A 1996 Berklee graduate, Meg Toohey has over 20 years of experience in the music industry. Her laurels are diverse and numerous: founder and frontwoman of The So and Sos; guitarist and multi-instrumentalist for The Cold and Lovely, The Weepies, and more; writer of songs featured on Grey’s Anatomy, Parenthood, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries, as well as the film adaption of Sex in the City; producer for comedian Margaret Cho’s Grammy-nominated album Cho Dependent; and guitarist for Sara Bareilles’ heartwarming Broadway musical Waitress. With the release of her debut record Butch, Berklee Groove talked with Toohey about the incredible journey that led to her stunning album, working with the right people, and finding your voice.
Interviewed by Ceskie
You’ve taken such an interesting route, and your album is amazing! How did your journey start?
It’s a long story! I went to Berklee for vocal performance and songwriting, and while I was there I ended up spending a lot of time in the Music Production & Engineering department, because most of my closest friends were engineers studying in the program. They took me in because of my songwriting, but I ended up playing guitar on a lot of their sessions. There were so many guitar principals at the time and they were all focusing on the jazz aspect of playing, so I would get called to go in and play simple parts, which got me a lot of gigs. And I definitely spent my time in Boston honing my guitar, piano, and singing skills, and writing and recording a lot.
After I graduated, I had a pretty fair amount of success - playing a couple bands I started in the Boston area, getting signed to a couple different record labels, touring a lot, opening for people. I kept getting to that almost-famous kind of point, and then it would fall through due to things that were totally out of my control, like my label having too many female artists on it. I felt burnt out on trying to “make it” as a songwriter and artist. At that point I was playing guitar for a lot of Boston-area artists like Lori McKenna and Deb Talan, who’s now in The Weepies. While playing together we got a lot of recognition on film and television, so due to that I ended up moving out to Los Angeles in 2006.
In LA I reconnected with a lot of successful friends from Berklee and auditioned for a lot of major acts; I did the Barry Squire scene and lots of random gigs with pop stars, and also started learning about recording at home. I spent a lot of time studying Pro Tools and Logic and got into production. I was writing songs, but that wasn’t my focus - instead I went on tour with a couple artists and played a lot in the hotel/cafe scene. Then I started writing again in a 90s-rocker-supergroup band, The Cold and Lovely, with Patty Schemel of Hole and Nicole Fiorentino of The Smashing Pumpkins. We recorded a couple albums under that name but couldn’t do a lot of touring because they were busy with other groups and things, so I ended up writing to try and get placements and wound up getting over a hundred. But I was never in the forefront - I was writing guitar parts and arranging stuff that was being played constantly. So in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Maybe I still have it in me to do songwriting,” but I was also getting to a place in life where I was just tired of doing the hustle.
Basically right when I reached the moment of being ready to try something else, I got a call from Sara Bareilles. I had played guitar for her on and off, and she was a friend of mine for many years throughout the hotel/cafe scene in LA. Her musical Waitress was going to Broadway, and she wanted to convince me to move back to New York for a few months to open the show and finish orchestrating some of its parts. So I picked up where her previous guitar player left off, left LA, moved back to New York, and somehow managed to find myself as a Broadway guitar player. I was instantly embraced by the music community in NYC, and I ended up playing Waitress for the last four years, as well as being a part of different up-and-coming shows and workshops where I would go from 10am-11pm, playing and working on guitar parts for the shows. It was incredible and I loved it, but I still didn’t know if it was the best thing for me, because I had a lot of creative output I wasn’t getting to because I was playing other people’s music.
