Members: Hand Habits aka Meg Duffy, Joel Ford
Occupation: Guitarist (Meg Duffy), Producer (Joel Ford)
Current release: yes/and's self-titled debut album is out via Driftless.
If you enjoyed this interview with Meg Duffy and Joel Ford, visit them online on Joel Ford's Twitter and Instagram accounts, the official Hand Habits website or the Hand Habits Instagram page.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Meg/Hand Habits: To me, the act of creating is non-hierarchical; we all create, it’s a very human thing. And in my experience, being human includes every and all possible aspects of “the divine”.
Occasionally I’ll be directly inspired by the way someone shares a feeling, a moment of experiencing the illusions of the Self dissolve. Other times I show up to the gates of creation (pick up a guitar, a pencil) and leave empty handed, only to remember to be empty handed is to be weightless.
I've been finding lately that what I put into the algorithm of my Self, what I experience with every sense eventually can end up in my work. I think it would be impossible for me to separate any moment from the pieces that come from picking up an instrument. The roles of the dream sphere, other pieces of art, dialogue, society and politics … these are all infinitely crucial to what I’m inclined to include in my work whether I am conscious of it or not.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Meg/Hand Habits: I think for me, the planning of a final piece of art can be helpful for getting conversations started, for esblishing a common language of how to speak about music and creation. But ultimately I’m interested in how environments and relationships change one another.
I’ve found ‘demos’ to be extremely helpful for figuring out what I don’t want or what I don’t feel connected to, but integral to mapping the emotional snap shot of a piece. Improvised music for me is a line to God; when I’m very present I’m not thinking about what the plan was, I’m just channeling a feeling or story or character. And an exciting part of creating music with others is watching a plan dissolve and hearing a piece of music become a totally new and unimagined entity.
Joel Ford: For the ‘yes/and’ project, it started out as Meg and I just getting in the room together and messing around. What began as me recording Meg’s guitar ideas progressed into a fully collaborative record.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Meg/Hand Habits: If there’s been a conversation to establish a common language or lexicon of musical narrative, then I’ll dive very deep into exploring what those elements may be.
For yes/and, most of the pieces were very raw improvised material that Joel and I excavated into something totally different. A lot of the performed pieces almost acted as ‘demos’ or sketches for what became the record versions.
Joel Ford: Some of the compositions, like ‘Centered Shell’, started out as old demo’s from Meg’s archives and flowered a bit as we built them out together and then mixed in my studio.
‘More Than Love’ was unique in that the vocal cuts were from a Hand Habits demo that Meg sent over and I chucked them in a sampler and retriggered over one of our abstract sound paintings.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Joel Ford: Making this type of music is a super intimate process for me and over the course of making the record we really got to know each other better. Lots of long existential deep chats that I certainly won't share details of here!
Meg/Hand Habits: Environment and ritual are two very important aspects of creating connection and exploring collaboration, and although I can be very adaptable I can also be extremely over run by my inner dialoge, so meditation was helpful before starting some of the longer editing sessions.
I’m constantly collecting language, poetry and conversational, almost in an obsessive way. I run pretty sleepy and need to be mindful of my energy entering a collaborative space. With Joel, I had felt safe being myself which allowed me to be open and honest with him in a very direct way.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Joel Ford: The basis for these tracks is almost entirely born out of Meg’s guitar improvisation. So generating an initial palette of sounds to work with was really easy. Morphing and building new worlds from those sounds was an extremely cathartic and enjoyable process for me/us.
Meg/Hand Habits: I love this question! It really is important to me to challenge the ways in which I approach starting.
With song based music, I used to exclusively start with a chord progression and mumbling in a trance like state until a solid melody elicited a feeling I was following. With improvised music, and specifically for yes/and, I had asked Joel to give me prompts to begin from, really pushing the limits of what a beginning can be.
