The trials and triumphs of Megan Washington
Megan Washington is known for several things: the bell-like clarity of her voice, the exuberant mix of showtime musicals, jazz and alt pop-rock that make up her musical repertoire, the Bob Fosse-influenced dance moves that enliven her performances. Earlier this year she also became known for having a stutter.
Not a paralysing stutter, but one the 28-year-old singer-songwriter had worked to hide from a young age. In particular she trips over words with the sound “st” in them. Outing herself to an audience at TEDxSydney in April, she owned to a lifelong dread of public speaking, even tasks such as introducing members of her band. The only time she feels normal is when she sings because, “through some miraculous synaptic function of the human brain, it’s impossible to stutter when you sing”.
The confession, with its twin imagery of ordeal and entertainment, struck a chord. Washington featured on Australian Story, received offers for book deals, found herself celebrated across the media and – such are the vagaries of public life – in such headlines as: “Let this stuttering songstress inspire you.”
When we meet for lunch in an organic food cafe Washington favours for its so-called Extreme Salad, the singer is a little bemused by her new role as an ambassador for triumph over adversity. “I’m thrilled the talk had such resonance,” she says. “But…” There are a few “buts”. For one, people have invested her speech with all kinds of meanings of their own. For another, the stutter has become worse since she went public with it. As someone who loves wordplay, it’s a constant frustration to have to change what she wants to say to something she is able to say.
This month Washington released her new full-length album, There There, a catchy pop- and soul-infused follow-up to her acclaimed 2010 debut, I Believe You Liar, so language and meaning are on her mind more than usual. Her lyrics are being combed through, as lyrics inevitably are, for clues to love and other catastrophes. She accepts that – exposure is a by-product of writing, and relationships are her chosen subject – but she does emphasise that a lyric is only “kind of” a version of reality.
When Liar came out, Washington was hailed as the next big thing, a rare talent, an overnight hit – though it had taken many years to put the record together. Then, naturally, there was a mini-backlash with critics noting that she was mining the same territory as countless other female singers. Her life went a little off the rails, she says – and she grimaces because it is such a cliché: the award-winning breakthrough, the partying, the post-success flatness, and even, for a short time, the rock-star boyfriend, Tim Rogers. “I had lost my way. I was afraid to do anything and watching other artists be successful and comparing myself to them, all that stuff that you do,” she recalls about the time. The relationship with Rogers made her visible in a way she hadn’t been visible before: “People said a lot of horrible things on the internet [and] I had not yet learned to not look at the internet. Everything appeared to have a negative trace on it; everything was shrouded in ill will. So I left and went to New York.”
Washington says she doesn’t think of Australia as home, any more than other countries she’s lived in, but she did eventually head back to Sydney in 2012. Somewhere in there she became engaged, and then un-engaged. She set up house in London, did a lot of therapy and made a mini-album, Insomnia, which, while respectable, didn’t hit the heights of Liar.
All the time she was keeping her hand in the entertainment industry. She was a mentor on The Voice. She did fashion events and acted in a film. She learned how to stand on a red carpet. “There’s an art to it, oh yeah. You’ve got to do the thing,” she says, miming a vampy over-the-shoulder look. She sang a bit and wrote a bit. Was there a plan?
“No, I’ve never had a plan.” After a pause, she adds, “I do too much yoga to have a plan. Know what I mean?”
Even without plans there was an inevitability to Megan Washington becoming a performer. One way or another being on stage has been her salvation. In Papua New Guinea’s Port Moresby, where she was born, she and her sister made their own entertainment. They danced, sang and acted around a hotchpotch of influences – MGM musicals, the country, folk and classical records her mother favoured, the top-10 hits her father received as a monthly subscription package and then used for his gig as a DJ at the local yacht club. It was a sunny, happy childhood, free of prescribed youth culture.
That only became an issue when the family relocated to Brisbane. Megan was 11, desperate to fit in to her private girls’ school with its codes and subtexts – “what it meant to go to the library and what it meant to play softball” – none of which she had a handle on. The stammer didn’t help and neither did her dislike of authority, so adolescence was a version of hell until year 11 when she switched to a performing arts school. There she met teachers who were flexible about her abilities – if she couldn’t do an English oral, they arranged to mark her on her performance as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she spoke fluently. Her school reports rapidly improved from C averages to dux.
At that point she wanted to be a dancer, or an actor. Judy Garland perhaps, or Ginger Rogers. There is something of the offbeat leading lady in her droll physical presence. But when it came to picking a specialty for her degrees at Queensland’s University of Technology and conservatorium, both in Brisbane, she picked music, figuring that was “the bluntest arrow in my quiver” and that she would keep dancing and acting in her spare time. She also made pragmatic decisions – musical theatre would have been her natural home but, unless you are in a show, there’s not much call for singing show tunes. The next best thing was jazz, which she studied along with voice and composition.
For aspiring jazz singers, Melbourne, and its venues such as Bennetts Lane, was the place to be. At 21, Washington moved south and began playing in a band with composer and pianist Paul Grabowsky. She was also writing, realising she would find it more satisfying to tell her own stories than to sing other people’s. She credits Grabowsky with encouraging her in this regard: “He was the first person in the musical world who said that I was any good.” The songs were a mix of everything she liked: “not quite pop, not quite jazz, sort of folksy but with kind of punky lyrics”.
