I was a few weeks shy of my 20th birthday when Megiddo was released. It was the summer of 1997. The summer of the infamous Lilith Fair - I played the ‘Village Stage’ for the first week of the massive tour. That was pretty cool, except that my label hadn’t stocked the merch tent with my record.
But let’s rewind.
“THE WORLD’S FUCKED UP AND WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE”
I was a teenager living in Charlottesville Virginia when I wrote the songs on Megiddo. Writing a song was like a magical therapy session for me (it still is). I was what they called an ‘at-risk’ teen, and it often felt like music saved me. From myself. From the effects of my dysfunctional childhood, raised by unstable divorced parents. The particulars of my family’s dysfunction had forced me to grow up quickly and I entered adolescence disillusioned and angry. I felt at a distance from everything, like I was sitting back with my arms crossed, watching the world’s tragicomedy of fakery, hubris, cruelty, and weakness.
As middle school turned into high school I was hungry for art and experiences that could mirror the longing inside of me for a deeper truth. I found Classical Greek plays and mythology. Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’. Sylvia Plath’s poetry. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. John Lennon. Nirvana.
I became fascinated by religious wars, murderous cults, the holocaust. How could people be so wrong? How could they be so blind to their own evil? I adopted an attitude of nihilistic hedonism. 'Life has no meaning so you might as well try to enjoy it while you can.' I ingested any mind-altering substances available. My best friend and I loved to say: “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse” with a sardonic sneer and a long drag off a cigarette.
That was the mindset and worldview of the person I was when I wrote the songs that became Megiddo, on my unplugged electric guitar, singing at a whisper, sitting on my bed in my mom’s house late on a school night.
I was actually desperate for meaning and for connection and for love. Of course. But I didn’t want anyone to know that.
DAVE MATTHEWS BAND
When I was sixteen and a senior at the local high school for would-be drop-outs, juvenile offenders, and teen moms (which I will forever hold dear to my heart), I got to leave school for a few weeks and intern at Bama Rags - Dave Matthews Band’s merchandise office and fulfillment center. I loved it and felt like the behind-the-scenes world of the music business was where I belonged. My dad had been an integral player in the DMB’s rise to success, so I had seen the ins and outs of the business up close. It was unconventional and full of weirdos and centered around the one thing I loved more than anything: music, of course. I was starting to find that sense of meaning and connection, a culture I could belong to, a place where I could be my jaded, fucked-up self and that was fine. I was hired to work part time after my internship ended.
But still I kept the songs I wrote mostly to myself; I would only show them to my dad and my sisters.
One night in February 1994 I went with a co-worker up to Alexandria, Virginia to see Dave Matthews play a rare solo show at the Birchmere. We entered the club after the opening act had already started.
Jeff Buckley was alone onstage with a black telecaster guitar, filling the whole room with his emotional intensity and his impossible voice. It was gripping, unsettling, moving, embarrassing… I didn’t know how to handle it.
After his set I went backstage to look for my dad. When I walked in, there was Jeff, alone, quietly playing a baby grand piano. I asked if he had seen my dad, he said no, surprised. In my sardonic ‘Daria’ voice I asked him, “So, are you always that depressing?” I thought he would get that it was a kind of sarcastic compliment, but he was so earnestly concerned and offended that I felt terrible. I asked if there was somewhere we could smoke my weed and he took me to his dressing room.
That night changed the course of my life. I had spent years being so guarded, hiding all my earnestness and passion behind a wall of sarcasm and a 'whatever' attitude so that no one could squash it or break it. Jeff seemed so the opposite, his eyes translucent with emotions that could overflow at any moment, in a burst of joy, or a collapse of sadness. He was so present and ready to connect. We talked about life and music. I told him I wrote songs but was going to stay behind the scenes and work in the music business.
He told me that I had to let out the songs that were inside of me.
He said if I didn’t it would destroy me from within.
His words turned on a light in a dark room inside of me.
