WLUW sits down with Meg Duffy of Hand Habits

Posted By: Jamie McMillin

Hand Habits is the solo project of noted guitarist and session musician Meg Duffy, who started releasing music under the name back in 2012 with the short pinky demos. Between then and the release of the Hand Habit’s newest full-length, Duffy has done a significant amount of session work for the likes of Weyes Blood and the War on Drugs, been a touring member of multiple bands including that of Kevin Morby, and released their debut full-length Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void). Now Hand Habits presents listeners with placeholder, a record which has been lauded as their most focused and emotionally bare. On April 5th I had the opportunity to go to The Hideout to catch the second of two sold out shows supporting the new record. Before the gig I had time to chat with Duffy about placeholder, identity, relationships, and more.

Duffy has discussed identity at great length in their lyrics and online. They’re focused on how changeable and fluid identity can be. “I think that is what’s so wonderful about being alive right now. You can really be anyone you want. Just look at gender. There are so many levels of masculinity and femininity and different levels of being neither of those, and it doesn’t ever have to stay the same.”  Meg opened up about some of their own experiences with this kind of fluidity. “It’s been that way for me too. Recently somebody showed me a photo of myself, like ‘Hey look it’s you from like five years ago,’ and it was so weird. Things are always changing like that. For example, I wouldn’t say I necessarily want to pass as he/him right now but who knows, maybe one day I will want to.” While they expressed gratitude that it is becoming safer to be openly queer or gender non-conforming, Duffy also explained how this is still a work in progress. “I didn’t have anybody like me to look up to when I was growing up, and everyone at all the shows I went to were just fucking dudes. If somebody was queer you just had to guess or assume. Even five years ago we didn’t have the level of visibility we see today.” Duffy now finds themself in a very different situation, up on the stage with eyes on them and a much more diverse audience.  “It’s kind of odd to think that people are looking up to me. I didn’t see myself as a role model until recently. We got to open up for Angel [Olsen] in Denver and this fan drove down all the way from Salt Lake City. I was at the merch table after the set and they told me how much my music meant to them and that they told their partner they loved them to my music and that made me cry.” I asked Duffy what it feels like to have fans react to their music so strongly. “It’s kind of scary to be seen as a role model. I hope I’m a good one!”

Duffy is aware of the role of others’ perceptions when it comes to shaping an identity. After years of being a session musician and member of others’ bands (namely that of Kevin Morby), Hand Habits has proven Duffy’s skills as not only a guitarist but also as a distinctive and open songwriter. “So much of my identity used to be wrapped up in playing guitar. I never thought I would be singing and writing music for my own band.” Perhaps part of what makes identity so changing, at least in Duffy’s case, is the perception of others. When I asked Duffy if they saw identity as something that exists inside a person, they vigorously shook their head no. “Not at all. Like I said, it can change so much.” Duffy knows that one’s public narrative isn’t always in their control, especially when it can be easier for a writer to boil things down to just one aspect. “Even back when I was more comfortable identifying as she/her, I didn’t like being called a ‘female songwriter,’ it just put me off that it had to be about that. That wasn’t what it was about for me. It’s especially weird when people focus so much on ability in conjunction with gender. I guess it doesn’t bother me as much now that I’m being focused on as a queer songwriter. I can understand that more, because the conversation today is focused more on visibility. I also touched on it in my press release for the album.” This disconnect between projection and perception can also crop up in lyrical content. Some publications have characterized placeholder as betraying a sense of anxiety while others describe it as calming. Duffy agrees more with the latter. “It’s funny because I see myself as a very calm person. I mean, I feel anxious sometimes but it’s not a problem I regularly deal with. I write about some anxious experiences that I’ve had on the new album, but I don’t see it as something that defines me. Really, if I get stressed I can just eat a lot and it will go away.” Duffy’s lyrics tend to be very personal, as they are essentially all based on real experiences. I asked them if it’s scary to share that on record or up on stage. “Everybody keeps asking me that. I mean, I do feel like the lyrical content of the music is very personal to me. They’re based on my experiences and my thoughts and observations, but going into it you know that people are going to have their own interpretations and take away their own meaning. Even if a song grows its own legs in that way, they’re still my songs. I know what they mean. Sometimes though it can feel kind of odd to sing about your dead mom on stage.” Here Duffy is referring to their song “the book on how to change part II,” which they noted as one of their favorite songs to play live. “I like playing it because it’s one of the hardest songs to play live, emotionally, and it’s one of the few songs that’s not just about a romantic relationship I’ve had.”

Relationships, romantic and other, is something Hand Habits focuses on quite a bit. Some of the ones detailed in placeholder feel messy and passionate, so I asked Duffy about the way relationships are shaped in their life. “For me it’s hard to draw boundaries in a relationship. I mean, what isn’t a relationship? For me I really just dive straight into the deep end so it can be hard for me to draw boundaries. What it really comes down to is trust. You really can just blindly trust somebody when you meet them and, not to return to this word again, it leads to a lot of vulnerability, which can be really good or sometimes not so good.” I asked if they thought blind trust led to a richer relationship. “Yeah, or just a really chaotic one. In a relationship like that there’s a point when you realize you’ve made such a mess and now you have to unpack all of this stuff. Then you have to say things like ‘I can’t be this for you,’ or ‘I think I’m becoming this for you and I don’t think I want to be.’ It can be confusing and painful but sometimes I don’t really know how else to go about things.”

Make sure to check out Hand Habit’s stunning new album placeholder (Out via Saddle Creek Records) everywhere music is streaming.

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