Meg Duffy balances the chaotic with the serene on her debut as Hand Habits
Wildly Idle, Meg Duffy's solo debut as Hand Habits, lives up to the dichotomy in its title, pairing tumultuous lyrics about romantic relationships and the search for self with lush, languid tracks as soft and welcoming as the bed in a five-star hotel.
“Now isn't it just like me/ I'm cracking up out of the blue,” she sings on “Actress,” held together by the soothing shake of rattle and glimmering guitars that sigh and stretch as though they've just awoken from a long, peaceful slumber.
“That's something I play with, because lyrically it feels rewarding to express something that I'm feeling, and I like sounds that are pretty,” said Duffy, who visits Rumba Cafe for a concert on Wednesday, Feb 22. “I've been quoted once saying I hate loud music, which isn't true, but sometimes loud, abrasive music is harder for me. Those [softer] sounds feel so good to play and to listen to. It feels healing. I read that the universal frequency that the earth resonates at is 528 hertz, so I hope there's a lot of that in the songs.”
The recording process progressed as casually as the music itself; Duffy recorded most of the tracks in the bedroom of her secluded Los Angeles home starting shortly after she relocated to California from Albany, New York, in August 2015. But Hand Habits' roots reach back even further. According to Duffy, the project has existed for nearly five years, remaining completely off-the-radar while she logged time as a guitarist for Kevin Morby and in Mega Bog, among other projects. It finally moved to the fore when she had several months off from touring to dedicate to writing and recording.
In these earliest stages, Duffy didn't know what direction the music might take — “I didn't have a concise idea of what I wanted,” she said — but songs like “Flower Glass” and “Book on How to Change” gradually revealed a way forward.
“Those songs felt organic to me; I wasn't afraid of how simple they were,” Duffy said. “When I would work with other people — all men, which I think is important — they always wanted to make everything more complicated than it had to be musically. Structurally, a lot of my songs are meditative, in a way, where I don't like if something sticks out or if something happens out of the blue. It startles me. I like to be comfortable.”
Growing up in Amsterdam, New York, this kind comfort was often lacking in Duffy's home life. “My upbringing was pretty chaotic and not consistent,” she said. At age 12, she moved in with an aunt and started dabbling on piano and drums. Finally, at 17, Duffy, now 26, discovered the guitar, which offered her a sense of escape during high school.
“I wasn't into drinking and I wasn't into boys, but I was into guitar, so I could leave the lunch room and go play,” she said.
At the time, Duffy modeled her approach on the likes of Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, enamored with his control of dynamic and seemingly supernatural ability to draw ungodly sounds from his instrument. For years, she insisted she would never write songs or sing, instead hewing to jazz and blues instrumentals or operating as a side player in other projects.
“I just wanted to solo,” she said, and laughed, perhaps struck by how far removed this mindset falls from her debut as Hand Habits. “But eventually I was like, ‘I have things to say and emotions that want to come out, too.'”