A stage actress-turned-accidental-musician, Meghan Cary has been writing songs for more than 20 years. After finding success around the globe as a thespian and voiceover artist, the Philadelphia-area artist was led to her debut as a performing singer-songwriter through the path of devastating heartbreak. Her first album, “New Shoes,” released in 1998 and penned from a sorrowing catharsis following the sudden death of her fiancé Matthew Black, earned her a Critic’s Choice Award from Billboard Magazine. Cary has been pouring her heart, humor, and life wisdom into the stories she shares through song ever since, including her most recent release “Sing Louder: The Festival EP.”
Though she gave up her acting career when she had her first child with husband Peter Farrell, also a musician in their band Analog Gypsies, Cary returned to theater in 2014 playing Jodie Foster and several other roles in the New City Stage Company production of “Hinckley.” Her one-woman play “On the Way to the Waterfall” had its world premiere at the Boulder Fringe Festival that same year, and she is currently collaborating on her first musical.
Here, Cary, who performs with Farrell on June 3 in our farmhouse, shares a glimpse of her journey as an artist, wife and mother, and woman who uses everything life gives her as fuel to sing out loud!
How long have you been writing songs?
I started writing music just over 20 years ago when my fiancé died unexpectedly. I picked up his guitar and figured out how to play it. I didn’t know any cover songs start to finish, so I made up my own. I had no intention of becoming a “musician,” but when the dust settled after that huge derailment in my life, I was on a completely new track that led me to where I am today.
In 2015, you set out to write one song week. Can you share the impetus for such an ambitious goal and some of the struggles, triumphs and insights gained along the way?
I think I decided to challenge myself to writing a song a week to get myself back “in the groove” of writing. Sometimes it’s easy to forget or doubt that we are writers (or painters, or creators of any kind) because we don’t don our label and head off to “work” every day. But the truth is, if I am writing, I am a writer. I wanted that reminder. I got so much more than that out of my song a week year. First off, I got some pretty good songs out of it that I’ve added to my shows and recorded. But more importantly, the exercise took the onus off of the songwriting process. I had to write a song a week, so I couldn’t be precious about it. I didn’t have the time to angst over writing the perfect song — I simply wrote a song. Every week. Sure, I wrote some pretty bad songs along the way. But by allowing myself to write those, I found my way to a few gems I’m proud to have penned.
You’ve also been working on a new musical. Tell us about your return to your theater roots.
We just had our first sing through of it, and it was incredible to hear my music sung by such amazing Broadway talent! I began work on the musical after debuting my one-person play, “On the Way to the Waterfall” at the Boulder Fringe Festival… (It) tells the tale of how I came to be a musician.
In the words of John Lennon: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” So when the path you’re traveling is obliterated by some unforeseen disaster, is it tragedy? Or is the repeated reinventing of oneself what life is all about?… Tragedy can radically alter our story, and owning our story can radically alter our lives. Although many of my songs tell parts of the story, “Waterfall” is a play because it has twists and turns and travels through time in a way that cannot be contained in a four-minute song. It is a 73-minute rollercoaster ride into accepting one’s dharma.
How do you think your years in theater have influenced you as a performing singer-songwriter, and how do you think the last several years of writing and touring have impacted the way you approach writing and thinking about a script?
They really have fed each other. My years in theater have given me the gift of confidence onstage. I feel at home on the bright side of the footlights, and I am so grateful for that. But more importantly, acting is about connecting — with my own needs and wants, with other actors in the scene, with the audience — and that is what I feel sharing music is all about. That’s what live music is all about in general. If you just want to hear the songs, play the album. If you want to take the ride, come along on an emotional adventure and not alone…come to a show.
As for my music career impacting my playwriting and acting, I’d never really thought about it before. But I guess it comes down to the same thing: connection. For example I’ve found that it’s easier to connect with an audience member/listener on a deeper level after they’ve had a good laugh. It’s been my experience that laughter and tears break down the same wall. So in my writing, I tend to use humor to pave the way for the more poignant and possibly painful parts of the play.
