Megan Reilly took a break.
Well, not really.
In the six years since her last release, Let Your Ghost Go, this Memphis-native singer/songwriter started a family, toured with Neko Case, The Mekons, Tom Verlaine and Grant Lee Philips, and moved twice. And, of course, she has been plugging away at writing and recording her new album, The Well, which is slated to step into the light on April 24.
It was well worth the wait. Songs like “Sew the Threads Into Your Heart” and
“To Seal My Love” center around flowing melodies, insightful lyrics and Reilly’s winnowy vocals. This is a musician after my own bare-your-soul-loving heart.
The production is appropriately straightforward with Reilly’s longtime band joining her, including Steve Goulding (The Mekons, The Rumour) on drums, Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu, They Might Be Giants) on bass and James Mastro (Ian Hunter, Garland Jeffreys) on lead guitar.
With The Well, Reilly has plumbed deep into the depths of her being, extracting gorgeously crafted songs that are served up with a refreshingly honest bearing. Here Reilly talks about what it takes to make her musical magic.
GUITAR WORLD: I had the pleasure of previewing your upcoming release, and I have to ask: What took you so long?
Well, I work slowly. I mean, the first two records had a lot of songs on them that I had been writing since I started playing. So everything on this record had been written for this record. Plus, I had a kid!
I’m a mother and I’m an artist and I do more than just play music. I moved out of New York, lived in Philly for a year, then we moved to New Jersey in this little town that’s a train ride away from the city. So, six years is a long time, but so much happened in six years that it feels like the whole making of the record just became this organic experience.
It’s probably evident that I write really personal songs that may be not literal, and you don’t know exactly what I am singing about. But I definitely am inspired by things that are really meaningful to me, and it takes time to get that.
Have you been performing the songs on this album in the interim?
Some of them, but the funny thing was -- going back to “What took you so long?” -- it got to a point where I said, “OK, I need to just book studio time or this is going to be another two years before I get something done.” So I had only completed about four of the songs and I booked the studio time about four months in advance.
With music, I always have just kind of relished waiting for the inspiration to take over and sort of happen. So this was the first time I sat down with a mission to make and finish and write this record, and get it done. And that was really cool. And especially being a mom now. It made me really great at multitasking. I can take my 30-minute window when my kid is watching TV or something to try and work on a verse. So I just sort of juggled and it came out, and it’s far surpassed my expectations. I’m really proud of it.
Do you have a favorite track on the new album? Is there a song that really means a lot to you?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of them do. It’s hard to pick one. But I’ll tell you that “The Lady of Leitrim,” the second track, that one means a lot to me because that is about the story of my grandmother and her younger sister immigrating to America from Ireland in the 1930s.
It’s really about my grandmother’s sister, who she had raised because their mother had left for America when they were young girls, like 5 and 7, and left them there. Twelve years after that happened, they came to America themselves. My great aunt had a lot of challenges with mental illness and she ended up drowning in the East River in the 1950s.
It’s something that my family never ... it’s understandable, it’s so painful that they don’t talk about it. But that story has always haunted me. I was so close to my grandmother. She never talked about her little sister. They played music together. That all stopped when the sister died. And my grandmother is now deceased.
It’s kind of this ghost in the family, and I felt like not only did I wanna kind of memorialize her, I wanted to make it be about the fact that maybe she didn’t kill herself. Because we don’t really know. Maybe she didn’t know how to swim, but maybe she wanted to go back to Ireland. So I wrote it from that perspective. This is about her coming here and she saw the water and she wanted to go back.
It’s incredibly depressing but it has affected the women in my family so severely that I feel like it’s a cathartic thing for me and my sister to have this now.
Well, now I have to go listen to that song again.
I know, it’s really heavy. I mean, a lot of the songs are. They’re so heavy, sometimes it’s like there’s no way you’re ever going to hear me. It’s more like a feeling you get listening to it. And now James Mastro is playing guitar with me. He played on one or two tracks on the last record, but he’s a new addition to the band and he’s so amazing, so confident and just plays so lyrically and I feel like that only accentuates everything that I’ve done.
Let’s talk about guitar. How did you start playing?
I started when I was about 15. I made the decision that singing was my first love, and I didn’t want to have to wait around to be able to make music. So I thought I could just teach myself how to play guitar, and you know, followed my instinct. I had to take lessons for a second, but I really am self-taught. I don’t read music. And a lot of times I don’t even know what chord I’m playing, because I’ve just played with amazing people who don’t need me to tell them. I’m kind of lazy, so I just play by ear. But that was the main reason for why I ever picked up the guitar. I knew I wanted to perform, but I didn’t want to be reliant on a bunch of guys to get a band together.
You started off playing acoustic guitar? But you play electric now, too, right?
Yeah, I only play electric live really. I mean, I may have a show in New York in April where I am doing this solo thing, and I need to find an acoustic guitar. But I love my Fender Bullet. I found it at a pawnshop in Memphis when I was 18. And it’s the only guitar I’ve ever played with live. And I play out of a Princeton Reverb amp. It’s an old tube amp.
I’ve got a baby Taylor now that I love to sort of fiddle around with; it’s easy to get it out and play. But I like my electric guitar. It’s easier to play an electric guitar, and it doesn’t hurt as much but also. Especially through that amp, I’m so much quicker to be inspired with that kind of a sound than just fiddling around on an acoustic guitar. But the acoustic guitar is helpful to me when I’m writing sometimes, but my true preference is to play the Fender Bullet.
I understand you pretty much recorded this record live.
Yes. We got Lenny Kaye to come in on another day and he played acoustic on the first two songs. But for all the lead stuff, he did that. We all played it live and I sang live.
That probably gives you a different energy.
Yeah! When you’re recording, it can be nerve-wracking. So I think it’s helpful to just try to not think about that you’re recording, and that you’re just together playing. I was separated from them, but I could see them. I was in the control room with the engineer, and I had my mics set up. My guitar amp was on the other side of the studio, so I had like a 100-foot-long cable.
It’s been kind of challenging to capture what this band especially can do live, because they’re amazing. And we didn’t have a ton of money, so this the most economical way to make the record and capture that. We did like six tracks a day, it was crazy.
Well, I think the result is really something special.
I feel like this is the best thing I’ve ever made. And it’s hard for me to say something like that. I don’t know why. But sometimes self-doubt can keep me from moving forward, and I really fought against that making this record and sort of looked that in the eye. I couldn’t let it stop me from creating and following my instinct, which is what I’ve always done with music, because I’m not a classically-trained musician. So it’s just a really good feeling to follow my gut. I just feel so happy about it and I hope as many people as possible will hear it.
Look for Megan Reilly’s The Well, which comes out April 24. Reilly will be touring throughout the year; find out more at meganreilly.com.
Here’s a video of Megan performing “Sew The Threads Into Your Heart.”
Photo: Jason Creps