Upside Now

Upside Now on Violet Book Online (en-GB)
Upside Now on Violet Book Online (en-GB)
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.
Interview  Anoushka Shankar Photography  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).

Megan performing 'Starlight' with Cem Oslu on piano and Peter Raeburn on guitar and backing vocals. Video edit by Cem Oslu.

I want to ask you more about your family. I also want to ask more about your creative process and especially this sense of re-finding your creative voice in a different way. But also, when you were speaking just now, something came up in me, because I obviously identify with so much that you're saying, and as a mum, that really rings true for me. It just has to sit in a different space. It's the great love, and it's not the only love, and it's not the first love. So, it has to sit in a different space.

Sometimes—and it happened just now as you were speaking—there's this little bit of grief that pops up that's like, "God, what would it be like at this stage, in my musicianship?" To just go deep dive and be in a studio or on a music retreat for three weeks. Somewhere in a cabin with just me and my instrument and my creativity, you know what I mean? That's a door that I've chosen to close. I'm not saying in any way that I want to go do that, but part of me still feels like, what would my music be?

The desire isn't gone, it’s just... you make choices.

I think that as a woman, particularly, I don't want to get too much into gender stereotypes here, but I think that traditionally, it’s been much easier for men to have no change in that trajectory. The kids get incorporated into that trajectory for them to a certain extent, but they just carry on as normal and ultimately that means spending less time with the kids.

I think many women choose that too, but for me, that wasn't an option. The kids superseded. And it is a grief—I think you're absolutely right to use that word because there is for sure a loss of having that single-minded focus we all had in our twenties and early thirties.

It's like a cocoon, but an amazing, vibrant, alive, all-encompassing world when you're doing just 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. I know you wouldn't either.

Exactly. I hear that in you. I know that you have participated in every choice at every step of the way and that you are exactly where you're meant to be and want to be. But when you brought up gender just now – because that was definitely something that came up for me when I would be in a room full of generally male musicians back then, and I would see the difference in choices. So, as a new mother, I would go, "Hang on, they've had kids all this time? But they were in the room with me for this whole tour, but now I'm not doing the next tour because I had kids and don't know what just happened?"

I wonder, did you ever come up against a fear along the way when you had to make different stages of choices? Were you feeling a resistance to falling into a stereotype that was laid out in front of you as one option? As much as you may have wanted, for example, to have music take a back seat at various stages, especially for your kids when you really needed to at certain times, would you also have that fear of, oh God, I'm falling—I'm falling into that thing that I said I wouldn't do when I was younger. Was that something that you had to battle against, too?

I had this sinking, very dark period where I just was like, "Oh, my god. If my 22-year-old self met [me] right now, she would be horrified." I just felt like this washed-out, dowdy old housewife. And it just—

Well, no one in a million miles would call you dowdy, but...

[Laughs] And I certainly don’t want to denigrate that particular choice because that's also a valid, powerful choice for many women. But for me, I just felt like I had such aspirations and such a vision of what my life, and my trajectory, and my output was supposed to be. And when that wasn't happening, I was really hard on myself. I was also scared for a lot of that time because of what was going on with my son. It was a big mystery for us, and the doctors, what exactly was happening. We still don't know. That's still a question mark, what our son’s diagnosis is. I think there was a huge amount of uncertainty for me.

When we found out my son had something wrong, it was like the rug was ripped out from under me—which by the way, is what happens to every single parent when they first have a child. The rug is ripped out because you are in the complete abyss of the unknown. Everyone tells you, "Oh, it changes your life. You're never going to be the same." And you hear those words, but you don't experience what that actually means until that beautiful little thing comes out of you. And you're like, "Oh, my god, I'm in charge of this? I'm in charge? Wait a second." [laughs].

So, yeah. Pretty intense.

That's a universal experience but I feel like you're referencing some particular experiences of yours with your kids. I don't know how much you're comfortable going into it, but I want to ask you about your son?

I think watching from the side this whole time, it's been terrifying, it's been baffling, and it's been phenomenally inspiring. Because every step of the way, I've watched the way you have been so deeply present and have always gone five steps beyond what is asked for in that moment. I've watched you do it again and again. You get told something by one doctor or another doctor, and then you're in there, researching every single thing about all of it. And then you end up finding something that then they're all going, "Oh yeah, that's never happened before."

You're just so deeply in there as a human, and as a mum. And so firstly to just say, I absolutely love that in you. But yeah, as much as you want, say your experience and what helps you stay you and stay okay through all of that, because it's been a long haul and yet you're still able to show up for those occasional dinners and be badass and funny and ask me about me and ask all your friends about them.

