Megan Washington wants to show me something.
The singer-songwriter is pacing up and down in a friend’s backyard, on her phone, the two of us linked by a shaky Zoom connection. Behind her, I can see a grainy blue sky; a trampoline. And then, when she bends down, a small dog, peering over a fence.
“Can you see this?” Washington asks. “This is the neighbour’s puppy.”
It’s just a blur, but it looks like a Labrador-shaped blur. I ask her if that’s what it is. She either doesn’t hear me, or chooses not to answer. She just keeps talking to the dog.
“Hello,” she says, in her most calming voice. “Hello.” The tail part of the Labrador-shaped blur appears to be wagging.
This is how the rest of our conversation goes, Washington and I. We are ostensibly talking to promote her new album, Batflowers, her first in six years. Ahead of the interview, I prepare questions about her involvement with climate activism — she recently remixed a speech by Greta Thunberg — her love for RuPaul’s Drag Race — she hosts her own podcast about the show — the album she recorded and then scrapped last year; where Batflowers came from.
But over the course of an almost hour-long conversation, I ask just over seven questions. Washington is always respectful, but her answers only trade in specifics for the first 20 minutes or so, when we are laying out how the album came together. Soon — much sooner than I expect — we have left behind practical concerns about what it means to be a musician, or what Washington’s career looks like. Suddenly we are in ephemera, talking about Play School, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Scott Morrison, theorist Joseph Campbell, the muse, often all in the same breath.
“Sorry,” she says at one point. “I’ve kind of rambled myself onto some planet where I am now.”
Her thoughts move incredibly fast, and connections between disparate topics appear in frequently surprising ways. Deep into the conversation, she tells me that she has coined a phrase for her worldview — it’s called Bothism, a school of thought that involves accepting two disparate things can be true at the same time; both this and this. “We need both,” she says, eyes flashing. “In everything. It’s just both.”
Strangely enough, it is Bothism that explains much of what happens throughout our conversation; how these wildly distinct concepts can be linked and connected. A warm-up question about how lockdown has been for her results in a winding answer that moves across continents, taking in the apocalypse, epiphanies, and the allure of the creative urge. All these things make sense because, in Washington’s mind, they are the same thing — everything is encompassed, everything is complicit.
“Everyone’s religions, and all the stuff that they’re fighting about, it’s all the same thing. It’s all just the universe. It’s God.”
“We’re all just people,” Washington says. “We’re all just the same. It’s really the same. Everybody matters. Everyone’s religions, and all the stuff that they’re fighting about, it’s all the same thing. It’s all just the universe. It’s God.”
Being introduced to such a worldview during a promo interview — interviews which are, for the most part, usually predictable above all else — is surprising; maybe even a little shocking. Adding to that sense is the sheer emotional force of the conversation: at several points, Washington cries. Our conversation only ends because she notices that her phone is running out of battery — her final farewell to me is cut in half, her screen blinking out. When, late in the chat, she suddenly asks me what my favourite song on the album is, I feel so breathless and overloaded that I barely even answer.
Which is, to be honest, rather what listening to Batflowers is like. The record, the followup to 2014’s There There, is Washington’s giddiest yet, swapping between barbed pop choruses and over-saturated, quasi-dance punk odes to dedication and connection. On the title track, she sings about hair-cuts and falling in love with everyone at a party in the same breath. ‘Dark Parts’, three precise minutes of buzzy trauma, lays you flat even on the tenth listen, seemingly inexhaustible. It is a breathless album, like the entirety of Washington’s career condensed into one multi-coloured burst; a magnum opus, torn from somewhere very precious and important.
So perhaps it is fitting that my reaction to both the album and my conversation with Washington is the same — a kind of breathless, satisfied confusion; a sense I have glimpsed at a structure bigger and more complicated than I could ever imagine. In both cases, the only thing to do is to sit back, and let it all happen.
Fits, Bursts, And Rabitts
Appropriately, Batflowers was made in a flurry, a burst of surprising energy after a long time Washington spent pursuing other creative outlets. “I’ve been trying to finish a record for [a year],” Washington says.
