LIVES: Joanna McMeikan, singer/songwriter

"I used to dream in blacks and indigos/Like a murder of crows/In Van Gogh's dark horizons..."

Songs are journeys through ideas, workings-through of ideas, and ideas are everywhere. And nowhere, for that matter - sometimes ideas seem to pop into my head out of the ether.

Inspiration comes from everywhere. It really can be anything; a painting that moves me, a film that makes me think, a poem, a memorable moment in my life, a feeling I'm working through, a face I see on the street, pain, joy, confusion...anything that jumps out and grabs my attention.

I'm forever getting lyric and melody snippets while I'm driving or talking or walking or just going about my daily routine thinking about something else entirely.

After years of lost material, I finally learned to keep a cell phone in my car and now I call my answering machine whenever I have a song idea and hum or dictate it for myself so that I have it on record someplace.


That element varies wildly. The fastest it ever happened was with a song called "Goodbye"(not on this album), which came to me in a blinding flash, and almost wrote itself, as if it were being dictated to me from somewhere else. I think it took about 20 minutes.

The longest period I can think of between concept and completion was a song called
"Past Unconditional" (track 6 on "Breaking the Habit"):

From: "Past Unconditional":

A hole in the clouds and I fall through
Another life another time another me another you

A cave underground that I crawl through
Another life another time another me another you

Lost on the edge again,
you taste the earth
And wonder how to begin
Smoke your cheap cigarettes,
take your cynical brushes
And color my skin

And when our dark eyes meet, time freezes
Oxygen burns
Back in the bloodstream again, the only addiction
That always returns

And what makes a love?
Is history enough?
What makes a love?
Is poetry enough?
What makes a love?
Is chemistry enough?
What makes a love?
Is honesty enough?...

And when I look in your eyes
I see lives behind lives
beyond truth beyond space
beyond time...

I wrote the lyrics for this very quickly after an inspiring day with a friend at an art exhibit of Lee Krasner's work (Krasner was Jackson Pollock's wife).

We'd been discussing reincarnation, creativity, karma and TS Eliot, among other things.

I knew the song would be largely spoken, and I had an overview of how the parts would fit together, but I just couldn't quite make it work.

So it sat in my half-written songs folder for three or four years.

I'd think of it from time to time, have an idea for it, forget about it; then suddenly one morning, when I was halfway through working on "Breaking the Habit" and not thinking about this song at all, I woke up and knew I could crack it.

I can't explain it any other way, I just knew it was ready to be born, and it wanted to be part of the album. So I sat down at the keyboard and a few hours later had the outline for much of the recording you hear on the CD.

I write differently every time - sometimes music first, sometimes lyrics, sometimes melodic or rhythmic ideas that the song gets built around; sometimes an idea comes to me in the car like a gift, sometimes I sit down at the piano and go hunting for inspiration.

It's all very haphazard. I know this is different for everyone - but for me, songs that matter to me artistically (writing on commission is something else entirely because less of your soul is invested) are born however and whenever they want to be born, there's no incantation or ritual that's going to bring one along when it's not ready to occur.


Talent is absolutely necessary at the higher levels of playing music. You can't train that spark into someone who hasn't got it. You can train them to be competent -- but never brilliant. Then again, if you have the talent but don't train it, it's worse than useless. So, both are necessary.


Every song I have ever written has its basis in something that happened to me or to someone I know, or to someone or something in an artwork that I relate to in some way.

This is not to say that every song is a literal and true depiction of my life; I often take poetic license and add fictional elements and exaggerate the parts that seem most interesting in order to explore whatever feeling or issue I am trying to explore.

All of the songs on "Breaking the Habit" have some piece of my experience in them, sometimes exactly as I tell it, sometimes quite far removed and sideways.

Know what, though, I don't think there's much difference at all between fiction and real life; both are essentially stories, adventures, comedies, tragedies that get made up as we go along.

If there's a difference, I suppose it's that we have less control over our real life, and the ends are seldom neatly tied-up. The ink goes down on the page but much of the process is largely beyond our control or understanding.

And because we're unavoidably embroiled in it, in a temporal sense, living from moment to moment, I think the question of whether real life is as predetermined, as set in stone as a completed work of fiction, becomes largely irrelevant - since we have to experience it as choice either way. So then the most important lesson becomes learning to let go.


The most insightful thing anyone ever said to me was: "It's all about expectation."
To be honest I'm not sure who said it - it may have been my friend Cheryl, or it may have come from a Buddhist text of some sort.

Wherever it came from, it was a life-changing lesson for me. I think almost all unhappiness comes from deflated expectation. We're all forever painting pictures in our minds of how things are going to be, how we expect things to go, and then we freeze-frame our idea of things and invest so much in the frozen image that when the actuality happens and is not exactly what we decided we wanted, we feel cheated somehow.

Even worse, when this happens to people who are not living in awareness of themselves and their emotions, they can often go into a place of great fear and start striking out blindly.

