Meg Baird :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The word “furling” connotes curling up around the center; it’s the exact opposite of the wild, adventurous “unfurling” which flings itself out into the world. Yet for Meg Baird, the word, which she chose for to title her latest album, carries elements of exploration, too. A sail can furl after taking you halfway around the world. A book’s pages can furl after transporting you to a different time and place.

Meg Baird’s latest album, Furling, then withdraws itself into small domestic spaces. It explores the partnership the songwriter has forged, both musical and romantic, with the guitarist Charlie Saufley. It meditates on the way that a piano can sit at the center of family life, making any house a home. And yet, it also faces outward, pushing out rollicking grooves and aching, pristine clarity. It makes the case for Baird, once again, as one of the finest singers and songwriters of her generation.

We spoke to Baird shortly after a Chicago show where she shared the bill and most of a backing band—Doug McCoombs and Ryan Jewell—with her long-time friend Chris Forsyth. This wonderful show dusted off older songs from Dear Companion and tried out newer ones from Furling; it even interjected an Espers composition, just to remind everywhere where it all started. And it was a warm, beautiful expression of the collaborative nature of music with Forsyth sitting in with Meg Baird’s band, and Charlie Saufley playing with Forsyth, and members of all bands (plus Bill MacKay) finding ways to complement and embellish one another. Everyone sounded better because they were together.

Now with the record out and a West Coast tour in the works, Baird says she’s grateful to be making music. “I’m just really happy to be able to do any of this again after the last couple of years. To be able to come back out and put up a fence post. I’m just really happy to be in this situation.” | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: I really enjoyed your show in Chicago. Can you tell me a little about how you got to know Chris Forsyth? It must go back to Philly.

Meg Baird: Actually, before Philadelphia. We both went to Rutgers University together. I’ve known him since we were both in college. I knew him during his New York years, and we’ve stayed in touch. We’re always overlapping.

AD: Have you ever played in a band with him?

Meg Baird: We’ve played a couple of shows together, very few. We played together at Jack Rose’s memorial show, and that’s it. But we’ve known each other since far before he even moved to New York.

AD: The concert where you both played had a really interesting mix of sounds. Obviously very different from what you do, but it seemed to go together really well.

Meg Baird: Oh, good I’m glad to hear that. It was very natural. We just went with what was happening. Everyone in that unit all kind of know each other’s work and vocabulary, so we just kind of went with it.

AD: Can you tell me a little about that band you put together? I know you play with Charlie (Saufley) all the time, but how did you hook up with Doug McCombs and Ryan Jewell?

Meg Baird: That’s really from Chris because he was already collaborating with them for a record. He shared the record with me and I told him that I was doing a record soon. It came out of very casual conversations. Maybe we should try this? And then we actually did it.

AD: You didn’t have very long to prepare, did you?

Meg Baird: We rehearsed for two days together.

AD: That’s what I heard. It sounded great.

Meg Baird: But I rehearsed a lot more than two days. I mean, I’m sure Doug and Ryan did some prep work as well. They type of musicians that …

AD: They could just show up and do it.

Meg Baird: Yeah.

AD: I was talking to Bill McKay about how long he had to get ready to play with Chris, and he said oh yeah, I listened to the song twice.

Meg Baird: That’s Bill.

AD: But it sounded great. It was a really great set and it had some older material, at least one of the new songs and at least one Espers songs. I was thinking about your career over time. I wonder how you think about where you’ve been and how you’ve evolved. Do you see it all as one story or are there distinct chapters?

Meg Baird: I do see it as very related, even though if you put all the pieces out there, it might look somewhat disjointed. They all make sense to me and they make sense together. A lot of them reflect music that I like and music that’s coming from a community that I’m very engaged with. And so that’s why something like Heron Oblivion makes just as much sense as Dear Companion. Because that’s at the root of how all of those came about. I see it as all connected.

Where am I now? Probably just always building, expanding, I don’t know. I felt like I really did need to circle back to what I would call solo work, even though that isn’t something I’m always dying to do. I think of myself as a collaborator. Being in bands and working with other people. But it seemed time to circle back to that.

AD: Even though it’s a solo album, it’s still a collaboration, primarily with Charlie. Can you talk about working with him, how long you’ve known him and what you like about what he does?

Meg Baird: Sure, I’ve been working with Charlie in an official capacity since Heron Oblivion, but really longer. You know we’re partners. We live together. I guess it’s been about 12 years now. It’s hard to keep track of years the last few years. It started when he would sit in with me at a show, just to make it more fun for both of us. We play a lot in the domestic space. We’ve always shared a very small domestic space. That’s what goes on when you’re in a small space, two musicians…

AD: Either that or you kill each other.