“But I always kept feeling unsatisfied with what I had. So I had just been exploring other avenues. I’ve been writing TV scores, and musicals, and doing podcasts, and whatever.” She shrugs. “Stuff.”
Plans for an album only began to form after Washington travelled to LA to take part in a “film composer thing”, an opportunity to work on her skills writing scores. Just for fun, looking for a way to spend the time, the musician snuck in a quick session with an old creative partner, Rabitt, who lives in the city.
“It didn’t mean anything,” Washington says. “We had this really cool piano there I was playing on. But the lyric felt really slippery and evasive. So I just took it home and worked on it by myself.”
If things had gone differently, that scrap of music might have languished forever, consigned to the same fate as the album Washington scrapped last year. But instead, in February 2020, Washington found herself in LA once again, this time on her way to the Berlinale. “Our flight was delayed,” she says. “So I had 12 hours in LA.”
One phone call later, she was back at Rabitt’s house, finally nailing the vocal line that had previously eluded her. And she liked it. For the first time in a while, music had clicked into place for her — a hard-won success, but a success never the less, the song wrenched from the mouths of multiple defeats.
And then the world went into lockdown. And that sealed the deal.
Others might have despaired, but Washington felt oddly uplifted by the pandemic. Or, if not uplifted, then clarified. “I was feeling so good about music, and so positive,” she says. “And so I was like, ‘Hypothetically, if I did want to finish this album, and it was the end of the world, and everyone was in lockdown — hypothetically, of course — who would I want to work with?'”
The answer came to her easily — John Congleton. The acclaimed producer, known for his collaborations with St. Vincent, Bill Callahan, Amanda Palmer and more, had long been a friend of Washington’s, though the pair had never worked together before. But he was the one she wanted, and she was willing to even deal with the stresses of long-distance collaboration to get him involved.
“Because he is in LA, there’s just a lot of decision-making when you are on your own,” she says. “I had this mental breakdown, because I was recording vocals for John and I was creating this structure in Logic so that he could toggle all the vibes of all the different vocal takes on and off.”
“I had this mental breakdown.”
Soon, that structure became so exhausting that Washington could no longer keep up with maintaining it. Desperate, she called a musician friend in London, asking for advice. The response was simple: don’t toggle different takes. Don’t give the option of all these different vibes. Just choose your own takes. Do it how you want to do it.
“I think I want to sing it hectic,” Washington told the friend.
“So sing it hectic,” the friend replied.
“It was me breaking through this mental wall,” Washington says now. “This idea I had, like, I need other people to check my work, and make sure it’s not bad. Instead, the feeling that I have with this record is that it was a truly collaborative experience, but I had a lot of space, to do just do whatever I like. Which is what I like.”
With that hurdle overcome, the process of writing and recording Batflowers was seamless. “From the concept to the execution, it was the quickest album I’ve ever written,” she says.
Even quicker still was the time from the record’s completion to its release. When we talk, the album isn’t even properly settled. “I literally just finished it two seconds ago,” Washington says, smiling. “I’m still writing the thank yous.”
Concept And Creation
The result, Washington says, is the first record that she has ever made “with her eyes on.” Over the last few years, when she was feeling fatigued by music, the performer began experimenting in animation — it’s her excitingly chaotic work that scrawls itself over the screen in the music video for ‘Dark Parts’ — and that experimentation greatly informed Batflowers.
“Animating forced me to think about the imagery I wanted to create, because I was the literal creator. This is the record where I realised how it looks and how it sounds is the album’s concept. And once you have a concept, then it’s a full creation.”
Washington was also inspired by another side hustle: her podcast, and its associated hours spent in the world of RuPaul. The singer says that she watches Drag Race “religiously”, and that it has informed not only her music, but the way that she carries herself; how she thinks about the world.
“Ru’s philosophy is about finding the things that you think are bad about yourself and fully inverting them and turning them into your brand. It is incredibly liberating. That really helped me frame my musical perspective in a philosophical way. At the core of it, I think I needed to be telling the truth. So all my favourite stuff is in this music. I feel like what I am presenting is very true to myself, and very real.”
“The music’s so deeply personally about me, that it’s actually about everyone,” she says.