You can see a macrocosm of this process any time there's a war. It's all rooted in fear. We'd all be so much better off just floating, untethered to expectation, free to navigate the ebb and flow of the river and negotiate the bends as they come -- which is not to say we can't plan things or hope for things, just that we shouldn't get so invested in specific outcomes that we can't appreciate the surprising realities that often pop up, and the unexpected rewards and lessons they can bring.

I make a conscious effort to remember that, and practice it a tiny bit more every day. It's going to take me a lot more than a lifetime to get good at it.


For the title of my first album -- I actually went looking for it. I gathered together the songs I wanted, and looked at what they had in common, at what had defined that period of my life.

What I found was a number of songs about obsession, addiction and trying to break out of damaging patterns of behavior - in a few different ways, but most conspicuously in the relationship arena. So, "Breaking the Habit" it was.

In this album, I was working through ideas of obsessive, compulsive, addictive behaviors.

Also, generally, ideas about living a conscious life and letting go of expectations and obsessions, ideas about reincarnation, about distorted reality perception, about love and anger, about youth and age, about that kind of bittersweet starlit universal sadness that can seep in under your skin on lonely evenings.

I used different sides of the experience of being in love as one way to explore the idea of obsession. And of course there is an endless amount to comment on in the love arena, and so much we don't understand about it.

That's why artists never stop exploring the topic - and why so few of us ever really get relationships quite right.


Music is the ultimate universal language. It speaks directly to the soul. It crosses boundaries of country, belief, gender, race and sexuality.

It's one of the only things I can think of in this mundane, harsh, confusing world that actually is magical. It soothes, it feeds, it inspires -- what could be more necessary than that?


I'm trying to be more Zen, to be calmer and more accepting in life...but until I succeed, here's a short list of stuff that really irritates me:

- Los Angeles traffic jams
- People who eat noisily and smack their lips together (my friend and I call this "groinking")
- George Bush
- People who spit in the street
- Physical violence, particularly the strong attacking the weak. One of my big personal peeves is the way people treat animals, as if their lives were somehow not worthy of respect and care.
- Chewing gum/bubble gum
- Prejudice/racism/sexism/homophobia/fitness and diet Nazis/religious zealots/anything with a clique or an "I know better than you do and I'm going to tell you all about it" type of mentality behind it
- Getting sick when I have things to do

Something that puzzles me: All of the above.


All my life I've been fascinated by reality perception. How do we create the bubble we each call reality and why do we have a tendency to assume our bubble is the 'real' bubble?

Is 'insanity' simply what happens when you create a reality that not enough other people in a particular society are willing to corroborate?

When we very clearly do not have the whole picture (as to why we are here, if there is a reason, what happens next, what are we doing and so on), isn't it somewhat insane for anyone to assume they know anything at all?

I'm not sure that there are answers available to us here. Just more questions, layers of onion, deeper and deeper. But I've certainly delved a long way into the question and continue to do so.

"When you've seen through the mirror, how can you unlearn?"


Songwriting is an incredibly cathartic process for me. If I'm thinking about an aspect of my experience or life in general, chewing it over in my mind, or if I'm suffering in some way, it will inevitably end up scribbled down in song lines on a piece of paper somewhere, and because songwriting is such a process of condensation, it's the perfect means to work through something and come to a place of peace with it.

You really don't have much time to say anything in a song -- you have to express yourself in a couple of verses and a chorus - you have to boil your story down to its essential elements, and that unavoidably leads to a greater understanding of the core, the center, of what you're trying to get at. The truth of whatever you're feeling.

Writer's block? Oh, God, yes! It exists. Sometimes, the well is just dry, dry, dry.
When that happens, I think it's best to walk away and go do something else for a while.


I absolutely love Joni Mitchell as a songwriter, I think she's just an amazingly talented poet and musician.

Lines like: "You are in my blood like holy wine/you taste so bitter/and so sweet/Oh I could drink a case of you/And still be on my feet" just blow me away.

And her albums are packed with lyrics as good as that one, and music of equal caliber. Kate Bush is also a favorite of mine, she's so individual and unafraid, such a creative trailblazer. Other artists I listen to a lot would be Sting, Tori, Alanis, Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega, Beck, and many others.

Songs I wish I'd written: There are so many!

A few I can think of offhand would be: "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell, "Shape of my Heart" by Sting, Sheryl Crow's "Weather Channel", Aimee Mann's "Wise Up", Billy Joel "And So It Goes", Tori Amos' "God", Beck's "Paper Tiger"...but I could go on and on.

On a related subject, the performance I wish I'd sung, or the performance that affects me the most strongly, is Eva Cassidy's rendition of "Over the Rainbow" on the "Songbird" CD.

I have to listen to it sparingly, since I can't get all the way through it without crying. I think Eva had an absolutely unparalleled genius for heartfelt vocal performance.

As for books - I studied English Language and Literature at college, so I've read far more than I ever wanted to and I'm sure most of it has influenced me one way or another.

