Brooklyn musician Megg Farrell, who started singing at the age of 16, boasts a wide range of musical interests and talents. Whether performing jazz in Sweet Megg and The Wayfarers, rowdy folk music in The Whiskey Social or her original music plus some country tunes in Megg Farrell and Friends, Farrell covers a wide range of genres. She recently answered some questions for me in which she discusses her musical influences, studying jazz in Paris, her connection to Unit J in Brooklyn and her various musical projects. You can find out more about Megg and keep up with the latest news at meggfarrell.com.
You've been singing since you were 16. Have you always wanted to be a singer? Did you grow up in an artistic household?
I always enjoyed singing but I wasn't ever really sure if that's what I wanted to do. I enjoyed writing songs and performing them but I never really was sure I wanted to take the plunge and be a full time singer. I always thought that I would be better off pursuing a more stable career and doing music on the side.
I did grow up in an artistic household. Both of my parents are actors. They both were very into improv and comedic theatre so it was a very sarcastic and energetic household. My father was also a singer song writer and he always pushed me to sing. He believed I had a good singing voice way before I did. My grandmother was also a piano teacher and clarinet player. She was from the country in up state New York so she mainly taught in school but she was a big fan of Benny Goodman and of music in general.
You've lived a lot of places, including Manhattan, New Jersey, Asheville and Paris. How did all of these different places shape you personally and shape your music?
Well I've never made it to Manhattan haha. I've always been in Brooklyn. But I think I've carried a lot of my experiences from past places with me. I always feel very affected by my surroundings, especially with my song writing. Each era of my life was documented through the music I wrote in that period. Growing up in Jersey, so close to Manhattan, I spent a lot of time in the theatre world of New York with my parents. We were often surrounded by actors and musicians and I was exposed to art at a very young age. My father would let us skip school sometimes so he could take us to see an exhibit at the MOMA or the Met. My mother always got tickets for plays both on and off Broadway and would take my brother and I as much as she could. My parents really wanted to have us benefit from the cultural atmosphere of New York but also grow up in a town with a backyard.
I was in Asheville for a few summers after college and I think that had a significant effect on me. I was just then taking music more seriously and trying to develop some sort of sound. I was surrounded often by banjos and people playing country tunes so it inevitably affected by playing. I also was surrounded by Southerners all the time. I was called the token yankee and I think I adapted a Southern accent when I was on the job to fit in more. I was working at the time as a white water raft guide so it was important that when I said "All Forward" to my customers people listened. I started doing my work with a Southern twang and I think that style of speaking flooded into my singing.
My year in Paris was a huge influence over me. I was there studying jazz at Le C.I.M. which is a small jazz school in Montmartre. It was my first experience studying and performing jazz. Up until then I had only studied classical theory and performed folk music. I decided to go to a jazz school really just to become a better musician and song writer but then I fell in love with the art form. I also had a band over there that played my original music. We spent hours playing music along the seine waiting for the first train. Those nuit blanche that we would spend playing music and discussing life remain with me today. That year was an important year for me because I think it began the transition of who I was to become later on. I feel the transition it began I am just beginning to finish now and start the next chapter.
What was it like to live in Paris for a year? How does the music culture differ between there and the US? What led to settle in Brooklyn?
It was inspiring to live there for a year. I wrote many songs, played many gigs, and studied fiercely. I was studying at a jazz school but I also was taking classes in history which is my other passion. I find french history fascinating so I was diving deep into that field as well. Having so many things to ponder in such a city built for pondering is a beautiful thing. Its so much easier to go to a cafe and get a glass of wine and write than it is in New York. People seem to respect and understand why people study and write in cafes, parks and restaurants. It is part of the tradition of the city. Also to be surrounded by such beauty all of the time is a remarkable gift. Being from the New York area beauty in my surroundings is not something I frequently get to experience.
The music culture I think was different and the same. They have their jazz clubs and their open mic nights just as New York does. I think the main difference is New York has more musicians. It is the capital for jazz and so the finish musicians live here. That's why we all deal with the knocks and bruises from living here, because no other city has such a high level of musicianship.