Do you know what I mean? How do you keep that for yourself and all of that as well?

Well, the backstory is that our firstborn is a beautiful little boy. And early on he had some unusual, nothing obvious, just some unusual difficulties in his first year and a half. He was hospitalised a few times and there was a lot of just quirky stuff that was going on. I had an instinct that there was a bigger picture issue happening, but doctors were telling me he was fine. I feel like in the U.K., medicine is very different than in the United States. The culture of medicine there, from my experience, was to just say, “everything's fine, everything's fine. Don't worry. There's no problem here”. Whereas in America, it's all about over-inspection and over-testing and over-figuring everything out. So, a happy medium would have been nice. Essentially, at first, it was insinuated that I was suffering from some kind of postpartum depression and that I was being anxious.

Jesus, really?

Yeah. And that everything was fine. And then—

Oh, I didn't know that.

Yeah, and then he started having these little kinds of seizures when he was two. And we went to see a hardcore pediatric neurologist, and that was the first time when somebody said to us, "I'm not worried about those little seizure things, but are you aware that there is a genetic abnormality going on here?" And it was like a freight train had hit us.

Because even though I intuitively knew she was right— maternal instinct is so strong and that's why I had been searching trying to figure out what was happening—it was still the most painful news to receive. Just devastating. And then that opened up an odyssey of trying to figure out what exactly that meant. So, many geneticists and specialists and interventions later, we still don't know. We know that he has a genetic condition. It doesn't have a name; it may never have a name.

They believe it's very mild on the spectrum of whatever it is. But “it” has caused certain physiological issues, mostly in his cranial area. So, he's had many, many surgeries to correct issues that arise as a result. Things that are not life-threatening, thank god. But he was nearly blind when he was a baby. And now, thanks to these incredible surgeons, he sees 20/20 with glasses.

We have had the most unbelievable epic journey, and we have met so many incredible people along the way. These hero doctors and practitioners who have made such a massive difference in our son’s, and therefore, our lives. And that's been epic as a human, as a mum, as a being on this earth.

Coming across these people whose mission is to help other people have a better life. That’s very humbling. My son has been my greatest teacher by a million miles. He, as you know, approaches everything with a beam of brilliant, beautiful, sunshine. His positivity is infectious. He could so easily be a guy who's been weighed down by how much he's had to bear in his short 10 years of life, and he’s the exact opposite.

So, whenever I was struggling to get out of bed because of news of another surgery or another thing that we were going to have to tackle and help him tackle, all I would have to do is observe him and how he was just like, "It's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine." He is wired as a glass is half-full person—a glass is totally-full person!

It's incredible.

So, that's the blessing that he has. Because he's able to get through all of this with as little trauma, I think, as possible, because he really believes that life is like that.

And what a perspective shift for you, I can imagine, because of course, all of this is happening to you and to each of your family members, but it's particularly happening to him. I suppose for you to have that perspective coming from him on a daily basis; what greater learning can there be?

Yeah.

Practically speaking though, how have you stayed sane? Well, maybe you haven't every day, but overall?

I think I have tried to always practice good self-care. I don’t always succeed in that, but I know its importance. I have a great therapist, and I do take myself away. I'll go to a retreat for a week, or even for just two days, every once in a while. I create space for myself. Every few months, I create some little bits of proper space for myself.

And I'm so blessed with my friends – particularly my women friends. And my family, my mum. Total lifeline. And there's a rallying around that has occurred. It brings me to tears. I feel so held as a person, as a family. Throughout our struggles, there's just been this community that has helped us through it all so massively, and it feels like I participate in that, and I receive from that, and that is so massive.

People often say to me, and it's interesting because sometimes I'm a bit surprised by it, like, "Oh, you guys just carry on like everything's normal." And I'm like, "Well, this is normal." But I think what's behind that is, we don't treat our son like he's “different”. He's his beautiful self, and he’s part of everything we do, he’s the life of the party!

Life throws us a lot of curveballs and in the early days we would say, "Oh, we'll get through this surgery, and then we'll have some smooth sailing." And I've realised that's not the way to look at it. This is likely a lifelong process and journey. I have shifted to trying to just be grateful when one surgery is done and done well, and not future trip about what might happen next.

You never do one thing and think that means that you're done with that other thing. You don't know what's around the corner. What a life lesson, wow!

And Covid has been an amazing thing for that, too. If ever there was something saying you’ve got to live in the moment. Because you can't plan for anything. We have no idea where this is going. We don't know what's happening. So, that really has been – every day is a new day, and we take it for what it is.