Indeed, Washington has found that hyperspecific, very personal truth-telling eventually went all the way back around and became universal. The things that she once felt were most unique to her, she has since discovered are shared by so many people. For Washington’s own friends, the work seems painfully personal — so much so, it has shocked some of them. But she doesn’t mind whether her audience knows that autobiographical context or not. They don’t have to. Because learning the context won’t change what the listener feels in themselves, and that’s what matters most to Washington.
“The music’s so deeply personally about me, that it’s actually about everyone,” she says.
Of course, we need that kind of connection more than ever now, at a time when we are trapped in our houses and deprived of human contact. And Washington knows that. As she sees it, it is her role to provide a little comfort, in the midst of a deeply discomfited time.
“The world’s has a pretty easy time for the last 100 years, globally speaking, generally speaking,” she says. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a global event like this. And the role of artists expands and shrinks based on what is needed of us. That’s what we do. In this time, despite the way that our government treats us, artists are super important, because people have a lot to grieve.”
There is an uncharacteristic pause. Washington’s voice wells up; breaks. She begins to cry.
“I’m sorry, I’m really emotional about it,” she says, wiping at her face. “I don’t know why I’m crying. Because I’m actually really happy about it. I have just really felt that need to put out music that was just fun. I just wanted this album to be a place to rest the eyes and ears for a time. Some relief. Nietzsche says we have art not to die of the truth.”
Of course, Washington understands that she is also part of a business, a machine composed of people looking to make the bottom line. And she is critical of the model that drives us all to consider ourselves as reducible to our earning potential — later in the interview, she calls capitalism a “Ponzi scheme” that “can’t exist”. But she is working on navigating those two sides of the industry with a fresh sense of perspective and drive.
“I’ve felt so torn seeing advertisements; the idea of advertising my record during this time. But the way that I’m trying to think about it, and the way that I genuinely mean it, is that I would like this record to be an invitation,” she says, drying her tears. “We need art and song and theatre to remind us that good can prevail, or whatever we need to believe to get us back to the true times, which was when everything was good. And we’re supposed to feel good on the planet.”
Art Vs. Horror
The last time Washington spoke to Music Junkee, she was also thinking about the good art can do in the face of insurmountable horror. “I remember the last interview: I said, ‘I don’t know what the fuck there is to talk about because it feels like the end of the world.’ That was just because I was so alarmed and concerned about climate change, and the fires. It just felt like everything was in jeopardy. And then this happened.”
Washington sweeps her arm around the backyard, “this” meaning everything — the pandemic, the response from the Liberal government, the feeling of fear. “But I can’t do anything else. I don’t have any other skills.”
And anyway, the music is transformative for Washington personally. Batflowers is about helping others, and helping herself — Bothism at play once more. “This record is just for whoever needs it. And if nobody needs it, that’s fine, because fuck I needed it.” Her hands come up to her face quickly — she is crying once more, maybe even sobbing this time. “I didn’t know what to do. I’ve got a little baby. I’ve just been thinking about all my friends, and everybody I love, and thinking, ‘How can I reach them?'”
“This record is just for whoever needs it. And if nobody needs it, that’s fine, because fuck I needed it.”
She takes a moment. When she speaks again, it is in a voice that is firm and direct. “It’s a really important time in history. And there’s a lot of artists who have spent a long time in our country being made to feel shit for existing. And made to feel they had to justify themselves. And listen, I needed to break free of that mentality for myself. And if I can be an example — not how I did it, just that I did it — then I’d like to share that.”
We are running out of time. We had an allotted 40 minutes to chat, and we have already gone way over. But we are ending near where we began — with a discussion of Bothism, how all things can be not just connected, but the same.
“Billie Eilish looks like an angel, but she sings like a devil,” Washington says. “It’s both. Michael Jackson was both. Prince was purple — it’s literally pink and blue together. He was both.” She brushes a hair away from her face. “I just feel like that’s the tea. That’s the tea from me. It –” And then she is gone, her phone conked out, the Zoom calling freezing on a still image of her face, a slight smile growing in the corner of her lips.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephoEarp.
Washington’s new album Batflowers is out August 28 via Island Records Australia.