Meg Baird: Yeah. You have to take a very structured approach. This is your turn…

AD: I was talking to Joan Shelley who has a similar situation where she’s married to Nathan Salsburg and they play together and they have a baby. It must be a little bit challenging to have so much of your life overlapping with another person.

Meg Baird: I guess sometimes it is, but so many other things are easier as well. It’s not something I dissect too much. Who doesn’t want more time and more space? No matter what the circumstances.

AD: But he’s got such a beautiful tone. I was listening to him at the show in Chicago and thinking about how clear it is and how it really cuts through even though it’s not super loud. He’s really doing some nice stuff.

Meg Baird: Absolutely. He’s got what I call the exquisite touch. I love that it’s not too precious, either. He’s very adventurous with it. He doesn’t get too boxed in by being too extraordinarily tasteful to the point of disappearing. I love that about his work. A lot of filigree. He’s very influenced by some more classic and bigger sounds that he’s able to translate very well.

AD: He doesn’t come out of this acid folk scene that you do.

Meg Baird: No, I think he did know Espers. He said he was a fan. That music was also very active in San Francisco, too. He definitely was paying attention to that music, but that wasn’t what he was coming out of. He was in a band called Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, which was doing a heavier sound. Not super heavy, but in that heavy psychedelic rock vernacular. 

AD: It’s been a while since you did a solo album, and I know you’ve been busy with Heron Oblivion and that album you did with Mary Lattimore and maybe some other projects . What made you feel like it was time for another solo album?

Meg Baird: I just felt it was time. I probably felt like it was already about three years too late. I was piling up songs. Half-finished things. It was just getting to be a burden. I had to focus and book time. I can’t say that it was one event or anything. It just really felt like it was time to make another solo record or just let it all go. I either needed to do something with these loose ideas or move on.

AD: Do they come from the whole period between records? The last solo record was 2015, I think.

Meg Baird: They are from the whole period. I often don’t complete things. Sometimes I’m a very bad compiler of sketches. But those sketches did span that whole length of time. There was a lot of weeding out, honestly, figuring out what I wanted to actually focus on and finish.

AD: It sounds pretty cohesive, though. Was there a specific set of influences that was different from what you were thinking about before? Were there any specific sounds that you were aiming for?

Meg Baird: Well, all along, there was a feeling that I would perform it with Charlie, and we would track everything. You know, kind of make this band in the studio. When I first started out, I wasn’t necessarily thinking in those terms. I was thinking, oh, I’ll go back to the basics and do something far quieter and sparer, but that’s kind of not what was coming up. That was definitely I was thinking of.

AD: There seems to be more piano on this album?

Meg Baird: Yes, piano, that was a choice, too. I really wanted to spend some time with the piano. I don’t have a piano. But my relationship with the piano was kind of part of what I was hoping to capture in those piano songs. I haven’t had a piano in a long time. We were living in a very small studio apartment which was already completely overflowing with instruments. So, the idea of having a piano here is completely insane.

I haven’t had a piano, but I grew up with a piano in the home. I feel like pianos make a place feel like home. I grew up taking piano lessons. I wasn’t the most serious student, but I was always playing. I grew up with a very strong relationship with the piano. A piano in a house that you can just kind of mess around with, really kind of explore sonically without it being a recital or for anything in particular. I did want to work from that place. Also, when I get homesick, playing the piano makes me feel at home.

AD: I hate to call it a COVID album, but was that part of it, that you were holed up and couldn’t go home or anywhere else?

Meg Baird: I recorded the bulk of it before March 2020.

AD: You were done before COVID?

Meg Baird: I had done the bulk of the tracking. I did complete it after with some overdubs and mixing and that kind of work. The bulk of the session was a bit eerie. There was a sense that something might happen, but we didn’t know what it was.

AD: Well, all kinds of things were happening, as I recall. Something new and horrible seemed to happen almost every week.

Meg Baird: Exactly, it was the tenor of times. There was a sense of it out there, that something might happen, but after our major tracking session, the call for shelter in place came about a week after that. That’s how it plays in. But the homesickness comes in…I’m in California which is far away from Philadelphia where I grew up. It’s just a bittersweet part of living somewhere that you love but also being far away from somewhere you love. It’s kind of baked into leaving a place.

