Time is a funny thing. Proclamation that one has been “doing something for a long time,” usually leads to an implication of much accrued experience, and therefore, a state of higher aptness. In some ways though, even if a large quantity of days, months and years goes by, even those who have been around the block can find themselves venturing into a new trials and the less familiar so suddenly, the badge of time becomes more of just a number.
Creatives and musicians can encounter this crossroad often; learning and mastering one set of skills and then finding themselves “set back,” once they diverge to tackle something else. Yet it’s a necessary challenge for the sake of avoiding stagnation and the necessity of it all is a worthwhile factor to remember within the music industry as a whole –as a way to bring artists closer together rather than drive them further apart.
New York City based singer-songwriter, Megan Talay (pronounced like “tally”), takes this mindset to heart. The process of learning, perfecting, starting over and integrating practically define her story as an artist. Despite only recently releasing debut EP, “Piece by Piece,” Talay has already come to face decisions of change –even during the time spent working on the EP’s material, which was thoughtfully shared with industry peers during Talay’s showcase at this year’s CMJ Music Marathon. We had ourselves a casual chat about her EP, girls that make music, changing genre vectors and a handful of other “get to know you” topics. Rest assured, it shouldn’t take long for the gears of perspective to start shifting about what it means when someone says they’re a singer-songwriter.
This conversation has been abridged for clarity.
Kira: How are you doing this morning?
Megan Talay: I’m great, thanks Kira.
Kira: I suppose we started talking about this before going “on the record” but why don’t you give the world who doesn’t know you, what you’d consider your “elevator pitch?”
Megan: All right! So, if you don’t know me, I’m a singer-songwriter, guitar player [and] just put out my first record, as you mentioned. It’s called “Piece by Piece” –Five songs [on it.] That was kind of a long process. You know, like, “Here’s my first thing.” There are songs that I wrote while I was in college; I graduated from the University of Miami around 2014. And yeah, I’ve just been doing a lot of different things since I graduated: playing with a lot of different groups and having some awesome musical experiences. A lot of my own stuff – obviously that’s my focus – playing [venues like] Rockwood and Bowery Electric. Playing more rock music with a trio and going from kind of, “folky, singer-songwriter land,” to “shredding guitar player land.” It’s been a fun journey from one to the other. Now I’m recording new music and, that’s what I’m up to. That’s me.
Kira: That is definitely a packed nutshell.
Megan: Was it? – laughs – It’s kind of like I was telling you before. I just have all the millions of things that I’m working on at the time and that feels like me at the moment, you know?
Kira: Hey, better to be busy than bored!
Megan: That’s what I’m saying. How do you get bored with all the music you’d be playing?
Kira: Yeah, I’m always, like every week, buying new music. It’s like you never run out.
Megan: Yeah, I just got two CDs that I haven’t been able to get, at Rough Trade the other night.
Kira: Rough Trade’s great. I love that place. What did you pick up?
Megan: So, I got Courtney Barnett’s “Sometime I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit” and “St. Vincent.” I wanted physical copies since I drive my car a lot. But I had already Spotify-ed Courtney’s record and I already bought “St. Vincent” on iTunes so I had just kind of double bought both of them –which is fine because they’re like my heroes.
Kira: Nice! Well, let’s talk a little more about you and about all these different songs and styles you’re working on. When I was listening to “Piece by Piece,” it’s definitely – as opposed to maybe, what you’ve been doing now in recent weeks, months – more folky and a little bit lighter, as far as the sound goes. What would be the pivotal moment or event that made you want to take on more of an edge and more of a rock vibe?
Megan: On the one hand, I can’t really say there’s a pivotal moment because it’s really just been…a lot of the songs on this EP were songs that I wrote years ago and so naturally there’s going to be a lot of evolution. Like, “Forever in My Hand” is the oldest song on the EP. I think I wrote it…I must have been 19. I was at an internship during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Wrote it at my desk, was super into Bright Eyes. Do you know Bright Eyes?
Kira: Ah yes! I love Bright Eyes! I just bought some back catalog Bright Eyes records a couple of weeks ago.
Megan: I mean, Bright Eyes for sure, had a popular moment when I was in high school I guess, or middle school. So [Conor Oberst] was giant for me. I just remember like, writing this very stream of consciousness-type song and having his music kind of in the back of my head. You know, like, “I can do this. I don’t need a chorus, whatever, let’s just write words!” But yeah, so like I said, [“Forever in My Hand”] was an old song so I feel like there’s a natural progression in terms of changing from more singer-songwriter-y to more rock or more pop. So, I wouldn’t necessarily pin point a pivotal moment but, it just so happens that when I graduated and came back to New York – about a year, year and a half ago – there were a couple of pivotal moments.
