Meg Duffy of Hand Habits Embraces the Undefinable

Duffy talks about writing a new album in the midst of California’s wildfires, and how queer identity informs their music’s openness to nuance.
Meg Duffy of Hand Habits Embraces the Undefinable

Duffy talks about writing a new album in the midst of California’s wildfires, and how queer identity informs their music’s openness to nuance.

Words: Sarah Gooding

photo by Aubrey Trinnamen

February 25, 2019

The name Meg Duffy chose for their musical project suggests an absent-minded preoccupation—music-making as an impulsive, spontaneous act. But Hand Habits appears to be the opposite, with slow-burning songs full of contemplation.

The project was born in the moments when Duffy wasn’t on tour or rehearsing as a guitarist in folk rocker Kevin Morby’s band, or busy doing other session musician work. In these quiet moments, Duffy would sequester themselves in their home and write delicate, deeply personal songs. Their 2017 debut album, Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void), was celebrated for its vulnerability, and their follow-up, placeholder (out soon via Saddle Creek), dives deeper still into Duffy’s inner world to explore their thoughts on familial trauma, queer identity, and platonic intimacy.

“I don’t really know how else to be,” Duffy says when asked about the emotional honesty that pervades their work. They’re standing outside their home in Los Angeles, wearing two pairs of socks on a cold February afternoon. Since leaving Morby’s band late last year Duffy has been spending a lot more time in their adopted home city. It’s a shift in focus that’s been a long time coming.

Duffy first started writing placeholder’s second single, “can’t calm down,” three years ago, and it’s taken various forms until its final state, which features Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell on guest vocals. Its hook, “What if I can’t calm down, and I don’t have that in my bloodline?” contemplates inherited behavior and “ancestral damage,” as Duffy explained in a press statement upon the song’s release in January. “Is it possible to learn how to wipe away completely the knee-jerk reactions to situations that are buried deep in one’s DNA? And the role models that taught us how to behave, whether directly or residually…are they the ones who should be held responsible, or is memory partially to blame?”

On placeholder, Duffy confronts uncomfortable issues of accountability and forgiveness. While they were writing the bulk of the album, wildfires raged around Southern California, and the pervasive feeling of anxiety at the time crept into the songs. Fire, heat, smoke, and ash is referenced throughout the album in lyrics like, “California / Only one who knows/ How to burn without desire/ Like wildfire.” “heat,” the abstract MIDI interlude that divides the album in two, sees Duffy repeat a line from a Jeanette Winterson novel: “Heat beyond the lines of passion.”

The analogy is fitting, but Duffy didn’t notice the environment having such a profound effect on the album until after they’d finished it. Now they say it would have been completely different if it had been written in another time or place. “When people are like, ‘How does your environment affect your songwriting?’ I’m just like, ‘I don’t know!’ But this is such a concrete-evidence situation where I say ‘fire’ a lot on the record, and also there’s a song literally called ‘wildfire.’ I remember walking around with a cup of coffee and seeing ashes fall into my coffee—I had never been so aware of the environment.”

“I think what makes playing music as a career more sustainable is having a lot of compassion for your bandmates.”

Chaos can drive us inward, forcing us to reflect on ourselves. placeholder’s title stems from Duffy’s fascination with the undefinable—both internally, with identity, and externally, with relationships. Since Hand Habits’ debut, Duffy has adopted gender-neutral pronouns and become increasingly candid about their queer identity. There’s an openness to nuance in the songs that’s informed by Duffy’s embrace of nuance in themselves.

“I think it’s human nature to want to place things into a category in order to understand them. Because we want to understand things; that’s how we orient ourselves in the world. But that doesn’t really seem realistic to me most of the time,” they explain. “I do it, I’m not absolved from that desire by any means. I was just talking to my roommate about sleeping with cis men and they were like, ‘You don’t do that, do you?’ and I was like, ‘Well, sometimes I guess I do,’ but it doesn’t make me any less queer. It’s funny to me to want to always place something into a category, but then also living so far outside of them all the time.”

Duffy’s style of gentle interrogation is in service of nurturing honesty and self-awareness. They say, “I’m interested in queering relationships in my music,” but they don’t just mean this in their narratives. “Queering relationships in general is important to me. Like, what are the boundaries between friends and, for lack of a better word, lovers? Do you kiss your friends? Or do you only kiss your lovers? Do you hold hands with your friends? In terms of intimacy, I think what makes playing music as a career more sustainable is having a lot of compassion for your bandmates.”

This familial approach is influenced by Duffy’s experience playing with Morby, who they say operates with a level of intimacy that’s not always found in rock music. “I learned a lot from him in terms of running a band less like a business and more like a family.” Duffy has taken these lessons to heart as they’ve adapted from being a band member to leading their own band.

“A lot of the people that I play with I feel very, very close to. And I need to feel really close to them—not in a way where I fuck all my bandmates,” they laugh. “Just for the record! But getting to know them closely as people, as a precursor to playing music with them. And if you do have romantic relationships with people that you’re playing music with, how does that influence the music? How does that inform the performance?”

Duffy’s interest in nuanced relationships and queer identity naturally spills over to their social life and social media. Recently they tweeted about their desire to be a musical guest on the reboot of the lesbian drama series The L Word. “Wouldn’t that be so cool?” they laugh. “The old seasons were so problematic, but I think that they’ve probably compensated for that in this reboot. I’ve heard some people who have seen the script and they’re like, ‘It’s actually almost too on the nose in terms of inclusivity.’ You can’t have it all!” If they need any help, Hand Habits could show them how a nuanced approach is done. FL