Journey to Rediscovery: Meg Toohey Goes Back to Her Roots with New Album, Butch

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Photo by Shervin Lainez

When it was curtain time for Sara Bareilles’ Broadway production of Waitress last year, after more than a thousand shows — eight per week over the course of four years — Meg Toohey felt a strong rush of emotions. “Sara has a knack for putting wonderful people in the same room together,” she says, “which makes it easy to go to work because everyone truly loves each other like a family. That’s not the case in a lot of shows, where musicians are in the pit, they don’t see the actors, and no one knows each other’s names. Waitress was a massive collaboration of everybody having their own voice, and we could see each other and watch it grow through the whole process.”

But, as one creative chapter closed in her life, the singer/songwriter/guitarist was preparing to begin the next one with the release of Butch, her first solo album in 15 years. And, in many ways, the life- and career-changing call from Bareilles was a catalyst for the burst of creativity.

Toohey came up in the late 1990s on the thriving Boston music scene. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, with a degree in vocal performance and songwriting, she became a celebrity of sorts, founding and fronting The So and So’s, accompanying local Grammy-winning artist Lori McKenna, and, she says, “being thrown into all these awesome opportunities.”

Record labels courted her, and the industry climate was in her favor. “It happened at a time when there was a shift happening,” she says. “It was at the end of Lilith Fair when all these female artists were being signed and having careers. They found me doing a similar thing, a Replacements-style band with a Chrissie Hynde/Pretenders kind of vibe. And then, all of a sudden, a switch went off, and it was, ‘There are too many females.’ It just burned out, the same way that one year there are boy bands all over, and the next year there are none, because of too much saturation.

“I was at the top of the food chain of who’s going to be the next ‘It’ female act, and that’s how I was being treated and courted. And then I got dropped overnight. It was like, ‘Oh, you have a record deal. Oh, you don’t have a record deal. Your record’s not coming out. We’re not interested in you anymore.’ I got really burnt about it and decided, ‘This is not for me. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

She had moved to Los Angeles with colleagues/friends The Weepies, noting, “They were having a lot of luck, and I was a big part of the sound of that band. They were like, ‘Let’s go to LA, we’ll make it in LA,’ and so I left, thinking, OK, that’s great. I’m going to be a side person, and I’m going to have the same experiences I dreamed about: being a musician, going on tour, and getting to play every day as a job, but I’m not going to have to go through the heartache of being the frontperson and being successful or not being successful. It was an easy transition, and I stayed there and worked in LA.”

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Her career volleyed forward, but her trajectory changed. She was a hired gun onstage and in the studio, a composer whose work was licensed for television and films, and a producer. “I continued writing a little bit,” she says, “but I wasn’t putting myself out there in the same way. I was in the background, helping other people find their sound. Long story short, I took a break because I got my heart broken too many times.”

Then came three albums with The Cold and Lovely, which she formed with bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Patty Schemel. “It was like dipping my toe into being a frontperson again,” she says, “but it was a different style of music. Nicole came from the Smashing Pumpkins and Patty came from Hole, so I was writing specifically for an alternative rock vibe. I love that music, so it wasn’t hard for me to do, but it wasn’t necessarily where I felt best represented musically. I was creating based on the need, rather than based on what was authentic to me.

“That band ended up doing really well with getting placements, but we weren’t playing out a lot. When all of that didn’t work out and everything collapsed, I moved to New York because Sara had called me about Waitress.

So that’s my arc of how I got from there to here again.”

Sara called and was like, “I’ve got a job that pays unbelievably well for musicians — or for anybody, for that matter. Do you want to come to New York?”

What is the history of your working relationship with Sara Bareilles?

We had known each other for years as friends. We knew a lot of similar people, and we had been on tours together when I was with different artists. We would meet at radio summer shows, those fests, I knew all the guys in her band, and I was good friends with people that she went to college with. We kept meeting, we played together on and off, and we worked together at the Rock ’N’ Roll Camp for Girls in LA.

I had an enormous amount of respect for her as an artist, and she happened to be a buddy of mine, so when she wrote Waitress, I flew out to Boston to see it. I said, “I grew up in this musical theater setting, and look at what you’re doing. It’s amazing. What a dream to have a show on Broadway!”

