Megan McCormick always knew her life lay in music. It wasn’t a matter of fancy costumes or the notion of thousands of people clamoring for her attention. The girl who grew up in Alaska – and whose grandparents are in the Western Swing Hall of Fame – could feel it on a cellular level.
“Everyone in the family played… so I’ve always been around great music,” says the dark-headed young woman with the glint in her eye. Her parents played too, though not professionally. Her mother was a country singer while her father was more of a rock & roller. “It was never about the glamour, but the grits, you know? Because I’d be doing this whether people listened or not. It’s how I’ve chosen to live… It’s a necessity, not an option.
“And music, if you’re doing it for those reasons, isn’t about the chart numbers, about the money, about the thousands of people, but more the way people feel it. You know there will always be people who want the more superficial, poppy stuff, but I know there are people out there who want more – and those are the people I’m playing for.
At 23, McCormick has more insight into the human condition than many people twice her age – and her guitar playing has a deep-in-the-blues groove-grounding that adds credence to songs about addiction, obsession, romance, sorting life out and trying to make one’s way in the world. Whether it’s the taut Stevie Ray Vaughan-evoking “Shiver,” the lacerating lost souls’ recognition in “Drifting” or the torchy foreboding of meltdown that is “Pick Up The Phone,” her heart on her sleeve and her truth in your face seems to be this singer’s natural stance.|
“I don’t identify with a lot of things other people do,” she confesses. “It’s not about age or education… man or woman… straight or gay… wrecked or sober… I’m just a plain human on my journey, and that makes me more like most people than different. That’s the thing: people like to magnify the differentiation when really there are so many more similarities.
“Even when you’re looking at relationships and different perspectives, what happens between people is pretty much the same. What could be about a lover, could be about a father in a different context – or a friend. Once you get too specific on whatever descriptors you’re using, the more you minimize the people you can reach, the ones who see themselves in the songs… because everyone’s got trouble.
Pausing, she weighs her words. “When you start looking at it like that, you’d be amazed. There are a lot more fragile people than there are emotionally healthy Buddhists.”
McCormick’s trade is certainly in the darker places, the crevices where life falls in on itself, where urges get a momentum destined to pull the unsuspecting off the tracks and that which saves can suck you under. With a wistful yearning, the young woman who attended East Tennessee State University’s acclaimed bluegrass program reflects on what is lost in the descent on “Wasted” and finds the soul undulations to pick up the pieces on “Things Change” on what can only be considered an eclectically lean rock & roll record.
McCormick's masterful guitar playing adds to the emotional heft, giving a musical weight to each track on the album. Whether tearing through a blazing outro solo on "Shiver" or elegantly finger picking on the album's title track, McCormick's guitar skill helps set her and her songs apart. It also helps to drop jaws at her live shows.
“When I was little, I loved Reba McEntire – the straight-up showmanship and strength of who she was,” explains the brash singer/songwriter/guitarslinger. “But then there was Gladys Knight – and I had a cassette of hers that broke. I went crazy! I remember telling my Mom that they had to fix the tape, ‘because I needed to study it… because somebody was going to have to sing those songs when she’s gone.’…that classic soul thing, the groovy choruses. I was obsessed.
“That’s the thing: no matter how many genres you can detect on this record, it all melts into this one thing, which is my music. It’s genuine, and it’s a true sense of me, who I am as a musician. Maybe rock & roll is more of a mindset, but I think it’s about what’s inside you.”
Certainly songs like “Lonely Tonight” and the gently brutal “Honest Words” mine doubt, regret, a certain kind of agony and a definite vein of pushing off the bottom to face the mess, fix what you can and embrace what you can’t. “Right now I feel more comfortable about who I am, my intentions, what I’ve been through and the lessons I’ve learned than I ever have been.
“The thing about ‘Honest Words,’ it works from a lot of different places – because there are so many stories from whatever side you’re on. The one in it, the child, the parent – and this heartbreaking thing of ‘Why did you do this to me?’ whether it’s your Dad, your partner, God, even yourself! It’s not a good feeling to be walked away from in any circumstance, but it’s in facing it that you can start over.”
Those stories that McCormick tells so willingly and completely are what drew legendary music publisher David Conrad out of retirement. The man who championed the songs of Gillian Welch, Nanci Griffith, Patti Griffin and Emmylou Harris saw something vital in McCormick’s amalgamation of styles, sentiments and truth and signed on.
“David saw me at the Basement,” McCormick says. “He’d retired, but he called Lance Freed, who’d originally signed Melissa (Etheridge). He came to see me, liked what he saw… and that was the beginning of some very major relationships in my life. And they’re music people, really advocates for the song.
“Because you know when you’re making an album, you’re putting yourself out there, making a series of impressions. It’s funny what a personal expression something like this can be, as passion turns to employment – and it takes you away. It becomes your life.
“And the Ryko people, and my producer, Dave O’Donnell, just like David Conrad, all supported that. They understood I wanted to make an album. That the songs all need each other to be okay and make sense, that they all hold hands and exist together. It’s like the guitar playing which is understated, but I use it to support me as a singer and to give the songs form, to tie them together.” The GRAMMY-winning O'Donnell, who has worked with artists like John Mayer, Joss Stone and James Taylor, help McCormick focus in the studio achieve the album cohesion she was looking for.
For the woman who evokes Neil Young in her stark vulnerability in some places, Brandi Carlisle's earnest desire and Ray LaMontagne's gritty force in others, the will for cohesion makes sense. It is her life she’s harvesting the songs from – something that’s a point of pride for the songwriter who’s already opened for Amos Lee and had a song in a Sigourney Weaver movie.
“There are all kinds of dichotomies on this record and you think everybody has patience – and they don’t. But you can’t cater to the people least likely to listen to an album, who only want single tracks. Each song sets up the one that follows – and I realize I had a hard time making definitive statements, they change from situation to situation, moment to moment, but they’re attached to each other.”
And it is real life McCormick draws on. Having cast herself into the world of working musician at a young age, she’s lived enough and seen plenty more. Laughing she admits, “I got close enough to the edge to ask myself, ‘What are you doing? Do you wanna do this?’ Because I can get there… but you make a decision about purpose and reason, what your priorities are.
“You know, you always know what's right and what’s wrong – no matter how fucked up you are. It’s a matter of what you do with that information. Those decisions are where a lot of these songs come from. I hope there’s some captivation and fascination here, but also some question marks and truth left over because I don’t wanna overload people.
“You wanna give’em enough mystery to make’em wanna come back for more. I hope there’s more to be desired based on this… I make shit up, I can’t convince anyone to believe in me, especially more than I believe in myself. It has to be captivating, but there has to be room for other people, too.”
Other people are the kerosene that ignites McCormack’s truths, but in the end, it is still her truth she draws on. Still the things she’s seen along the way that inform her songs.
“I’ve been there for more than enough stuff, had enough experiences to know these things I write about without dragging the depths. You don’t have to be doing it to write about it, you just have to know and remember. It’s my little outline, but there’s a wealth of experience that goes with it.”