Being in NYC gave me the chance to reconnect with people from Boston and Berklee - I kept running into artists who are now top-of-the-line writers, like Anais Mitchell and Lori McKenna, and they would always ask me, “Are you writing? Are you writing?” And I started hearing that, the people I massively respect as writers telling me that I was a writer and I needed to write songs again. I ended up picking up the guitar in a different way because of all that I was going through in the move to New York. I ended up going through a divorce and having a lot of mixed emotions about where I was in my life, and I used the writing as an outlet for where I felt like I was being held back. That’s how this record sort of came about, and now that I put it out there, I’ve definitely realized that with the way people are responding to it, I made the right choice. The tough things I’ve gone through have come out to a very positive full circle for me.
At the beginning of your career, were there particular people you looked up to?
Oh yeah, totally. It’s very strange because I’ve played every kind of style of music and had a career in it, from jazz standards to rock and everything in-between. I’ve scored films, I’ve worked as an editor on American Idol - you name it, I’ve done it. I drew inspiration from all those different styles, but growing up I was really into songwriting. The artists who resonated deeply with me were Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, classic Carole King, that kind of music. For a long time I got into so many different styles, and they would all pull my ear in their own directions - first it was The Replacements and The Pretenders, then Jonatha Brooke and alternate tunings and weird harmonies. This record I’ve gone back to the “three chords and the truth” kind of vibe. I’ve put away all my tricks, picked up an acoustic and a capo, found the right feeling in my voice, and just gone with it, right back to where it started. 1:09
With this eclectic mix of styles, is there something that’s tied everything you’re doing together or that you’ve learned from?
It’s still so interesting to me that I always got hired to play guitar, because it ended up helping me find a voice as a writer. I found a lot of success writing guitar hooks, and those kinds of melodies are equally as important to the success of the song. Being able to go in with a demo of both a guitar hook and a vocal hook is a huge benefit of being a writer, because people really respond to that. It’s also a really good way to get a gig, because you can write those kinds of parts when you’re working in a studio situation. It’s so important to have your own sound, and it’s such a huge compliment to have people come up to me and say “I can totally tell it was you playing on that record.”
As musicians we’re all looking to find that voice that sets us apart somehow. It doesn’t have to be the most technically perfect mastering of anything, it just needs to be your own unique opinion and voice. There’s no better way to find that then to experience everything around you. One of the great things about Berklee is the school’s international population. As someone who grew up in Massachusetts, hanging out with people from Brazil and learning about their music right from the source, and taking classes in African music with people who actually grew up in Africa - those things definitely influenced me to learn in that environment. The things I used most coming out of school were those relationships, and playing in jam sessions with people who had that music and feeling deep within them.
If you could go back and give your Berklee self advice, what would you say?
I would have studied more! I think that’s a downfall of going to college on the early side in life, especially if you’re trying to be an artist and going to a music school. I would love to go back now and take some of those labs that I blew off because I wanted to hang out with my friends, or the classical music courses that now I’m so interested and I’m wanting to learn, or the 8ams that I slept my way through. I wish I had taken advantage of the resources at the school.
Were there difficult experiences that have informed your career?
Oh yeah. Every day. It’s a difficult business, and it’s a very competitive business. It’s a thing where you have to learn to let go if you lose a gig, especially if you lose a gig to somebody that you’ve been working with for a long time because they decide to go in a different direction. It’s nothing personal; put things aside and take everything with a grain of salt. One minute you can have everything going for you, and the next minute you can’t get a gig to save your life. It’s a constant battle, and most of the musicians I know who work all the time still feel that way. You have to be your biggest fan and keep believing that if something isn’t working, another opportunity is coming right around the corner. After 20 years of doing this, I can say that just when you think it’s not really happening anymore, Sara Bareilles calls you and asks you to move across the country to be a guitar player in her Broadway show.
What did you love about working with Sara?
Honestly, she’s so lovely to work with. She’s constantly creating and putting out new things. She has a clear vision of what she wants, and she’s not afraid to say “that part is too washy” or “this should be stripped down.” I’ve learned a lot from her and her command over the bands she works with. In the Broadway world, her patience and kindness and humanity is incredible. She has zero ego, and that’s so rare. It’s one of the things that I think has led to her success and endurance in this business - to appreciate and be grateful for everything, to study how to make working with people each day a pleasant experience for everyone instead of trying to fight them.