It turned out that her longtime guitar player, Rich Hinman — who is phenomenal — didn’t want to move to New York to do the show, because he had just moved to LA, so she called me and said, “What do you think about coming to New York for a few months? It wouldn’t have to be forever, but I would love it if you’d finish writing the Waitress book with the band, and also play the show and get it opened up. Once it’s open, you can decide whether you want to stay or not.”

It happened at a time in my career when The Cold and Lovely wasn’t doing anything, and I was starting to give up hope. I turned 40 and thought, This is starting to really suck, living paycheck to paycheck, and I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I started working a lot in LA as a set decorator, things like that because I had friends that worked in the business. I thought, I’m going to make a move to get out of the music industry. And then Sara called and was like, “I’ve got a job that pays unbelievably well for musicians — or for anybody, for that matter. Do you want to come to New York?”

I took a chance and said yes, thinking I was only going to be there for a few months, and it turned my whole world upside-down. In-between, I’ve reemerged, found myself again as a writer, gone back absolutely to my roots, been around people from my past, and really reconnected with, “Oh, wow, I’m a writer! These are the songs I love to write, and this is my story that I need to tell.”

Being a woman in this industry obviously comes with its own set of challenges.

Obviously, you’ve had career highs and lows. How did you get through the lows, and how have those experiences, good and bad, helped you evolve?

Part of growing is failure, and then also success and then failure again. It’s constant, and I think it’s in any job. I don’t think it necessarily pertains just to musicians. And the same thing with relationships. As a growing person, you can either choose to look at your failures and say, “Where am I responsible in this?” or you can say, “I’m not responsible. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m free of blame.”

Looking at my twenty-plus years in this business, I can really see now, step back and look at those failures, and learn from them, whether it be interpersonally or making a choice to stay in a situation with somebody I was working with where it was obvious it wasn’t going to work out. It was a situation where I wasn’t getting what I needed, or I wasn’t growing as a person. I think this happens to everyone. It’s just a matter of whether you choose to look at your own responsibility in those situations.

Being a woman in this industry obviously comes with its own set of challenges. When I first moved to LA, I was 26, I believe. I went through all the auditions of, “You’re an amazing player, wow, everything’s working, but are you willing to wear a bikini on stage?” It got to the point of lots of those kinds of moments in my career, beating myself up for not wanting to do that to get the gig, or feeling really annoyed that that’s how it always ended up that I lost. I was the “almost famous” so many times.

It’s been crazy, but it came down to things that were out of my control. I spent a lot of time being angry about things that I couldn’t control, becoming a person that talked about all the things that were going wrong, as opposed to things that were going right, and spending a lot of time living in that “Why me?” attitude instead of, “This isn’t for me. This isn’t where I belong. These are not the people that I want to waste my energy on.”

That’s a massive lesson — realizing that just because something isn’t working out, it doesn’t mean it’s about you. It means that’s not where your path is. I wasted a lot of time going down rabbit holes of trying to figure out why I wasn’t getting this gig, and it had nothing to do with me. They didn’t like the color of my hair, or I wouldn’t let my boobs out, and so I missed out on a gig, but why would I want that gig anyway? That’s not who I am. There’s lots of that in this business that might not happen in others, but I actually think it does for women.

Oh, it does.

Yeah, yeah. The great thing I found in the Broadway community is that that does not exist at all. The Broadway community is amazing. It’s this space of women and men all working together, and people getting gigs because they are the best players, wanting to have that diversity and inclusivity in the bands that are being represented on the Broadway stage. That was a really nice thing to walk into.

You’ve spoken about the honesty and openness on this album and the catharsis it brought you. What was the songwriting process like this time? Were you still in the rabbit hole you described or had you emerged from that mindset?

Because I have done so many different genres of music, and I tend to be very attracted to different tones and colors in music, I played in alternate tunings only for many years because of Joni Mitchell and Jonatha Brooke, and I loved the sounds and colors I could get.