Well, in the middle of that, you've made some amazing music! So, that's fantastic, love. Coming back to the music, I loved the explanation of one of your songs. Maybe you could tell the story? About when someone said to you, when you felt like you couldn't write, they said, "Why don't you write about not being able to write." Tell us what happened?

It was very funny. I was in a state of self-pity about, "Oh, I'm so blocked and I'm so stuck and I don't know what to do about it." And she just very matter-of-factly said to me—and this is not a creative person, by the way. Her work isn't in the creative world—she said, "Well, I think that the best thing for you to do is to write a song about being stuck." I was totally outraged when she said that to me [laughs]. I was like, "How dare she? What a dumb suggestion, to write about being stuck. She has no understanding of what that even means to be stuck, creatively." And of course, to her, I just was a bit grumpy and was like, “Well, I don’t think you get it. If you're stuck, you're stuck. I don't think that writing a song about being stuck is going to help me be unstuck.” And she was like, "Okay, it was just a suggestion." And then I went home, and I sat down at our piano.

I'm a guitar girl, first and foremost. Piano is something that is a new set of ingredients for me. But I wrote a song about being stuck. Start to finish. It was the first time that had happened in probably years, that I just sat down and wrote a song; the melody, the words, all in one sitting. Previous to that it had just been bits and pieces of bits and pieces. So, I called her, and I was like, "Ok, I owe you an apology. You were right." That song is “Wake Up” on the album.

It comes back again to demystifying the muse, it sounds like. It's not coming, and I don't know why, I don't know when, and I don't know how. It's like, just sit!

Just try! Sit in a room, give it a go.

Yeah, I think that's what I find. When I have some external impetus to write, the writing comes because as soon as I'm sat down needing to write, I write. Whereas when I'm sat down thinking about writing, I don't write.

Exactly.

You show up for it and it shows up for you, right?

Yeah.

Let’s talk about “Starlight”. We wrote a song together for the first time!

Hooray! Yes. I love the song we wrote. We’ve been friends for a long time now, and have done a lot together as mums, as friends, and as politically aligned humans. But we had never formally sat down and made music together.

When you came to visit us in Venice, I love that we kind of seamlessly wrote the tune one morning, hanging out in the living room. We knew the story we wanted to tell, and it was fun and easy. I think it’s such a simple, beautiful, and evocative song. I’m really proud of what we made.

Do you have any favourite or most close songs in this collection?

Yeah, the song “Rocket”. That's quite an amazing story, that song. A dear friend of mine, one of the first people I met when I moved to New York City – his mentor was Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he was an incredible guitar player – his name was Johnny McNabb. He died tragically about seven years ago. He had written all this music, over decades. And he was like a brother to me. We played music together, we shared music, we had a very similar style and love of music. He played with so many of the greats, but he hadn't recorded hardly any of his own music. And his music was so beautiful. It was just so stunning, and his voice was so stunning. And maybe he just never had the confidence to put his own music down. I don’t know.

When he died, on top of all the other devastation of losing him, there was this one song that was my absolute favourite song of his, and I couldn't even remember the melody. I couldn't remember anything about it. It was like a weird blank. And I asked his mum, "Do you have any recordings? Maybe he'd done some voice recordings. Do you have access to his laptop?" She was like, "There’s nothing. We have nothing." So, a while after he died, I had a dream, and he came to me in my dream, and it re-created the exact way I met him – which was at a massive party at my NYC apartment. I saw my dad's guitar above this packed sea of heads, making its way towards me. And I'm like, "What's this idiot person carrying my dad's guitar through this crowd for….”. And suddenly this big smiling face, with a pronounced southern drawl, said, "Is this your guitar?" And I said, "Yes!" I couldn't stay mad at this lovely smiling face. And that was Johnny. And he said, "This is a rad guitar. I love these old guitars." It was an old Harmony sunburst.

So, in the dream, he came at me with the guitar over his head saying, "Is this your guitar?" And I was like, "Yes!" And then he started playing the song I loved so much, and I woke up, sat up like an arrow, in the middle of the night, scrambled around for my phone, and I sang into a voice memo - woke my husband up - singing the chorus melody, saying the one lyric line that I remembered him singing in the dream, and the verse melody. It was wild. Then I called his mum again and I said, "Listen, I don't know his words. I don't know that the verse melody is exactly right, but I know that the chorus is exactly the chorus. Are you ok that I finish writing what I have as a skeleton, and put this on my album?" And she just was like, "Oh, my god, yes, please do that."

So, that song has a particular meaning for me

It's amazing, Megan. What a beautiful experience.

Yeah. It is a really deep connection to him. A posthumous collaboration.

“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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