The joke, says Megan Washington, is that her new record ‘Batflowers’ took so long to make that “the label could only afford to print it in black and white”.
A phantom album exists, you see. The one Washington made in the years before ‘Batflowers’ – once called ‘Sugardoom’; later called ‘Achilles Heart’ – which went as far as a vinyl test pressing and was “beautiful and assured and confident… but just not stupid enough,” she says. As if that makes sense.
Which, at first pass, it doesn’t. She’s a pop artist now but Washington is a trained jazz singer, has won and been nominated for several ARIAs and has presented her songs with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO). In July, she sang the finale of a special episode of ABC television show, Q+A, featuring an interview with ex-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Yet, a “stupid” record trumped a beautiful one?
Turns out stupid means fun. And fun means laughter, joy and spontaneity – sources of inspiration Washington has learnt can leak from her artistry if she tries too hard. In 2020, though, she saw the light, and it’s bright in her voice, her laugh and everything she says.
“There’s this idea of professionalism and perfection that I just don’t believe in anymore,” she tells NME from her home in Brisbane. Just back from pilates, she pauses to toss a tube of sunscreen off the balcony to her husband, filmmaker Nick Waterman, outside. With Melbourne in lockdown and Sydney’s coronavirus caseload ticking like a time bomb, life in east coast Australian cities has never looked so different.
“I’ve been working on the record since 2015, I was trying so hard,” says Washington. “That was the problem, actually. I was trying to be, like, fancy or something? What I’ve learned the literal hard way is when I try too hard, it sucks.”
There was no single eye-opening moment. Instead there were many; the way Washington relates these stories, you can tell she’s incredulous it took her so long to understand, but giddy with relief that she did. A chat with her manager began to wake her up. “We had a drink about 18 months ago, and Cathy said ‘You’re kind of kooky and fun, but you don’t get that impression from your music’, and I was like, ‘Really? Why?’ and she was like, ‘Because you’re really serious in your songs.’ So I thought what if I stopped trying to do that? What if I just be myself? What happens then?”
Songs like ‘Dark Parts’ happen – a wonky pop number in 7/4 timing that is ‘Batflowers’’ first single for a reason. “I thought if I lead with the crazy song at least people know what they’re in for. It’s a bit like playing 500; if you have the joker, play it first.”
Other songs took several shapes over the six years since her last album, ‘There There’. Spare piano ballad ‘Catherine Wheel’ was recorded with the SSO, yet the version on ‘Batflowers’ is Washington singing it in full for the first time. “It would’ve been too much with the orchestra,” she explains. “It can’t wear clothes. It has to be, like, naked.”
“What I’ve learned the literal hard way is when I try too hard, it sucks”
The theme repeats. The vocals of ‘Kiss Me Like We’re Gonna Die’ were recorded with producing team Alex and Alex (aka Alex Evert and Alex Tierheimer) at 2am in their Los Angeles loft apartment. “We rang [co-writer] Sam Fischer’s now-wife Erin, and said, ‘Come do BVs, it’s an emergency!’ and she came in her Ugg boots and sang, and the fucking roof came off the building,” says Washington. “And then I went and recorded the song two more times when there was nothing wrong with the first one.”
All signs pointed to spontaneity – and yet she continued to second-guess herself. When filmmaker Warwick Thornton asked Washington to soundtrack his documentary The Beach, she sent him “iPhone shit”, excited by the project. Later, in a studio, she spent two months scoring the doco – only to have him tell her he liked the previous stuff better. “The overly labored, precise, professional solution did not spark joy in my collaborators so I put it in the bin!”
In February, after recording the vocals to title track ‘Batflowers’ in an unexpected layover in LA, she returned to Brisbane and “the world ended”. But the penny had also dropped for Washington: “I had this new energy and this new take on how to approach my work and I was like, ‘I can keep going or I can give up’. So I kept going.”