When I came to Broadway, I had to go back to standard tuning, and I had to play slide and do things that I hadn’t done in years because I had been focused on, “What if I run stereo amps with a stereo delay and crazy tape reverb?” They put a piece of sheet music in front of me when I got to New York, and I was like, Hmm … what is this? I had to go back to the basics of guitar, of thinking about how in theater they don’t care if you have a delay pedal. They just want to hear the part, and they want the part to be played well. So the first thing was learning to play again in standard tuning in a way that I was proficient enough to keep up at a pretty high level of the people I was playing with.

As a writer, I did the same thing. I constantly had gadgets and gizmos a-plenty, to quote the Little Mermaid, and in my writing process I would sit down, plug in seven things and a computer, get a beat going, and go off on this crazy journey of sound before I even had a thought of the song. Sometimes it works, and sometimes I would have 7000 of these little starts of sonic landscapes, but I didn’t have a song. So I started picking up an acoustic guitar and listening to the songwriters that I loved, like Patti Griffin and Lucinda Williams and Lori McKenna, of course, and started saying, “What is it that draws me so much to this kind of music?” Even Sara has a little jazzier flair, but playing her songs every night and realizing the structure of why they work so well.

It was about minimizing what I was working through. Instead of trying to play in a crazy tuning, I started playing a G chord to a C chord, and I was like, “There’s a reason why this works. There’s a reason why ‘Three chords and the truth’ is a thing.” Going back to recognizing and simplifying really changed my writing. I started thinking a lot about being clever and making a clever change happen with a dissonant melody, and started thinking, What do I want to say here? What am I talking about? and losing all the technology, and just going back to picking up a guitar, strumming a few chords, and finding something that I liked. And then it really started to flow.

When I first got to New York, I was still in that mindset of trying to make things work that I just liked the sound of, but they were so complex that I couldn’t make anything work over them. Once that formula clicked of, “Wow, they don’t have to be crazy, Zappa chord changes; I can just play G, C, D, and write a really nice melody, and I can put the textures that I love over it, once I start producing the songs a little bit and arranging …” it seems so silly to say that! Now that I’m talking about it, I’m like, “Duh. Of course, that’s what you do!” But, for some reason, I was trapped in this mindset of having to have this crazy sound of my own. But I think I found my sound, and it didn’t have to be something so unique. I found my unique in just being myself, and I stopped trying to be somebody else.

Photo by Shervin Lainez

When you went back to the acoustic guitar, which one did you use?

I produced an all-female recording of Jesus Christ, Superstar, and I asked Taylor Guitars for some acoustics to play. They sent three that are so amazing. I picked up a 612e and I was like, “Mine! This has to be mine!” It’s a short scale, twelve-fret, small-body guitar, but it sounds huge, and it felt immediately like one of those soul connections. I wrote every single song in the last two years on that guitar. There’s magic in it. I’ve been playing that steadily, and it’s what I wrote the entire record on. I also have an old Gibson L2 and I have a dreadnought guitar, and I have a whole arsenal of toys in my recording studio. But I will say that my favorite electric right now — I’ve been really into guitars that are all rosewood. I have a rosewood Tele, a rosewood Strat, and a [Music Man] St. Vincent guitar that has a rosewood neck. I’ve been super-into that vibe and that sound.

Are you still with Reverend?

I am, and they’ve been so good to me. Their guitars are just the perfect touring guitars, and they never go out of tune. At Waitress, all the other guitars in the show had to have major work because of the temperature changes in the building and whatever. I had my four Reverends set up once, and they’ve been beautiful. I highly recommend their stuff.

You’re also a producer with quite a discography in that capacity. Do you have preferred techniques for recording guitars and vocals?

I worked a lot with an engineer named Hannah Tobias. I found her through a session I did with Manolo Garcia in upstate New York. She’s an up-and-coming engineer, writer, and producer. I’ve been known for my homegrown techniques. I went to Berklee, and I’ve worked with a lot of different engineers and producers over the years, so I’ve taken tricks that I’ve learned from them, but not done them well! Hannah changed my way of recording.

I was able to invest in some good mics, and that made a difference, and I have a couple of good preamps and compressors and things that are all outboard that really help. We used a pair of 184s in the XY position for the acoustic guitar, and for vocal mics, I have an 87 and a 251 that are awesome. I think it’s knowing how to get a good take and also knowing when you’re not in the zone and to call it quits because it’s not worth wasting time. You’ve got to feel it, you know?

