First Published July 2020
THE MAJESTY OF MEGAN
If your music library, in whatever form it takes, doesn’t include MEGAN O’ NEILL, well there are two ways we can look at that situation. On the one hand, it suggests that you’ve possibly been making some questionable decisions in your life (at least as far as music goes!). But on the other hand, however, it means you can still look forward to the experience of discovering this gifted singer/songwriter from Kildare for the first time. And that in itself is a gift, too.
What’s always as enjoyable as spending time absorbing the majesty of Megan’s incredible talent as an artist, is spending time in her company chatting about that talent, her music, and life in general. Megan’s passion for music and for life is impossible to ignore, as is her sense of independence, one that has a sure heart at its core. Always evident also, is a sensitivity which has always entwined itself in Megan’s work, together with a calm fearlessness and confidence that ensures even the toughest of times – such as the last few months – can still be faced with laughter, and her trademark million-watt smile.
With Megan’s amazing new single, FIRE WITH FIRE, out this Friday, July 17th, I had the pleasure of catching up with the lady herself again last week, and her new single was exactly where our chat began. Megan has described the track as being written about what it’s like being a woman in the music business. And more specifically than that, about the friction that can exist with and from other women in particular…
“So ‘Fire With Fire’ I wrote with the amazing Orla Gartland, who is another Irish singer/songwriter. I just had this opening line – which I didn’t know if it was going to be an opening line, but it ended up being the opening line – ‘If you’re trying to bring me down/ you’re already below me.’ We talked a lot about that line, what it could mean, and what it could refer to. And we talked about being a woman in the industry, and everything that comes along with that, which is obviously a lot. But one of the things that comes along with it is the competitiveness with other women. There’s a healthy level of competition, obviously, but sometimes it can be nasty. So we got speaking about that and different experiences we’ve both had and we just thought well wouldn’t that be something really cool to write a song about.”
I wondered about that nasty side of things that Megan had mentioned. Would that be something very obvious, or more so in the background?
“More subtle, definitely. It’s weird, because I have so many amazing women in my life, and so many amazing friends in the music industry who are singer/songwriters. So it’s definitely not referring to everybody. But you have an experience as a woman, and you’ve been conditioned to believe as a woman in the music industry, that there’s only a certain amount of space for you. We’ve all been conditioned to believe that we’re on a time limit, because as a female singer/songwriter it’s a very ageist industry. First of all, there’s the belief that there’s only a limited space for you. Then the belief that there’s only a limited time for you to make it into one one of those spaces! And that can kinda bat women against each other. Like, I need to get ahead of you because there’s only twenty per-cent, or whatever, of those top spaces reserved for women. So that can cause this…nastiness, this friction. But thankfully, that conversation is changing, and has changed a lot in the last few years. But I think a lot of women in the industry have had that experience. Not just, ya know, healthy competition in general, but a nastiness where somebody gives you ill advice or they step on your toes for something, or they say things. We’ve all had it! [laughs].”
While Fire With Fire is on the way, what’s already out there is Megan’s glorious love-song to her homeland, Ireland. And it’s been getting a fantastic response. Megan has recently moved back to Ireland after living in London and Nashville for several years. I asked her if the sentiment she expresses in this song was something that she’d always felt as strongly, or did it grow over the years that she was away?
“That really grew over the years that I was away. I moved away at twenty-one, I was in Nashville for two years, and then in London for five. I think as a young woman I wanted to get away from in Ireland, because I come from a tiny, tiny, tiny town which is amazing, but ya know…tiny [laughs]. I wanted to go and travel the world, be a touring musician, meet loads of people, get lost a bit. It was only the older that I got, that I really started to appreciate my roots. And to appreciate all the small things about Ireland that you just don’t find anywhere else. Kinda my last two years in London really, I was really homesick. I was really ready to come back here. So I wrote that song during those last two years. I had no plans to release it actually. But then lockdown happened and a lot of people were homesick, and couldn’t get home to see their family, or they had trips planned to Ireland that they couldn’t do. So I just thought wouldn’t this be nice to put out as a little hug to everybody who wants to come home to Ireland, but can’t.”
One of the most fascinating responses to Ireland came from no less a figure than Olivia Newton-John! As a songwriter, what did it feel like for Megan when she first discovered that she had received such a huge thumbs-up from such an icon of contemporary music and entertainment culture?
“It was amazing! We had actually met towards the end of last year, she was over in Ireland when they were auctioning off a lot of Grease memorabilia at Newbridge Silverware. So she was here, and she basically happened to end up in the same pub as me one night when we were having a sing-song. And I played that song and she videoed it, and put it up on her Instagram the next day, saying, ‘I heard this last night, it’s amazing…’, ya know. And that was how we first met. So we’ve kind of been…in touch…a couple of emails since then, but when Ireland came out she saw it on my socials and obviously recognised it as the same song she had heard that night in the pub, so she shared it! She’s an incredible woman and such an iconic figure. And I also played Sandy in Grease when I was seventeen, so I’m a massive fan! [laughs]. So it was really cool, and really sweet of her to share it. It hit a nerve with her, being someone who’s not Irish but that felt the connection here when she was here. So yeah, it was amazing.”