A few writers I especially love, though, are poets Sylvia Plath, Shelley, Blake, TS Eliot, Yeats and Philip Larkin, psychologist James Hillman, sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, and Virginia Woolf.

Other things that interest me: Psychology and philosophy - particularly the areas where the two coincide, such as reality perception, the line between 'madness' and 'sanity'.

If I wasn't a singer/composer, I'd definitely be either a poet or a psychologist/psychiatrist/ psychological researcher in reality perception.

Or both.


What I'm reading right now: "Birthday Letters" by Ted Hughes, a collection of poems written just before he died, about his relationship with Sylvia Plath - almost a response, decades later, to her posthumous volume "Ariel".

I'm also halfway through "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" by Sogyal Rinpoche, which grounds me when I start losing it in the Los Angeles madworld.

Also love fine art, poetry and movies, and anything absurd or unusual. My favorite comedian is Eddie Izzard. If you haven't seen "Dressed to Kill," you're missing out.


I'm not a great believer in telling anyone my idea of what my songs mean, simply because I think one of the most beautiful things about a song, or any work of art, is how much it changes, metamorphoses, depending upon the eyes and the soul of the person who's viewing it.

So I'll just take the last song on the CD,"Today", and tell you the story behind the writing of it:


She walks every night
In a world without air
And there's blood on her hands
There's death in her hair
Watch her crawl
To the surfacing world
It ripples and shimmers
In the eyes of a girl

When you've seen through the mirror,
how can you unlearn?
Or make a return to straight lines?
Well, they say that in time we'll be saved -
It's a lie
All we have is today

They tore her away
From the place she was born
Now she spends all her days
Just trying to get home
And the answer she seeks
Drifts like foam on the seas
And the pain in her chest
Brings her down to her knees

When you've seen through the mirror,
how can you unlearn?
Or make a return to straight lines?
Well, they say that in time we'll be saved -
It's a lie
All we have is today.

Ah -
Soon I'll be under the earth
In dreams again...

I wrote "Today" as a poem, originally.  It was a little different from the song lyric as it now stands, it started something like:

"How do you come back from that place without air
When there's blood on your hands
When there's death in your hair..."

The poem was inspired by, of all things, a rerun of the final episode of "MASH", where all the doctors and nurses are finally going home. It got me thinking about servicemen and women who return from wars, and how jarring and surreal and beyond awful it must be to have to try to wrench yourself back into the workaday world after the hellish, inconceivable experiences of war.

Once I'd finished the poem, it touched me, and it seemed like it wanted to be a song. So I sat down at the piano. I knew it was going to be eerie and intensely intimate, so I chose F minor (my favorite key) and kept it minimal, leaving a lot of space to say what the words don't. Music and melody flowed along fairly easily.

For the chorus, I adapted some lines from the poem's second verse, which went something like this:

"When you've seen through the mirror, how then to unlearn?
Or make a return to the straightening line?
The eye of the storm in its spiral and gyre
Cries 'Time. Only time. Only time. Only time.'"

Somehow, though, once I'd reached "or make a return to straight lines", the song itself took over and refused to accept the idea of the poem, which was that time can at least go some way toward healing.

The song didn't want to be so simplistic, I guess, and the melody and lyrics:

"Well, they say that in time/we'll be saved/It's a lie/All we have is today" appeared in their entirety out of the ether. Or maybe out of the music.

I'm never quite sure how that happens, all I know is those lyrics were not part of my intention. But they settled into the song, and that was that.

I wrote the second verse in the usual way, and once that was done, the whole song seemed to have another facet to it somehow.

It now seemed to contain an additional story about being ripped away from the place we came from and forced to live out these lives, never knowing how or why...and so the closing lines came into being, tying up both the element of dreamscape and the element of life/death that were now running through the song alongside everything else.

My favorite thing about "Today" is that I think it's wide open for interpretation. I think it will mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people, and that makes me happy.

Artist bio: Joanna McMeikan's songwriting has been described as "pathological", "unforgettably original" and "hauntingly beautiful"; her memorable vocal style as "Loreena McKennit meets Natalie Merchant, with a little Tori Amos thrown in for good measure".

Joanna was born in England and trained in classical piano. She focused on her other passion - writing - during her college years, studying English Language and Literature at Oxford University; but she sang in choirs and musicals, a cappella groups and bands along the way.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1996, Joanna found day jobs on the TV shows "Frasier" and "Star Trek", did session work for Vitamin Records and the Animal Planet channel, and formed the band DragonEye in 1999.

She had a moment of epiphany when she realized she could combine her two great passions by penning the band's original material as well as performing it. She has been writing songs like a crazed thing ever since, pausing only to compose a couple of film scores (including the award-winning short "The Picnic").

Her solo debut "Breaking the Habit" was released in February 2004. The album was co-produced by McMeikan and Mario Maisonnave. She will be playing live in Los Angeles very soon. Find out more about this artist, and download track #1 "Again" for free, at her official site.