How best to describe Megan O’ Neill? Well, if you haven’t heard of Megan yet, the very first thing you need to do – maybe even before you read any further – is look her up and check out her music. And start with the Kildare native’s latest release, ‘Why I Need You’. What you’ll realise straight away is that you’ve been missing out on enjoying the work of an extremely talented songwriter, and a truly beautiful singer. Megan has perhaps been flying a little bit under the radar in Ireland, but as one of the artists on the bill for Harvest Fest this summer, she was rewarded with some well-deserved time in the spotlight.
In London and Nashville, however, where Megan has been spending most of her time working on her career over the last few years, she has steadily been establishing herself as an artist to keep a close eye on. You don’t end up performing at the famous Bluebird Cafe, or with a song featured on one of the biggest tv shows in the world right now, or working with someone of Guy Fletcher’s calibre, unless there’s something pretty special about who you are and what you can do. And Megan is definitely that: an artist who is pretty special. And I, for one, wouldn’t be in the least little bit surprised if 2018 turns out to be a milestone year in her career.
Her latest single, ‘Why I Need You’, is simply as a beautiful a song as you’re ever likely to hear. It already sounds like it’s a classic, a tune that’s been around for decades. When I had the pleasure of chatting with her recently, I began by asking Megan to tell me a little bit about how she came to write ‘Why I Need You’…
“First of all, thank you very much, that’s amazing to hear. I was out in Nashville in May, on a writing trip. I lived there before I lived in London, so I kinda try to go back out there as often as I can and work with the same people. So I was out there this time working with a Welsh songwriter called Zac Lloyd. It’s actually funny, cos’ we’d been writing a real pop song that day, cos’ I write for other artists as well, I don’t just write for me. So we’d been working on this pop, dancey track, and I was leavin’, on my way out the door. But he has this beautiful grand piano in his living room, right by the door. And we were chit-chatting, as you do before you say goodbye, and he started playin’ these chords on the piano. I was just like, ‘Wait, what is that?’, and he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’m just messin’ around.’ But I said, no…we have to write that! [laughs]. So we literally wrote the song in like…fifteen minutes, maybe? It was just one of those times where it all flowed out. I was on the clock, but still had ten minutes to spare so we said right, let’s go back upstairs and lay down a demo before I go. We just thought we’d lay it down so we’d have it there [to work more on]. Anyway, when it came around to recording the album, three or four months later, we expected that we’d re-record everything. But we didn’t. We just left it as we had recorded it on that day. So yeah, that’s how that happened!”
The video for ‘Why I Need You’ matches the track itself in terms of class. And one of the things that really struck me was the emotion in Megan’s facial expressions in some parts, it’s almost like acting. How does she channel so much emotion into a performance?
“In ninety-nine per-cent of what I write, I’m telling a story. Do you know what I mean? I’m telling a story about an experience I’ve had. So this song, ‘Why I Need You’, is about my partner, and about partners generally. It’s not specific to my life, obviously. It’s about the love that you find in someone else and why you need them. And for me, every time I sing a song that I’ve written, I try to express that particular story through how I perform it. Because I think that’s really important, ya know. After you write the song, you’re kind of just the messenger. You have to find a way of putting that message out there. I think that’s more than just [about] the lyrics, that’s about the performance.”
Would Megan begin a writing session with the objective of writing either strictly for herself then, or for another specific artist?
“My focus in writing sessions is just on writing a good song. I just approach it that way. I’m not gonna try and write for….say, Taylor Swift, not that she needs it [laughs]. I try and just write a good song and go from there. At the end of the day then, if I walk out of a session and I absolutely love, love, love a track, I’ll probably use it myself. But I used to, when I first started songwriting – I think I was fifteen or sixteen, although I probably wasn’t in any way decent until I was twenty-one, because it takes a long time – but I used to be really precious about my songs. Like, they were my babies! [laughs]. And I didn’t want anybody else to have them. But now if I write a great track, I’m happy if anyone can get that out there. I’m not precious about keeping it for myself anymore.”
Having been a student of psychology, I wondered if that knowledge and awareness plays any part in Megan’s songwriting?
“I haven’t really thought about that. I mean, I love people. And I love life! And I love recording the situations around me. If I’m out for dinner with a friend and they’re telling me a story about something that happened with them, or at work, or something that’s on the news or whatever, you get inspiration from those things. I’m not sure it’s necessarily tapping into psychology skills, cos’ I don’t even know if I have any left! [laughs]. I think it might just come down to reading people and situations, the way you kinda do if you’re an artist. Like the way a painter would read a scene they want to paint, ya know?”