Staying with Ireland, Megan has said she sees the song as an almost stand-alone track, even in terms of the artwork she chose for it, which was completely different to the theme running through other recent releases like Devil You Know and Winter Sun, and the forthcoming Fire With Fire. That being so, when it comes to the album, will Megan have to pay close attention to where it’s placed in the track-listing?
“No, I’ve already decided on the track-listing for the album and that wasn’t a big point of contention or anything. The whole album is an evolution for me. There are so many songs on that record that are about what I’ve been through as a human being for the last three years of my life. There’s been a lot of change in my life. There’s been a lot of growth. There’s been some really great times and some really difficult times. And the album kind of deals with that in every song. ‘Fire With Fire’ deals with the industry I work in, Ireland is about where I see my roots and how much I love where I’m from. There’s a song called London City which is about my very abrupt and not planned leaving of London and that city that was my home for so long. So the whole record is very personal, and it’s a big evolution for me as a songwriter and as a person. But no, I didn’t think too much about where Ireland needed to fit just because it was a bit more folky or a bit more celtic. I was thinking more so of the album as a journey through life and that song just fitting in there perfectly for me.”
As a songwriter, when Megan is going through times of growth, or times where everything around her is changing, does she write through all of those periods? Or does she go through spells where she doesn’t write at all, but almost has to just absorb life for a while?
“Good question! Usually, I do. But actually, it’s changed in this lockdown period. A lot of the time in the past I would be writing really regularly, I’d have a few sessions every week. So I’d constantly be writing about how I felt, and discussing how I felt. It was like having three sessions of therapy every week, it was great [laughs]. But then, through this period…I don’t know, I feel like because we all have a lot more time to just sit around and think, it’s almost as if there’s already a lot of reflection. So sitting down to write songs as well seems to be harder for me at the moment. I’m not sure why [laughs]. I think it’s just with there being so much time of reflection already, and you don’t have the other parts of the industry that usually make you really happy. So I’m finding it harder to write now, and I’m kind of taking a little bit of space from it at the moment.”
We had mentioned Olivia Newton-John a few moments previously as an iconic figure who had featured in Megan’s life recently, but Megan’s life being Megan’s life, there’s actually another such figure – possibly even more iconic – who has also featured and in an even bigger way…Sir Tom Jones, whom Megan had the pleasure of touring with…
“That was a really crazy, amazing experience! I’m a huge fan of his, so it was soooo cool just to meet him. I was like, who am I? Who do I think I am, sitting here having a chat with Tom Jones?! [laughs] The gigs were incredible, and it was my first experience of a gig on THAT level, 15,000 people a night, full crew, just a crazy amount of people involved. Which actually makes you think about everybody in the industry out of work with Covid right now, too. But it was amazing. The crowds were incredible, so were the crew, everyone. It was mind-blowing.”
And Sir Tom himself?
“He was really lovely! Really, really lovely. And it’s funny because he’s so protected in that situation by security, and P.As, and there’s so much going on, it’s almost hard to even catch sight of him! But we had a really lovely chat, and he listened to my set and he really liked it. He actually said he was going to arrive early for the following day so he could catch it. And they [the headliners] don’t always have to arrive early, ya know, to catch the opening act! [laughs]. He was just really nice, really down to earth. When you meet somebody like that you’re probably a bit of a jittery mess, like, ‘what do I even say?!’ [laughs].”
Megan herself had a tour which had begun in late January and was due to run until late April. But of course, along came Covid 19 which none of us had seen in the tea-leaves. What was that moment of realisation like for Megan, when it became clear that everything would have to come to a halt?
“So, at first, naively, which I think everybody did, we thought this would only go on for about a month or two. So at first when everything started to change, it was overnight. I had well over a hundred shows still in 2020. We planned tours of the UK, Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, everywhere. And every single one of those shows has been pulled. And not even rescheduled, because it’s hard to know when you can reschedule for. I remember getting the call about the first tour being cancelled which was a project with Universal Music, we were doing three weeks in Ireland and three weeks in the UK. And, there was one part of me that was like, great, a bit of time-off [laughs]. I hadn’t had time off in, ya know, six or seven years. So I was thinking well this month could be really good for me. I’d do loads of writing, catch up on loads of work I hadn’t been able to do, ya know. So I really enjoyed the first six to eight weeks, I was super productive, I was catching up on loads of work, and doing some online shows. But then when it got to like mid-May, I really started to feel the effect of it all. And I really feel the effects of it all now. My favourite part of what I do is playing ‘live.’ And that is not going to be an option for potentially a really long time. It’s quite hard to get revved up for anything when your favourite part about your entire career is taken away.”
