Why Washington Decided To Put Her New (And Completely Finished) Album On Ice

When Washington's therapist analysed her lyrics, she saw her old songs in a new light.

Megan Washington

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“I often feel like this, well, not an alien,” says Megan Washington, “but I’d understand if an alien landed and was like, ‘This is what humans do. They make the music’. That’s like me: everything I do is this process of me trying to figure out how to fuck everyone else is doing things.”

Our chat’s supposed to be 45 minutes long, but it ends up being about 70 minutes or so. Washington’s very easy to chat to. We often go off topic, as she’s as curious to hear my thoughts as I am hers, which isn’t exactly how interviews are supposed to work, but it’s a nice way to spend a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

Before she’s seated in a large lounge chair of a Redfern office, Washington beats me to the first question. She wants to know how I felt about S11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race now it’s over — we’re both re-cappers, with Washington hosting a podcast called The New RuMantics. Immediately, we’re off-topic for ten or so minutes — and for reference, she didn’t love S11, but is optimistic the UK season will breathe new life into the format.

We’re kind of able to go off-topic though, because originally, we were meeting to chat about an upcoming album, Washington’s fourth. But not anymore.

Last December, we were teased with ‘Claws’, a tender but pretty realistic love song, mixed with warm synths and luscious horns. Two more singles have followed, and an East Coast tour kicks off this week. But a few days before we meet I’m told the album, while finished, won’t arrive any time soon.

Via a message, Washington clarifies to say she isn’t scrapping it.  “I made a record, and I love it, but just after I finished it I kept writing; this time with a new spirit, some new inspiration and I’m really vibe-ing on what is coming through,” she wrote.

“I know what happens when you release a record, you spend a year singing the same 20 songs and you don’t get to write much so I’m just popping that record in the fridge for a minute. It’s not in the bin, it’s just in the fridge. I really want to give myself the space to follow the rabbit that I’m chasing at the moment. I feel like I’m onto something good.”

When we meet, Washington jokes that her label must be furious — not just with the delay, but with her inability to stick to one thing.

“It drives my label up the fucking wall, because they’re like, ‘Who are you? What do you do? Wait, we should have known.'”

For the past decade, with each LP, Washington has shifted in sound. Her 2010 debut I Believe You Liar was very of its indie-pop era, with a bit of musical theatre theatrics thrown in. Its follow-up, Insomnia, looked towards Phillip Glass and the gossamer-like quality of mainstream contemporary classical — while 2014’s There There is filled with guitar lines and synths pulled from ’80s pop.

“It drives my label up the fucking wall,” she tells me, “because they’re like, ‘Who are you? What do you do? Wait, we should have known.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I’m sorry’… And I have to kind of embrace that, because the alternative is to be constant. I’m just never satisfied.”

I ask if she knows anyone who is definitively creatively satisfied. We chat about people making one body of work — releasing the same song or film again and again, just slightly different. From the outside, it seems cohesive and assured — but not necessarily satisfying.

“I don’t know if anyone’s satisfied, but I do know that people like consistent. And I am not consistent.”

“Let’s Lemonade this shit.”

Before ‘Claws’, Washington hadn’t released music since stand-alone single ‘Saint Lo’ in 2016.

Those who went to her national tour with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2017 would’ve heard arrangements of unreleased material, but even the most excited fan couldn’t be too impatient. Given they were belted out while Washington was extremely pregnant, it’s not surprising there was a bit of a break between any of them seeing release.

Since ‘Claws’, two more singles have followed. There’s ‘American Spirit’, a hazy, moody ballad written shortly after Trump was elected, and ‘Dirty Churches’, a spacious, synth-y affair about a cold, potentially kind relationship. As a trio, the three promise a subtly complex album, where the showier melodies across her previous work are discarded in favour of deceptively clean pop.

Washington by Amelia Dowd

Washington, photo by Amelia Dowd.

