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If you know the name Meg Duffy, there’s a decent chance you read guitar magazines. The indie singer-songwriter, who started recording and performing as Hand Habits in 2017, made a name among guitar-heads as a long-time support player in Kevin Morby’s band. Though you wouldn’t necessarily know that Duffy is a guitar hero after listening to Placeholder, Hand Habits’ standout second album, due March 1.
An autobiographical record that emerged from a “pissed off” time in Duffy’s life, Placeholder is more atmospheric than show-offy, in which Duffy’s tasteful, restrained playing supports the delicate melodies and reflective lyrics. You can hear it in songs like “Can’t Calm Down,” in which the 28-year-old sings about family traumas being passed down like heirlooms over lustrous folk-rock that hits the sweet spot between mid-’70s Fleetwood Mac and Sharon Van Etten.
But Duffy admits they weren’t always so laid-back. (Duffy prefers gender-neutral pronouns.) As a teenager, Duffy worshipped classic rock and blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmy Page, and aspired to the zen of the epic shred.
“When I first figured out that I could do that, it was a really easy way to get attention, since I didn’t write songs and I couldn’t really sing,” Duffy says. “I was like ‘Oh, I can play that solo from ‘Stairway To Heaven’ really cool.” But that only gets you so far I think as a musician and as a player.”
Just as Duffy learned to pare back as a guitarist in support of other artists, they similarly sought to spotlight the songs over the playing when Hand Habits released Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void) in 2017. While Duffy’s debut truly was a “humble” affair, having been recorded at their Los Angeles home with minimal fanfare, it became a big enough critical hit that Hand Habits was subsequently signed by the respected indie label Saddle Creek.
For Placeholder, Duffy shipped off to northwestern Wisconsin to work with in-demand indie producer Brad Cook at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios. The bucolic surroundings reminded Duffy of their childhood home in upstate New York, and seemingly influenced the album’s gentle, pastoral sound, which contrasts with the stormy turmoil of Duffy’s lyrics.
During a recent interview, Duffy discussed their love of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the dangers of autobiographical songwriting, and how the value of empathy influenced Placeholder.