It’s been nearly four years since the award-winning singer-songwriter released her debut album, and while much in her life has changed, the only difference in how Megan approaches her work is that, if anything, she’s even more determined to make music that defies the boundaries and boxes others have sometimes tried to place around this most singular and distinctive of new British voices. “This new record is a lot darker,” she says, “and there’ve been times over the last year where I’ve thought what I was doing was terrifying. I think that comes across in some of the songs.”
It’s not just Henwood’s honesty in conversation that strikes you. She’s every bit as open in her songwriting, which finds her dealing, as often as not, with deeply personal – though universal – themes and drawing on sometimes painful experiences. As a writer and performer she belongs to a tradition, though perhaps not solely to the one many expected after she and her brother, Joe, won BBC Radio 2’s Young Folk Award in 2009. Instead, the lineage that Henwood can claim is the same one that Bob Dylan tapped in to when he upset folk purists, first by writing his own songs, then by going electric; she is closer in spirit to idiosyncratic singer-songwriters such as her key influences – Elliott Smith, Bill Withers, Anaïs Mitchell – or to those writers who similarly dig down deep into music’s roots to find new ways to innovate: Terry Callier, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey.
“I remember a compilation my mum would play in the car,” she says. “It was called Every Song Tells a Story, and had Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, Kate Bush’s Babooshka, Kenny Rogers’ Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town. I listened to it incessantly. I think I always just loved words: I had a fascination for really well written songs, and I hate lazy songwriting. Singing comes naturally to me, though it’s taken me a long time to find what my voice is. I can lend it to other things, but it seems most real when I’m singing what I’m feeling.”
Making Waves was an impressive opening statement, with songs like the single What Elliott Said – a homage to her songwriting hero – showing that Megan could captivate listeners with a beguiling sense of deeply personal mystery, while Free and Focused found her opening up on the difficulty of maintaining self-worth in a world that rewards relentless drive, where the line between confidence and arrogance is often blurred. But by opting to record with some big names from the folk world, the record may have given too limited a glimpse of her capabilities.
Head, Heart, Hand puts that right. It is an altogether more accomplished work, Megan’s formidable and growing writing skills matched by a meticulous production that burnishes the songs until they glow. Whether she is carefully balancing contrasting images in These Walls (“Sick to my stomach, cold to my core”; “Throw me a lifeline, show me the dead”), sketching enigmatic characters in Garden, or telling complicated family sagas with powerful economy of detail (the closing Painkiller deals with the death of her uncle and the astonishing story of her father’s adoption), Henwood is in absolute command of her art.
The record was produced by Megan, Joe and their friend, the drum & bass DJ Tom Excell, and recorded in a studio Joe and Megan built inside a renovated farm building in Oxfordshire, where the soundproofing was provided by 580 straw bales. Megan is keen to stress its collaborative nature, and pay homage to the extended family of musicians, artists, instrument-builders and photographers who she enlisted to help bring her ideas to fruition. It may not be “folk” music per se, but there is no doubting its sense of place, its rooting in an artistic and creative community, and its intrinsic and undeniable claim to authenticity.
The album is the culmination of a philosophy about art and life that Henwood has absorbed from birth. She borrowed the album title from her dad, a boat-builder, who had coined the phrase for a book he published in 2012. The idea is something Megan has carried through to her music, which maintains a perfect balance between intellect, emotion and effort.
“I’m not a boat-builder and my dad’s not a songwriter, but there’s that idea connecting everything,” she explains. “It’s about working really hard at what you do, and honing your craft and trying to be the best you can at it – not letting your heart completely cover over things, but not letting your head get in the way either.” There seems little danger that she will ever let that happen.