Reuniting with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for the first time since 2017, the ARIA Award-winning songwriter reflects on change, constancy, and keeping it simple.
By Hugh Robertson, adapted with permission from author.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”
The same could be said of music, especially when performed live: the listener is somewhat changed at every performance, but so too is the performer, depending on their moods and the seasons of their life. Think Glenn Gould’s two Goldberg Variations recorded 35 years apart, or Joni Mitchell’s two versions of ‘Both Sides Now’ with a similar gap between them.
Meg Washington is a firm believer that the best songs are malleable, changeable, susceptible to the passage of time just as humans are. That question is on the ARIA Award-winning singer/songwriter’s mind as she looks ahead to her upcoming performance with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra at Wrest Point on 30 January, more than six years after she made her debut with the Orchestra, and considers what has changed for her in the years since.
'I think life is much easier as an artist if you live in the second camp. Because the idea of trying to stay the same…age can make a huge impact on how a song relates to you.'
Much has happened in Meg's life in the past few years that may have changed how she approaches the world, and her music. She has released two albums, with another on the way in 2024, written a musical, and written and produced a feature film – the latter an adaptation of Paul Kelly’s beloved song ‘How to Make Gravy’ that Washington has made alongside her husband, Nick Waterman. The couple also have a child born in late 2017, mere weeks after she performed with the Orchestra.
If nothing else, Meg is enjoying how different her songs sound when she has full lung capacity.
‘The last symphony orchestra show that I did, I was eight months pregnant with my son,’ she recalls with a smile. ‘So my phrases were very short and I was in a really different head space because I was just trying to breathe at all. And now I feel like I'm feeling really good in my instrument and in my body.’
‘It feels like a delicious idea to take on the task of singing with the symphony orchestra.’
Despite Meg's excitement at these concerts there is also some trepidation about the size of the musical forces waiting for her.
‘It feels like catching a wave,’ she says of performing with the Orchestra. ‘It’s a bit scary at first because it is so big,’ says Meg. ‘Once it is moving, you can’t change it. You have to surrender to the energy of it.’
Another challenge has been thinking about her music in a very different way to normal, and particularly think about it so far in advance.
'Because I have a jazz background, I'm pretty allergic to structure and routine,’ she says with a laugh. ‘I love to just call songs on the day and I love when my band just knows things. So a show like this is a real challenge for me because I had to decide a long time ago what I'm going sing in the future.’
A big part of these concerts involves adapting and arranging Meg's songs for symphony orchestra. It isn’t as simple as simply adding more instruments – it has to be done sensitively, with a deep knowledge of the families of instruments and how they work together, and a constant tension between the original material and how to make it sound good at scale. It is a delicate art, but Meg is excited about the results that have come back from her collaborators.
‘There were a few arrangers that I have come to know over the past couple of years who I was keen to work with,’ Meg explains. ‘And of course the arrangers come back with their own very unique take on everything. Some of the songs are completely transformed.’
‘There's a song called 'Cement', from my first record, that is now unrecognisable – it sounds like it is from some kind of cinematic James Bond universe. I'm actually a bit intimidated to sing it because it's taken on a sound that's completely new for me.’
(As a case in point, listen to the recording of ‘Catherine Wheel’ from those 2017 concerts, released on streaming platforms late last year. The original, from Meg's 2020 album Batflowers, is a lovelorn ballad played on piano, wistful and weary and worn-out like the relationship it depicts. The 2017 performance, arranged for orchestra by Paul Hankinson, opens with Meg accompanied by a quiet salvo from the horns before the strings begin to swell under the second verse, culminating in a grand brass crescendo. It is grander, certainly, but that just seems to make the subject matter all the more crushing.)
One of the arrangers Meg has worked with for many years is Ross Irwin, who was a member of Meg's first band, formed back in 2008, and has worked with Australian acts including The Cat Empire and The Bamboos.
‘Ross is amazing. His arrangements are so good because they're totally familiar, but full of simple changes that have a huge effect. So his arrangements are really exciting because for me, anything that injects new energy and novelty into the music is really attractive.’
‘But I love the idea of treating my repertoire like standards,’ Meg continues. ‘Being able to do them this way or that way: Latin, bossa nova, swing them or play them with a big band or with a symphony orchestra. I love the idea that if a song is written well enough, it can be robust enough to handle that much interrogation and still and still sound good and feel good.’
It is interesting to hear Meg talk about standards and the great bodies of work that term suggests, names like Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen. Back in 2017, in an interview published in the concert guide for her performances with the Sydney Symphony, Meg was adamant that those shows not be seen as a career retrospective. ‘I made a very deliberate decision because it was way too early for a ‘best of’, she said at the time.
But for these 2024 concerts, with her own songbook greatly expanded, she has taken the opposite path.
‘With this show I really wanted to present the most shining gems from across my catalogue,’ she explains. ‘I didn't want to complicate anything. Last time I did this, I had this whole album that I had arranged and it ended up like never coming out. So this time I was like just apply the KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid. I just am doing the songs that were singles and are singles, and other things that are my favourites.’
‘I think about it sort of like arranging beads on a string,’ she continues. ‘It has to be an interesting sequence of events that is unfolding and surprising, hopefully.’
*Adapted with the author’s permission from an article originally published on www.sydneysymphony.com
Reuniting with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for the first time since 2017, Meg Washington performs at Wrest Point Entertainment Centre, nipaluna / Hobart on Tuesday 30 Jan 2024.