I turned 17, graduated from high school a year early, and life started moving pretty fast. While working for Bama Rags, I met Shannon Worrell, an incredibly talented, smart, crazy singer/songwriter who took me on tour as her bass player. She encouraged me to play one song in our set: Persephone. And I started to like singing my song for people. I wanted to do it more. So after a little while I left her band to focus on my own songs.
I went to the Sound Of Music Studio in Richmond to record demos with John Morand - an engineer I had met while working with Shannon. John liked my songs and sent them to his partner David Lowery. David was just coming off the enormous success of his band Cracker’s single “Low” and was getting into producing other bands, like Sparklehorse, and was launching an imprint boutique label. David Lowery and John Morand told me they wanted to produce an EP, maybe an album, ‘on spec’ - which means: for free, until they could secure a label deal for the record and recoup their production costs.
Of course, I agreed.
My eighteenth birthday was coming up and we looked at the studio’s monthly planner and with a wink they said “so do you want to start making your record when you’re seventeen or eighteen?”
We decided eighteen.
David, John, and I got together and spent about a week straight in the studio and I was in absolute heaven. We recorded “Rock Star”, “Fall Away”, “The Ashram Song”, “Blood” and “Persephone”. The work-flow was so smooth, ideas evolving into each other seamlessly as the songs took shape. They loved my weird, dark, sarcastic but still passionate writing style, and I loved their unconventional approach to recording, always excitedly concocting strange sounds and using unlikely techniques.
After the session, I took my tape and moved from Virginia to a couch in New York’s East Village. I played the open mic “anti-folk hootenanny” at The Sidewalk Cafe and small gigs at downtown cafes like Sin-e.
Charles Newman, the guy whose couch I was crashing on, became my manager. His upstairs neighbor’s boyfriend, Steven, was a drummer who wrote for CMJ (College Music Journal), a magazine that record labels read back then to scout new talent. When we first met, Steven listened to the tape and said “So, David wrote the music and you wrote the lyrics?” I was offended but we got past that and he started playing drums with me. Then he wrote about my demo tape in the ‘Futures’ column of CMJ.
Labels started calling the apartment one after another. Major labels.
THE “BIDDING WAR”
The label reps (‘A&R guys’) started coming to my shows. I’m pretty sure that I sucked live but they courted me anyway. I was talking with Mercury, Virgin, Outpost, Atlantic, and Enclave. They took me to fancy restaurants, flew me to LA, talked to me about how I should just pick a label because it “isn’t rocket science” or “brain surgery” and I was like, what are you trying to say? That it’s EASY to take a completely unknown artist and have a hit record? Give me a break.
I knew enough about the business to be at least wary if not downright jaded. I definitely thought a lot of those guys were just trying to snap me up because the other guys wanted me, that it was just some herd-mentality bullshit. After one particularly schmoozy lunch in LA with a slick-talking A&R guy, I wrote “The Cannibal Ed” in my hotel room.
“Feeding time is dangerous/Don’t touch the beast unless you must/He’s grinning through his shiny teeth/He’s dreaming of his bloody feast.”
I often tell people that I don’t know how to write a song. The songs seem to write themselves. It feels like I am listening to it in my head and then writing down and playing what I hear. It doesn’t mean they are all good songs, they aren’t! But those are the moments I feel I am me, more than any other time in my life. It’s mysterious and since I don’t really know how it happens, I can be a bit superstitious about it. When I was younger, if no songs came for awhile I would think, “Well I guess that’s it, I guess I’ll never write a song again”. Oh my god it would be so painful and devastating.
Now, I’ve lived though that enough times to know that the songs always come back. But I also know that I have to be in the right space, psychologically and spiritually. I know that “We have to cultivate our garden”, as Voltaire famously wrote.
At age 18, contemplating the label deals I was being offered, I knew songs had to be my life, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to try to be a ‘rock star’. It seemed like a dubious fate, one that could sever the connection to the muse and damage your psychological and spiritual growth. Since “Grace” had come out, Jeff had lost weight and seemed sad, anxious, and burdened. He had terrible writer’s block and that miraculous, inspiring light of his became harder to see. Dave Matthews had become super successful and let his team oust my dad from the growing empire. I didn’t like what success had done to him, either. I worried about people trying to change my look or my writing, and I worried that the major-label world would scare the songs away and they wouldn’t come to me anymore.
