’t stay in focus for too long. “I don’t think I could handle having it be all on me all the time,” they say. “I used to think that was what I wanted, having all of the weight of performance and creativity. But it’s just so limiting for me to only have Hand Habits. It’s a lot of pressure.” In a few months, Duffy will be pulling double duty on a fall tour: opening for Perfume Genius as Hand Habits, and then joining Hadreas and the band afterwards for the main set, getting to first be expressive with their own voice before stepping back and disposing of crowd perceptions. “If people aren’t enjoying [a Hand Habits set], I don’t care because, like, you’re going to see me again,” Duffy says. “You’re going to be pissed that you talked during my set. I get to redeem whatever I feel like I lost as an opener.”
Duffy is ever the grand, supreme leader of whatever echelons of multitasking they put their hands on, reaping the benefits of having the best of both worlds for two hours a night, connecting with God and playing music. During the other 22 hours, the listeners who never paid enough attention are now trying to catch up and not let themselves become the subject of Duffy’s final line on penultimate Fun House track “False Start”: “Watch me, I’m still giving it all away / You missed the best part.”
Fun House is out Oct. 22 on Saddle Creek. You can preorder it here.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.
Watch Hand Habits’ 2019 Paste session below.