I think one of the most important parts completing the ‘artist identity’ is showing up for the work, for spirit, even if sometimes the line to God feels silent or broken.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Meg/Hand Habits: By trial and error, by making mistakes, by trusting, by surrendering the plot, by returning, by abandoning, by deciding.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Joel Ford: After a certain amount of slicing and dicing and recontextualization things start to get truly experimental, where you don't really know how it's going to sound until you press play on the sampler. Definitely my favorite part of the process.
Meg/Hand Habits: I struggle with control in a lot of non musical area of my life, and lately if something is feeling fixated in the process of creation I’m learning to examine what it is I am really after. If it’s attainable given the circumstances, it feels right to push towards that vision. But time and time again, the moments of surrender and trusting where the piece wants to go on it’s own, is where I find unexpected beauty, unexpected depth of meaning.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Meg/Hand Habits: Mmm yes, change and new perspectives can be difficult to allow!
I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working and collaborating with a few people who are very very into following any and all possibilities, (when we’re fortunate in time and resource) and I was once asked by Sasami Ashworth - why are you resisting? Is it fear or discomfort or genuinely a lack of taste for where the song is trying to bring us? That has been helping in exploring the possibilities of composition especially when working with a raw sourced improvised/ instrumental music.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Meg/Hand Habits: For me, there is no creative state without spirituality - my entire drive and desire for creating is rooted in the divine, in connection and believing in a will that guides my own, in synchronicity and discovery.
When I turn my human/lizard brain off, and let a source of universal energy run through me, without judgement, that is when I’m most at ease in creation and in mind/body. It feels transcendent and affirming and passionately sacred.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Joel Ford: Yeah you have to set parameters or the possibilities are infinite. With this project we pretty much used Meg’s guitar as the input, with occasional exceptions for vocal samples or sub bass.
Meg/Hand Habits: Deadlines, self imposed or otherwise can be helpful for deciding on finalities. It’s been said that songs/compositions are never finished - only abandoned. In this specific project at a certain point I remember leaning in towards the less precious nature of finishing, especially with instrumental improvised music it really can be infinite and voidal.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Meg/Hand Habits: I believe in taking a lot of space from the music I make. At times I won’t take the music home with me, will observe what I think it is I’ve made and consider the dissonance between the actual music and my idea of the music.
I’ve been both pleasantly surprised and gravely let down by my memory of a recording. For me recording music can be a slippery slope of chasing the impossible - and at a certain point in most recordings I have to accept, to varying degrees, that the impossible cannot be touched, only grazed in fleeting moments.
As humans, our taste and emotional landscape is always changing, sometimes day to day, sometimes hour to hour. There are things that I have put into the world sonically that today I don’t feel connected to anymore. That’s the nature of mortality.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Joel Ford: Production and Mixing is what I do all day everyday. It was such a pleasure to work with Meg in this capacity and have it be so open ended and easy.
Meg/Hand Habits: I used to be very very hands on in every aspect of making music, and working with Joel I put a lot of trust in our communication and his skill set that I didn’t have experience in a hands on way. I would articulate what I was wanting to hear, a signal chain or an effect to illicit a more extreme emotional response in the works, and Joel would execute these prompts.
Typically by the time we are sending mixes out to be mastered, my ears can be pretty exhausted on perspective and I have had the pleasure of working with mastering and mixing engineers whose ears I trust in a very different way than my own. Creative distribution is another form of collaboration and to me- this is another pathway that leads to unexpected artistic expression.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Joel Ford: I dont really feel emptiness when I release music. Especially with a record like the yes/and LP, we were kinda just making it for ourselves. Other people liking / listening to it is a total bonus.
Meg/Hand Habits: I’ve found that if my expectations are clear and realistic and rooted in connection rather than promotion and accolades I feel satisfied and grateful to share something that had and has meaning for me with the world. I enjoy hearing what meanings people assign and find to my work - how liberating to be freed of my own often myopic attachments to something like music!
Returning to the state of creativity happens with live shows, and with this project Joel and I have already started brainstorming about new ideas for another record.