Existing in These In-Between Spaces

Meg Duffy (Hand Habits) and Kevin Morby talk queerness, the pressure of the proverbial “driver’s seat,” and their new albums.

Meg Duffy played in Kevin Morby’s band before (and while) pursuing their own music under the name Hand Habits. On the occasion of Hand Habits’ new album, placeholder, the two old friends had a chat about music, business, and gender identity.
— Josh Modell, Executive Editor, Talkhouse

Kevin Morby: Your record’s coming out on Friday [Ed. note: placeholder was release March 1]. How are you feeling?

Meg Duffy: I’m feeling good. It’s a tiny bit anticlimactic, I think, because NPR is streaming it, so it sort of feels like it’s out. People are hearing it.

Kevin: Yeah, it’s funny when you have a record come out. I’m announcing my record this week.

Meg: That’s so exciting — “Oh My God,” as they say.

Kevin: It’s funny because you do so much — the songs are like dreams in your head, and then it’s this product that you have.

Meg: It’s capitalism.

Kevin: It’s like making mittens and selling the mittens on the street or something. Maybe that’s not the best analogy.

But, yeah, albums always stream before they come out now. I feel like it’s almost like my birthday. I try not to feel too much pressure to have a good day, but at the time same, I want it to be a good day.

Meg: I already have a box of the records, so that’s weird, too. Because the way the internet works is, the only thing that’s going to change is it’s going to be on some streaming services, right? And someone says it’s out. But technically, the record’s already been made and pressed, and people have already heard it, so it’s like a tiered release. But it is exciting, and it’s kind of cool to get different varying levels of hits of adrenaline of that excitement.

Kevin: I listen to my music so much before it’s released. I obsess over it.

Meg: I know this about you.

Kevin: And then the moment that it comes out, it’s just forever gone from my psyche. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s like giving it away, and then I can start working on the next thing. Once it’s out, it really takes on this life of its own. This whole other thing happens when it’s out there. An exciting though too is, someone’s gonna find this record of yours five years from now, and it’ll become their favorite thing.

Meg: I think that’s the thing I’m most excited about: The life that it’ll have without me. Just getting its own little legs!

Kevin: It’s like having a baby. It’ll grow up and it’ll go out on its own, and you’ll be like, “Oh my god, there’s my child in the hands of this other person.” It was once so dear to me, and now this other person has formed a relationship with it and they have their own bond.

Meg: That’s the meat and potatoes of the emotional reward. People lately have been asking me, what’s the emotional return that you get from playing music and putting your songs in to the world? I feel like that sort of encompasses it, that relationship.

I remember when I was on tour with you, watching you play the song “Beautiful Strangers” solo every night, and every night somebody would start crying. I feel like that’s the emotional return, seeing somebody have this experience to something that you made. But, you know, that doesn’t have anything to do with you — the experience that they’re having has to do with their experience and being… “triggered” doesn’t feel like the right word, but evoked by what you’ve created, which becomes inevitably like a catalyst or a safe space to feel that emotion. Above all, selling records doesn’t matter. I mean, it matters to survive and we all want to sell records and get the money part of it, but it’s exciting to know that people are gonna have these emotional experiences that we will never know about.

Kevin: Speaking of “Beautiful Strangers,” this woman wrote me a letter recently; it’s probably the best mail I’ve gotten from someone who likes my music. Her mother was dying of cancer and she was obviously going through a really hard time, and she believed that song was about her mother because there’s a part in the song about losing your voice and her mom had lost her voice before she passed away. It’s a really powerful thing to read that someone, in this trying time of losing her mom, had this connection to the song where it felt like hers. We all have felt that, where a song just feels like it’s yours and it’s really cool and it’s powerful.

My sister has been a huge Fiona Apple fan since Fiona Apple first came on the scene in the ’90s. She was playing the record in her car at some point last year and I realized it was the same CD that she got when she was in high school. Now she’s in her mid-30s, and I was thinking about how this physical piece of plastic has taken my sister on this journey through more than half of her life — this thing she bought for ten dollars.

Meg: That’s incredible.

Kevin: Anyway, I was gonna just do a quick how-me-and-you-met. I met you, I guess, in 2013 or ‘14. For those who don’t know, Justin Sullivan is both of our best friend, and a longtime collaborator with me. He was in the Babies with me, and at that point, the band was basically just me and Justin.

