Spotlight On…Megan Hook

It’s a bit disconcerting, really, to find myself saying things like, “I’ve known so-and-so for almost twenty years,” and still be talking about my adulthood. But here goes: I’ve known Megan Hook for almost twenty years. We met in the fall of 2000 at Seattle’s Café Campagne, where we were both working as servers. We became friends, sharing chocolate chip cookies from the bakery across the street in the Pike Place Market and talking about our respective paths as classically-trained singers with musically omnivorous appetites.

Megan eventually moved to Los Angeles and I moved to New York City, but we’ve kept in touch over the years. Megan works regularly as a songwriter and performing musician, singing operatic roles, debuting new music, and leading her band, The Bright Forever. She is also a sought-after educator: in addition to her private voice studio, Megan teaches mindfulness to K-12 students as well as to incarcerated populations.

Last summer, Megan and I met for a drink in Fort Greene, Brooklyn when she was visiting New York. We reminisced a little bit about those misty Seattle days and dug right into the deep stuff, marveling at life’s surprises, heartbreaks, and astonishing speed. That’s the thing about a friend like Megan; we always pick up right where we left off. I’m so thankful to her for sharing her wit and wisdom here on Ad Alta Voce. Thank you, Megan!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
Eek! There are so many influences: songwriters, singers, bands, lyricists. As far as songwriters go, I adore Bruce Springsteen, [Bob] Dylan, Abbey Lincoln, the great American Songbook guys, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead (for their wash of guitars and magic), Gillian Welch (for the stories she tells). For singers, I love the great ladies of jazz: Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves…I like a singer whose voice you recognize in an instant. I also love a great rock and roll voice, like Van Morrison. And don’t tell anyone, but Liam Gallagher’s voice shoots up my spine every time I hear it; he’s just so brash, unapologetic, and rock-and-roll. Bono, Mark Kozelek, Robert Plant, Feist, Goldfrapp, and, of course, The Beatles are still unparalleled in my mind. Even after all these years, and on every front: songwriters, vision, singing.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
I always warm-up before diving into songs. [I’ve] been singing the same warm-up forever, and yet new ones do sneak in. It’s good to keep it fresh. It amazes me that I never get bored singing the same warm-ups. I just think singing is so bottomless, in the sense of what there is to explore: timbre, resonance, placement, vibrato, no vibrato, whisper, shout, beauty, and non-beauty, if that’s the way to say it.

After singing opera for so long, I found it very freeing to not always focus on beauty. I’m inspired by singers like Nina Simone or Janis Joplin, who used the voice to express much more than just beauty. I find it very freeing and very real to explore the range of sounds my voice can make beyond a technical idea of what it should be. I do sing with the guitar and piano a lot when working on/writing songs and accompanying myself, but it is also good to work with recorded tracks when making a record, to isolate the singing. I am working on a new EP right now and I am currently doing a lot of practicing/rehearsing with the track I’ve already laid down. I also sing a cappella a lot when prepping material; I don’t really know a song completely until I can sing it a cappella.

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
I would have told myself to have more fun! Oh dear god, I took everything so seriously. I never realized how much of a marathon it is, not a sprint. And the world you live in—inside your head—creating stress, expectations, deadlines, metrics, can wear you down, or at least it wore me down until I found a better way to do it.

Right now I feel pretty focused on just making the music I want to hear and telling the stories I want to tell, and letting the chips fall where they may. I’ve become less and less “outwardly” success-oriented and more and more “inwardly” success-oriented. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but it feels more meaningful to me. [Ed. note: I’m right there with you, my friend, and it is SO. FREEING.]

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
That’s a great question. I feel like I am always tweaking my system regarding all of this. It’s a work in progress. I’ve used the “Getting Things Done” method for years and it is a good one (book and method by David Allen). Right now I am focusing on doing (at least) one thing a day to move the record(s) forward. My mixing engineer, Jeff Jackson, has a tagline on his emails: “Music First.” For some reason, that really spoke to me the first time I saw it. Sadly, I realized how music definitely isn’t first for me many days when I am busy with so many other things. I am working on changing that.

I do find it intense to be promoting the new EP, recording the next one, working on writing new songs, teaching a ton to pay the bills, and also going into the studio to actually record. It’s like all of these things take a different skill set, and I’m constantly working on it all, simultaneously. Lately I’ve been making some music videos, too, because in the singer/songwriter/band world I’m in, that’s one way to get the music out. But talk about taking on a whole other art form: film, in order to promote the music. It’s a lot.

Finding good people to collaborate with helps a lot. At the same time, at the end of the day, I know I need to have the vision and momentum that is driving everything. That can feel exhilarating on good days and completely overwhelming on bad days.

Fun fact:
Hmmm, a guess a funny quirk is that I love children’s books. I have a beautiful collection and I am always on the lookout for a new gem. “The Want Monster” is a beautiful book by Chelo Manchego, whom I recently and unexpectedly met. Los Angeles is cool that way. I also love “We’re All Wonders” by R.J. Palacio. I also have a longtime meditation and mindfulness practice (over 20 years) that keeps me (mostly) sane.

Megan is currently documenting 100 days of her creative life over on her Instagram page. And you can listen to her band, The Bright Forever, here

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Foodie Tuesday: The Winter of My Discontent or, Carbohydrates: A Love Story

It’s been a long winter. I confess to feeling tired of being cold and wind-whipped. I’ve been impatient and foot-tappingly restless, frustrated by the storms that keep swooping in, uninvited, just when it seems as though spring might be coming into view. As I type, yet another nor’easter is swirling around outside. The calendar tells me spring officially starts in just one week, but looking out the window, I don’t quite believe it.