It’s just funny because, one of the other bands that I play with is a band called Guns N’ Hoses. It’s a New York based, all chick, Guns ‘N Roses cover band. So, I was in school for four years, having to be this self-sufficient singer-songwriter and naturally, you play mostly acoustic guitar but I didn’t even bring an acoustic guitar when I first went down to college. I played a lot of electric in high school and the guy who ran my singer-songwriter type program was like, “Yeah, you’re going to need an acoustic guitar” so I had my parents send me one. But, you become like, it’s all about the song and you play at a coffee shop and it’s not like, “Here’s my full band arrangement with and electric guitar solo.” You know what I mean? But then I came home and this opportunity to play with Guns N’ Hoses came up and I was just like, “Oh my God, this is incredible!” because, first of all, you normally see a guy on stage when it’s like, a full on rock band but this was all chicks so it was super exciting to see.
Then also, I was called upon to potentially sub on lead guitar for that band. So I learned “Welcome to the Jungle” and all Slash’s parts…I was like, “Holy crap! I love playing lead guitar! This is amazing!” [Incidentally] I ended up playing bass for the group, which is funny because it was my first time really playing bass, but that just happened to be in my brain as a pivotal moment in terms of like, “Let’s rock harder, why not?” This is the vibe that I feel is a little more exciting. Where I can do what I really love to do and [still] play guitar.
Kira: What I liked about that little anecdote is that this whole transition feels like a really organic experience. You actually met a certain group of people who play this different style and you kind of, naturally fell into it and I think that’s one of the best ways you can move into a change with music and with songwriting.
Megan: A lot of the time I feel like you have major artists and stuff, the pop culture zeitgeist or whatever you want to call it, in terms of what’s influencing you but a lot of the time I find that my most immediate influences are the people who I’m around. Like I would be taking classes with this amazing singer-songwriter and he’s this British guy who would just blow us all away, sitting in a classroom, just playing a song and so, I came home and wanted to write all this cool acoustic music. But then I got more into the New York music scene and people I’ve met through Guns N’ Hoses, people I’ve met on the Rockwood scene, friends of friends…people playing more rock oriented pop music…I wanted to write songs like that.
Kira: I think it’s great too when you get exposure to multiple circles of people. You had your crowds: Your professors and your peers in a college environment and then you just…not that you throw it away, but you have that approach in your back pocket and then you move into a bigger environment, like New York City.
Megan: Right. You kind of have to shake off music school to an extent, if you really go to music school, wherein you have to study theory and practice for a jury and stuff like that. You have to be like, “Argh, let’s just play rock music!”
Kira: You’re kind of right. I mean, music outside of music school is totally different and, not that it’s two different ways to do music but it’s two different perspectives. It’s kind of like reading a textbook about doing surgery and actually doing surgery.
“Let’s rock harder, why not?” This is the vibe that I feel is a little more exciting. Where I can do what I really love to do and [still] play guitar.
Megan: Yeah, but, you need to read the textbook to even feel prepared to go into surgery, obviously. – laughs – But I think that’s a really good analogy and I found when I came home that I didn’t expect to become a working musician, quote, un-quote and getting paying gigs. Like, I got a lot…I’ve been playing for different singer-songwriters, went down to Texas during South by Southwest to play alongside Heather LaRose and to do some gigs with her during this indie festival that ran alongside South by. I’ve been playing some, you know, corporate gigs for money and playing for other artists, playing on bass, once I kind of picked that up, and, I was super thankful to have a bachelor’s in music. Being able to say like, “Okay, I can listen to this song and understand the changes” and be able to be on the go a little bit more and just have the tracks on my way to rehearsal and be listening…figuring out what voicings are nice to play, to compliment this person who’s playing rhythm guitar…You know, things that I would not have–you need to read the textbook.
Kira: I so appreciate what you just said.
Megan: I mean, I’m still learning all the time, looking for like, the next inspiration to do something totally different. You know, I’m recording new music now and I happen to be working with my former guitar teacher. It’s kind of like a funny “full circle” thing. We’re tracking guitars and I have my guitar parts that I’ve written and then he’ll pick up a guitar and play all these voicings and added colors and stuff that I would not have thought of but I get to be in the room and play it also and track the parts that he’s writing. I made a joke the other day, it’s just like guitar lessons part two!
Kira: That must be really cool, for that sort of scenario. It’s kind of like with your parents. When you become an adult and your parents are still your parents but you’re a mature adult, as opposed to your parents needing to look after you.
Megan: Oh totally and everybody’s a teacher if you ask me. Anyone who I’m playing a gig for, if I’m learning their music, it’s like, “I don’t usually use that change. Cool, now I’m super inspired.” You know what I mean?
Kira: Yeah. You’re always moving and working toward accumulating more knowledge…you’ve got quite the list of experiences for sure and, not to get too overly “women in music” about anything but it’s pretty awesome that you just picked up the bass and decided, “Hey, I’m going to be in this band and have this be my thing now.”
“I was super thankful to have a bachelor’s in music.”
Megan: Well [Guns N’ Hoses] was like, huge for me. I’m a super big fan of Guns ‘N Roses to begin with so I was just like, “Oh my God!” It just takes me back to middle school when I would literally just sit on the bus and listen to “Sweet Child of Mine” over and over again on my green iPod Nano. And I really never thought I could play that stuff. The feminist issue is one that’s been bubbling in my mind because I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was, or maybe is, just to have more female presence in like, rock music.
