Last Town Chorus – Woman Of Steel
Megan Hickey is poised. Poised for success, yes, maybe — American and European distribution deals are coming together, and she recently opened for a sold-out Jayhawks show — but even without all that, she’s poised. Onstage or at home in her Brooklyn apartment, she gives the sense of knowing what she wants and what she means. There’s a precision to her music, her singing and her lap-steel guitar playing that carries over to her conversation.
Take her explanation of why her band is called the Last Town Chorus. Considering that she originally formed it as a duo, and that she is now the sole permanent member, the name might seem ironic. But she means it, in her own way.
“My original thought was it would be a really ever-changing ensemble of people, anchored by the lap steel and the voice and the guitar,” she says. “So I can play a show as a duo, or I can play a show as a five-person group. I can write songs with huge arrangements. I’m not at all limited. And it’s exciting, because there are so many amazing musicians in New York.”
Hickey is sitting on the floor next to a wooden church pew that cuts her large living room in two. The walls are painted in shades of pink and white; the front half of the room is occupied by drums, guitars, amps and microphones. As a practice space, it probably helps that the apartment faces onto Fourth Street, a broad avenue where the gentrified brownstones and organic food stores of Park Slope merge into the bodegas and auto repair shops of an older, scruffier Brooklyn. It probably also helps that, clamorous though it can be in performance, Hickey’s music murmurs more than it squalls.
The band’s only release to date, a self-titled album recorded three years ago but now gaining broader circulation, features Hickey’s clear and pretty voice accompanied by her then-bandmate Nat Guy on acoustic guitar and her own lap steel. The latter instrument provides most of the texture and drama, punctuating the lyrics and melodies with long, slow slides and unexpected bursts of sound. The mostly slow and sometimes mournful music could sit alongside Low or even Cowboy Junkies (in England, the favored press comparison is Mazzy Star), but the lap steel sets it apart.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Hickey, now 30, says she was always drawn to music. She asked for and received a bass guitar for her sixth-grade graduation. She learned to play it, but never felt satisfied. “I was frustrated, because I couldn’t quite get my head around any instruments in a way that excited me,” she says.
She met Guy after moving to Brooklyn in 1999, and they talked about forming a band. “I told him kind of what I was hearing for the music — I was going to play bass probably and sing,” she says. “And he said, ‘Oh, I’ll bring over this old lap steel I have.’ And I just tried it out, and plugged into a delay pedal.” The combination was, in her own word, “magical.”
“For whatever reason, that particular sound just called out of me,” she says. “It sounds so corny, artistically, but it was the proper framing. It made the songs.” She pauses, searching for words. “It sounded like the way I felt. I don’t know how else to describe it….If I hadn’t found the lap steel, I’d probably be a secretary in Cleveland, Ohio, or something.”
Hickey is self-taught, and admits she doesn’t know much about the instrument’s history or heroes, which is probably why her playing sounds so uninflected. It is, she says, almost as if she’s found “a second voice” to complement her own.
After a new baby limited Guy’s availability, Hickey decided to continue alone, bringing in collaborators as the songs warranted. She’s recorded three tracks at Eric Ambel’s studio that already show more diversity in arrangements and dynamics than the first album.
The ephemeral, shifting lineup complements Hickey’s expressionistic songs about being young and often alone in New York. The Brooklyn that comes through in her lyrics is welcoming but also somehow a little sad, marked by all the people who have been and gone before. “I have to leave you for a few days,” she sings on “Dear City”; “While I’m gone, my city, my love, don’t forget my name.” The tension between the permanent and transitory, between belonging and leaving, marks the music as fundamentally urban. Hickey’s lap steel conjures up street lights and Navy yards rather than dirt roads and front porches.
“I don’t purport to be country music, even though I’m playing an instrument that is classically country,” she says. “But that said, country music is so often about place. And I don’t see why that place can’t be a city.”