Out of the wilds of Idaho and Alaska, Megan McCormick has settled in Nashville. Her fiery debut, Honest Words, hits you from the opener, “Shiver”, a down-and-dirty song of obsession and addiction, and never lets up. McCormick packs quite a punch with her gorgeous and powerful voice (somewhere between Ann Wilson and Bonnie Raitt), a perfect fit with her masterful guitar licks.
At only 23, McCormick has created an impressive debut that surpasses the work of artists twice her age. From the blistering theatrics of “Pick Up The Phone,” the quiet contemplation of “Wasted” and the stripped-away and brutal honesty of the title track, this is an artist in complete control. Honest Words, produced by Dave O’Donnell, is set for release by Ryko on August 17.
[Megan was also kind enough to endure Country Music Pride’s 12 Questions with . . . segment near the end of our interview.]
We caught up with Megan by phone from Nashville.
Your album deals with such crushing emotional subjects as addiction, obsession, desire; how does someone so young deal with these themes with such insight and maturity?
I feel like a couple of things brought me to where I am on an emotional level. I definitely grew up fast. Every family certainly has their troubles, and I definitely came from that situation. I moved away when I was very young. I left for college when I was 16, so I’ve been living on my own and supporting myself for a bit longer than most 23-year-olds.
Maybe some of those are “road years.”
[Laughs]. Yeah, maybe so. I’ve been sort of a serial monogamist. I’ve always been in relationships since I was young, and really long relationships, back-to-back two- and three-year relationships. But I’m off that kick now, which I’m really happy about and I think that plays into the writing.
You left home for college with a fairly prestigious scholarship at East Tennessee State University. Was that a daunting move or a dream come true?
I’ve always pictured myself doing what I’m doing today, and not in a dreamy sort of way but almost like I’ve been planning this since I was very young. So when I was introduced to the music program at ETSU, it was right after I’d been getting into bluegrass. I’ve always tried to get better and I wanted to be around people who were playing the style I was interested in.
Was bluegrass an early influence for you?
Sort of in the middle. I started on electric guitar and was very into Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt. When I moved to Alaska [from Idaho] I met some folks (they’re still friends of mine) who are in a band called Bearfoot — they have a deal here in Nashville. I met those guys when I first moved up there and I felt so tortured because I couldn’t jump into their jam sessions — bluegrass is such a difficult style of music to play. I was immediately like, “I’ve got to figure this out.”
Growing up, what did you listen to?
My grandparents were into jazz and Western Swing. They’re in the Western Swing Hall of Fame, so I grew up around that classic sort of country and big band. My mom’s generation were more into rock ‘n’ roll, and that led me to bands like Steely Dan.
Funny you should mention them, because your song “Things Change” [co-written with Jamie Kenney] from the new album could almost be a Steely Dan song. It has that same light, jumpy melody but with darkly ironic lyrics (“The world looks better now with my feet on the ground/The world seems brighter now without you around”).
[Laughs]. That’s really funny. I think, maybe I wouldn’t have thought of that, but now I can definitely see that. I think it’s common for writers to be stumped when they’re happy — it can sometimes be the hardest time to be creative. Over the past year I’ve been developing more in that area, but it’s funny because songs like “Things Change” and this other song that I perform live alot and that’ll probably be on the next record, it’s such a happy sounding melody and feel, but . . .
You’ve said before, “There are alot more fragile people than there are emotionally healthy Buddhists.” Are the fragile people the ones you have in mind when you write?
In relationships you hear people say “You know, I’m just not where I need to be. I need to work on myself.” That’s good; I think it’s important for people to always be ambitious and growing. It’s a small part of the population that’s very secure and sound inside. So, it’s important to keep others in mind — you can’t be selfish when you write. I’m keeping in mind those people that are having hardships, letting them know they’re not the only ones feeling this way. I strive to make someone feel, “Wow, that song was written about me and my life,” but written in such a way that doesn’t include too many details, because you can exclude people if you get too specific.
There’s one song in particular, “Pick Up The Phone” [co-written with Tami Hinesh] on the new album that’s just devastatingly emotional and theatrical. It’s very epic.
I’m a fairly comedic and playful person, but that doesn’t always come across in my music. Things are emotional and heavy a lot of the time, and for this body of work that’s the case. “Pick Up The Phone” is a song that I think is hard to listen to and demanding of the listener. Either way, you want to evoke some sort of emotion in people.
It’s a very emotional album, and not all emotions are pleasant. But as the album’s title suggests, at least it’s straight from the heart. The title track is brutal in its honesty. Was that a difficult song to write or was it emotionally freeing?
People don’t often take [the narrator’s] position: [“I am a cheat, I am a liar, but I am not a lover.”] It’s usually “you left me, you did me wrong” but I think it’s important for people to take responsibility for their actions and to understand that people make mistakes. Even if you’ve been on the other side of a relationship and you’re not the cheater, you’re not the liar, it feels good for them to finally hear someone admit they made a mistake.
When I first started singing when I was young, about ten or eleven, I heard a recording of myself and then I quit singing. For three years. I said, “That doesn’t sound like a girl singer.” I didn’t like it. It’s just been in the last three years I’ve taken the lead role in my life and realized that it’s not about sounding any certain way. This is the voice that I have.
12 Questions with Megan McCormick
1). What’s for supper?
Collard greens and quinoa.
2). List five items currently in your refrigerator.
Hummus, soy milk, veggie burgers, blackberries, eggs.
3). Buck Owens or Roy Clark?
4). What are you listening to these days?
Goldfrapp and Beach House are probably my two favorites right now.
5). What was your first paying job?
Really? That’s our next question:
6). What was your first paying music gig?
At the Crossroads Bar and Grill in Idaho. I was 12. I had a band with my cousins growing up called Eleven Eleven. We played blues and funk.
7). John Prine was a mailman before he was a musician. Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
8). What record or artist changed your life when you first heard it?
Gladys Knight and the Pips. “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
9). Which comes first, the lyric or the melody?
It’s totally like the holy trinity of play, sing, write. Each piece can’t stand on its own. It has to be a perfect balance.
10). What does Nashville mean to you?
11). If you were voted into either the Country Music Hall of Fame or the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame tomorrow, what would be the first sentence of your acceptance speech?
I would thank my family because I grew up around so much music; not just people plunking around on instruments — everyone was super talented. They inspired me from day one.
12). What’s next for Megan McCormick?
A whole lotta shows, touring, getting out there and meeting people, trying to connect, even if it’s one person a night that goes home feeling like they’re so glad that they found me. That’s what it’s about, the relationship with fans.
Listen to selections from Honest Words at ReverbNation.