I always knew I'd end up in Brooklyn. It was sort of inevitable. When I was in high school I used to come to Williamsburg because that is where I could get into bars underage. I also interned at a recording studio with this producer I had met through playing gigs with the ukulele scene. So since I started drinking and hanging out as a teenager Williamsburg and Bushwick have been my hang. So when I graduated college, it seems pretty obvious that is where I would live.
What was it that led to your interest in jazz? Your jazz group attracts a lot of younger people. Was it always your intention to perform jazz with a modern twist in order to attract a broader audience?
Well first my studies lead me to jazz. I wanted to be a better musician and writer and I thought learning jazz harmony could only improve my skills. While in Paris I played at some jams and was in a few bands but I was still pretty set on doing my original music. When I moved back to New York I was looking for jazz jams to go to in the city to keep my chops up. One night, there was this creepy dude hitting on my friend Sam and I at a bar one day in downtown Brooklyn. We were mainly trying to get him out of our hair but he did mention he was a jazz musician so I stuck around long enough to get some info. He said I should go to Mona's on Tuesdays at 11. So I started showing up at Mona's, which is an old-time jazz jam. They focus on music from the 20s-30s. I came a few times was terrified of the bartender, who is now a good friend, and just sat and watched the music, mesmerized. They were playing jazz at a high level, interesting harmonies, awesome solos, but it was fun and people could get rowdy to it. People were drinking and laughing and dancing to jazz music. I immediately knew that is what I wanted to sing. I wanted to sing jazz, but I wanted it to be fun and entertaining like my original music. I eventually got enough liquid courage one night to ask to sit in with the band and since then I've been addicted to this music and scene. The guys at Mona's as well as my friend in the gypsy jazz scene really helped me get my career going and learn how to lead a band, choose songs and just welcome me into a wonderful community.
It wasn't my original goal. To be honest I didn't have much of a goal except to find what makes me happy and I've found playing music and getting people dancing, hootin' and hollerin', that makes me happy. Now that the band has been together for a bit we started to formulate actual goals with the music. Something we knew pretty quickly was what we didn't want to recreate. We didn't want to dress up like its 1920 and play the music exactly like it was played. My goal has always been to take the music I love, whether its jazz from 1925, a Serge Gainsberg tune, or country tune from 1960, and breath new life into it. I want my music to reference all my many influences but also have a personal touch to it that is just me. I also love to get people involved. Music has been my solace for my entire life. It is what keeps me going and a good performance can move me to tears of pain or joy very easily. The sensation that music gives me is what has inspired me to perform. If I can touch one person the way that some artists have touched me, than I will feel satisfied. That is why I like our band to connect to the audience, bring them in and make them have a good time. I don't have time to volunteer for The Red Cross or protest in front of The White House, but I can help put a smile on peoples' faces during these trying times and that is my civic duty as a musician.
You perform with so many different kinds of musicians. Do you think that surrounding yourself with so many talented artists helps to keep you inspired?
Hellllllll yeah. I thoroughly believe that the singer is only as good as her backing band. If they are not having fun then they are not going to play their best and if they don't play their best then I don't get to feed off their energy. I have my own repertoire of things I can pull from and my own energy in the songs but that's only 50% of what I do on stage. The other half is what I'm getting from the people around me, both musicians and the audience. I believe that the band needs to be a good hang or else you aren't going to play well. If I see that one guitar player doesn't get along with this bass player, I'll take note and try to never hire them together. Or if I have a musician that I feel is not listening to my cues I won't hesitate to never hire them again because any sort of blocking or negativity on the band stand affects my singing completely.
You originally performed in your group The Whiskey Social, and then sang full-time in your jazz group Sweet Megg and The Wayfarers. Last year's album Fear Nothing was your re-entrance into original music. How does it feel to be performing original music again?
