With the exception of cognitive dissonance, nothing gets a kid that’s taking PSYC 001 this semester more hyped than the mention of schemas. Cognitive structures within our long term memory, schemas help us to make quick decisions by providing scripts for appropriate behavior in a given setting. They’re a quiet understanding of a situation’s social rules and our roles within them. Schemas, however, are inherently skewed. Naturally, our culture creeps into the scripts we write for ourselves, making space for biases as we try to categorize the world around us.
Always operating by the rules of a script runs the risk of ignoring novelty. It’s a tired truth, but a truth nonetheless. It applies to our lives as well as the music we listen to, and it’s a shame to miss out on something beautiful by writing it off based on preconceptions. When defining what it means for music to be “folk rock,” Meg Duffy urges us to stay fluid. Duffy, under the stage name Hand Habits, explores that idea on their album placeholder, out now on Saddle Creek.
“I think that it's important to remind ourselves to exist outside the binaries of all aspects of life," Duffy tells me over the phone, "I think with music, too, it’s so hard to be like ‘this is rock,’ or ‘this is folk.' Everybody wants to categorize something; that’s how you understand it. But I think with music, I think it's especially important not to do that.”
A schema for a folk rocker might conjure images of a lone white dude solemnly strumming away on an acoustic guitar, but, thankfully, modern folk rock is far less monochromatic than that. Queer artists are flourishing within the genre—Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief, Deerhunter, and boygenius to name a few—and Duffy’s critically acclaimed sophomore Hand Habits’ album, placeholder, has secured their position within the space.
But to slap some label like “queer folk” on Duffy’s tunes would be to misunderstand their ethos. Take their song, “heat,” for example: it’s the only song on their record that doesn’t include any analog instrumentation, and Duffy considers it “the joke to [themself],” on the record because “it’s not a traditional folk song.” So Duffy’s focus isn’t simply “trying” to make their music queer. They’re an artist whose creative expressions naturally draw from their experiences, and thus, their music must be queer:
“As a queer person, that’s just what happens. It’s just something that I’m thinking about a lot.”
Really, the most appropriate approach to listening to Hand Habits’ songs is to take them as they are. Which is quite easy considering they are so damn beautiful. Luscious, heavy, and viscerally emotive, Duffy’s songs on placeholder confront life’s many complexities one at a time. Their sweet melodies and gentle vocals juxtapose subjects like anxiety and indecision such that listening to placeholder is a smooth, contemplative journey through Duffy’s world.
Duffy fearlessly considers the importance of existing in a fluid world. Their emphasis on “being able to be a switch in terms of your role and where you’re oriented,” explains why they’ve had such a success in a variety of musical settings. As a session guitar player, Duffy’s virtuosic riffs decorate songs by Weyes Blood, William Tyler, and The War on Drugs.
Before becoming a bandleader of their own, Duffy played lead guitar with Kevin Morby beginning in 2015, and Morby’s 2017 album City Music features many attention–grabbing licks and solos by Duffy. Aside from laying down guitar tracks in a studio, Duffy’s experience in Morby’s band influenced how they would approach leading a band of their own.
“I like to make sure that everybody’s very needed and wanted and valued as a band member. That’s how I felt in Kevin’s band. I didn’t feel expendable.”
One might mistakenly expect Duffy’s demeanor to be quite serious considering the weight of their music, but their disposition is rather friendly and charming. When asked how it feels to be touring their well–received record, they jovially responded, “I feel great. I’m elated. I’m so happy. I’m not joking, I really do. I feel really happy.” Duffy loves being on tour, saying that it’s their “favorite thing,” and as a bandleader who enjoys having fun, they’re making sure everyone in Hand Habits is having fun, too.
With the music industry being so adept at planting prefab pop stars into our cultural sphere through massive marketing campaigns, it’s quite refreshing to see someone like Hand Habits break through. For those music fans who romanticize the lone indie musician toiling away to perfect their craft and be heard by the masses, Hand Habits is just who you need to listen to. And for anyone who simply enjoys great music, Hand Habits is just who you need to listen to, too. The limelight may not have been exactly what they were searching for, but it’s something they’ve found and will continue to thrive in as the they continue their career:
“I wasn’t thirsting for it, cause I also feel comfortable not doing that, but right now it feels really good. It’s definitely what I want right now.”
Hand Habits plays Johnny Brenda's on Thursday, April 11. Chris Cohen and Tasha open. More info can be found at Johnny Brenda's website.