It’s not surprising then, that the writing process for the new album was different: it centred around the sound of words much more than usual. Chatting to Zan Rowe for Double J’s Take 5 earlier in the week, she cited Kendrick Lamar’s ‘King Kunta’ as an inspiration as it made her realise how much feeling percussive lyrics can offer a song.

But, arguably more importantly, her perspective on her old songs changed, too.

“I worked this out with my fucking therapist,” she told me. “He was like, “Why are you the goddamn victim in all of your songs?”. ‘How To Tame Lions’ and all the songs from [I Believe You Liar], There, There, and Insomnia, are always me as this victim — the victim of the love. Always.”

“Like, [‘How To Tame Lions’ lyric] “So we just be happy tonight/And tomorrow will be like miserable, right?”…. It’s always me accepting the chaos of the love.”

It was anything but intentional. It wasn’t even something Washington had noticed before; her understanding of the songs was entirely different. Listening without lyrical analysis, you rarely hear submission, since, for starters, Washington’s voice is bloody strong.

‘Claws’ came about shortly after that therapist meeting: Washington told me she felt she had to write a love song as the ‘antagonist’. In a way, she found playing bad (aka saying “lets Lemonade this shit”) was an entryway to writing what she calls her first ‘capital L, capital S ‘Love Song”.

Once the other person wasn’t the antagonist and I was, I could actually write with a tenderness, because the darkness had to go somewhere.”

While Washington’s written plenty about love, the songs land like the title to ‘Dirty Churches’ — there’s always a gritty texture that betrays the relationship’s reality.

But ‘Claws’, even if a little fatalistic (“Show me your features and I’ll find all your flaws/There’s something I love/About these intimate wars”), is filled with a readiness to play the game as equal partners. I tell Washington it lands, of all things, much like the end of the Michel Gondry film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind; ready to accept fuck-ups and all.

“With villain-ing myself, ironically it was from that space that I could write love songs,” she says. “Once the other person wasn’t the antagonist and I was, I could actually write with a tenderness, because the darkness had to go somewhere.”

Oh, The Horror! The Horror!

Washington and I end up talking a lot about darkness, since things are pretty dark.

The week we meet to chat, an explosive report on our climate crisis predicted humanity will be “beyond saving” by 2050 — at the same time, our coalition government’s recent reelection ensures Australia will continue to stick its head in the sand.

Just the day prior to meeting, FEAT, a program for musicians to offset touring emissions by investing in solar farms, is launched by a group of Australian artists, including Washington — but it’s hard to be optimistic.

We kind of end up in one of those big spirals about the evils of the world, jumping between the environment, Twitter rotting our brains, ideological bubbles, fascism, and everything in-between. In the moment, it was venting, but to rehash it would be painful — at one point, Washington asked me how the hell I was going to write this up.

Ultimately, we landed on being very small and insignificant, and everything being dumb — “including music journalism, no offence”, though Washington isn’t saying she’s exempt, either.

“I just don’t know who to be,” she says. “I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what is happening to the fucking world that we live in.”

Which is not fine, but also fine. It all loops back to that idea of not worrying about being ‘constant’; of recognising that your oeuvre doesn’t really matter, and that it’s equally unlikely an album will solve the world or that constant niggling feeling of being unsatisfied, whatever that means.

“I always am just learning the same fucking lesson over and over again,” she says. “It’s spell-crushingly tedious. But it’s just, ‘What makes you different is the best thing about you. Stop trying to be like other people’. It’s so fucking boring, but it’s, I just keep forgetting it all the time.”

All this is to say Washington’s chasing a new rabbit, and we’re going to have to wait for a little while before we get the next album. But it feels important to chase it; well, kind of.

“What I do is so ridiculous,” Washington says. “It’s actually ridiculous. And some people can argue that music is the most important thing in the world, and I understand why people think that.”

“There was a time when I did,” she says, pausing. “And there are moments in my day where I still think that’s true.”

Washington is playing three shows this June: Friday 21 at Howler, Melbourne; Thursday 27 at The Foundry, Brisbane; and a sold-out show on 28 June at The Lansdowne, Sydney. 

Lead image by Amelia Dowd.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.