Going back to Megan’s latest single, ‘Why I Need You’, I wondered why she decided on it as the new single? And when she picks songs to be singles, how much thought goes into a factor like how radio-friendly a song might be?
“The last record I released [‘Stories To Tell’] which was in February of this year, I did with my band, The Common Threads, and it was something I was super proud of. We did it with Guy Fletcher [Dire Straits]. We were very specific about which song we were gonna pick for the single, and exactly because it was the most radio friendly. But at the end of the day, you can’t actually judge that [what is radio friendly], because sometimes a producer will be working on…let’s just say BBC Radio 2, and they’ll come across a song on the album and be like, I really want to play this one. Even though it might not necessarily be the single, or the most radio-friendly. So with that last record, as I said, we were really specific with what was going to be radio-friendly and we picked accordingly. And it got great air-time and everything, and I think any of them kind of would have if we pushed them the way we pushed the one we released.
With ‘Why I Need You’, my thinking behind it is that, first of all, I’m not with the band for this album,so I only have myself to rely on for the decisions. So I’m kinda going off my own instincts with this one. This album is different to anything else I’ve ever done before. It’s probably a bit more in the Americana vein than in the country vein in some ways, but it still has a good bit of country going on. Elements of folk, too. That First-Aid Kit feel. So yeah, my thinking in releasing ‘Why I Need You’ first is that it would break the mold for me. I thought if I release this track, which is really raw, that’s really stripped back, ya know, nobody would really be expecting it. That was my thinking. But also, I just adore this song! [laughs]. Yeah, those two things coupled together, let’s go with that [laughs].”
For any songwriter, especially one involved in the country music side of things, the Bluebird Cafe is one of those venues everybody wants to perform at. And Megan has done just that, and more than once already. I asked her what those experiences were like…
“Absolutely….out….of….this….world! It’s the most amazing feeling, as a performer, to play there because you know how historic it is, and magical, too. It’s so small, but it’s always sold-out with people who really want to listen. You get people in who are really appreciative. Sometimes you’ll be playing a gig in London and people are too busy ordering their pints to pay any attention to what you’re singing or saying [laughs]. Which is fine, that’s a different market. But that’s also part of the reason why the Bluebird is so special. Yeah, I’m very, very fortunate with the people I get to work with when I’m over in Nashville. Some of the songwriters I work with are mega-successful and amazing people, too. So every time I go out there they always invite me along to play. But I remember going to the Bluebird, like, my first week that I lived there, and I remember seeing Emily Shackleton [‘Love Like Mine’, from the ‘Nashville’ tv show] and Tony Arata [‘The Dance’, by Garth Brooks], amazing songwriters. I looked at them and I thought it’s gonna be about fifteen or twenty years before I’m good enough to play here [laughs]. Or successful enough, ya know, to have loads of hits. So to find myself there three years later…dreams do come true!”
The ‘Nashville’ tv show has also become a massive platform for country music worldwide, and Megan has also achieved the distinction of having one of her songs, ‘Don’t You’, featured on the show.
“Yeah, it was amazing for me, but also to do that without having a record label or a publishing company was huge because a lot of times those are the very people who get you those opportunities.I just submitted ‘Don’t You’ to a pool of songs being put forward to the show. It was chosen by one of the editors, then approved by the creator of the show, Callie Khouri. So yeah…it just kind of happened. I don’t think I really believed it [that it was going to happen]. I mean, a lot of things can be like that in the music industry. When you start out, every time somebody says something to you, you think it’s gonna happen. You’ll meet this record exec, and he’ll tell you he’s gonna pass your music on and you think, ‘That’s it, I’m definitely gonna get a record deal here!’ [laughs]. But as the years go on, you’re more like, screw this [laughs]. There’s so many highs and lows, I’m just gonna stay in the middle and I’,m not gonna get excited about anything. So I think I just didn’t believe it until I heard it on the show. And then I was like, ‘Oh…wow! That IS actually me!’ [laughs].”
Moving away from country music for a moment, anyone who checks out Megan’s social media will hear some of the gorgeous covers she’s recorded, including tracks by Pink, Picture This, and even Avicii. So who does she listen to when it’s purely and simply to ‘enjoy’ music, and is she listening to anyone right now who she just can’t get enough of?