But I signed with Virgin records anyway. Why not? “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.”
I got my first money from the label and John Morand, David Lowery and I quickly got back to work finishing the album. I loved recording and working in the studio; it quickly became my favorite place to be, and still is. And amazingly, even though I was technically still a teenaged girl, none of the accomplished, reputable men I was working with ever treated me with anything less than total respect. No one tried to change even one word or one note of what I had written.
When we delivered our ‘final’ mixes to Virgin, the label wasn’t totally happy and
wanted me to work a little more on it with a different producer. Honestly, I wasn’t 100% happy with those first mixes either; I thought there was still room for improvement. So I agreed to spend time in LA doing a little more recording and the final mixes with Ethan Johns.
But David Lowery wasn’t so keen on the idea. He emailed my manager Charles and told him he ‘had all my master tapes under a chair on his porch’ that he was guarding ‘with a shotgun’. I thought this was so exciting and hilarious! Except that it also broke my heart a little, because I felt so much loyalty to David. But I guess you could say that’s how David began the re-negotiation of his producer contract? In the end, despite the drama, it all worked out and I flew to LA to finish the record. (For more on this story see my 2017 song “I Just Broke Up With A Guy Who Looks Kinda Like You”)
Ethan Johns went on to become an extremely sought-after producer (Ryan Adams, Ray Lamontagne, etc), but at the time, he was still just fighting to get out of the shadow of his famous father, the Zeppelin/Stones/Eagles producer Glyn Johns. Lowery and Morand had a super cool, experimental producing style, but perhaps because of his lineage, Ethan Johns was more of an engineering traditionalist.
Ethan was occasionally baffled by the sounds he found on our tapes, made with half-broken gadgets or intentionally ‘lo fi’ techniques. But he quickly adapted and embraced the weirdness. He brought the masterful Jon Brion in to play a few additional parts on the tracks - vibraphone, Hammond, mellotron, guitar -- and they seemed to embrace the chance to get a bit weird with me. Watching Jon Brion play was a mind-blowing experience for me, one that I will remember and be inspired by for the rest of my life.
Ethan and I wound up working on the album for a bit longer than planned, but it paid off in the end. Megiddo is lush and spooky and beautiful and cheeky and vibrant and I love it still.
We proudly delivered the finished product to Virgin records in early 1997 - but then came the real challenges for me. My family has had a long history of eating disorders, passed down from mother to daughter for several generations. Although my mother was not cruel to me about my body like the mothers that came before her, she was cruel to herself, in front of me, and I absorbed it. I started “hating” my body and thinking I was ‘fat’ when I was about 12. Once I started thinking that, it was so hard to stop. I felt plagued by the thoughts, but determined not to give in to dieting or striving to conform to the Kate Moss beauty standard of the time - I was too much of a stubborn rebellious feminist to give in.
So by age 17, 18, when I started working on Megiddo, I was doing ok: I had decent self-confidence and was mostly able to tune out the voices in my head that told me I would be shamed and ignored for my imperfect body. Instead, I tied my sense of self-worth to music, songwriting, and my intellect. But the voices were there, waiting for a moment of weakness.
When I was working in LA to finish the record, my self-esteem plummeted. There were so many skinny beautiful women who seemed to be much more interesting to the people around them than I could ever be, just because they were skinny and beautiful. I was afraid that when my record came out, people would tear me down or dismiss me for being ‘fat’ and ugly. I became afraid that no one would like my music if I wasn’t skinny enough. Subconsciously, I believed that I couldn’t be respected as an artist unless people thought I was a beautiful woman - and I thought that ‘beautiful’ meant thin. My self-image became distorted by fear and I saw myself as ‘fat’ and ugly even though I wasn’t.
As it became time to schedule photo-shoots to publicize the album, I broke down. I was anxious all the time and drinking too much. I remember calling Jeff in NYC from LA and he lovingly talked me through the panic. He said “let me be your mirror”.
