First Published March 2021
GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY
Earlier this month, Kildare singer/songwriter MEGAN O’ NEILL celebrated – in as much as one can celebrate anything right now – what is always one of the biggest days in the career of any artist…album release day! Her latest collection, and her sophomore long-player, is called GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY. I doubt there has been a more sage piece of advice encapsulated in an album title anywhere this past year! But now that her new album is out in the world, is Megan getting comfortable with the fact that – after two years of putting everything together, and a full year of working on the recording process – her baby has officially flown the nest at last?
“[Laughs] It’s always a weird one when you release an album, especially for this one, because I’d worked on it for soooo long! And then I sat on it for sooo long as well because of Covid. When I was approaching the release date I was almost like, ‘Oh my God, I hope it’s still as good as I thought it was when I was in the studio?!’ [Laughs]. But yeah, I’m so thrilled it’s out, and with how it’s been received. It’s been amazing.”
When Megan released her debut album, Ghost Of You in 2018, the world was still a normal place. Now, of course, normal has taken on all kinds of new definitions, very few of which resemble that old world in any way. How different have those two experiences been?
“To be honest, there’s been pluses and minuses to it. When you’re bringing out an album, you’re usually on tour when the album comes out. Therefore, you’re just completely overwhelmed, because you’re playing gigs but you’re also doing radio stuff during the day, you’re doing press during the day. There’s an awful lot of stuff around the release of an album in a normal world when you’re able to tour. In this scenario it was actually nice because I was able to give a lot more time to long-form interviews, to doing long podcasts, and chatting to so many different people about the album. Because you had the time to sit and do it from home. And you weren’t driving to Manchester to appear on the radio, ya know! There were a lot of elements like that that I really enjoyed. But I suppose the weird thing with Covid for everybody is that you can’t mark things with celebrations. So sometimes it feels like they don’t happen. I was like that after The Late Late Show. I just came home and had a glass of wine and was sitting on the couch, and I was like, ‘Did any of that happen?!’ [Laughs].”
Does Megan think that when things come back to some kind of normal, because people have now had these new experiences of how things can be done, that there’ll be a shift in how the music industry operates? Or will everything snap back into the way it used to be?
“No, there’ll be a huge shift. Even for me, I work regularly – like two or three times a week – I would be in a songwriting session with somebody in Dublin, or Mayo, or Cork, or Belfast, or London, or Nashville, wherever. And that’s all made possible actually, because of the pandemic, and do we all do those over Zoom. In the past, I would have flown to Nashville for two weeks to write with people. I think that’s gonna be gone. I think Zoom songwriting, it’s become the norm. People have gotten really used to it. In a way, it’s really nice because you have all of your gear, like for me, I’m in my home studio and my set-up is how I like it. I’m not having to go abroad or hop in my car and drive for two hours to go work with somebody. I don’t think that change is gonna change [back], I think that’s here to stay. I think live-stream, to a certain extent, are here to stay, but will be coupled with actual real-life gigs as well. I think the way that fans probably now expect to be welcomed into your home [laughs], the way they have been for the last year, that will stay.”
Megan has described these thirteen songs as being her “most personal work so far.” For her, as a writer, I wondered if that was because of the subject matter of the songs themselves, or perhaps more so how, as a songwriter, Megan has learned how better to shape and share her experiences with the passing of time?
“I think it’s a bit of both, probably. Between ‘Ghost Of You’ and ‘Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty’ there was an awful lot of growth for me, as a songwriter, as an artist, and as a person. Growth as a person changes how you are as a writer, and as an artist. And probably what you’re open enough to talk about. Maybe for me, in the past, I was a little afraid to be that open. Or a little nervous about being that open. I think now, I’m like, screw it! [Laughs]. We’re all humans. We’re all having a shared human experience, we’ve all felt a lot of the same things, so why am I afraid to talk about it, ya know? And that will be the case even with the stuff I’m writing now, it’s even more in-line with that. I’ve invested a huge amount of my life into my songwriting, so you do get better at knowing how to portray that, I guess.”
Like so many more, I’ve known of and been a fan of Megan’s for years already at this stage. But the entire nation got to meet her and enjoy her spectacular talent when she performed on The Late Late Show recently. As a platform, the show remains the biggest in the country, and because of its long and illustrious history, it’s a landmark moment for any artist to perform on it. I asked Megan to tell me how that experience was for her…
“Yeah, The Late Late is an institution, so it’s a career milestone for a lot of Irish artists, and it certainly was for me. ‘Time In A Bottle’, the cover that Mark and I did, was on Firefly Lane (the Netflix series) and had attracted a lot of attention. So I got the call to go up to The Late Late. In one way, I was upset that it wasn’t non-pandemic times because I would have loved a ‘live’ audience there, and I would have loved my family to be in that audience. Because this was huge for them as well, having supported me so much in my career. But in another way, because of Covid, so many more people tune into The Late Late. So again, two sides to the same coin, pros and cons. But I was so thrilled to showcase that song. Ryan Tubridy was amazing, and so full of the most lovely things to say, both on-screen and backstage. The actual recording of it was a bit mad, because everyone was in masks and socially-distanced. It feels a bit abnormal. But just like anything, when the lights go down and the performance starts, you get in the zone. It was amazing, and I’m so happy to have done it.”
