Upside Now

Upside Now

Musician Megan Wyler's career spans genres, continents and collaborators: from singing soprano on the Rodarte sisters' Woodshock soundtrack to lending her voice to filmmaker Christina Choe for the psychodrama Nancy. On the day of the launch of her new album, Upside Now, Megan talks with her friend and fellow musician, Anoushka Shankar, about finding the time for music-making amid the demands of motherhood, demystifying the creative process, and how boundaries can create freedom.
Published: 2021/07/06
Updated: 2021/07/09
Anoushka Shankar
Jenny Hueston

Anoushka Shankar: Hi, Megan!

Megan Wyler: Hi, Anoushka, my friend.

Hi, love. So, the music's amazing! The little bit that's available to hear so far is truly stunning. There are so many things I want to know—it was helpful to read some of the background that you sent me.

We've been friends for eight years now, and in all that time you've been active as an amazing musician, but I was curious to read about the background of this new music, and how you've found and unblocked your creativity.

I'm going to go straight to the question that everyone asks me— how did being a mum and having children affect your writing and recording process?

Oh, my god. Yeah. Being a mum! (laughs).

Previous to having children, as you know, your time is your own. Well, previously for me, creativity did not happen when I just said, "Okay, go." I couldn't flip a switch and make it happen. It was as and when the spirit moved me, which for me, I'm very much a night owl. So, at 4:00 in the afternoon I'd start coming alive, and by midnight, stuff would start flowing.

That's been tricky for me as a mum because by midnight, I'm on my face on the floor. It's like a muscle. You must learn how to be creative when you have the time to be creative.

I found that really challenging at first. Because it was like, "Wow, I've got two hours. Okay…". I was very stuck for a bit in that. And then I realised that I had a very precious understanding or approach to how I was supposed to be making my work, and that was not helping me.

So, I loosened up a bit and basically was forced to be less precious and just started saying, fuck it. Whatever comes, comes, and it doesn't have to be perfect. Then I just worked with what came. And it was so much better, actually—my work.

That's interesting.

So much less controlled and over-thought and over-shaped. It was just much more natural. So, I think that, yeah, it was a blessing for me, once I found my way back in.

It's almost like what I'm hearing you say is that you have to demystify what that inspiration is? And it's not so much waiting for it to fall from the sky in some magical way, as it is learning how to harness and channel it.

Yeah. Yeah.

I think that's really empowering.

Very much!

I found the same thing with the last couple of years of making music, but particularly the last project where I was working with other mums. It was very much like—we've got two hours. Or, we have an hour, but now someone has to leave in 20 minutes because something happened, and we'll pick it up again. It's just an incredibly soft and forgiving process that sounds like a limitation but weirdly ends up becoming a freedom. That's what I'm hearing from you, right?

Yeah. I'm good with boundaries, so I think that the nebulousness of, “I can do it whenever I want”, was a hindrance for me with my personality. What I thought was a freedom really wasn’t. Things would take so long to land because I had endless time to continue tweaking and shaping.

When the boundaries came in and were very clear in terms of how much time I had, it was like, well, I just had to get it done. Somehow, you just get it done. Like you were saying, you've got 20 minutes, three beautiful women in a room. You make that shit happen.

Did you also have to set yourself extraneous deadlines? Where I'm at right now, I feel like I've been saying that I'm going to work on a new album for a while, but I have to remember — children, pandemic, moving house! There are other reasons for delays, but it feels like I need the deadline to finish work.

I wonder where that transition was for you? I want to get to it in a minute, but I know you recently found a certain freedom with your creativity. Within that, did you also have to say like, this is an album, I'm making an album, I'm going to put it out in... Or was it more open-ended?

Well, initially, it was a bit more open-ended. My label is an indie label in the UK, called Nowever Records, and I’ve got an indie UK distributor, Absolute, so there was no pressure from either of them. Both are very supportive but not pushy.

Getting it done was very much an internal pressure. I asked Adem [Ilhan] if he would produce this album because he produced my first album and I loved working with him. Lucky for me he was very much on board for another. So, I was in London, two years ago I guess it was, for three months. And we just did a nosedive for four weeks, got the whole thing done, minus a few vocals.

We were scheduled to release it in March of 2020. That didn't happen, thanks to an unprecedented global pandemic [laughs]. We just pressed pause, along with the rest of the world. But amazingly, I think when it is coming out is exactly the right time.

How does it feel for you right now that you've got this album?

Oh, it's like rebirth!

You were touching earlier on the late-night recording process. And that reminds me of when music was, like, I want to say, my calling. And I feel like you've had so many callings in this last decade, as a partner and as a mother.

Where does music sit for you? What does it give you? And what does it do for you now that maybe isn't the same sort of central calling that it may have been before?

Well, it's interesting. I feel like it's similar to when you have your first child, and you feel like you can't love anything more than that child. And then another child is coming, and you're like, "Oh, shit, I’ll never love anything or anyone the way I love this first child”. And then the second baby arrives, and a beautiful thing happens— your heart just makes more room. It makes enough room to love them both, fiercely and equally. And that is magical and real.

But you do have to share the space. In a way, I feel like music is just part of that expanding and sharing of that love and space. It's still a centrifugal force for me, and always has been, but it’s not the only act in town, so to speak.

In the last eight years, I didn't release any of my own stuff because my priority was my son who had a lot of medical needs, and there were a lot of unknowns around that. There was a lot of stuff that was coming up, real-time, in relation to my son’s health. So, that was tricky in terms of my trajectory as an artist. It was my honour and my privilege to make him my priority, but I just couldn't plan anything.

