Megan Reilly's latest release, The Well, is well worth the wait.
It's been six years since the Memphis native came home with a new record in tow. In 2006, the waifish singer with the luminous blue eyes and whispery voice was on a roll. She'd just released Let Your Ghost Go, a strong sophomore album that nipped the heels of her acclaimed debut, Arc of Tessa, and music writers everywhere seemed to agree that she was growing in interesting directions and getting better with each new category-defying song. Then, as it will, life became more complicated. In this case, it also became better. And that was a problem.
"I was used to writing from a mournful place. Having a child and being in love filled me with such unfamiliar happiness that I didn't know how to write about it," she told one New Jersey reporter.
Reilly married Minority Report actor Daniel London. Three years ago, she gave birth to their daughter, Sylvia. During her time away from the road and the recording studio, the self-taught musician also learned the arduous process of quilting. And since recording Let Your Ghost Go, she's pieced together eight quilts. More recently, she and her husband moved their new family from Brooklyn to make a new start in Montclair, New Jersey, a New York bedroom community where the schools are good and there's space to garden and grow. That's where she figured out how to work through her impossible happiness problems and learn to write again. In April, Reilly released The Well, with its nine gorgeous, ghostly songs about love, life, death, and evading capture, on Carrot Top Records, a Chicago indie that handles an eclectic roster of artists, including kindred spirits, the Handsome Family.
"For the first year after Sylvia was born I was totally happy just to be a mom," Reilly says. "And it took awhile to get my footing again."
Once the footing was regained and she felt she needed to make a record again, one problem remained: She only had a couple of finished songs on the shelf. "I made myself write four songs in three months," Reilly says. "If I had my way, I would probably write one song a year. But I can't just sit and stare and wait for the magic to happen. Having a kid was a huge motivation."
The Well reunites Reilly with most of the musicians who recorded on Tessa and Ghost, including Tony Maimone of Pere Ubu and Steve Goulding, who also plays with the Mekons, and Laura Cantrell. Only lead guitarist Tim Foljan, of Two Dollar Guitar and Cat Power, has departed, but his replacement, James Mastro of the Health & Happiness Show, makes a huge difference in the band's sound. Reilly's previous efforts have been more ethereal, floating on an airy bed of piano and lap steel, but Mastro's wet, reverb-heavy guitar leads, reminiscent of Wicked Game-era Chris Isaak, give a mysterious, even dangerous quality to songs that might otherwise pass for lullabies.
"He played through two amps," Reilly says, explaining how they got the humid guitar sounds.
Reilly has always credited Southern author Flannery O'Connor as a major influence and, in her Memphis days, used the stage name Lucynell Crater, a persona inspired by a character in the O'Connor short story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." Her writing is willfully literate but never literal, and songs on The Well are characteristically cryptic but emotionally direct. In a 2006 interview with the Flyer, Reilly talked about how often she thinks about death. That hasn't changed and "Lady of Leitrim," one of The Well's most inspired tracks, is about a family tragedy from long ago.
"Probably nobody can tell what the hell I'm singing about," Reilly says of "Lady," a plaintive, Celtic-inspired song about her great-aunt, Birdie, an Irish immigrant who died after falling into the East River in the 1950s. Reilly hadn't known any of the details about the drowning until after her grandmother's death, ensuring that the holes in the story would never be filled.
"I wanted to give her a voice," Reilly says. "Maybe her death was a suicide, maybe not. Maybe she was looking at the water and thinking about her home in Ireland. People drown accidentally all the time. Her legacy doesn't need to be suicide."
Other outstanding cuts on The Well include "To Seal My Love," which Reilly modestly describes as her only successful love song, and "The Old Man and the Bird," a simple, infectious tune about an old man using lemon curd and cages in an attempt to capture a beloved songbird. The latter was penned by the British-born folk rocker John Wesley Harding, who also plays and sings on the track.
Harding and Reilly met in Memphis in the late 1990s, when they played a show together at Barrister's, a now-defunct downtown rock club. Ten years later, they became neighbors in Brooklyn and fast friends.
"He called and said he had written a song that made him think of me. When we played together in Memphis, I had sung the original cuckoo song. He drove up from Philly, and we recorded it without rehearsing," Reilly says.
When Reilly plays the Hi-Tone Café on May 11th, she'll be joined by Mastro on guitar and a homegrown rhythm section consisting of former Lucynell Crater drummer Andy Saunders and Dragoon and Grifters bassist Tripp Lamkins.
with the Wuvbirds
Friday, May 11th
9 p.m. $10