Friday, February 1, 2008

OC Interview: Megan Hickey of Last Town Chorus

Under the name Last Town Chorus, Megan Hickey creates sparse and gorgeous music (as I noted in today’s Boston Globe Sidekick, previewing her show tonight at the Lizard Lounge). Her second album, “Wire Waltz,” radiates hope amid desolation, the seduction of memory, and the human struggle to connect. Her voice and lap steel playing have won the praise of the New York Times, Spin, and London’s Sunday Times ("Waltz" was released in Europe several months before its American release), and even moved one fan to buy her an eight hundred dollar Rickenbacher Electro lap steel guitar she had mentioned on her blog. She also caught the ear of “Grey’s Anatomy” producers, who included her cover of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in a scene last season.

I caught up with her by e-mail this week for the Curmudgeon (her e-mail punctuation is preserved).

Are you working on a follow-up to “Wire Waltz” any time soon?

I'm deep into writing and messing around with a new crop of songs. An album will come sometime in 2008. A digital-only single, “Loud and Clear,” hits on February 26th.

Why did “Waltz” debut in Europe before America?

A UK label had just re-issued my first album, so British ears were perked. Seemed natural.

What drew you to David Bowie’s “Modern Love?” Your arrangement on “Wire Waltz” is beautiful.

Merci. I'm a freak for 80s pop music. I played that song at a Bowie tribute here in New York, and never stopped.

How did the song wind up on Grey’s Anatomy? I understand TV exposure is great, but were you a fan of the show?

The show's music supervisor, in LA, played it for the show's creative staff. It became the soundtrack to Denny's Scrabble-induced heart attack. I thought the show was really well done - cinematic.

Was it strange to hear your music on TV?

Totally, dude.

Why did you name yourself “Last Town Chorus” instead of working under your own name?

I dreamed of a musical experience that transcended myself. Countless people feed and shape what The Last Town Chorus ultimately is... Musicians, live audiences, label comrades...even strangers I've never met in person but exchanged an email with. I'm just a conductor.

How did you come to play lap steel?

Blind date. It was brought over to my apartment by my original TLTC collaborator, Nat.

Is country music much of an influence, or is that too much of an assumption based on the lap steel? The New York Times review made a point of saying your playing was more “U2 than Buck Owens.”

I listen to gobs of mainstream country, but never know exactly how that seeps into my music. Harmonies for sure. Songs about places. Songs people relate to...that aren't too cool. And then there's that certain swing...

Do you have any favorite writers, musical or otherwise?

Musically, The Beatles all day and night. Literarily-speaking...James Thurber's humour. Rilke's poetry. Alice Munro's short stories.

Some of your songs don’t follow a typical verse/chorus structure. Do you have any particular musical touchstones that people might not guess from listening to your music?

Perhaps classical composers. Chopin's Nocturnes, for example...listened a million times... They manage to be devastatingly expressive and cathartic in a flowing, unwinding sort of musical form...without the devices of pop music, i.e. constant repetition of melodies and phrases. In pop music, which I utterly adore as a listener, a successful song is one where the listener can sense what's coming next, and feel gratified when (s)he was correct. In much of classical music, and in jazz too, the listener is often surprised...and is gratified when (s)he sheds expectation and is picked up and carried by the music. I employ whatever form works for each song.

Your voice draws comparisons to Mazzy Star and the Cocteau Twins – I’ve actually made the former in print myself. Do you find these flattering? Constraining?

I love when people tell me that they heard the music down someone's apartment hallway, or on a mix tape while driving in the desert, or when they walked into a club and saw us onstage. But as a fan of cognitive neuroscience, I understand the need for reference points when music is described in writing. Some references delight me, like the rare likening of my voice to Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays. We have similarly-shaped larynxes? Awesome!

How did Scott Miller contact you about the Electro? That must have been flattering, but perhaps a little frightening, to have someone you don’t know offer to buy you a guitar you had written about on your blog.

Scott emailed me that he wanted to give me the guitar. I then realized that I'd met him a couple times at my shows in D.C. I'd instinctively liked him, and he was friends with the brother-sister team who own the club. I think Scott and I are just two people who utterly adore music, both contributing to it in the ways we can.

Besides, I think he's too busy blogging about Dylan to bother with stalking and axe-murdering me.

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