Your debut album emerged from an incredibly painful period in your life: did you ever imagine that you would want to share those songs you wrote from such a raw and tender place with the world?
No. I had no intention of sharing them with anyone but my close friends and Matti’s family. But one thing led to another and…well, you’ll just have to see the play!
Had you done any songwriting prior to this?
I actually wrote a few ditties when I was a kid. I never thought much about it because being a musician or writer wasn’t on my radar at all. I was a science kid and was always going to be a biomedical engineer.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I wrote this for my parents when I was about 7 (no doubt in the key of G):
The world needs love
And the world needs you
Oh the world needs love
And the world needs you-oo-oo.
What’s your own personal hallmark of a great song?
Everyone writes for a different audience and for different reasons. I like to write songs that tell a story. And I like it to be a story that might make you tap into your own story long enough to acknowledge and own it. But I also love to get people up on their feet dancing!
What’s essential to your songwriting process?
Ruminating time is fairly essential. And once I’ve got a song started, I like to throw it up in front of an audience and see what sticks. Then I reshape from there. This is not a conventional way of writing, I know. But connection with the audience has always been an essential part of my songwriting.
You’ve been compared to artists like Shawn Colvin, Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls and Stevie Nicks: How have they influenced you?
When I first started writing music, Shawn Colvin and the Indigo Girls were everywhere. So those powerhouse harmonies and great stories were what meant “good songwriting” to me. As for Stevie, she (and the others, and Melissa Etheridge) all sing with passionate abandon. Music is not meant to be safe — music is what happens when words alone can’t cut it.
Who would you consider your greatest musical and/or lyrical inspirations?
The women mentioned above, for sure. But also, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. I was/am also a huge Simon and Garfunkel fan. And musically I’ve always loved Elton John…good thing I married me a piano man!
You’ve written very intimately about your own life but you also have songs like “Responsibility” that deal with broader social issues: how important is it to you to use the platform of being a musician to speak to social change or more conscious living?
I believe whether you are a musician, actor, model, teacher, politician, parent — I could name so many — it is your responsibility, if you have the listening of many, to be conscientious about what stand you take. Because whether you mean to or not, your position will be taken as a “stand,” and others will try to emulate you.
That said, I do not think songs are only of value when they speak to these broader world-important topics. I believe a song is of value simply for the telling of its story. Alone.
Your husband is in your band, Analog Gypsies, and you also perform as a duo: What’s it like mixing marriage and music?
It’s awesome! We share a home, two children and a common passion. We inspire each other as parents, musicians and travelers on the path of life. Every show for us is “date night.” We catch up on all things life, family, work, silliness as we drive to, load-in and sound check for a gig. And then we get onstage and do what we both love to do…together. We are really lucky. On a completely practical note, it does mean we pay for a lot of babysitters to watch our sleeping children.
You released three albums, got married and became a mom and took a break from your music: when you began working on your fourth album, “Building This House,” after that hiatus, what was it that you’d come to realize about motherhood and creativity?
To be the best mom I can be, I need to be the most complete person I can be. That person writes and performs. I want my children to see that doing what you love to do is the key to a meaningful life. I try to always practice what I preach in “Sing Louder”: Live what you love/love what you do/Laugh with your friends/Cry with them, too/Sing everyday/Sing out loud sing out clear/If you don’t know the words….sing louder!
How has being a mom to two expanded or shifted your approach to songwriting and performing?
I discovered I didn’t have the luxury to retreat to a quiet mountain top and sit in silence for days on end to write a song. I learned to write in the spaces in between. Different but just as effective. As for performing, I’m still learning from them everyday. Kids have so much less junk in the way of saying what they mean and doing what they want. They express so freely… That is the key to the kind of performance I always want to give: one that draws you in, wraps you up, and takes you for the wild ride.
Meghan Cary performs with Peter Farrell at 7:30 p.m. June 3 at the Scatter Joy Center for the Arts, 305 Horsham Road, Horsham. Anthony Viscounte opens the show. Admission is free. Information: 215-672-3140.