Meg: The Kevin Morby band.

Kevin: Before I met you, Justin and I had this conversation, like, whoever is going to join the band we want it to be a girl and we want them to be able to play guitar and bass, and then lo and behold, we went on tour and not only did we find that, but we found you. It’s funny to throw something like that into the universe and it comes back with the return of you. Not only does this person fit the template that you’re looking for, but they also happen to be one of the best guitar players of your generation.

I remember seeing you at that bar in Hudson — you were in a local band that opened up for me. I had the same sort of feeling that I had when I first met Cassie [Ramone of the Babies], which is like: I’m in love with this person platonically; there’s something about this person, and I’m very drawn to them. I remember we kind of exchanged this glance and you came up to me after the show, and I think you were just kind of like, “Let me play in your band someday if you ever need a guitar player.” It just took me by surprise because it was sort of too good to be true. And so that’s how you joined my band.

I remember the first time that we ever properly played together. I flew to New York. I was opening up for Amen Dunes, but while I was in New York I wanted to practice with you really quick, just to kind of catch your vibe. I don’t know if you remember this, but I remember you kind of telling me, “I want to play in a band and I’m really down to tour and I really just want to learn a lot, and then I want to do my own thing.”

Meg: Wow, I don’t remember saying that.

Kevin: We were going to the pho spot and we were on Bushwick [Ave.], and it was kind of busy. I remember you being out of breath and telling me that. I really related to that through my time in Woods. I view my time in Woods as basically my college education, or something. I came out of that and I was like, “OK, now I’m ready to do my own thing.” And I knew you’d love Justin, and I knew you’d learn a lot and meet the right people.

And so we practiced, and you just fell into it so easily that you just played the show that night.

Meg: Right, at Bowery [Ballroom].

Kevin: It was just so good. I was like, Man, this is really going to work. I can’t believe that this is happening, I’ve met such a musical soulmate. But also I think it’s important: You did fart.

Meg: It’s true, I did fart in the practice space.

Kevin: In the confines of a small Bushwick practice space, which I liked. Sort of. As you said, it broke the ice.

Meg: It did. I broke wind and the ice.

Kevin: You were this wide-eyed 24-year-old, and now you’ve toured the world with me twice over. You played on the War on Drugs record that won a Grammy, you’ve gone out with Sylvan Esso, and you’ve got your own second record coming out. It’s a lot to accomplish in five years.

Meg: Rewinding back to being at the Bowery at that show: I had never even seen that many people at once before. I was really, really nervous but also like, I think I can do this. And I remember meeting like Jarvis [Taveniere of Woods] and Steve Marion, and even meeting Aja [Pecknold] and being a little starstruck. And Robin [Pecknold] was there. I just remember being like, what the fuck?, because as someone from a really small town at the dawn of Instagram when everybody was still using filters and borders, and following people that you thought had this community or this scene and then meeting them… It’s a little bittersweet now, because when I was in the band and even after, we had so much fun and and we put in a lot of hours. But I definitely didn’t think that it would entail, you know, losing all of our luggage and wearing the same outfit for a week in the Netherlands and getting soaking wet and being totally unprepared and having that be a part of the music industry. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m ungrateful or focus on the toll it takes on your body, but it’s fucking tiring.

Kevin: It’s really fucking crazy.

Meg: But also, I did a residency at Zebulon [in LA] in December and I got to curate the whole night, and it was really, really fun. I had probably 25 musicians throughout the whole month come and play with me. That was one of those moments — after playing in your band for so long, meeting all these people, and moving [to LA], and then branching out on my own — being like, Wow, all of these people that have agreed to do this residency with me are so talented. It was such an aerial view of the actual community that I’ve become a part of here. It feels like a small town sometimes when you find your crew, even though LA is so sprawling.

The business side of it is really confusing; I know you and I have talked about feeling overwhelmed, because the records are about to come out and you have all these things to take care of. I’m really lucky because I have a good team and I learned so much from how you functioned and how to keep focused and just keep it about playing music at the end of the day. But I guess I just never would have imagined all the things that you find yourself doing.

