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THE FEARLESS PROFILE OF
SINGER-SONGWRITER MEGAN SLANKARD

by D. Patrick Miller

Megan Slankard was having a bad moment — made all the worse for knowing it would soon be broadcast on national television. After being ambushed by The Learning Channel’s “What Not to Wear” reality TV show in the spring of 2004, the remarkably accomplished young singer-songwriter from Tracy, California had reconciled herself to the idea that her family and band members thought she needed a fashion update to further her career. She had grudgingly accepted the coaching of the show’s hosts, Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, that her daily uniform of a baby T, low-rise jeans, and Converse sneakers was not the optimal performance outfit. But her makeover Waterloo arrived when she was placed in the hands of a hairstylist, who wanted to lighten her naturally blonde hair “just a little” to maximize her star potential.

“I burst into tears,” Slankard confesses. “I’m a natural girl; I like to keep it real. For years I’ve been so stubborn about the way you have to look in the music industry. I wasn’t going to do anything special; I was going to be me no matter what. Unfortunately, people do care how you look onstage. I’ve always dressed like a hippie with long stringy hair. I finally realized it would help my career if I looked the part of a performer, not just a girl running barefoot through the field.”

Indeed, Slankard accepted much of her hosts’ advice — not to mention the $5000 credit card the show gives its fortunate victims — and updated her wardrobe for performances, professional meetings, and the eventual awards shows. The WNTW camera even caught Slankard trekking wobbily for a few paces in some high heels. But after shedding tears at the prospect of lightening her hair, she had to walk a city block, still on-camera, to think it over.

I walk I take a walk it’s nice
When you break things down
Things are all right
I guess I need
Something to get me out of this

How about a push?
I wanna go higher

I need a little bit of wind,
I've just not been myself,
how ’bout a push
Sitting in a puddle
I could use a little bit of wind
To wrap around my sails

from “SAILS”
words and music ©2005 Megan Slankard

 

Now all of 25 years of age, Slankard has been reviewed as a “ridiculously talented” singer possessing “a range beyond her years.” Acoustic Guitar magazine named her second CD, “Freaky Little Story,” as one of its top 5 CDs for 2004, with AG’s reviewer Drew Pearce commenting,

“It’s a good sign when the first three songs of a record have you wondering ‘why haven’t I heard of [the Megan Slankard Band] before?’ Such is the case with Freaky Little Story... Slankard’s vocal style is so distinctive that simply naming influences (Ani DiFranco, Alanis Morissette) doesn’t do it justice. Her vocal melodies are immediately arresting, she uses hip-hop phrasing and whisper-to-roar dynamics like a pro, and she never lets her impeccable technique eclipse the emotion she pours into her performances.”

In fact Slankard’s talent is so arresting that one has to ask if she was actually born singing. “Possibly,” she laughs, “but I didn’t know it at the time. It was something I had to discover, and I actually remember the day. It was a kids’ night with my dad, and he had rented a Beatles movie, Help!, from the library. I was ten years old. My brother and sister and I didn’t want to watch some weird singing group we’d never heard of. But we watched it anyway and we all fell in love immediately. We watched it four times before we had to return it. I had tried playing piano before, but I was hopeless; once I heard the Beatles, I knew I was playing the guitar the rest of my life. My brother got me an ‘Easy Beatles Songbook’ and I learned to play every song, over and over again, until the whole family was sick of it. But my mom would still listen from behind the door. Every time I’d open the door there she was. It was so embarrassing!”

Perhaps because she is a self-proclaimed “kindergarten dropout” who was home-schooled with her siblings, Slankard developed an independent streak that led not only to her precocious musical maturity, but to a performing and independent recording career while still in her teens. “I started playing in a bar in Tracy when I was fifteen, for fun and practice,” she recalls. “I was playing under a six-foot-wide TV screen, so people would start clapping in the middle of my songs, any time there was a score in whatever game was being broadcast.” After her early Beatles phase, Slankard learned to perform about fifty cover songs from a wide variety of artists. “I have a lower voice for a girl, so I couldn’t cover a lot of girls’ songs without changing the key. So the male singer/songwriters provided more of my genre, although Shawn Colvin happens to have a perfect range for me.” The owner of Main Street Music in Tracy advised Slankard that she needed to do one of her own songs for every three covers, “and for a long time I didn’t have enough songs of my own. Now I do!”

