What if it was easier to sing than say something? Megan Washington's lifelong stutter became an open secret in a brave and moving TED talk that broke big with an episode of the ABC's Australian Story in July. She'd managed to disguise her "mortal dread", she explained, using a technique called smooth speech, "where you almost sing everything you say".
Moving right along, the Brisbane jazz prodigy turned pop bombshell of 2010 has made it clear she has no intention of becoming the poster girl for speech therapy. But given that art reflects life, the revelation resonates in curious ways with her second album, There There.
"‘How To Tame Lions' was, for me, not about anything," Washington declares, looking back to the single that put her on the map five years ago. "It's a sequence of words and ideas and images that lend a certain sort of urgency but I didn't have anything in mind. Nothing. That song was an exercise in wordplay."
That hardly makes her a charlatan in a game that was jumping with tambourine men and walruses long before she was born. Ingeniously titled in retrospect, 2010's I Believe You Liar was a wholly convincing debut album, to the tune of platinum sales, all the right awards and the aura of an overnight sensation.
But comes a time for every enigmatic pop phenomenon to stop singing and start communicating. With Sia Furler's producer/ co-writer Sam Dixon hell bent on tough love and literal translation, There There is the breakthrough in substance that no amount of blah-blah could smooth over.
"I'm good at writing songs," Washington says. "I can write a song with a beginning and a middle and an end, and I can do that all day, bang-bang-bang, no worries." So she did, with Dixon at the desk in his London studio, about 20 or 30 times before he put his foot down.
"Go home tonight," he told her, "and think of something from your real life that really happened and write a song about it."
"Marry Me", about the broken engagement that dominated her stormy emotional landscape between albums, was the true beginning of the record, she says – "after the two weeks that I spent crying and being afraid and... it was a very psychiatric sort of experience."
Dixon also sparked a musical revelation for a singer reared on jazz and theatre musicals, with a diet of English Eighties art-rock such as Tears For Fears, The The and especially Talk Talk (again with the communication allusions), which inspired a distinct musical departure as well as the cheeky double-barrelled album title.
Thematically, There There is "almost a record of apology or of consolation," she says. "I've had five years of an extremely transient life, [combined] with a personal compulsion to explore every situation as deeply as I possibly could, and the fallout from that is that I invariably leave. People, cities, housemates, family. I leave."
Some fans may have felt abandoned, too, in the restless artist's rush from an underachieving "mini-album", 2011's Insomnia, to her big-screen singing and acting debut in the critically savaged arthouse flop, The Boy Castaways, opposite former paramour Tim Rogers. But if she polarises people, Washington says she's both unaware and, in keeping with her theme, apologetic.
"If I piss people off I'm sorry," she says. "I don't know how deep you wanna go, but psychologically and sociologically, I have never agreed with the idea of myself as being anything other than anybody else. I don't mythologise myself in my appearance. I don't rock around like Lana Del Rey, looking like I've just stepped out of a film. When you picture a writer in a movie and they're sitting there at a typewriter in an oversized jumper and glasses and there's an overflowing ashtray and balled-up pieces of paper everywhere, that's kind of me. That's what I am."
This article features in our latest issue (#755, October 2014). Available now.
Topics: Megan Washington