You know, maybe if I say this on the record now I’ll actually have to follow through and do it. I’ve been talking for a while now about making a YouTube channel or something that’s [for] guitar tutorials done by myself [and] other friends of mine who are female guitar players. I have a lot friends who play guitar and are very good at it, who are chicks, but, it’s just not necessarily what you see all the time. Take any list of the “Top whatever” guitarists…I actually have a magazine on my desk right now that says, “20 Brilliant Guitarists.” I’d be really surprised if there was a female in here. I remember reading Rolling Stone, and there’s definitely some females in there. I remember seeing Joni Mitchell in there and such.
Kira: Ah, Joni Mitchell. Love her.
Megan: Yeah, me too. See, I dig that songwriting style and the folky thing. That was more of what I was onto during the writing and recording process for “Piece by Piece.” I was listening to Joni Mitchell like crazy.
Kira: I just had a crazy thought. What if you re-recorded, and rearranged “Piece by Piece” with a more edgy, rock style and just kind of, amp it up? I wonder what that would sound like?
Megan: Well it’s interesting because that’s kind of what I had been doing when I started gigging in New York, leading up to the release. For a number of reasons, there was this moment where my friend Paul – he plays bass for my band – would say, “Where’s your strat?” because he knew me in high school when I played more electric guitar and I mentioned that moment to him recently and just saying, “Man, that was just such a big thing for me!” and him saying, “I just, want to hear you better through the crappy sound at some of the venues. Just play the electric so I can hear you.”
But to me it was like this big moment of getting back on my electric and re-imagining the songs that way and just, re-imagining who I am and who I want to present as an artist. I never felt like a cliché. I wasn’t quite as self-aware when I was first writing songs. You know, when you first start, you’re not really able to step back from yourself and say, “Who is this artist and how does this person, brand, whatever, fit in to what else is going on?” You’re just like, “I’m a brilliant genius, and these songs come out of me and it’s magical!”
Kira: What would you say is the single core thing that defines, for you, what it means to be a working singer-songwriter?
Megan: As far as a core thing goes? Hard. Constant. Work. I don’t personally make money off of my original stuff. I didn’t expect to with my first EP. Obviously that’s the goal but I think it’s something that you have to love. If I could distill one more piece of advice a friend gave me, into a core factor, it’s, “Trust the process. Love the process.” That’s the point. Playing a show on a Tuesday night, in front of like 20 people, that’s amazing. You know, having a conversation with you and chatting about music and stuff, that’s amazing. It’s not the destination – if that’s not to cliché, because I think it’s worth saying – regardless of how much money you’re going to make on a gig or where it’s going to take you, it’s like, we’re all doing this because we love to play music. I love to be on a stage, I love to be up there with friends and rock out. I think that is what it means to be a working musician or to be a musician and try to make that your life.
Kira: Well, speaking of loving the music you play, you’ve been working on this new video, wherein you cover the popular Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Otherside.” What made you choose this song as one to cover? What about it spoke to you?
“[E]verybody’s a teacher if you ask me. Anyone who I’m playing a gig for, if I’m learning their music, it’s like, ‘I don’t usually use that change. Cool, now I’m super inspired.’.”
Megan: Actually, I had this idea a really long time ago because I was playing a lot of shows solo acoustic and they were shows where you kind of had to fill up, hours. So there was a lot of “Hey, let’s do a Katy Perry song acoustically! Let’s do a bunch of covers!” There was a lot of learning cover repertoire involved that I wasn’t used to but when I started playing those gigs at bars, it was kind of the thing to do. It’s also that I was just thinking of songs that people really dig and the trend of people re-imagining something on YouTube –giving a different take on something that’s not your own song and [exploring] how can you play around with a different style? For me that was always the easy thing to do. I was just playing this song in a practice room and it lends itself easily and there’s a part towards the end where I do like a flat picking, bluegrass solo because I learned that skill in college. I took a piece of my education, which is not exactly something I’ll whip out at Rockwood or the Bowery Electric but it was a cool thing and I did really like to do it and playing fast acoustic licks is fun. So it was a fun thing to throw together and I was thinking, “I have this EP that sounds pretty acoustic, pretty folky so let me kind of attach that style to song that people already know and dig.”
Kira: You kind of killed three birds with one stone in picking this song because you mashed together an original style with your style that people wouldn’t necessarily see coming together, somebody got to hear it sung by a different person and you basically got to have a justification for using a skill that you learned in a more formal environment. With that, I think we can say we’ve totally come full circle now!
Look forward to a holiday party show from Megan Talay and her band at Arlene’s Grocery! Show info and ticket link are below.
Talay Live at Arlene’s Grocery!
Friday December 11, 2015
Doors: 6:00 PM
Tickets are available HERE.
Find more on Megan Talay and her band through their official website and these social media platforms: