Interview: Washington on finding the secret ingredient for her new LP Batflowers

Megan Washington is super-excited about the pending release of her latest album, Batflowers, and she has good reason to be.

It’s nigh-on six years since the release of There There, the sophomore long-play, after her debut I Believe you Liar in 2010. “It’s not for lack of trying” said a buoyant Washington when I put that to her.

The album was largely complete in 2018, but something wasn’t right for its release. “They were just the wrong versions” she told the AU. “I assembled this record in 2018 – and I called it Achilles Heart – and it was most of the songs – but the thing that was missing – was Sam (Dixon)”

Dixon worked with Washington on There There. A great friend and collaborator, Dixon was involved as a co-writer of 4 of the songs on the album.

“It was a funny mental exercise because there are some things which are new – “Lazarus” is new from last year, a couple of tracks are new, but fundamentally I had all the right ingredients but I had the wrong approach.

Whenever I work with Sam – he reminds me of this thing about music which is pretty profound, and super important, which is that it is supposed to be fun, which I forget all the time.

He reminds me of that, and that’s what was missing. I loved everybody that I worked with on those other tracks – but the music didn’t sound like it was having fun. I was having fun making the music, but the music sounded serious, and a little bit fancy, and I don’t identify with either of those.

When I started to work with Sam again, “Dark Parts” was the thing that kicked it off for me. Having him around to talk to every day was a great reminder that it’s meant to be fun, because talking to Sam is super fun. I added him to the ingredients or I reverted back to the original versions. – e.g. the version of “Kiss Me Like We’re Gonna Die” is the demo from the night that we wrote it. That’s the demo that got mixed.”

““Not a Machine” is unmixed – it’s the actual demo. “Catherine Wheel” is the iphone demo – there’s just a lot of original versions. With all the vibes, the mistakes, the hesitation and all of the humanity. I wanted to put that back in because that’s where the magic is I think.”

I put it to her that many of the songs have the theme of love running through them. Whereas There There was an album of loss and acceptance, Batflowers has an absolute positive vibe, even though love is never being taken for granted.

Washington’s response to this was “but not in a sappy love way – not in a Hallmark kind of way – I think in terms of self-love, like Ru Paul says if you can’t love yourself how can you love anyone else?”

Like many others she has been digging deep into the Nick Cave’s The Red Hand Files – “Nick Cave says that creativity is an act of love. It was the beginning of a sentence where he says even more profound things. I love that idea because creativity is an act of love, but if you exist in a society where artists are seen as unusual or unimportant then you could have a feeling that creativity is an act of selfishness. That’s what people say about artists when they don’t like them. They say that they are ‘dole bludgers’, and we take from the system.

Everyone knows what an act of love it is, a giving thing it can be to be an artist. For a long time now I’ve had a mental barometer rule of thumb that whenever I see someone doing something, I think are they doing this to give, or are they doing this to take, and I feel like when artists give, it is a very loving act, despite what the government says about the arts. It’s a job where you have to give a lot, and if you love to give, like me, it’s a dream job.

The problem with the government is that there are no artists in it. There’s nobody who loves stuff – the planet, or the people. There’s no one who loves us, who wants us to be healthy and happy for us and our kids, which is a real problem.”

And then, perhaps not wanting to appear too earnest- “I don’t know – I just write songs.”

With the desire to rework the songs for the album, Washingon approached a number of producers that she was keen to work with.

One of the producers was Gabriel Strum, also known for his Japanese Wallpaper project. Washington has worked with him before. “I remember when I first met Gab, I messaged him about a songwriting day. I said ‘hey- I’m in Melbourne, let’s hang out’. He said ‘I can’t, I’ve got school’ – that was a real polaroid moment for me.

Gab is a friend and an amazing songwriter and artist. Japanese Wallpaper is such a cool project. He is also a really incredible producer, and ferociously intelligent, He has a jazz background like me, so his knowledge of what makes music go, is pretty complete, and on top of that, he has amazing production skills which make him a dream producer. He has a wide knowledge of everything. And he has the sign of a really authentic musician – he has an endless curiosity for new genres and new ideas and I really connect with him because he is so curious.”

He worked with Washington on “Lazarus Drug”, one of the later songs to be written.

“Yes – Lazaraus was a good one, because it was built with me on Minjerribah at Stradbroke Island, Gab in Melbourne, and Luke Howard who did some co-production. Sam was in London, and he mixed it. It had a good geographical span. I don’t know a lot about modular synths – and he makes everything some like the cosmos.”

One skill which Washington learnt during ISO was how to create animation. She created the animation herself for “Dark Parts”, which for me is the party song of the album.

