Hand Habits Takes Us Through the Winding Walls of “Fun House” Track by Track

Meg Duffy discusses their latest album along with collaborators Sasami Ashworth and King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas.
Track by Track
Hand Habits Takes Us Through the Winding Walls of “Fun House” Track by Track

Meg Duffy discusses their latest album along with collaborators Sasami Ashworth and King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas.

Words: Margaret Farrell

photo by Jacob Boll

October 28, 2021

Last week, Meg Duffy, who releases music under the name Hand Habits, dropped their strongest album to date called Fun House. Although there are rubbery guitars and shimmying synths, the album’s title is a bit misleading. There’s a reckoning with childhood memories and personal change embedded in the lyrics, there are soundtracks for crying on the dance floor with flailing limbs, and there are moments where a solitary walk might make a better listening atmosphere. Working with Sasami Ashworth and King Tuff‘s Kyle Thomas, Duffy’s Fun House is both groovy and sobering. Maybe Fun House is the perfect name for it after all, its winding walls and warped, playful reflections lending itself to an intense questioning of reality.

“I like that the idea of a ‘fun house’ can have so many different connotations,” Duffy said of the album’s title. “It’s disorienting, it’s filled with all these different rooms with different energies and emotions. There’s a risk that there will be manipulation happening to your environment, but you sign up for it. I really liked the idea that we could take risks, that these songs could sound very different but still make sense together.”

In Fun House, there are doorways that Duffy has to walk away from as well as moments where they watch others walk through these doorways without them. “I can no longer stand at the gates of your love,” Duffy sings mightily on “Clean Air.” A relationship comes to an end when Duffy and another are left on different pages, unable to keep pace and expectations with each other. It’s a wrenching realization that Duffy comes to gracefully, with Sasami’s backing vocals helping them on their new path. A few tracks later, they’re confronted with the unraveling realization that an explanation isn’t as concrete as we might expect. “Something that can’t be touched / I never needed confirmation / I put my faith in time,” Duffy sings on the ominous “The Answer.” Fun House finds Meg Duffy walking through halls of memories. By album’s end, they’re ready for change—even if their evolution might not come instantly.

Listen to the album below and read through comments from Duffy and collaborators Sasami Ashworth and Kyle Thomas.

1. “More Than Love”

Sasami Ashworth: I heard that chorus and knew that it had to be a warm, analog-feeling pop song. The demo was in half time, but in my heart I knew it also could live as an uptempo, joy-filled banger.

Kyle Thomas: One of my favorite moments from recording was when Meg was doing the guitar solo in the end—I just knew I was witnessing true guitar-god greatness. And then we ate salad. 

Meg Duffy: I wrote this song one night pretending to be someone else…really hamming it up in the house when nobody was home. I was singing all loud and snapping my fingers and had the lights dimmed and my colored light bulb on purple…and it was half speed. I never imagined it being so pop-oriented, but now I really love the energy. I remember being on a walk right before and listening to that Mount Eerie record that’s all one long song and crying…and somehow this song came from that soundtracked walk. 

2. “Aquamarine”

SA: This is crying on the dance floor music. Inspired by the tender yet dance-y exhilaration of artists like Robyn and Arthur Russell. Only song I’ve ever heard with Octatrack programmed drums and rubber bridge guitars. 

KT: Sasami and I were on a flight back from Vermont when she was working on this arrangement on GarageBand on her iPad. I just remember looking over and seeing her thrashing around in her seat joyfully. It was quite different from Meg’s demo, so we didn’t know how they would feel about it, but luckily they loved it. And we actually ended up using some of the MIDI instruments from the GarageBand demo on the final track, but I won’t tell you which ones.

MD: I loved the arrangement brought to this track. Originally I thought it would be a more downtempo (surprise) ballad with lush string arrangements and more of a talk-singing story. It was deeply inspired lyrically by my cousin sending me letters describing the kind of person my mother was. 

3. “Just to Hear You”

SA: Originally a slowly bouncing, triple-meter lullaby, this song blossomed into an iconically impassioned duet. Bongos, Christian Lee Hutson on second guitar, and Perfume Genius laying down a lacy, elegant, harmonious countermelody is all that one could ever ask for.

KT: At my studio there can be a lot of outside noise, lots of helicopters—we’re in LA after all. So we usually have people track vocals in my closet. A lot of really amazing people have sung in my closet amongst my old clothes and weird junk. I just love that Perfume Genius and Meg both delivered these incredible performances in my shitty closet.  

MD: I had thought this one wouldn’t make the cut for Fun House…although I was proud of it being the only song I’ve ever written in triple meter…and was surprised when Sas suggested it be on the record and in 4/4 to boot. I was really shy to ask Mike [Hadreas] to sing on it but thankfully I worked up the courage by way of Sasami, since singing with him in his band the last few years has deeply pushed me to work on my voice as a more expansive instrument. The middle feels like what a memory can sometimes feel like right in the morning when you’re still waking up and half in dream world. 

4. “No Difference”

SA: Boys choir, full-stop. Perfect song with humbly enchanting delivery.

KT: One of my favs. Daniel Aged really brought this one over the top with his phenomenal bass playing. I didn’t even have to do anything as an engineer, just plugged him in and heaven spilled out. 