Like any young artist, she was experimenting. There was a break of sorts when her track “Clementine” won Triple J’s Unearthed competition, and another when she got a gig singing back-up for blues outfit Old Man River on their tour of Europe. She refers to that year, 2008, with mild irony as the time she moved into the “contemporary music world”. She was releasing EPs and working by night in a studio with producer John Castle, who guided her towards I Believe You Liar.
That the album had the impact it did – earning her two ARIA awards in 2010, widespread accolades and sales of more than 70,000 copies – still surprises her: “Because it’s so unlike anything in the marketplace. It’s unique – and I can say that openly because most of that uniqueness came from John.” Her profile really soared, though, when she appeared on ABC TV’s Spicks and Specks singing words from a book in one of those moments that make entertainment executives salivate.
Finding the right producer has been the key to making her records. The wrong producer – and that would be someone whose choices make her “literally itchy” – is anyone she has to be overly polite with. “You have to spend all your time talking. About music. Which is the most boring thing in the world,” she explains. Does she mean music is boring to talk about in general? “On any level it’s boring. Music doesn’t exist to be talked about. And it’s even worse when you’re in a studio with somebody and you’re writing songs together and you say, ‘What about if we go here and modulate this way…’ and they go, ‘Oh, really? Why would you do that?’ It just becomes an exercise in diplomacy. You end up nowhere. It’s best when it feels more like a jam.”
On There There she teamed up with London-based Australian producer Sam Dixon, the man who helped both Sia and Adele break through. From reports, it was neither a diplomatic nor boring experience. In fact, Dixon would send Washington home for rewrites, telling her that her songs were skirting around what she wanted to say. He had little patience for metaphors and abstractions. He also pulled out of her a mature, assured sound with the potential to fulfil those early predictions of being the next big thing.
“I hope so; I’d like that. I’d like to buy a house,” Washington says of the prospect.
In promoting There There, she’s been having a lot of conversations about honesty, though she’s not altogether at ease with the word. The songs she’s written are built from emotional truths, she says, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. But transforming emotions into art is a tricky process to explain. “There are artists I love,” she says carefully, “and the reason those artists matter to me is because when I heard them tell their story, it sounded like mine. And they have taken the time to tell the story in such a way that I didn’t have to.”
It’s tempting to draw a line between the very personal album and the TED Talk about the stutter she’s tried to hide. Washington says, though, that there were other factors behind her speech – she had broken up with a manager she’d been with for a long time and was doing the kinds of crazy things you do after a relationship ends. And in her late 20s she found she was more accepting of what she’d seen as flaws. Speaking in public was the fear she wanted to overcome; the stutter was something she thought everyone knew about.
There’s no doubt singer-songwriters who offer something more layered are having a moment – there is a raft of ethereal-sounding talent out there, from Kate Miller-Heidke to Sarah Blasko to Clare Bowditch. But what propelled Megan Washington past many of her peers? There’s an undeniable appeal in her lack of world-weariness – whether live or in videos, she looks as though she’s enjoying herself. Music critic and author Craig Mathieson observes that she understands the drama of performance, the importance of creating a striking image. At the same time audiences identify with her because she’s accessible. “She doesn’t come across as a star,” he says.
Mathieson sees Washington’s future in audiences largely outside Australia. Here, the kind of path she’s chosen – ambitious but creatively satisfying – will always be limited by population size; overseas he thinks she could have a career like that of Martha Wainwright, or even Annie Lennox. The question is what compromises she’ll need to make to reach that terrain. The music industry is not known for its embrace of difference. Washington’s geek chic, with her glasses and Louise Brooks bob might be right at home in inner-city laneways, but you wonder how long it’ll be before someone suggests a makeover.
When I put that to her, she says she actively resists the pressure to look a certain way. When she went on The Voice she made a decision to cut her hair off because at the time there was one woman on television with short hair – “Like, one!” But before that, before she was signed up, she had a Facebook presence and was doing lots of gigs and she already had a look that she plans to keep control of. “Audiences are not very forgiving of a transformation,” she says stoutly. “If anything, the more authentic an artist appears, the more appealing they are. I mean, my label would never ask me to sex it up – and if they did I’d probably just laugh.”
In saying that, she is not closing her eyes to the fact that the music business is a business. At one point she muses that the more you get into the industry, the less it’s about the music. What’s it about? “Oh, it can be about strategy … digital marketing, getting the cover of the weekend magazine and blahdy-blah … all that stuff.” If it were up to her she’d just spend her time singing. She’d sing all day if someone paid her; it’s a pure form of joy. Any kind of song – at gigs she’d be happy to belt out a Whitney Houston number except that people might flee the room. And to illustrate she flings her arms out wide like Whitney doing “I Will Always Love You”.
It’s the immediacy she loves, the feeling of being the last thing between an act and its audience. She can get that a little bit through writing as it gives her a precision she can’t get through speech, but writing isn’t done in real time, it evolves over drafts. And she could get it through other things if only she could do them – handstands, say, or juggling, or being a great mimic. “The only immediate thing I’m good at is singing,” she says. “So it’s fun, I’m good at it – and I love to show off.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "Washington landmarks". Subscribe here.