Jeff tried to get me to trust him and his reassurances more than the fear talking in my head. But finally the voices won. I started a suicidally low-calorie vegan diet, about three months before the album was released, and embarked on what would turn out to be a 17-year-long eating disorder struggle.
THE FUCKING MUSIC BUSINESS
At Virgin records, in the two years from the time I started talking with them until Megiddo was released, there were huge shifts within the company. There were corporate mergers high up, massive personnel shifts, and budget cuts. The team at Virgin who had signed me were no longer there - lost in the corporate shuffle. The new people were nice enough but they were eager to work the artists they were signing and they didn’t really ‘get’ my record. The label did very little to promote Megiddo and stopped trying within a month of it’s release.
For comparison, Jewel’s “Pieces of You” was a dud on release in ’95 and got bad reviews, but the label kept working it until it finally broke in 1997.
Despite Virgin's corporate indifference, Megiddo did not die so easily: the French branch of Virgin loved the record and it became a cult hit in France. I toured there and played on TV and was on the cover of magazines. In the US, because a lovely young woman named Wendy in Virgin’s LA publicity department championed the record, it accumulated a giant stack of outstanding reviews from the New York Times and Billboard to the Omaha Reader and Virginia Pilot, and hipster mags like Details, Swing, and Ray Gun.
“With her low-key voice, lonely guitar lines, insinuating phrasing, oddball rhythmic hooks and casually brutal put-downs, Ms. Hoffman makes moody and sexy pop songs” - The New York Times
Those successes were galvanizing but also terribly frustrating, because they made me feel so valued, seen, wanted, and respected, but my label and management made me feel dismissed and thrown away, embarrassed and ashamed of ‘my’ failure. It was so confusing and painful, and being only twenty years old, I didn’t really know how to handle it.
With twenty more years of experience today, I know that that is what the life of an artist is like. You have to figure out how to be open, sensitive, emotional and vulnerable in your art, but thick-skinned, unshakable, dedicated, and persevering in your career. Learning how to do that is much harder than writing songs, playing an instrument, singing, or making records. I struggle with it still, and I probably always will.
The music business has changed drastically over the last 20 years and keeps changing. I’ve been along for the ride, making albums ever since. Instead of labels and managers, now I work with CD Baby, Bandcamp, Pandora, etc. But I can see that Big Music still never lost their position as gatekeepers, no matter how much of a ‘level playing field’ it seems like the internet is. I don’t know if you have to be obscure to be true to yourself as an artist, but I have definitely been in a position to see first-hand the kinds of pressures and forces that act on you when you are plugged into the major music machine.
I love the control I have over my albums, and the freedom I have had to change and explore different sounds and styles, to be open to the songs that come, and to be guided by what they tell me they want to be. The amazing people I worked with on Megiddo - John Morand, David Lowery, and Ethan Johns - set a high bar when they introduced me to the recording process. They emphasized the transmission of emotion, passion and respect for the songs, and a healthy appetite for breaking the rules. We made a weird and wonderful record that has informed and influenced everything I have made since.
Jeff Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River outside Memphis nine days after my record came out. The CD I had been so excited to send him was still en route, somewhere between post offices. I went numb, I was in shock. I put my feelings in a box and buried the box. I doubled down on my dieting obsession and tried to throw myself into work.
Six months later at the end of my French tour, I was emaciated, emotionally isolated, dispirited. I went home to Virginia, and I finally cried. And cried and cried. Knowing Jeff was in the world had given me strength, without it I felt lost. He was the person whose approval mattered to me; if he said I was on the right track musically, then I knew I was. In my life, I have trusted very few people in that way.
In the winter of 1997, the story of Megiddo did not have a happy ending. It’s too bad life doesn’t have more happy endings, isn’t it? But life does have full circles and new frames for old pictures. It has plentiful mistakes to learn from, and to figure out how to forgive yourself for. It’s also too short not to do everything you can while you’re here, so I’m releasing a special 20th anniversary reissue of Megiddo on vinyl because, why not? After all, the world’s fucked up and we’re all gonna die.
-Lauren Hoffman, January 2018