Feature: Megson – Dynamic Duo
Debs and Stu Hanna, aka Megson, have been making a name for themselves for some time now, both live and on record, with their mix of songs about north-east life and universal themes of birth, relationships and death. Shire Folk spoke to them recently about their new album In A Box and the pressure of fitting music-making and production duties around family life.
SF: You’ve released a children’s album and a live album since, but In A Box feels like the real follow-up to The Longshot. Is that how you see it?
Debs: Yes I guess so. The children’s album was always going to be a bit of a sideline, just something different for us to do, and the live album, well a lot of people asked us to do it. But yes it is a follow-up to The Longshot.
Stu: I guess it’s a development.
SF: You seemed to start something of a trend for folk children’s albums.
Debs: There has, I know. There’s a bit of an untapped market. There’d been ones done previously, but not recently, but yes there’s a few of them cropping up now.
SF: The live album gave a good representation of the way that you are in a live situation. It was particularly good to have a live version of ‘Tally-I-O The Grinder’ as well.
Stu: That was one of the reasons we did the live album really, so that we can put that on. I’m not sure really why it hasn’t been on a record really ... it never felt right to put it on one. People always say that they’re singing along to it for days afterwards.
SF: Your songs are very rooted in the North-East, but you’re now based in Cambridgeshire. Do you think that will have an impact on your songs in the future?
Stu: Yeah, I think it will. As we’re both from the North-East we’ll always be drawn there, but as time goes by we’ll pick up stories and ideas inspired by where we are. We also spent about eight years in London and we haven’t tapped into that either to a certain extent. Sometimes ideas take a long time to mull over in your mind, your mind takes a long time to digest background information before it comes out in song.
SF: You’ve always had songs that had that universality about them – the track ‘In A Box’ itself, and ‘Dirty Clothes’, but ‘The Longshot’ hits a nerve with me as a fan of an underperforming football team myself, but it’s not just about football, it’s a metaphor for life.
Debs: No it’s definitely not just about football.
SF: You talked earlier about developing the sound and you seem to have more guests on In A Box than previously. Do you see yourself building on that? Do you see a ‘Megson Big Band’ in the future?
Debs: Stu would like to and it would be a nice thing to do, but it’s just the time and it’s easy for us to get together and rehearse of an evening when Lola’s gone to bed.
Stu: The good thing about where we are now is that we’re getting to know more musicians who live close by. When we were in London it was tricky – it takes an hour to get ten miles down the road in London, you know. But here we’ve got lots of musician friends, haven’t we?
Debs: Yeah. We did our launch gig at King’s Place in London a few weeks ago and we had The Willows with us for that, so they augmented that sound. The next gig after that without them did feel very strange.
SF: Their album was another one you produced wasn’t it, Stu?
Stu: I was involved with it. They’d already done a lot of it; I joined the ship halfway. I got involved halfway through and helped them with that. It was good fun and they’re good friends now. It’s nice to get involved with things like that – meet musicians who will eventually join the Megson Big Band!
SF: How do you fit production work in around Megson? It must be very difficult logistically?
Stu: Yes it is actually. It’s not too bad at the moment. I’ve got a couple of little things on, but nothing too major. I did a lot when we had our little girl and we were touring less and it was easier to fit around, but it can get tricky. What I find the hardest is getting into the right headspace, because when you’re involved with the same set of songs you find yourself thinking about them all the time and focusing on something different is hard. Say if I’m recording Lucy Ward I find it hard to think about writing some new Megson songs, which I’m going to be doing, but switching zones I find quite difficult. That’s what I find hard – not the time, but the mental space.
SF: How does it work with production? Do they say ‘I want it to sound like this’ or do you tease out the sound you want from them?
Stu: Sometimes, yeah. It depends on the performer and your relationship with them. Sometimes they have a general feel or they want drums or this and that on it and sometimes they’re not really sure and I can suggest things. You try different things and come to an agreement. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and I’ll try and persuade an artist and hope that it works – usually it does. Sometimes it’s the other way round. You’ll get someone who says it needs to be sparse; it needs to sound like this – it’ll sound great and you’re just not sure and it turns out right in the end. The more trust you can have with musicians the better; you’ve got to let them do their thing and hope they trust you and let you do your thing as well.
SF: How do fit things in around your daughter and your dog, The Moog, of course ...
Debs: His head’s right here actually. He’s listening in. He’s almost on the telephone.
SF: It’s great that you’ve got your own home studio and can record with children and animals around, but you’re gigging a lot, so how do you manage it?
Debs: We use grandparents really, who come and stay, but they’re all based in the North-East, so it means that they have to come and stay for maybe a week or so at a time while we go off on the road. We do try and get back of an evening if we can, if it’s not too far, so we’re here for when she wakes up in the morning. So it’s late nights and early starts and a houseful of guests.
Stu: Sometimes we use our musician friends to do some babysitting. Lucy’s doing some babysitting soon.
Debs: Often you’re not playing too late and she can come with us to quite a few festivals this year. In fact, we’re flying out to Sark next week.
SF: So what’s next? You’ve got a serious gigging schedule for the rest of this year; do you have anything planned for after that?
Stu: We’re working on some videos at the moment for some of the tracks. There’s an ‘In A Box’ video in the pipeline. We did a live video for ‘Still I Love Him’ and I’m about to speak to Jess Morgan ... she did our artwork for the album and she’s going to do a video for ‘Dirty Clothes’. There’s a lot of illustration, so I’m not sure how she’ll do it.
Megson’s latest album In A Box is out now on EDJ Records