Last week, an antidote to the winter blues presented itself, as is often the case, in the forms of good company and Italian carbohydrates. An impromptu visit to Eataly with friends on a damp, chilly evening held a number of delights, all of which went a long way toward smoothing the frayed edges of my optimism, including an elegant white wine from Friuli and grilled escarole with pine nuts and currants, topped with shaved Parmigiano and a drizzle of syrupy balsamic vinegar.

The lasagna that followed, though, was nothing less than manna from heaven: silken housemade pasta layered with green beans, bechamel, and a green bean-basil pesto. Creamy and comforting, the dish was saved from heaviness by its vegetal brightness; my spirit was saved from heaviness by the conviviality at our table.

After dinner, soothed and sated (okay, and slightly abuzz from the aforementioned Friulian wine), I made my way to the fresh pasta counter to bring some weekend sustenance back to Brooklyn. By the time I sat down on the subway that evening, full of lasagna and newly-recovered good humor, I realized I had lunch plans the next day at a Veronese-style risotteria and I had just purchased two meals’ worth of fresh pasta. Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a pound; it would be a weekend of carbs.

My lunch dates the next day had suggested Risotteria Melotti for our rendezvous, and I wasn’t about to quibble. These particular friends and I have eaten liverwurst and onions on rye at McSorley’s, enjoyed cocktails at the Waldorf, and sipped espresso at Caffé Reggio. They’ve lived all over the world, from Venice to the Congo, and they’re as well versed in the finer points of baseball as they are in jazz and Proust. They’re citizens of the world and real New Yorkers, and when it comes to food (or anything at all, really), I trust them implicitly. Both the risotto—mine was made with shrimp and lemon—and the conversation that day were soul-sustaining and brought cheer to the gray afternoon.

That weekend, my husband and I did indeed feast on that Eataly pasta. We prepared each pasta (pea, mint, and ricotta-stuffed ravioli and lemon-ricotta agnolotti) the same way: tossed in melted butter with a handful of peas and fresh mint, finished with a grating of Parmigiano. We watched Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy spar in “Woman of the Year” as we savored our cozy evening and the pasta, which, with its delicate flavors of lemon and mint, whispered to us of a not-too-distant spring.

The final stretch of winter can be a long haul. Take it from me: when the last, filthy remnants of snow are slow to melt and buds have yet to appear on the trees, the best medicine for sagging morale is sharing in the company of loved ones…and sharing in some pasta doesn’t hurt, either.

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A little over a year ago, in Rome, at Alfredo alla Scrofa, where the eponymous (and divine) fettucine was created.

December: Looking back, looking ahead

holiday-sale-image-1024x765And just like that, in the blink of an eye, another holiday season has come and gone. December was a month filled with music, friends, and a whole lot of food and wine. Bouncing from gig to gig and party to party was fun, but it was also exhausting, so I was delighted that the month—and 2014 itself—culminated in a quiet New Year’s Eve dinner at home.

I try not to make New Year’s resolutions, but the first days of a brand-new year seem to invite contemplation and a bit of much-welcomed slowness, which I savor.  In years past, I have gravitated toward single words that encapsulate my intentions, hopes, and aspirations for the year ahead: faith, fruition, and action, to name a few.  This year, though, I am greeting the new year with a phrase that I saw making the rounds on Facebook, courtesy of Elizabeth Gilbert: “Done is better than good.”

You see, I can get so hung up on my fear of not being able to make something good enough (a recording, a yoga practice, a piece of writing) that sometimes I don’t start at all.  There’s something incredibly freeing about the idea that “done,” with all its inevitable flaws and quirks, still trumps “good.”  “Done is better than good” means that wrong notes, tight hamstrings, and typos are far too inconsequential to keep me from creating something, however meaningful or mundane.  What a relief!

Multi-culti holidays in Brooklyn: the tree and menorah at Borough Hall, our own tree and menorah, a Chinese food ornament (!) and an eggnog latte by the tree.

Multi-culti holidays in Brooklyn: the tree and menorah at Borough Hall, our own tree and menorah, a Chinese food ornament (!) and an eggnog latte by the tree.

Good food, good drinks, good friends...this was a holiday season to celebrate!

Good food, good drinks, good friends…this was a holiday season to celebrate!

NYE Collage

Our NYE dinner: smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres and cheeses to start, then Beef Wellington, followed by chocolate Pavlova.  The wine flowed like…well, you know.  

In December, I…
Blogged about: Fast & Festive Holiday Eating.  November.

Watched: A bunch of Harry Potter movies.  The magic, the metaphor, and the banquet scenes in these films make for perfect holiday entertainment.

Read: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman; this lovely story was part romance, part historical look at turn-of-the-century New York, and part fairy tale.  Under Magnolia, by Frances Mayes; I love Mayes’ narratives of building a life in Italy and was riveted by this lyrical memoir of her Southern upbringing.  Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman; a harrowing and beautifully written novel about a woman newly returned home from a tour of duty in Iraq.  Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin; a wise singer-cook friend lent me this book, and reading Colwin’s no-nonsense, funny prose was like meeting a new friend.

Listened to: Uptown Funk, by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars.  Tongue-in-cheek and irrepressibly fun, this song got me through a few brutally early mornings last month.