AD: But that’s also a big part of your musical development, not just the piano but singing with your sister. What was that like when you were growing up? Did you have little recitals after dinner?

Meg Baird: We didn’t. It was more of our own play. It wasn’t about performing—we did have some performances—but this was more like our own little laboratory. It felt really natural. It was just what you did to have fun, pass the time. The recital stuff is a bit separate because you had to prepare for your lesson or recital. That probably felt a little different than what we would do together.

AD: Did your parents sing with you?

Meg Baird: Not really. My father was very musical. He played the trombone, primarily. But singing wasn’t…I mean, there was singing but it wasn’t a huge piece of the puzzle.

AD: These songs on the album. Are they a set, lyrically speaking? Are there common themes that run through them?

Meg Baird: Yes there are. There are a lot of common themes. I did write the lyrics for most of them around the same time. There’s definitely threads running all through. I tend to have a lot of images and ideas all stitched into a song that may sound very simple on the surface. They all are kind of a mess in that way. But yes there are themes. Probably it’s somewhat intentional but probably also they just arise.

AD: What would some of those themes be?

Meg Baird: Domesticity was coming up a lot. Celebrating but also yearning for home. But definitely a lot of celebration of it. There are goodbyes and more exploring senses of foreboding and exploration. That outward, looking out over the horizon, feeling kind of dwarfed by it but also just looking out. That’s probably more of a mood than a theme, but that was a common thread. But the songs, each song goes down its own path.

AD: What does “Furling” mean?

Meg Baird: Well, furling, I thought of that as like a sail.

AD: You hear about unfurling.

Meg Baird: It’s also books can furl. A page will furl. To me it seemed like throwing out your anchor or also curling around something. Even maybe taking a rest and embracing word. It’s still related to sailing and travel. Whether through a book or in your head. Something about time passing.

AD: I really like the last two songs, and they’re very different. “Will You Follow Me Home” has this wonderful swaggering 1960s rock sound. Can you tell me about that song and how it turned into what it is?

Meg Baird: Sure, that was a song that very much came from that sense of play at home. Charlie and I were playing around at home, being very resourceful in a small space, making a fun demo for who knows what? You know. It was very recreational. We just decided to try to take that to a fuller recorded piece. It’s a fun one for me, because it really feels like a great combination of Charlie and me both, with a lot of the music we listen to, but doing in our own small more DIY way.

AD: Probably it would be fun to play live, too.

Meg Baird: Yes, very fun.

AD: And then you have “Wreathing Days” which is just about the polar opposite, just the piano and voice. Did that one come last?

Meg Baird: It didn’t come last, except in terms of sequencing. For the piano songs, I sometimes have the opportunity to do some house sitting for friends who have a piano. Because I don’t have a piano myself, those piano songs came from a few times when I had what felt like almost a mini residency to sit with the piano and explore it. The first and the last songs were probably composed around the same time, or at least at the same place. Those came from that. I even shared the foundations of “Wreathing Days” with Ben Chasny. He was very encouraging. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go in that direction, but he was very supportive and encouraging. I do appreciate that. I’m glad I was able to complete that work.

AD: It’s really a nice song. Do you have a favorite bit or a sound or a lyric on the album that you feel came out really well?

Meg Baird: I like how the piano came out. That was again because it’s not a very natural instrument for me. I feel like I was able to capture some kind of picture, even though I’m not a pianist pianist, that showed my relationship with the piano. My history with it. I even thought about how my grandmother used to play. She was more of a boogie woogie pianist. I just thought a lot about pianos in homes and was able to record this piano work, it was one I separated out from my session work with Tim Green. I was able to perform it on this old Victorian, kind of beater-box grand. I kind of wanted to capture that image. I had to separate that out, too, because I was so nervous about overusing my studio time budget. I wasn’t sure how many takes I would need to get something down.

I like the lyrics to “Star Hill Song.” They’re a lot more literal than sometimes I go. There’s not really one favorite.

AD: You just finished a tour, and I know touring has gotten difficult because of COVID and gas prices and a whole bunch of things. How did it go for you?

Meg Baird: I think we probably were a bit lucky. We just hit it at a relatively good time when cases were low, and we had all just gotten boosted. Everything’s expensive. We came in with eyes wide open. I think we were just happy that it went as well as it did. I would characterize it as – it was fine because we were prepared for all sorts of worst cases and we avoided all of those.

AD: Could have been worse.

Meg Baird: Yeah. But it was really great. Interpersonally and musically, it was just so great. It really felt like such a natural fit. We had fun. We’re hoping to do it again.

