By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"It's good, good luck," Memphis-born singer Megan Reilly says. "I really feel like luck is," and she pauses before finishing the sentence, "necessary." Probably because she has a lot of it to reflect on: The musicians she's happened upon in a short half-decade are a publicist's dream--she roped in members of greats like the Mekons, Pere Ubu and Cat Power to join her permanent band, and her recent sophomore album, Let Your Ghost Go, received studio support from New York indie stalwart Sue Garner and Tortoise's Tom McEntire.
Reilly tries not to gush about such luck (with the exception of a recent opening gig for Tom Verlaine at New York's Bowery Ballroom--"one of my biggest highlights, absolutely"), but the names are worth repeating and not even for the name-check factor. Rather, Reilly knows anything said about her songs--perhaps the most delightful combination of vulnerability and Southern grace you'll hear this decade--and her voice--oh, God, that voice--is just a drop in today's river of a million musical hopefuls. She can barely even say "There's just so many people playing music" without laughing.
But Reilly has won over wizened ears for good reason. On both Ghost and her 2003 debut Arc of Tessa, her light Tennessee accent adds a teaspoon of sugar to both her soft croon and her room-filling high notes, as if Dolly Parton sang in her sleep and occasionally wailed in terror at a nightmare. Her songwriting is a perfect match--sparse, bluesy lyrics wrap themes of loss and Southern cynicism in a sense of...well, not so much hope as it is confidence. Sadness may very well be inevitable (like in "Blackhearted," when the protagonist tries to drown herself, only to find that the river isn't deep enough), yet things eventually make sense in the end.
Reilly openly admits to her love for Flannery O'Connor, whose books about hypocrisy and ignorance in the South made a lasting impression during her earliest songwriting days. "[In Memphis], my parents' friends would say, [in a thick, Tennessee accent] 'You're just so creative. I just don't know what that is like, but it is so neat that you can draw, and you write your own songs!'" Reilly laughs. "I heard that a lot because I was the black sheep. I'd just think, wow. If you really heard what I was doing, you'd probably think I was completely depressed."
That dark, O'Connor-like optimism is prevalent on Ghost, particularly on the title track, a surprising ode to Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott (she covers his "Little Girl in Bloom" in amazing fashion as well). "He had the sexy rock 'n' roll image down," Reilly says, "but then I read the stories his mom wrote about him, and they're just riddled with all this pain."
But her song's order to the late Lynott--let your ghost go--is aimed at herself as well: "For whatever reason, I'd feel insecure at times about bringing new things into [the band], because I think, 'This is gonna be bad, they're gonna hate this.' It has a lot to do with how much I admire them. I know it's silly when I read about people being like, 'I dunno if I'm any good,' so I'm not saying that, but I have a problem wanting [a song] to be perfect when it comes right out. It's probably held me back a little."
Thankfully, there's little in the way of restraint on Ghost, for which she credits Garner's counsel. "I was paralyzed with moving forward on the record," Reilly says. "I asked her if she would listen, tell me what she thought. She came over and said, 'Your band sounds really great, but you need to turn your voice up.' I needed that. I needed to hear that."
These days, Reilly is focusing on the good things--the musically inclined friends, the wonderful new album, the growing reputation in her new hometown, the luck--and not on the ghosts. Good thing, because her current solo tour to the South only has two cities on its itinerary: Dallas and her old home of Memphis. And when asked about whether she thinks her new songs benefit from the sparse solo treatment, her answer is much like her music--frank, and a little sad, but confident: "No, I don't. I like to play with them...but I think it's always good to play solo because I need to do that. That's part of the reason why I started to play guitar anyway, when I was younger, because I didn't want to rely on anybody else to be able to do it...Hopefully, people will enjoy it when I don't have my rock stars with me."