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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.
I’ve seen you described as a “formally trained guitarist.” Forgive me if this is a dumb question, but what does formal training for a guitarist entail?
Did you say formally or formerly?
I like formerly, like I was trained before.
That’s definitely more clever than my question. But I assume you went to school to learn guitar?
I went to community college for two years for guitar performance. So I have some community college music theory education somewhere in my brain. It’s hard for me to access it and gets harder everyday when I don’t use it.
Do you feel like that education helped you?
I definitely think it did. I mean, it also hurt in the same way that if you talked to music school kids who went to Berkelee, they’re like, ‘Man that f*cked up my creativity. I can’t be the medium that I want to be because I’m always the critic or intellectualizing music.’ I didn’t start writing songs until two years after I graduated college because I didn’t really know how to access authenticity without analyzing while I’m creating, which I think is not always the best way to be a creator.
There’s also a bias in rock music against formal training, especially in indie music.
I definitely didn’t pay attention in school as much as I should have, but I practiced guitar a lot. The practice curriculum and the structure of that, and having to do a recital and a jury and a weekly review of what you’ve been learning in your repertoire, I think that really, really helped me as a player. Just from the technical standpoint, and learning how to practice in a really like ergonomic and efficient way.
I used to practice literally eight hours a day, because I wanted to be good, and that’s how you get good. So I had all these tools of what to practice and how to practice and even what not to do when you’re practicing. I think in the same way that if you’re learning a language, you have to draw the letter A like a hundred times before you know how to draw a letter A without thinking about it.
You started playing at 16, right?
More or less. I got a guitar when I was 16, but then I smoked a lot of pot for two years.
Who were your guitar heroes at the time?
Stevie Ray Vaughan was my favorite.
Why Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Oh, his tone is so good. He would use two tube screamers, which I think was so cool, and he had like 13-gauge, 14-gauge strings sometimes, which if you play guitar, you know that’s crazy. Like Eddie Van Halen would use nines, and he’s also really good, too. I wasn’t really into the shredders like that, the prog/hair metal shredders, but I really like the blues and I thought that the way that Stevie Ray Vaughan played was so expressive and so physical. It sounded physical. You could hear the physicality behind it. And I think that that’s just what was given to me as a reference point by my uncle, who played in a classic rock cover band and would play the blues. Then I really liked Fleetwood Mac. And I was really into Led Zeppelin. Those were the three, you know?
It’s interesting that you talk about Stevie Ray Vaughan, who made guitar heroics the focal point of his music. On your records, the playing is far more restrained and atmospheric. When did you start thinking about the guitar in a less show-offy way?
When I started getting involved with songwriters, it’s like, no one really cares about the guitar player. The musicians care maybe, but the people who are listening to the song are more concerned about the melody. And I think that’s when I started backing up.
I will say that I’m going to make a shredder record next — this month actually — and I can’t tell you who it’s with, but we’re going to have a lot of fun shredding out.
Is it Yngwie Malmsteen?
Oh my god that would be so crazy. No.
You’ve described yourself as an autobiographical songwriter. To what degree are you conscious of using your own life for material as you’re living it? Are you constantly making mental notes for potential lyrics?
Yeah, but then I never end up writing about those things. I had a moment like that the other night where I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy, I hope I can write about this.’ I was at a show and somebody had a seizure and it was really crazy. We were up in the balcony and we had this weird aerial view. The person’s okay, luckily, but it was still really scary. I’m gonna remember that for a while, visually and emotionally, but I feel like whenever I’ve had those feelings, those are the things that I keep for myself.
As somebody who draws so much from my own life, I’m really impressed [with] people like Michelle from Japanese Breakfast, who’s like, ‘This is a song about falling in love with a robot.’ I’ve never done that.
If there are parts of your life that you try to protect, what do you feel safe writing about?
I don’t know that I have the final say over that. There are definitely songs that I’ve written that I haven’t recorded. They exist maybe one time. Songs that are really explicit about certain situations that might paint somebody in a way that is not great or might be exploitative in a too direct way, or not shrouded in enough metaphors.
The title track from Placeholder seems like a fairly straightforward relationship song.
It’s about being a stand in, because there’s such a fixation on “forever” for a lot of people. You’ve been conditioned from birth to think that that’s the goal. I was really blindsided by this situation where I shouldn’t have been blindsided, because I knew that it wasn’t happening in the way that ideally I would have liked it to happen. Since then the situation has played out and the circumstances have changed. The people involved in that song are really close to me now, so it’s hard to think about it in the same way I was thinking about it then, which was a really bitter feeling.
There’s a recurring theme in your songs of looking at a situation from a perspective other than your own. I think that’s true of “Placeholder,” as well as many other tracks on the record. Did you feel that empathy before you started writing, or does it happen because writing the song gave you a better sense of perspective?
I think that’s just a part of my personality to a fault sometimes, because it can pigeonhole me into being a little too ambivalent. But I think it’s important to always see everything from multiple sides because it’s like the classic bumper sticker cliche, if you will, like, ‘You never know what everyone else is going through.’ That’s a cliche because it’s true! And so many people need to be reminded of that. Writing for Placeholder, I was really pissed off. I remember being really hurt, pissed off and feeling betrayed. Then I was writing it and it felt really like a release. For a lot of artists and songwriters and any creative person, when you make something that articulates a feeling, even if it’s just to you, you leave that manic time.
Placeholder is out 3/1 via Saddle Creek Records. Get it here.