Before going on to talk a little bit more about some of Megan’s own songs on Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty, I wanted to ask her about the approach she and Mark ‘Cappy’ Caplice took to recording Time In A Bottle. It’s such a gorgeous song even to begin with, and obviously such a well-known song to those of us who would be big fans of the late singer/songwriter Jim Croce. So how did Megan and Cappy take on the challenge of a song like that, respecting the original, but also, I was sure, wanting to be original in what they did with it?
“Hmm, yeah. Mark and I recorded and produced that song for the Netflix series, Firefly Lane. And we chose to do that one because they were looking for a female version of that song. That was the motivation behind going into the studio to do it. We had a lot of conversations about the song, because yeah, that song is so precious to so many people, myself included. I grew up listening to that song, it’s one of my mam’s favourites. With songs like that, that you know are so loved, you’re like, ‘Ok, how am I going to do this?’ You don’t want to get too close to the original because you don’t want people to listen to it and be like, oh she never should have touched that! Yeah, we had a lot of discussions about making it uniquely our own, and we came up with this version which would be very haunting and very ethereal. The day it came to recording it – well, it was all in the one day, the discussions and the recording – we just turned off all the lights in the studio, lit a candle, and just went for a take. And that’s actually the take that you hear. And we didn’t even do it to a ‘click’, the timing of the track is not as we would usually do it, we just wanted it to be free-flowing. It was one of those performances where it was so important to capture the energy, not a note-perfect, metronome-perfect, timing-perfect track. It was more so capturing the emotion of the song. I think that’s what worked so well in it.”
Megan has described the track London City as being the hardest song to write on Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty. But did that then make it the hardest song to record as well? Was it just in that first fire of creation – the actual writing of the song – that she had to battle through the emotions or memories that gave life to it in the first place, and are still wrapped up in it? Or do you have to go through those all over again when you record the song?
“So, I didn’t think I’d have to! [Laughs]. But I did. I thought I’d be fine. I wrote that song with The Dunwells, maybe in the summer of 2018 when I knew I was going to be leaving London in the October time. So I was feeling all those things, grieving a place before you have to leave. And it was really difficult to write, yeah. It was very emotional to write. And then, when it came to actually recording the vocals of it – because we’d built the track around it first, and we were doing the vocals probably six months later – I thought I was fine! I was like, ‘I’m grand!’ [Laughs]. I can get through this! But I just balled, the whole day we were recording that song. Poor Dave Dunwell, he was the one at the keypad, torn between oh no, I really want to capture this emotion, so maybe I’ll just get her to push through? But also, maybe she just needs some fresh air?! [Laughs]. I left London because my dad’s not well. And at the same time, I don’t know if you’re ever really ready to leave London. It was a real push-and-pull for me for a long time.”
Megan spoke recently about how she had invested a huge amount of time into her songwriting in the past few years. Did that investment take the form of more time simply spent writing? Was it time spent studying the art and the craft of songwriting? More time co-writing, perhaps? I asked Megan to expand…
“I think songwriting is a life-long education. It’s always gonna require the investment of your time. And again, as I said, because you’re growing as an individual, your needs with your songwriting – whether it’s to write in different genres, whether it’s to write with different influences, whether it’s to write about different topics – all of that requires more work. And that’s more investment of your time. So for me, throughout the last year, I’ve done a lot of solo songwriting which has been really enjoyable because I would have been more focused on the co-writing element in the past. And solo stuff usually takes on a different angle for me when I write by myself. I’m exploring that and finding it really interesting. then a lot of co-writing is writing for other artists, which is a new-ish thing for me. I’ve always done that, but in the last few years I suppose, that’s been more prevalent, and I’ve been writing other peoples’ stories. That’s been really exciting. I’ve got some songs coming out with other artists in the next year which I’m incredibly excited about! So yeah, it’s more time invested in co-writing, it’s more time writing in certain directions – whether that’s for another artist or for synch, or a brief – and it’s also been more time invested for me in learning production. I’ve been doing a production course since the beginning of this year. So it’s a lot of time staring at Logic and pulling my hair out [Laughs].”
While there are very few artists in a position to see any light at the end of the tunnel as far as ‘live’ shows go just yet, Megan is one of those who can, with dates in the diary for Ireland and the UK in October. As far as those dates go, is the hope that by the time October gets here they’ll be able to take place in conditions as close as possible to how they would have done pre-Covid, or are they being planned with a new set of logistics that now, and possibly for the foreseeable future, will include Covid considerations?
