From Berklee to Broadway: Meg Toohey

Photo by Dave Doobinin
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 14 – New York-inspired (Dec. 2020)

Meg Toohey is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who most recently played guitar in Sara Bareilles’ musical Waitress. She also wrote the song “Lucky Streak”—a tribute to the late Nick Cordero, who starred in the show. Toohey’s life has always been in music, and here she shares her experiences with her training, the LA music scene, and the reality of being a guitarist on Broadway.

When you look at your career from your time with The So and So’s through today, how have you grown as an artist?
I was very young when The So and So’s were taking off. We had a lot of opportunities, but I wasn’t as serious about doing the work to get the band to the point it could have been at. It’s not that we didn’t work hard; it was more about the focus. My focus was on the short game instead of the long.

I learned a lot about working relationships in that band and how I contributed to a collaboration. In hindsight, I could have been a better leader in that group, and it’s since made me show up harder as a team player in any project I work on now. I think I’ve grown most as a songwriter. For many years, I was writing to sound like a certain genre I was into. My lyrics were obscure, and my recordings were super dense. I was too afraid of being labeled as a “folk” or “country” artist because I identify so much with artists that don’t fit that category. When I simplified and stayed true to my own voice, I really started finding my way as a writer. Now I don’t really care about what genre people think I fall into as much, and I’m just making music that I love.

What inspires your songwriting, and what does a Meg Toohey songwriting session look like?
I’m usually inspired by everyday life and the people around me. When I sit down to write, it’s almost always from a place of joy, even if it ends up being a sad song. I usually start with guitar or bass and a beat. From there, I either find a sound I like or a melody that I start singing gibberish over. That sparks a word or a phrase that becomes the catalyst for the rest of the song. I often keep first takes on my recordings because there’s something about an initial idea that sticks. I think when you start tinkering too much, you lose the vibe. Basically, it’s like sitting down to do a puzzle and fit all the pieces together.

As a multi-instrumentalist, what instruments do you play, and which came first?
I started out taking piano, clarinet, and violin lessons in public school band and orchestra and took private lessons after school when I was really young, but I didn’t really love it. In junior high, I switched to playing drums in band and got into drum corps and marching band where I became the drum major. I was the guitar player in the jazz band. Sometimes I filled in on trumpet or sax if there was a part that needed covering because I could learn things very quickly. I found the guitar at ten years old and just became obsessed with it. I had a drum kit, bass rig, and guitar rig all in my bedroom as a kid, so I pretty much played all of the time, and I would put together garage bands with kids in the neighborhood.

My dad was also a junior high music teacher, so he would constantly bring home different instruments for me to try out. Because of that, I can play pretty much anything brass, woodwind, or string. I’m definitely most proficient on the guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums. I also took years of voice lessons and was a vocal performance and songwriting major at Berklee. I mostly have been hired as a guitar player, though.

I mainly am my own “rock band” (guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards). I also am mostly my own engineer, producer, and even mixer at times, so I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to use Pro Tools and Logic.

From Boston to Los Angeles to New York, what have each of those experiences brought to your music?
I had a pretty good amount of success growing up in Boston. When I was in my early 20s, I moved to LA, and I was the smallest of fishes in a huge pond. I had to work really hard to get my name out there, and it wasn’t easy. After living there for twelve years, I definitely became a part of that music community, and I LOVED being there. NYC was unique in that I relocated for something specific (Waitress). I was the new guy in town, so to my surprise, I immediately got offered work based on my reputation. That felt good.

You were fortunate to be a part of the Broadway musical, Waitress. How was that experience?
It was life-changing. Being on Broadway was a dream I had since I was a kid. I loved musical theatre and was in all the shows back in high school. When Sara [Bareilles] first started writing Waitress, I had the thought that maybe I’d like to do something like play in or write a musical someday. When she called me and asked to play the show and move to NYC, it was sort of kismet. It was incredible to be around all these crazy talented people firing every day at 100%. I loved the family that I gained by joining the NYC Broadway community, and I loved having some structure for a while, which was something I hadn’t really had as mainly a freelance touring musician and composer. It was the hardest job I ever had—eight shows a week, no matter what else is happening in your life, through sickness and health. But it renewed a work ethic for me and gave me a whole new networking system, which in this business is priceless. Sara is always wonderful to work with, too, so that definitely sweetened the gig. I certainly didn’t mind playing her music almost every day for four years.