By age eighteen, an online excerpt of Slankard’s music caught the ear of veteran British rocker David Knopfler, who invited her to do an opening act for him on a European tour. While still a teen she also recorded and produced her first album, “Lady is a Pirate,” with her guitar, a computer, and production equipment at home. “I’d stay up all night, learning the computer and everything else at once,” Slankard remembers. “Sometimes I would panic when the computer crashed. I’d go wake up my dad at three in the morning to fix it, afraid I’d lost all my songs. He’d tell me to go to sleep, that he’d take care of it in the morning.”

i set down my fairy tales
i tipped my glass over on the bed
somehow somebody laughed
though it was only me and my mess
somewhere somebody
sang a pretty little lullaby
i pulled down the window blinds
in the fair face of a tolkien sky

i couldn’t sleep tonight
as if i didn’t know that ‘cause i was there

the last cries of a distant party
died in the arms of the midnight air

i’m flying backwards
to the beat of my speeding heart
flying backwards
in the rhythm of my own guitar

from “FLYING BACKWARDS ”
words and music ©2001 Megan Slankard

“Inspiration is unpredictable,” Slankard says of the process of songcrafting. “It’s like your brain is a computer that suddenly does something it wasn’t programmed to do. Inspiration comes from little accidents — good accidents. Sometimes I’ll be humming something all day before it occurs to me to turn it into a song. I’m always interested to see how my brain is going to malfunction on any particular day.”

Surprisingly, Slankard no longer listens to a lot of music on the radio or on CDs. “I play my guitar all the time,” she explains. “I don’t listen to music as much as I play it. I like challenging myself; if I start writing a song that sounds like another of my songs, I’ll immediately scrap it. I always ask people if a new song of mine sounds like something else. I do worry about ripping off other songwriters without knowing it.” Slankard draws a lot of inspiration from reading, she says, citing the classics of Dickens and Tolkien as recent favorites.

And unlike many singer/songwriters, Slankard says that most of her songs are neither confessionals nor based on stories from real life. “I have a gigantic imagination,” she reveals, “and I’m very visual. When I read I get complete pictures in my head of the stories; I wonder sometimes why I’m not a painter.” Lyrics and music usually come to her simultaneously, and occasionally a song comes to her all at once, as in the case of the poignant “Addy’s Tattoo” — partly inspired by her desire to use the word dude along with lines from Shakespeare in the same song.

addy got a tattoo
she bought it with another month of working weekends
and it fits her like a glove
it’s smiling at the baby
looking at the needle work above his cute little head
as he’s sitting in the tub

dude, she even loved you while the hammer fell
mark’d you where the bolt of Cupid dwells?
‘twas in a print it made upon her skin
she still blushes thinking it is sin

“he loves me, he loves me not
the paper says it’s over but he forgot the tattoo
he loves me, he loves me not”
she pulls the petals off and watch them drop
and he forgot the tattoo
. . . .

i would i were thy bird
i would you were my home
i would i were senseless
i would i could make thee believe i love you

she said “he loves me, he loves me not
the hammer says it’s over but he forgot the tattoo
he loves me, he loves me not”
pull the petals off and watch them rot
and he forgot the tattoo. . .

 

from “ADDY’S TATTOO ”
words and music ©2002 Megan Slankard

 

As an independently produced musician with her own band, Megan Slankard retains control over her sound, her public profile, and even her booking, much of which she still arranges herself. She now retains a professional manager, publicist, and attorney, and she hired a producer for the first time on her most recent CD, a five-song EP entitled A Little Extra Sun. “Like many artists, I don’t really enjoy the business side of music. I love getting gigs, but I don’t like promoting myself very much.” While Slankard has received some radio play, her songs are more complex than most pop melodies and her lyrics display an ambitious reach. “Songs are poetry to me, and I love telling stories. If I ever get on a major label, I’m not opposed to having a couple radio-play songs on my CDs, as long as I have the rest of my songs there.”

Given the predatory ethics of the corporate music business, one hopes that Slankard will attain enough stardom as an independent to provide her with some clout when she does sign with a major label. Either way, music industry professionals and her growing legion of fans agree that Megan Slankard is a musical star in the making. The higher she goes, the more she may need to remember her youthful promise to herself to “keep it real.” And so far, so good — despite the pressure from experts in the image business, she never did lighten her hair.

I’m the ruler of this castle
Made of sand or stone
The ocean tide fills the moat
And salts my sandy throne. . .

Just sitting down on the clouds
That are in the waves
Throw the sand on me
If the water can reflect the sky
Can the sky reflect the sea?

 

Yes the One, the Creator
Must be proud of what he made
To lie back and say “I did it!
Nothing here is fake
No, nothing here is fake”

Just sitting down on the clouds
That are in the waves
Throw the sand on me
If the water can reflect the sky
Can the sky reflect in me?

from “SALT”
words and music ©2000 Megan Slankard

COPYRIGHT 2006 BY D. PATRICK MILLER. ALL RIGHTS, INCLUDING ELECTRONIC, RESERVED.
PERFORMANCE PHOTO OF MEGAN SLANKARD BY ROBERT HIGA
B&W PHOTO BY D. PATRICK MILLER

Hear music samples at Megan Slankard’s website

Order Megan’s CDs at CDBaby

OTHER INDEPENDENT MUSICIANS FEATURED ON THE FEARLESS SITE:
Michael Masley  •  David Knopfler
 


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