We’re about halfway through the summer now and there’s still little or no clarity as to what’s going to happen with the music industry as a result of Covid 19. As an artist, how is Megan dealing with that on a professional level, in terms of being able to plan anything for her career? But also, on a purely human level, how is she dealing day-to-day with an uncertainty that seems to be without end right now?
“I’m really struggling actually. I was fine for ages. But now I find that in the last few weeks, I’m really struggling. It’s really hard to know how this is going to pan out. Not just for me, but for the music industry as a whole. For ‘live’ gigs, for venues, for festivals, for so many musicians I know that are now looking for nine-to-five jobs because they can’t sustain themselves on no gigs for a year, or two years, or for however long this lasts. So I’m fortunate in that I’m making money in other ways. I do a bit of voice-over work, and I’m tutoring with I.C.M.P. (Institute of Contemporary Music Performance) which is a college in London, I tutor songwriters there. Financially, I’m doing ok. But, it’s so hard to deal with the uncertainty of a future for a career that you absolutely love, thinking how are we going to make this work? How are we going to get back to normal with it? And what is the new ‘normal’ for the industry? Yeah, I’m struggling. I’m definitely a planner. I love plans! I love lists! [laughs]. I love knowing what the next eighteen months of my life looks like. But you can’t make plans at the moment. And in a way, personally for me, that’s not a bad thing. I’m learning how to deal with that uncertainty. But yeah, definitely struggling with it.”
Going back to Megan’s new single, Fire With Fire, and the music industry side of things that inspired that, and staying with the music industry…I asked Megan about the recent Gender Disparity Report on Irish Radio which was compiled by Linda Coogan Byrne. This report highlights in stark terms how massively under-supported and under-played Irish female artists have been on Irish radio. I asked Megan about her thoughts on the findings of the report, and her own experiences – maybe frustrations – of trying to get significant support from Irish radio?
“Yeah, I’ve experienced it. And it’s funny, because I know Linda quite well. Linda and I worked together in the past and this was always a massive frustration for her, and she brought it to light for me when we first started pitching to Irish radio. I lived abroad for a long time, so I didn’t actually pitch very much to Irish radio. But I don’t just think it’s a problem with Irish radio! It’s a problem with radio everywhere, and also with the industry as a whole. On very many levels. I was on with Roisin Ingle the other day on The Irish Times podcast, and she said to me when we were talking about Fire With Fire, and this is something I’d love to know but I don’t think we ever will…but how many female artists or musicians pitch to radio and get turned down because they’re female, or along those lines. And they decide in their own minds that they’re getting turned down because they’re not good enough. And how many of those women then go on to quit that industry. There’s no way of finding that out. Over the years I would have been pitching festivals and gigs and radio, and getting told no. Now, there’s every chance I wasn’t good enough then, by the way [laughs]. There’s every chance those songs just weren’t up to par, or my ‘live’ set just wasn’t up to par for that situation. But if I was getting turned down for being female, I’d be really pissed off! I would have convinced myself that I just wasn’t good enough. And I wonder how regularly that happens. I’m sure very regularly. Because you then end up with many more male artists and male-fronted bands than you do female. There’s so many reasons that females step away from music. There’s all of that, there’s the gender disparity, there’s also way less opportunities presented to women. I know that’s changing lately, but throughout the last fifty years or more, there’s been way less opportunities for women. It’s a completely male-led industry, so you’re up against that all the time. And it’s really, really agist. You’re fine as a woman when you’re between sixteen and twenty-one! But I was pitching to record labels and managers last year, and every single time their first question was what age is she? Every single time. Every single time! If you’re over twenty-three or twenty-four, they have no interest. They won’t even listen to the music. Now obviously that’s a generalised comment, and there are those that still will. But the vast majority, especially when you’re looking at major labels, and major management companies, they don’t want a woman that’s older.”
We ended our chat on a lighter note, although quite controversial too in its own right, which is why I decided it best to leave it until last. I put it to Megan that a lot of people would be very interested to hear how she explains one of her recent social media posts…one which, quite unbelievably…suggested mixing peanut butter with an Aero bar?!
“Oh my God! What do you mean? [laughs]. Of course, what’s the problem?! [laughs]. Peanut butter goes with everything! Have you never had a Reese’s piece? That’s peanut butter and chocolate, and it’s amazing!”
Did this begin during Megan’s time in Nashville?
“Noooo, I think it’s a recent development in my life! If you’re not a big peanut butter fan, I’m not sure we can be friends! [laughs] It’s a staple part of my diet! [laughs].”