“I’ve got no plans to become a full-time animator – unless I work out how to do it faster than frame-by-frame, because my word, does that take a long time(laugh) – I mean I already draw, but I’ve never shown anyone my drawings because no one has asked. I draw ’cause I like it.

The good thing about frame-by-frame is that because it’s so tedious and so laborious and you have to draw the same thing over and over again so many times, you kind of need to work in simple shapes. Part of what was fun about that was that as a track it lends itself to that trapdoor stupid spook aesthetic – which is an aesthetic which I adore. It was a fun process. It helped me to refine and define the visual language for the whole record, which is drawn and cartoony.”

I mentioned that the track “The Give” makes reference to Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness. She appeared to be a little alarmed that I’d read the book in preparation for this chat. Fortunately, my uneasiness was quickly dealt with. “That makes me sound fancy, that I read a lot of books – but I don’t. It is a reference to that book. There’s also a reference to the song ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’.”

At this point, I was the recipient of some giving, with Washington singing a few lines of that classic song down the line. It’s most famous version is probably courtesy of Nina Simone. For this album, Washington has referenced some classics.

So, where did the Batflowers theme come from? Is it literally a homage to the actual flower, or is it more abstract? The answer is more simple than that, but also more complex.

“When I read the word ‘batflower’ – I think of a brain bloom. Because of the word ‘battie’ and there is something spooky and beautiful…”.

“For me it’s such a visual word. I found it on a zine. I  was walking through Atwater Village in L.A. I was so struck by the word – I just took a picture and went back to my friends apartment where I was staying. ”

“I said to my friend what a great word it is, but how would you sing that. You can’t make the BAT long”

At this point, Washington broke out into song again, singing some variations of the word ‘Batflower’ It felt like a Spicks and Specs moment. In the end, as you can see, she worked it out just fine.

She has a couple of gigs lined up for the Brisbane Festival. As you would expect, they sold out quickly, but if you are lucky enough to have a ticket, Washington has put a call-out on social media with a suggestion that it would be pretty great if you dress up for the show, preferably in black and white. The album cover is probably the best place to find some inspiration.

“I take this so seriously, and I care so much about what I do – I’m going a bit overboard on this – but I don’t mind – it makes me so happy to share with everyone”

Of the live shows she says – “I’ve tried to make it cohesive, and I’m not going to be in my pj’s.“

Washington has been thinking about what life looks like when restrictions ease up. Maybe there will permanent changes, and for the better.

“Hopefully in the future, with live performances – we (musicians) will think about touring in a more sustainable way. Maybe as a season / like a residency, with smaller venues.
Imagine how much better as a performer you would be if instead of doing one show to 1000 people, you’d do ten shows to 100 people? You’d have to grow as a performer to be consistent, to be excellent, to make everyone feel like you took your job seriously. I think it would be a really nice idea. I see great value in that type of setup.”

It was at this point that my 30 minutes was just about up, with her PR person popping in on the call, and letting Washington know. Very shortly after, the call dropped out. Not a standard good-bye, but I’d had a solid 30 minutes with a very generous and forthcoming Washington, and figured that was that. About 5 minutes later, my mobile rang. It was Washington on the line. She got my number from her PR people and called me direct, concerned that I might have a couple more questions. We chatted for another 15 minutes or so, until she had to ring off as the next call was waiting. It was a great indication of the warmth of Megan, and how keen she is for people to be able to listen to this album, and have a feeling for what is behind it.

By now, it’s pretty clear that Washington is excited about and satisfied with the album. She is also very focused on the detail. With a limited-edition vinyl in the mix, I put it to her that choosing the track-list order may not have been straightforward.

“OMG – I laboured over the tracklisting. This is the 5th or 6th iteration. I used to have the title track last then …..”. Quite a lengthy discussion followed.

In the end, it was agreed to put the title-track first.

“Having the transition of the rain sound at the end of “The Give”, into the static of “Catherine Wheel”, and the birds at the end of the album – that’s all on purpose – to create the feeling of audio cinema.

Which is why I have lyrics and themes which cross the songs, and words and phrases like “Achilles Heart”. “Kiss Me Like We’re Gonna Die” is a lyric in “Catherine Wheel”. It’s all kind of connected because I made it like that. I want people to be sucked into a different reality where they can go on a journey.

I feel like if you listen to the album in one hit, – that it’s a full trip from beginning to end.”

Batflowers is released tomorrow. 28th August 2020.
You can pre-save the album HERE
Vinyl and other Batflowers merch can be ordered HERE
A third show has been added to the Brisbane Festival at The Tivoli – on the 12th September – tickets HERE

Feature image credit: Michelle Pitiris

Bruce Baker

Probably riding my bike, taking photos and/or at a gig. Insta: @bruce_a_baker