AD: I’m just grateful for people being on the road. That was one of the really bad things about COVID, that you couldn’t go to music. It’s really nice to be able to do that again.

Meg Baird: And even to be able to see people.

AD: I got very weird during COVID. I had trouble—even now I have trouble talking to strangers. I feel like there’s this lingering trauma from COVID that’s going to take a while to work through.

Meg Baird: It’s going to take a while. Sure trauma, the behavior changes, everyone is still struggling with…I call it people practice. Feeling awkward, forgetting words, the whole thing.

AD: Me too.

Meg Baird: People practice was definitely part of the tour, but I was glad to have the chance to do it. And see a lot of people I hadn’t seen in way too long.

AD: Have you been listening to anything good lately?

Meg Baird: Certainly. I feel terrible because my mind is going blank. And I have to say, that’s one thing about sharing the small space, that I’m not always the DJ. What have we been listening to? I’ve actually been listening to tons and tons and tons of freeform and college radio. Whenever I’m passing through an area I’ll tune in and at home I’ll stream it. The idea of someone else being at the controls, of being surprised, is great. So just domestically and at home, I just been listening to a lot of radio, both live and streaming.

For instance, I somehow missed Into Silence by Jane Antonia Cornish in 2017, but just heard “Into Silence II” performed by Vicky Wong on my recent tour with Chris Forsyth. I listened to as much freeform and college radio as I could on the way, (Thanks, WKCR)

AD: Now I’m going to ask you about books. Have you read anything good lately?

Meg Baird: I’m in the middle of a book called White Magic by Elissa Washuta. It’s a challenging read, but I’m really grateful to be reading it.

AD: Is it fiction or non-fiction?

Meg Baird: It’s non-fiction. She writes in a very contemporary essay style. It’s very personal, like memoir. I’m not exactly sure where to put the genre.

AD: Auto fiction?

Meg Baird: But it’s not fiction. She writes from her own personal experience. That’s what I’m reading right now. I’m revisiting recent history with Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless as well.

AD: Are you collaborating with anyone right now? Any side projects you want to talk about?

Meg Baird: Well, I’m hoping to work with Mary (Lattimore) again. We haven’t completely figured it out. A lot of it is just carving out the space.

AD: She’s in LA now.

Meg Baird: Yes. I didn’t get around very much the last few years, a little bit by car, but there wasn’t a ton of travel. I’m also hoping to work with my sister again. It feels like it’s time to do that again. She’s in New Jersey now. So, she’s still in the area, and she just released a really beautiful collection of songs, a really personal project in memory of my father. That’s something I’ve been listening to, too. It’s really beautiful. I was really hoping that we can carve some time out to do some new work together. There are a couple of other things that we’ve been talking about for so long, and when are we going to do it. I’ll probably prioritize some of those things soon.

AD: Will there be more Heron Oblivion?

Meg Baird: There’s no plans for it. Anything can happen. But yeah, I don’t have anything too exciting to report on that front.

AD: What do you think about the current state of folk and experimental music? It seems like it’s under siege but still producing.

Meg Baird: I think there’s probably more of it than I even know about it. It’s challenging, but I feel like it’s always been challenging. I don’t know. Maybe it feels more difficult than it used to. I think with live performing, expectations have gotten so big that it makes it a little trickier. I feel like that music works better when you can have successful, healthy performance with like maybe 50 to 100 in a room, or maybe even a little less than 50.It used to be more common to present things in that way. But more recently, there’s a lot of pressure. Touring has to be a big income generator. And then the venues followed suit. There have been a lot of changes in how music is presented over the last decade that have maybe left some of those pretty undernourished or even if they’re still there, made to feel more challenging. A project at the gate has to immediately be able to sell 250 tickets to be considered even remotely serious, but that’s not going to work for everybody. I’ve gone to book tours for really celebrated authors and there’s maybe 60 people there. Not everything can get to that large capacity. That might be challenging for some people. I don’t want anyone to feel bad or stop doing this because of that.

AD: Is there anything else you want to talk about?

Meg Baird: I’m just really happy to be in this situation. It’s a full circle to have a record out again. It fermented for quite a long time because of all the production delays, not just the obvious from the last couple of years. There’s no way I thought that a record I recorded in early 2020 would be out in early 2023. I’m just really happy to be able to do any of this again after the last couple of years. To be able to come back out with some kind of a fence post.

AD: It’s a beautiful album. I’m glad you did it.

Meg Baird: Thanks so much.

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