I felt like I was very adrift as an artist, for a long time. Anytime I'd start something he'd have another surgery or another two surgeries. And so, I think the flame got dampened, to some extent, because I knew that I just didn't have the bandwidth. I was very lucky to do a lot of session singing during that time and I collaborated with amazing artists and people on their stuff and sung on a lot of films and shows and the like.

And that was also very interesting, creatively, just circling back to being less precious. It was amazing to do other people's work, to participate in other people's process, because I could come into it with all my creativity, all my love, all my experience, but not have the stress around giving birth to the final product.

It made me realise that you don't need that stress around perfecting it because it is what it is. There's a spontaneity to making something that you can decide to kill, or not. I think it was fruitful for me to do that session work, but I did start to get hungry to make my own stuff.

So, music is, as I said earlier, still very much a centrifugal energy for me, but it has to share space with my two kids and my son's special needs. And my husband recently had a lot of medical stuff happening as well. So, it's a balancing act, and yeah, it's just not the primary lover anymore (laughs).

“It's like a cocoon, but an amazing, vibrant, alive, all-encompassing world when you're just doing that. And your art is your everything. But I wouldn't trade being a mum and having all the richness and joy that it brings for the world." - Megan Wyler

Oh, that's beautiful. Got chills.

You mentioned earlier that you came to the piano more recently, and that it changed things a bit. And I wonder, what has it brought you? What does it change compositionally to be thinking at a piano instead of a guitar?

Well, there's so much more space for me vocally with the piano. I'm not a great guitar player either, but I've played it for so long. I hack my way through it. But with the piano, because my chords are very simple and rudimentary, and I don't have the technique to do a lot of filler [laughs], there's this real space that has opened up for me vocally.

Also, interestingly, I play in similar keys on the guitar, because that's what I'm used to singing in, and I know where my voice sounds good. But on the piano, I tried a bunch of new ranges for my voice. I tried a bunch of new stuff. It was great. I felt I wasn't regurgitating myself; I had a different playground.

That's amazing. I want to ask you about your voice. I've known you for a while, and the first time I heard your song, I was quite startled because it's such a high voice that you've got. You have a medium-high voice in your speaking voice, but it's not noticeably high. It's in normal range. And then, it's this really beautiful and unusual singing voice. It's clear and high and simple and truthful. Have you always had that incredible high range? Is it something that you’ve cultivated, or is it something you just have?

It's weird. That's so funny that you asked that because as a kid, I was big into theatre. And I always got cast in these alto, belty, power-singing roles. Then I got to New York, and I met this amazing guy called Jonathan Hart, who has a very esoteric singing vibe. And he was like, "Are you aware that you are in no way an alto? You're actually a soprano." I was like, "No, no, no, no, no, I'm an alto." He was like, "No, no, no, no, you're a soprano." It was so wild. I was like, "Oh. I am?" And he said, "Yeah. You’ve got to get in there, girl."

So, I started singing as a soprano, and the world opened up for me as a singer. I later started a Balkan Choir, and I was always taking the high voice. Very freeing.

How amazing? Isn't that funny that you could not know that about yourself for so long?

Yeah, it’s wild. I just never explored that part of my voice. So, that's a great question.

Well, it's very noticeable. It's very distinctively you. Can tell a Megan song a mile off, it feels.

What else would you want to tell us about your album and that I haven't asked you?

I think the process of making it, I want to give a little shout out to Adem [Ilhan] because this is the second album we've made together.

He is such an absolute creative force of nature. And he is one of the kindest, gentlest human beings you've ever come across and very, very, very respectful and mindful of everyone in the room, but certainly of everyone's creative process. And he in no way comes in and imposes what he thinks [a] song should sound like. I don't know how he works with other people, but our process together is such an organic unfolding of what each song is going to sound like.

We'd wake up in the morning, get up early, figure out which song we were going to do that day, and we would both just wander around the studio, picking up different instruments – and that's the other thing, he's a virtuosic everything. He plays drums, he plays cello, he plays stand-up bass, he plays piano, he plays guitar, he plays the vibraphones. He's just this incredible all-rounder in every way. He's got the most incredible voice.

He was such a wonderful guide because I always come at things like, “I'm an imposter, I'm a charlatan!” He's like, "Please stop that. You're in no way a charlatan, you're in no way an imposter. I wouldn't be here if that were the case because I love these songs. I love your voice. Now play that guitar part again." It was so amazing to be with that. Having been out of it for so long, he helped me find my mojo again.

And then what he did with the songs—he's such a powerful, musical human. I feel grateful to him because he helped shape it. You know how sometimes when you hear your song in your head, the way you want it to be, and then you go through the recording process and you're like, "Oh, no. That sounds nothing like what I wanted it to." And that's a real nightmare. I've had that happen a lot in the past. This was the first time that every song when we finished it came out and I was like, "This is exactly how I wanted it to sound." That was amazing.

And then, the guy who mixed my first album too, Mark Rankin, who is also just a crazy brilliant talent. He and Adem work so beautifully together. I feel like Mark worked his magic and effortlessly ramped it all up a notch.

And of course, Peter Raeburn, my husband, was first and foremost such a support and cheerleader and friend to me throughout the whole process. He, too, is a creative force of nature. He co-wrote and co-produced several of the songs. He played on so many things. He was an executive producer, tweaker, and consigliere in the background, and the foreground. He and Adem are old friends and work great together.

That triptych is a real dream team for me. All such mega-talents in their own right. I feel very blessed to have had that team to help me make this. I feel like it's my best and most honest expression of my inner musical self that I've done to date. And it feels great to be putting it out to the world and hopefully to some ears that will be interested in hearing it.

That's amazing. Thank you!

Thank you, sweet friend.

‘Upside Now’ will be released on 9 July 2021.

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