How many band members made up the Waitress band?
There were five of us on stage and one keyboard player in the basement because he didn’t fit with his rig on the set that was built! It was one of the first Broadway bands to be featured on stage as opposed to in the pit. We had a few mics on the stage so we could communicate, but Adam (keyboards) would entertain us on a nightly basis because he happens to be one of the funniest people in all the land. He would just talk through the show from the basement. We had the greatest time, and there was rarely a night we didn’t laugh our asses off.

What equipment did you use for the show?
The fine folks at Reverend Guitars set me up with a couple of guitars to use for the show. I specifically picked colors I thought would look cool with the set. I had a Charger and a Tricky Gomez on stage, then I used a Warhawk for a couple of songs that were played offstage. I also used my Gibson CJ-165 for an acoustic. I had a Fractal AX8 that served as my effects and amp, and each song was programmed. It was super easy and sounded great. Once the sounds were set, we weren’t really allowed to swap anything out since the show was all tuned into the theater and the actors’ voices.

With eight shows a week, was there also practice time?
Yes. There, we constantly cast changes, which means we had to do full run-throughs of the show on a regular basis (called “put-ins”). Imagine already having played the show six times that week, then having to do an EXTRA show with no audience. It was grueling. There were also press opportunities, charity events; you name it. Let’s just say we were playing the show more than we weren’t playing the show.

When you talk about the NYC Broadway community, share with us a little about that community.
With the above answer, obviously, you end up spending a ton of time together. It’s very much a family. After the shows, we would often hang and grab a bite, or on our “night off,” someone in the cast would be singing somewhere, or someone in the band had a gig that people would show up to. It’s an incredible support system.

Sadly, one of the original cast members, Nick Cordero, passed away this year from complications of COVID, and you wrote and produced a song “Lucky Streak” as a tribute to Cordero. What was that process like?
My Waitress family had all been very connected throughout Nick’s illness. We would Zoom and share our concerns or text back and forth: “Have you heard this update”? He was on our minds 24-7, and when he passed, it was so hard not to be able to get together in person and mourn him. I went to my basement studio the night he passed, and “Lucky Streak” just happened. It was written in thirty minutes, and by the next morning, I had sent it around to the band. Everyone was moved by the song, and I asked them if they would play on the track. When Sara heard it, she said she also would love to be involved. When she sent back her vocal, I was so moved at what we had all created together—and her voice and the part she added was so gorgeous on it. We sent the finished recording to Nick’s wife, Amanda, and she gave us her blessing to release it. It felt so good to offer something to his family. I’m so proud of that song, and I do feel like Nick somehow sent it down to me.

You’ve also been busy on another project, She Is Risen, which recently released Volume II. Tell us a little about the project and your involvement.
Morgan James found me through Ann Klein, another killer player. We got asked to do a live show of JCS [Jesus Christ Superstar] featuring an all-female cast and band. The show was super successful, and after it was over, my partner, Dawn Kamerling, was instrumental in figuring out how we could continue the project. We met with Morgan and her team and came on board as producers of the recording. We got it to happen in record time, recording the whole score in basically forty-eight hours of studio time, band, vocals, and orchestra. All-female engineered and mixed and mastered by the fabulous Rachel Alina, who mixes pretty much everything I produce.

We had a bit of a time trying to release She Is Risen because right when we finished it, all of these other Jesus Christ Superstar productions came out, including the NBC live version. Because of that, we had to release the work in volumes, but it looks like we are hoping to put the whole thing together in the spring of 2021, possibly followed by some more live shows! It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on, and the guitar score is SOOOO fun to play.

Share with us a memorable performance.
I had the great honor of working with a legendary performer named Manolo Garcia. He’s basically the Bruce Springsteen of Spain. I did a record with him in New York along with Cat Popper (Jack White), Sarah Tomek (Steven Tyler), and Gerry Leonard (David Bowie). It went on to win Rock Album of the Year at the Latin Grammys. Working with him was like working with Yoda. He taught me so much. He asked me to tour with him in 2018. I spent two glorious months living in Spain and playing to sold-out 20k + venues. I love his music, and I loved the people of Spain. Incredible audiences.

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