Kevin: I remember feeling the same way when I was in Woods and I just played bass. I’d think to myself, Why is Jeremy so stressed out right now? The moment you’re in that position, you’re in the driver’s seat — when you get a team working for you and you’ve got a lot of people to respond to — I have these psychedelic moments where we’re performing, and there could be a thousand plus people there and I’m like, Man, all these people in this room bought a ticket with my name on it, and that’ll just freak you out. If you take me out of the equation, the night doesn’t work. You’ve got so much on your shoulders. If I got sick or if I had an anxiety attack and couldn’t go on stage or something, there’s actual money involved now…

Meg: There’s a lot riding on it

Kevin: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by it, but as long as you just sort of focus on the work. A big thing that I’ve been trying to do in the past year or two is just trust my team. I picked my team for a reason. Coming from this DIY scene, it’s always been second nature for me to try to do everything myself, and I’m really trying now to just be the artist and let all these other people who are professionals take care of it, because I’m not going to do it as well as them. And plus, my sole focus here should be to make good work. So I think if you keep your eye on that, because as you said, touring really takes it out of you — and I know we went pretty hard.

Meg: We went really hard.

Kevin: And on top of that, you were going harder also doing Hand Habits tours.

Meg: That’s how you learn, and that’s how you get good.

Kevin: I’ve always found that when we felt the worst on tour and when our skin is horrible and we’re looking disgusting and our clothes are disgusting — that’s always when we happen to also be the best band in the fucking world.

Meg: It’s rewarding spiritually, I think.

Kevin: I remember so vividly, so many times just being like: We basically can’t do anything in this world but play an amazing show. We’re crazy people who have somehow chosen this for a living; I couldn’t do basic math if you gave it to me, but what I can do is get in front of people and give a flawless performance. Then the show’s over, and we pack up our fucking suitcases and we go to sleep in some disgusting hotel. The next day, drive eight hours and eat sandwiches on the side of the road. It’s disgusting.

Meg: Can’t wait [Laughs]. It’s gonna be so weird to not be with you guys. I’m going to have my boys, but it’s gonna be so weird to not have our language. I’m going to have to develop my own language with my touring crew.

Kevin: I know you told me this recently, and I just spaced out or something, but reading the NPR First Listen, I saw that you now prefer they/them pronouns. I wanted to ask you about that.

Meg: Yesterday I had to talk to a family member about it because it’s mentioned in the article. I definitely don’t feel misgendered when someone says she, for the record — I don’t feel extremely dysmorphic, which some people do, and some people feel like using they/them pronouns is mandatory for their sense of self and their identity. I guess I’ve just never really felt extremely feminine, and when I was talking to my family member about this, she was like, “You’ve always been a tomboy. You really hated wearing dresses,” so it’s nothing new.

It’s complicated, because there’s a lot of commentary, I think, about how the recent awareness and collective consciousness has developed. People can say that gender is a fad or being queer is trending and it’s hot — which I do agree with to some degree. I think that being queer is trending, and that’s not a bad thing, and it’s not a good thing. I mean, it probably has its side effects on both sides. But for visibility, it’s really good.

I’ve always really felt confused when a stranger, or even a friend of mine, is like “Hey, lady,” or “Hey, miss.” The other day I was at this pinball bar, and this guy came up to me and I was with a friend who identifies as female and she — whatever this means to you — looks female. This guy was like, “Hey, ladies.” I have a short haircut, I’m wearing like men’s clothing; I wonder what is it about me that screams that I’m a woman. Is it my tits? Is it my voice? He didn’t know my name, so it wasn’t my name.

I also haven’t made a big announcement, like, “Hello everyone, I’m non-binary!” because it’s not like… I was talking to my family member, and after I told her and some crazy things were said, ultimately she said, “I support you and I just want you to be happy.” But then she [referred to me] as “she.” She’s known me as ”she” for what will be 29 years next month — it’s going to take a long time for them to understand it and if they see me as not inherently female and slip up on saying “she” or “her,” that’s OK, as long as they know that I don’t feel that and they don’t push the issue.

Kevin: I think that’s what’s great and what’s important. I told my parents who love you — you’re like their honorary child — and it was kind of a perfect response: [My dad] said “good for her.” It’s so well intentioned, but I think it just takes people a while to get the pronoun because they’re so used to one thing. It’s like muscle memory.