It feels amazing and I want to do it more. I often have trouble communicating my true emotions to people and my songs have always been a way for me to express what is inside. They aren't always auto-biographical, in fact they rarely are, but they do always come from a personal emotion or feeling that I am experiencing. Sometimes when I'm performing jazz and I'm feeling blue it can be hard to put on a fun and exciting show of rowdy songs, whereas when I perform my original music I feel that I am being truly honest on stage. I try to have honesty no matter what I sing whether it is original or a cover but no matter what it is always going to be more me when I am singing words I wrote.
You recently had an album release party for Sweet Megg and The Wayfarer's new album. How was the party?
It was awesome. It was crazy but awesome. We had just gotten off the road from a tour and then were thrown into planning the party so Ryan and I were crazy people but it went well. We had a good audience and people were moving. We had some ballet dancers and acrobats come and perform as well. It was fun!!
I read that a fan of Sweet Megg and The Wayfarer's offered to fund the recording of the album! What was that like for you and how was the recording process?
That was amazing. We wanted to record a real full album with the musicians we love and at a proper studio but we never could've afforded that. A couple we know from Mona's actually was willing to fund the record and opened up the possibilities immensely. We were able to pay the musicians for studio time so that we could record with all of our favorites and really have them in the studio for a full day. We were able to record at a really nice studio with an amazing engineer and because we saved so much money in the recording we were able to afford to hire this wonderful illustrator we met in Montpelier, France to design the cover of our album.
You were a resident of Unit J in Bushwick for a while. How did you meet the other residents and come to live there? How involved are you with the collective now that you are no longer a resident?
So actually I never lived at Unit J. I lived at Unit L. I moved into Unit L right out of college and we basically were starting a venue there. Unit L was supposed to be the original Unit J. The stage in Unit J was actually built for Unit L haha. So I got to know Eli and the boys over at J when they moved in because they were neighbors. We used to throw these amazing parties at Unit L and a few times we used Unit J as a staging ground for coats and other stuff. Eventually I had to move out of L because the roommate situation got very very difficult. So I have been out of the building a while but I have been hanging at Unit J ever since. I've always been a regular to the crowd and watched it grow from a party space to a full fledged venue. Now I'm working more directly with the venue. Eventually I'll be throwing more shows, I'm just waiting for my own schedule to die down.
Earlier this year you hosted a ladies night at Unit J. How was reception? How did the idea come about and do you plan to have more?
It was AMAZING! We had a big crowd and the all male wet t-shirt contest was a blast. I had the idea because mainly I wanted to put together a show of just female lead bands. Then I thought well we should call it Ladies night and then I thought "Oh why don't we spin the meaning of ladies night". That's when I thought about having the theme be male objectification because that's the opposite of what Ladies Nights usually are. I definitely will have another I just need to get my schedule in order!
You worked in film before deciding to work in music full-time. What led you to work in film and was it a hard decision to transition to music full-time? Do you still work in film at all on the side?
I was just out of college and I wanted a job doing historical research. I got an internship doing research for a production company that work for PBS. I eventually was hired and was working in research and production. After awhile I was working a pretty full schedule in jazz and a full-time work schedule at Ark Media and it was too much. I was making more money in the jazz world than working at the production company so I decided to pick that career. I've been doing that ever since.
You have formed a new group called Megg Farrell and Friends. What can your fans expect from your new group?
ROWDY FUN! We are doing my original tunes and lots of country music. I wanted a band where I could be free to do whatever else I liked that didn't fit under the umbrella of Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers. So we do lots of different styles but generally danceable!
What's next for you going forward?
I have a few projects I'm working on. Mainly records. I'm writing an EP for Sweet Megg of original songs. I'm trying to write in the style of music we play with that band. Then I'm also working on an album of vocalese. Vocalese is a style of jazz singing that came about later on. It is when you take a solo of someone's and write lyrics to it. I want to basically put out a record of vocalese with a quintet. Then I also want to record another Megg Farrell record. I have enough new songs to make one I just need the time and money to do it!