Are there any people in the industry right now that you want to work with?
Whatever Brandi Carlile is drinking, I’ll take that Kool-Aid for sure. She’s making great art and she has such a strong voice in the community, with the way she’s inspiring the country music scene to be inclusive of gay and female artists and her band The Highwomen - I have a massive amout of respect for her. I remember playing in radio stations across the country and seeing her posters in the studios; she’s been doing this for a long time too. People like that who manage to slug it out and ultimately find success, not exactly when they thought they were going to find it, are hugely inspiring to me.
If you could give one piece of wisdom to aspiring songwriters at Berklee, what would you say?
What I’ve taken from and collected along the way is that it’s almost always best simplified. I’ve really noticed that in the release of this record. I was trying so hard to go against the grain and find something that hadn’t been done before, and it doesn’t exist the way you think it’s going to exist. The piece isn’t really about trying to create the most unique sound, although that could be exciting - the most important thing is to be honest in your writing and to be able to express yourself simply. That’s how people can really relate to you. There’s room for a lot of different colors in a song, but ultimately it’s that one heartfelt moment that’ll connect you to your audience.
Was there a moment you realized that?
I got to cowrite with my partner, who’s a music publicist and has been in the industry as long as I have. She was actually my first publicist, and I was her first client back in the early 2000s, and she’s gone on to have offices in Nashville, LA, and New York. We reconnected when I moved back to NYC, and she really pushed me to go deeper in my writing. The way she worked as an editor with me was something that I hadn’t had in my writing process before. I used to have an ego about things that didn’t work, instead of taking a deep breath and going with what my editor said to have a better result. And that’s absolutely what happened. I think it’s important to pick the people that you work with and have that trust, a relationship where you don’t feel offended if you decide to try something different.
Is there something that you in particular want people to get from your album?
I wrote it as a through-listen. That’s one thing that’s really bummed me out about what music has become...it’s all mass production. You can have a fully developed piece of music, and the manager or label is always going to ask what else you have, even if it’s the greatest work you’ve ever done. For me it was really important to make all the production on the album cohesive. I thought a lot about the order of the record and the sounds that would tie in. I worked with Rachel Alina, who happens to be a professor at Berklee, and Tony Lee Evans who’s a student at Berklee. When I was first talking to them about the mix, I told them I wanted them to be thoughtful about the vocal sound, where the vocals would lie in each song and how little or how much space I wanted to create. Once again, it’s about building relationships with people that you trust, and I think they both have incredible ears. They made choices that in the past, I would have tried to fight and have my own way with, but they know better.
How did you connect with them?
I worked with Rachel on a Broadway record that unfortunately hasn’t been released yet, but we did an all-female production of Jesus Christ Superstar with Cynthia Erivo and all these Broadway stars. It’s just incredible. I produced the record and worked so hard to put it out, and we’re hoping we can still release it, but Rachel ended up mixing it. I heard about her from some NYC music scene friends, and I feel like I’ve found my soulmate mixer. Tony came into the picture because Rachel had so many records she was working on, so she asked me if he could do the first pass on one of my projects. Tony basically tag-teamed with her, and they have such a similar aesthetic that it worked out really well.
How do you #getinthegroove?
I love to create a space that I feel is very vibey. I’m one of those people who has to make sure the lighting is right, the colors are good, that I have the crystals - I’m very much a believer in making the space your own and surrounding it with positive energy. I don’t think any sort of negative energy belongs in the process of making a record; it ends up distorting the whole process for people. It’s about having a comfortable space to work in and surrounding yourself with people that you really love working with. I will say that if you do get into a session where you’re having a heated moment with someone, it’s really important to have honest conversations about it and work through those moments as opposed to running away from them. That’s taken me 20 years to learn.