Meg: And we didn’t grow up with that rhetoric; it just takes some learning.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations about it, because I’ve decided to start toying with the idea [of taking testosterone]. I am interested in taking testosterone, but I don’t want to be passing as a male, so there’s a lot of gray area. Which I think is like the core of queerness, right? It’s about the gray area and sort of existing in these in-between spaces. Identity is something that is always changing. Even on the postcard that you sent me for your record, Oh My God, it’s not an inherently masculine photo. We’ve talked about how, even with City Music, this character that you’ve created… you adapt that character and that influences your identity.

Kevin: Yeah. I think all those are within me. So what really is gender? I think that people are unique and complex, and I think it just comes down to every person should just be able to be what they want to be. There’s no right or wrong way to do anything, I guess. It’s funny, I was in Sprouts yesterday.

Meg: They have Sprouts in Kansas City?

Kevin: Oh yeah. This happens to me often, especially in the Midwest where I think maybe guys with long hair is a little less common, but this guy working in the produce section was like, “How are you, ma’am?”  And then they see my face and they’re like, “I’m so sorry.”

Meg: Right? The biggest insult. You know, the last thing that I want to say about the gender identity and pronouns: I think it’s important to remember anybody can always go back. Tomorrow I can be like, “I feel like a she again.” Not to be cute and exploit pronoun flexibility, but just because you choose one doesn’t mean you have to live it for the rest of your life. Even the people who take hormones can decide to stop taking hormones. There’s a lot of psychological processing that they need to go through when that happens, depending on what level of hormones they’re taking, but that’s always an option.

Kevin: It’s like being vegan or something. It’s so funny how interested in veganism non-vegans are — the biggest carnivores make fun of vegans, like, “What do you eat?” I think it’s just such a funny thing, because people just want to do their thing. I believe that people who really do judge those sorts of decisions or are so confused by it, they’re just on some level… I don’t want to say envious, but curious themselves, or not in touch with that part of themselves.

Meg: There’s some level of fear. They don’t understand it, so they’re afraid of it.

Kevin: How do you feel about the fact that you’re gonna go out on tour? You’re gonna be in the driver’s seat, and I know you’ve that done before, but this one, everything’s on a little bit of a higher level. You’re on Saddle Creek, you’re playing Bowery Ballroom, and you’re even doing these shows with Sylvan Esso where you’re playing, like, huge shows.

Meg: That’s gonna be wild.

Kevin: So amazing. How do you feel going into all this? I think this year is gonna shape a lot for you. You’re gonna learn a lot and you’re going to do a lot, and you’re going to see a lot of things. And while I know you’ve seen a lot of things having played with me and toured with me, now you’re going to see it through a completely different filter.

Meg: I am feeling weirdly calm, but I’m excited for my band to get here to start rehearsing. I think that once I get into rehearsal mode, then whatever fears I might have will present themselves and I’ll just have to work them out. But once we’re on the road, I’m just excited to play shows every night and see my friends, and get really good at playing the set and develop my own language with John [Andrews] and Kevin [Laureau]. And you know what? If it doesn’t feel right, and it all feels too overwhelming, you’re gonna be getting a call from me [Laughs].

Kevin: Anytime, Meg.

Meg: How are you feeling? Are you excited for your record to be announced?

Kevin: I’m feeling good. I leave at the end of this week to go to Europe to do a press trip. I feel like I’m already just beginning. It’s basically starting in a week. My whole motive with moving back to Kansas City was to have a place to make me bored, and let me have a place to rest and work and not have temptations. Because at this point, to keep doing what we do, I need to be able to really take care of myself when I’m not on the road.

I feel like I just hit this threshold where I’m pretty bored, so I’m excited to go out. Usually I’m like, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe I have to leave again, I don’t wanna,” but I’m feeling good, I’m feeling prepared, and I’m feeling excited. It’s a beautiful life; we’ve got the best jobs in the world, Meg.

Meg: We really do.

(Photo Credit: left, Barrett Emke; right, Jacob Boll)

Kevin Morby, formerly of Woods and the Babies, is about to release his fifth solo album, Oh My God, through Dead Oceans. He currently lives in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter here.

(Photo Credit: Barrett Emke)