“They’re basically being planned both ways, a Plan A and a Plan B. Ideally, Plan A is everything goes ahead as normal if everybody is vaccinated. Plan B is hey, here’s what we have to do if we social-distance. I’m very optimistic that they can go ahead, even if they have to go ahead under certain restrictions. Ideally, if they can go ahead without social-distancing, it will be a full-band situation. But if they have to go ahead with social-distancing, and you can only fill half the room, it would be really hard for me to bring a full-band, obviously. But to be honest with you, I’m just playing it by ear. I’m not stressing about the outcome. It’s just, look, those are in the diary, and I’m really hopeful that we can do them. But these are my third rescheduling of these dates. So…[laughs]…I’ve kind of gotten used to the push-and-pull of that for now [laughs].”
Many artists are now of the opinion that if something seems possible to try, then let’s do it and see how we can make it work. Because once things begin to happen, and people can better judge what is possible and isn’t, what does work, and doesn’t, that in itself will create a sense of confidence that can be built upon further. Would Megan be of the same opinion?
“Yeah. And I’ve got more shows to be announced abroad, as well as these ones. And if it’s the case that it’s going to be building a new method of doing events, I want to be a part of that. I don’t want to be waiting, just sitting waiting until everything is back full-tilt. That could be…2023! And then I’m like, great, I haven’t played a show in three years! [Laughs]. I’d much rather be in with the movement and seeing what’s possible.”
When Megan and I last spoke in July of 2020, it had, at that stage, been only a few months since Megan had last been on stage. The 9th of March this year, however, marked a full year since her last ‘real-life’ show. Mind you, that was in support of Jamie Cullum at the Bord Gais in Dublin, so as far as last shows to look back on go, that’s not too shabby! Throughout her career, Megan’s ‘live’ shows have been an intrinsic element of who she is as an artist, and how she connects with her fans. And over the past few years, as well as her own full diary, Megan has ticked off some seriously high-profile gigs, opening not just for the aforementioned Mr. Cullum, but also Sir Tom Jones, the Lighthouse Family, and alongside Gavin James at some private Oscars’ parties in L.A.
Now, when some of the shows you’ve been missing out on over the past year are ones like that, I can only imagine the chasm it leaves in an artist’s world. But, what I wanted to know was this. When the moment finally comes around that Megan can walk back out under the spotlight, in front of a venue full of people again (at whatever capacity), for one of her own shows or to open for someone else…what’s that moment going to feel like? Is that the kind of moment that Megan sometimes day-dreams about?
“Oh my gosh! All the time! ALL the time! It’s been such a huge part of my life that, through no fault of mine or of anyone else, it’s just been wiped from underneath me. And I know that’s the case with everybody. 2020, for me, was my biggest year to date. It was two albums. One with a label – a compilation album – and then my own album was coming out. A hundred-plus shows all over the world. I was geared up for an incredible year. And there’s certainly an element for artists now, that feels almost like you’re starting from scratch again. On the one hand, the thoughts of a ‘live’ gig are so exciting, like, I’m jumping out of my skin and I’m like, ‘OH MY GOD!’ [Laughs]. But, on the other hand, I’m anxious about it. By the time these gigs come around [in October], it will have been eighteen months. Playing ‘live’ again will definitely be a little bit scary. And playing with a full-band again. I’ve gotten so used to just playing by myself! Playing with a full-band will be weird. But, the excitement part of it will be much stronger than the anxious part of it!”
As Megan had previously referred to the two years around the process of making Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty as being a period that left her feeling “pretty battered”, I wanted to end our chat with something a little more personal. So, as we sat there on the morning of Friday, March 26th, 2021…how was she feeling? In both a personal and a professional sense?
“I’m great! Yeah, I’m in a really good place. And I’m so grateful for that! There’s been a lot of…yeah, s*it [laughs]…and a lot of stuff that’s been really hard to get through. But I firmly believe, I really strongly believe, that you don’t grow from a place of comfort. You just don’t. You grow – well, I certainly have grown – when you go through really tough stuff. And for me, I’m still dealing with my dad’s illness at home, which is really hard. And that’s a big part of my life right now. But I’m really grateful to be here to actually, ya know…be here! And that’s a benefit of the pandemic in a weird way, it’s allowed me more time with my family, where I’m not out touring and I’m not away. But yeah, both personally and professionally at the moment, I feel really happy where I am. I feel really excited about what’s coming in the next year or two. I work really hard at putting myself consistently in a good space. And I’m grateful for everything.”
~ GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY, the brand NEW album from MEGAN O’ NEILL, is OUT NOW and available on all platforms.