“Give it all up, hand it over, tell the deepest version of the truth in all of the capacities you can”
That energy sustained her through lockdown. Which is lucky, because in lockdown no-one can hear you scream – or sing. On Minjerribah (North Stradbroke island) she ran herself ragged tracking vocals for producer John Congleton. “In the studio you can say to your producer, ‘Should I do an intense vibe or a chill vibe?’” She decided to give Congleton a smorgasbord of vibes, until a chat with producer Sam Dixon set her straight: Just decide yourself, he told her. “I was like, ‘Ohhhh, like Kanye?’ Normally a producer holds your hand, gives you someone to bounce off. But on your own, you just vibe it out.”
That sense of being the boss took root. For ‘Batflowers’, Washington ultimately handled the art direction and photography, and hand-picked its medley of producers (Congleton, Dixon, Konstantin Kersting, Japanese Wallpaper and Dave Hammer). She also did the animation for the ‘Dark Parts’ video – “I didn’t want it to be some hectic, computer-generated, corporate-looking thing” – which required around 5,000 hand-drawn frames.
And unlike most musicians, she can ably describe her own songs, too. “‘Batflowers’ doesn’t have a genre,” she says. “‘Catherine Wheel’ is a showtune straight out of, like, 1946; ‘Kiss Me Like We’re Gonna Die’ is a torch song from the ’60s; ‘Switches’ sounds like Sade; ‘Lazarus Drug’ is a space odyssey… I mean, the whole thing’s got cartoon flowers all over it. I don’t know, I don’t care! Fuck it!”
Taking charge of the record’s creative direction helped her to conceive ‘Batflowers’’ visual identity, and her own, something she’d never done. “I’ve never really had any relationship to how I look. Album to album I’ve had designers I like wearing, but I don’t have ‘a thing’, you know?” she says. “They tried to make my ‘thing’ my glasses at the beginning of my career and I was like, fuck no, it’s a trap.”
With help from artist Adam Dal Pozzo, Washington created artworks for each song in a style she describes as “if Betty Boop smoked weed”. The pieces are bound in a gorgeous booklet for the album’s physical editions, the lyrics printed in a wickedly fun array of fonts infesting a central image akin to someone’s busy brain turned inside out. “A lot of people would say [the art] is over-delivering, but I would call it the bare minimum,” she says.
This is a woman who replies “1,000 per cent” if she agrees with you – a percentage that is only natural for Megan Washington. “I think a lot about people who make music to give and people who make music to take,” she says. “I mean shit, give it all up, hand it over, tell the deepest version of the truth in all of the capacities you can – in your lyrics, in your vocal performance, in the imagery that goes along with the record.”
She recruited singers Elana Stone, Ngaiire and Mahalia Barnes to sing harmonies on Q+A to share the limelight, she says. “This is not a time for people to be keeping opportunities for themselves, this is a time for sharing and sharing and sharing. The last time the world needed art this much was the war, right? Whatever war you think of, it was that war. This is a time when it’s my job to give as much fun stuff to the zeitgeist as I can. Because fuck reality, Jesus! Have you seen it lately?”
Reality ain’t too bad in Brisbane, though. Washington is launching the record over three nights at The Tivoli as part of Brisbane Festival and it’s billed as “one hell of a party”. Only 250 people can come each night, but that suits her fine. “I grew up singing jazz in clubs. Once you start to move into 1,200-capacity rooms… you can’t hear the heckling, you can’t play with people.”
“I have to relearn the same lesson over and over: trust yourself and do it from a place of love and confidence, not from a place of fear”
Speaking of people, she name-drops them constantly – not to impress, but because so many were involved. “The record has been passed through the committee of all the people whose opinions I trust,” says Washington, which is new for her. “I’m a Capricorn so I don’t say anything until the whole thing is finished, otherwise I start to think what people might think. I want the option at any time to just fully give up!” she laughs.
Later in our chat, Washington cries a little, too. For a long while there she’d lost a dear friend: songwriting. “I was just so separated from it, music was so far away. But every time I come back to it and get it right, I know it’s right because it’s easy and it connects and it feels like remembering something I always knew.
“And I always fucking do know it, that’s the thing. I have to relearn the same lesson over and over: trust yourself and do it from a place of love and confidence, not from a place of fear. As Joseph Campbell says: ‘The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek’.”
Washington’s ‘Batflowers’ is out now