MD: This was my favorite song on the record for a very long time. I had written it pretty early on and was playing it solo in Australia right before all travel stopped in 2020. I couldn’t even sing the chorus yet—my voice would crack and go all wonky—but every time I sing it now, I hear Hannah Read [of Lomelda] in my head saying, “If you want to keep singing there will be more air” after I asked her how she sustains notes for so long. She told me as a kid in church she used to sing so long that she would pass out!

5. “Graves”

SA: Full-stop. *Single rolling tear*

KT: Rubber bridge guitar really shines on this one, perfectly complemented by Ethan Gruska’s muted piano. You really don’t have to do much if the song is this good. 

MD: I felt like this song came from the guitar in a lot of ways. I wanted to try and incorporate a guitar melody in a song, and this one came easily with the guitar. I was in North Carolina for part of the pandemic and there had luckily been an almost exact copy of my rubber bridge guitar there. That tuning I love, something about how the voicings are laid out that opens me up.

6. “False Start”

SA: Meg keeps calling the outro “Batman Returns”—definitely going for a contrast between the simple and understated verse acoustic riff and the soaring strings. OK, and some snappy outro snares…and booming toms…it’s a little extra. But so is being a human.

KT: This is kinda the deepcut jam of the record. That frickin’ drum fill at the top of verse two?! C’mon now. We used this amazing device, the Overstayer Modular Channel, a bunch throughout the record—you can hear it here at the little janky-sounding outro, sometimes making things sound really weird and almost bad is the key!

MD: I wrote the guitar riff (per Sasami’s request) while Daniel Aged was over tracking bass…he was DI so I could play along, and I really was energetically inspired by his choices. I had demoed this one pretty full on, and the strings at the end feel very Batman Returns to me…I can’t really explain why…something cinematic but also something Nirvana Unplugged. It’s about watching dear friend leave my show a few years ago and them lying about it and I was upset because they missed the saxophone solo at the end (the best part).

7. “Clean Air”

SA: Sweet pop song that needs no explanation. Not for the woodblock averse.

KT: The most epic bass fill on the record, thanks to Dave from The War on Drugs. There’s a little moment where Meg says “OK” that we left in that I just love for some reason. I always love those little mysterious accidental bits that stick themselves to a recording. 

MD: The line “Two trees, one bearing fruit, one shedding leaves” is a reference to actual trees in my childhood home where my aunt, who raised me, planted one tree for each of her children. She adopted me around the age of 12, so my tree was late to grow, but it actually became two trees: a weeping cherry tree and another type of cherry tree. My aunt told me when I came out as non-binary/trans that it made sense that my trees split into two!

8. “Concrete and Feathers”

SA: A moment to celebrate rock. Notes of gentleness and heaviness is Meg’s specialty. I think we captured it really cleverly here. Kyle rips some eloquent lil’ riffs.

KT: This one was very much in my wheelhouse, so it was quite fun for me. I love to rock. 

MD: Total indulgence in the opposite direction of “Control,” this song was the oldest of the batch and we had borrowed a few guitars from Gelber & Sons (Wylie) and a few amps from Old Style Guitars and really cranked them up. It was so fun watching Kyle do his damn thing on this, and having James Krichevnia on the drums really pulled it over the line. This was the first song we tracked on the record! And the first in person session we had all done in months (safely).

9. “The Answer”

SA: our little two-act opera. All fantasy and cholesterol free.

KT: I love Sasami’s little Wendy Carlos minimoog moments on this one. I remember Meg was having a hard time getting the vocal so I gave them a handheld mic and they lay on the floor in the dark and…heaven spilled out!

MD: This tune was two song ideas woven together to make a nice bookended drama. The harmony was deeply inspired by Elliott Smith—lots of chromaticism. And with the hushed vocals I wanted to feel like someone whispering in your ear their darkest secrets. The Answer? It’s actually “one million.”

10. “Gold/Rust”

SA: This one made us really get out the shovels and dig. Some songs you really have to work for, but then you’re glad you did. Clean drums are for babies.

KT: To me, the title of this song accurately describes the sound of the music. The first part is all golden snowflakes that just deteriorate into rusty sludge. There was something special about the rough mix in that second half that we never could capture when we were doing final mixes, so it’s actually two separate mixes combined: Chris Coady’s in the first half and my rough mix in the second. 

MD: I had released this song as a part of a Bandcamp Friday early on in 2020, and it had a very feathery, slow, watery feel to it initially. It took some practice to get me to really let loose and scream, and some of the outtakes of me screaming in the middle are hilarious and reminiscent of early 2000s music I used to scream as a teen—Brand New et al. I had once bullied my friend Lillie [West, of Lala Lala] for screaming at a show, and as my own punishment I thought it would be only right for me to belt it out on my own tune. 

11. “Control”

SA: The church of self-reflection. A nod to Meg’s stunning slowness. An anthem of care and change.

KT: Was really fun putting this together. All the horns and wind instruments were done by the players remotely because of COVID, so it was nice to receive them and pop them into the song and hear it bloom. 

MD: Not sure what to say on this one…I think the song speaks for itself.