Where did you track?

In my basement. I work with a drummer, John O’Reilly Jr., who has his own studio. He’s great. I do a take to a click track, or I build a little drums that I want the vibe to be there. I send him a bass track, a guitar track, and a scratch vocal, he’ll put down the drums, send them back to me, and I re-track everything I sent him and start building the sessions.

“OK, this is my time to try.”

You have written for film and television, written for other artists, produced other artists, and worked on Broadway — a lot of creating for other people. When you’re artistic for someone else’s vision, how do you hold on to your vision? At the same time, how did those experiences shape you when you returned to being a solo artist?

That’s a doozy! It’s funny you said that because there’s a line in the song “Ballad of the Butch” that says, “Where the hell have I been? I stood side stage, waiting on someone else’s show to begin. And I carried that feeling around in the pit of my bones, and I ache with the knowing that I’m the one that set that tone.” I think that says it all about feeling like I had more to offer and loving being part of the creative process, but also being frustrated at myself for not taking a chance and putting myself out there in that way.

So I think what I learned from all of those experiences is that I’m good at what I do, and pretty much everybody that I played with or put my mark on has gone on to become special in the industry. That’s been a thrill, like, walking around in a CVS and hearing my guitar parts coming out of the speakers … or also being like, “Hey, that’s me!” and people are like, “Yeah, whatever.”

I clearly have a knack for it, so why not take a chance myself, and I think this record is the chance I’ve been waiting for. Having the experiences of being on Broadway, playing with Sara, playing with Manolo Garcia — who’s basically the Bruce Springsteen of Spain — in front of 25,000 people, and traveling all over the world made me feel like, “OK, this is my time to try.”

Photo by Shervin Lainez

When you lived in Los Angeles, you were involved with Rock ’N’ Roll Camp for Girls. Will that continue now that you’re back on the East Coast? Why is that organization important to you?

I still go back every summer and volunteer at Rock ’N’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles. It pulled me out of such a dark place in my thoughts about my career and my own self-worth to work with young girls that discover the power of self-expression through rock and roll. It is such an inspiring and diverse community. To see girls come in and be transformed by being around allies and community — it’s really special. I love that music is the medium to bring women together, and it’s a way for people that might have a harder time expressing themselves to find their own voices. The camps exist all over the world, and I can’t recommend the experience enough, both to potential campers and volunteers alike.

What I’ve learned is that there is always another day ahead.

In closing, I often ask artists to offer words of advice or encouragement for young women, young people, who aspire to work in the music industry. Given all we now hear and read about depression and suicide rates amongst young people, I’m now asking artists to direct their advice and encouragement toward readers who might be struggling.

I guess as someone who initially struggled with my own identity and worried about how people would perceive me; you should know that it’s never as bad as it seems. I’ve gone through a lot of big ups and big downs, just like everyone else. What I’ve learned is that there is always another day ahead. In time, with distance and perspective, feelings and thoughts that you once held on tightly to can seem not that big of a deal, and in fact, even silly that you put so much energy into them at one time in your life. Music is a big part of what got me through particularly tough times.

Meg Toohey’s Gear

Waitress:

Reverend Tricky Gomez
Reverend Charger P90’s
Reverend Warhawk
Gibson CJ-165
Fractal AX8

Touring Rig:

Ernie Ball Music Man St. Vincent Signature
Fender Ltd. Edition Rosewood Telecaster
Taylor 612e 12-fret
Two Fender Princeton amps, stereo

Pedalboard:

Strymon Big Sky
Eventide H9
Line 6 M9
Voodoo Sparkle Drive
Fulltone OCD
Wampler Tumnus
Keeley Dark Side
BOSS Volume Pedal
BOSS Expression Pedal
BOSS Tuner
Ebow
Songhurst Brass Rock Slides

Studio:

Gibson SG P90s
Fender American Stratocaster – Rosewood
Fender Telecaster ’62 Reissue (Nashville Tuning)
Bonneville Jazzmaster Custom
Reverend Jen Wasner Signature with Bigsby
Reverend Pete Anderson RT
Fender Mustang Bass (Japan)
Gibson L2
Dekley Pedal Steel
Peavey Nashville Amp
Fender Champ

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