“I listen to a bit of everything. The only thing I don’t really listen to is heavy metal. I like to be able to listen to the lyrics, and I like beats and melodies. But I’m a runner, so I love going out running with dance music in my ears! And I love up-and-coming artists, cos’ that’s who a lot of my friends are. So I tend to listen what they’re doing and draw inspiration from them. The biggest inspiration for me at the moment, especially in the time of recording this album, was probably Ryan Adams. I’ve been completely obsessed, for like the last two or three years. I just can’t get enough of him! [laughs]. I’d been a fan for probably seven or eight years, but his most recent album [‘Prisoner’], I’ve been just listening to it on repeat since it came out, just all the time. I think he’s a phenomenal songwriter, an amazing storyteller. His use of words is incredible. So yeah, him, and Brandi Carlile, who’s also amazing and an inspiration to me. And First-Aid Kit as well. But I guess none of them are really country. I definitely think all of them have elements of country, but maybe a lot more Americana.”
Like myself, Megan comes from a really small little Irish town [shout out to Lusmagh, in county Offaly for me!], Ballymore Eustace, in Kildare. What was it like for her to go from there, to working with someone like Guy Fletcher, for example, of Dire Straits fame?
“Yeah, it’s always weird. I think you always have this expectation of people who are very successful and who you look up to, that they’re going to be larger than life. But first of all, I think I owe my family a lot, because my parents brought me up to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do, and be anyone I wanted to be. So I never felt restricted, and I felt just as good as anybody else. There’s always gonna be people who are better than you, and always people who are not as good as you, too. But, if you work really hard, there’s no reason why you can’t get there [succeed]. So I always had that mentality. But two years ago, right, I performed during Oscars week in L.A., I was invited out by J.J. Abrams and it was right before the ‘Star Wars’ release. So, you had all of the ‘Star Wars’ cast, and tons of celebrities, and it was absolutely mental! And I remember being there, on the red carpet, beside Stephen Fry, and thinking to myself, ‘What is my like LIKE?!’ This IS so weird!’ [laughs]. All of these people were probably looking at me and thinking, ‘Who’s she?’ [laughs]. But you know what, when you talk to a lot of these people [who are successful], and Guy Fletcher is the perfect example, they’re so down to earth and so lovely. They’ve been so successful because they’re really great to work with.”
Megan was home in Ireland this summer to perform at the first ever Harvest Country Music Festival.
“Yeah, and I loved it! It was my first time working in that manner with Aiken Promotions and I just thought they were incredible, so professional, so organised. Everything just ran so smoothly. And I thought it was a great festival. I was so happy that I was able to be on stage twice a day with Victoria Shaw and Don Mescall, that was a dream. I can’t wait to see Harvest Fest grow over the next few years and become as big as any of the festivals goin’ on in Ireland.”
Jumping away from music for a moment once again, something a lot of people might not know about Megan is that she’s also a marathon runner!
“I am, yeah. I did my first marathon in Madrid and I remember running along, and I’d lost my friend, because she had no time-limit in her own mind. But I was like I’m getting this in under four hours! But I didn’t realise Madrid had hills! [laughs]. And the last six miles were pretty much all uphill! I was raging by the end of it! I ended up running along with these two sixty-five year old men who were both in training for a 100km race. I was like, ah come on, you’re showing me up here, training for a 100km race and I’m struggling for 42! [laughs]. But yeah, I managed it, somehow, to get in in under four. Then I did London last year. Running for me is just a massive stress relief, which a lot of people find in different ways. But for me, it’s running. It’s my ‘me’ time! [laughs].”
So, last question time, and we ended with one that would, hypothetically at least, put Megan in control of the music business! If it was in her hands to make any one change to the music industry, with immediate and everlasting effect, that she thinks would be of most benefit to songwriters and performers….what one change would she make?
“Wow. I think…I think it would probably be – and I think it is going this way, and I’m thankful for that – I think it would be that payments are made equally through streaming. Like Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music. I have a lot of friends who are just songwriters, who are struggling to pay their rent even when they’ve had a massive hit with an artist. The artist has different ways to make money. We can go touring, sell merch, be brand ambassadors, whatever. We can do a lot of things. But songwriters rely on artists to get their music out there, to pay them. But if it’s going out on these online platforms, then they’re making pennies and not pounds per listen. So they’re struggling. That’s probably what I would like to see change in the future.”
* Megan’s latest single, ‘Why I Need You’, is OUT NOW.