It’s an axiom of songwriting: suffering begets art. Personal struggle at the heart of so much great music makes one wonder if some troubadours wouldn’t be happy without misery.
Do they will their sorrow and heartbreak simply to feed the muse?
“Oh God, I sure don’t will it to happen,” laughs Meg Hutchinson. “If I had a choice….”
The Boston-based folksinger’s own bouts with depression yielded “Come Up Full,” one of the year’s most fully realized albums. With unflinching honesty, Hutchinson explores “the dull roar of loss” that led to moments of “one girl in a hospital bed” trying to recall the words to “Over the Rainbow” as she plunges into darkness.
“The nights can take so long,” she sings.
“At the core, it’s a very personal journey and those are the songs that are the most honest and at times the most difficult to sing, that I may ever write,” says Hutchinson.
But the record, Hutchinson’s fourth since her eponymous 1996 debut, doesn’t dwell on her difficulties. Rather, “Come Up Full” celebrates the journey back.
It’s an album Nick Drake might have made if he’d managed to beat his demons.
“Most of these songs came out of the toughest years,” Meg says, “and really recognizing this huge spectrum of emotion in my life, and hitting rock bottom – then coming through it kind of like a small death.
“But the record does celebrate coming through the other side of it. That’s the biggest feeling that I’m left with.”
Indeed, from the opening song, which proclaims “I belong to the day now,” to the pronouncement, “if you look real close you might see scars/but me, I’m only seeing stars,” it’s ultimately a very positive work.
Hutchinson balances self-effacing introspection with compassion for the weary on “Home.” “I won’t tell you where I’ve been,” she begins, “only that it’s so good to be back home,”
She ends with words of encouragement for the sad and lonely: “Let me offer I’ve been there/and one day that darkness ends.”
“I do feel like I’m a very optimistic person, and that was tested to the core,” she says. “I think that test is in there in those songs. But overall, I am a very hopeful person.
“Someone once told me something about songwriting that really stuck with me. Every love song has a hint of what you might lose,” she says. “Every song about a breakup has some glimmer of a fond memory, if it’s to be true to our experience.”
In that spirit, the title track depicts thin hope as an empty net cast into the water – with happy outcomes: “Just when you swear it off, those nets are gonna come up full.”
Hutchinson says it’s a song she “kind of wrote before I needed it, and then I really needed it and it kind of saw me through that rough time. It gave me a sense of get up and show up for work, and at some point things will change, and those nets will come up full.”
Some of her strongest work has nothing to do with her own struggles. “Song for Jeffrey Lucey” tells the true story of a young Iraq War veteran, haunted by his experiences, who committed suicide.
“Memory was a cancer that you could not live without,” observes Hutchinson, “But you could not live with it.”
“America,” written at the outset of war in 2003, powerfully employs images in nature to portray the bipolarity of political discourse.
“I was trying to write a song that explored this lack of moderation in our country, and the way when we go to an extreme it almost turns into its opposite,” she says,
“I was staying in a little cabin up in Maine on a lake and it was late winter and the ice was just starting to break up. It can make those incredibly loud rumblings and poppings. All night I just lay there listening to it. It just sounded like gunfire, and I thought here I am in this beautiful setting and across the world this is going on.”
The song reflects, she says, “this huge love for the country but this confusion. For me it’s really a sad anthem.”
Hutchinson says she found another idea for the song when she spotted “a helium balloon, just to the point of being deflated. The ribbon was touching the lake and it was kind of skating around in the middle of the pond and it wasn’t sinking and it wasn’t’ floating off.
“I thought, here’s an image of moderation. If only we can find that kind of balance.”
For her own equilibrium, says Hutchinson, “lately I’ve been singing ‘America The Beautiful’ just to offset that song – because I’m feeling very hopeful.”
Hutchinson was born and raised in the Berkshires, and moved to Boston in 2002. Since then she’s become a steady force in the area folk scene, and was recently nominated for her second Boston Music Award. Does the rich array of local talent shape her own work?
“I often ask myself that,” she replies. “How can you not be influenced when you’re surrounded by so many great artists? That being said, I look back at the records I made before moving there and with the exception of having hopefully honed my craft a little bit and having the opportunity to work with Crit Harmon in the studio, I don’t see a huge difference in the way I’ve been writing prior to moving out there and meeting everyone.”
Harmon (Lori McKenna, Martin Sexton, Mary Gauthier) produced “Come Up Full” and 2004’s “The Crossing.” Hutchinson says he’s taught her a lot about song structure.
“I didn’t have a good sense for the layout of a song. That can make structure really challenging. If you don’t do the bridge at the right moment, or repeat the chorus enough, it can be difficult to know how to bring the instruments in. That’s what I really learned from Crit.”
Even while living in bustling Somerville, Meg remains a country girl. “I still manage to get out in the woods when I’m not touring, just about every day with the dog, and even to a point where I don’t hear the traffic. I get lost in the woods,” she says.
Meg Hutchinson w/ Chris Pureka
Friday, December 5, 7:30 PM
Boccelli’s on the Canal, Bellows Falls
Tickets $12/advance, $14/door