Megan O’Neill couldn’t keep her head above water. I’m drowning in fear / At least I’m here, she confesses through decorative piano and strings. With “Head Under Water,” the Irish singer-songwriter unlatches the flood gates and lets a tidal wave nearly knock the listener off their feet. Such emotional gravity is ever-present across her second full-length album, Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty, which sees her grappling with a wide array of emotions, from anger and frustration to numbness, confusion, and eventually hope.
“I made this record throughout quite a tough period in my life when I was going through a lot of changes, personally. It was a cathartic experience for sure,” O’Neill tells American Songwriter. A week out of every single month (from October 2018 to October 2019), she would fly out to Leeds to record the songs, a trek which became quite “therapeutic” and “badly needed at the time. Reflecting back on the year that it took, I was struggling quite a bit, and the days in the studio were an escape.”
O’Neill’s 2018 debut, Ghost of You, plays largely as an Americana record, with traces of blues, indie/rock, and pop. Coming off two previous EPs, it was a “huge moment and career milestone” in her life, setting into motion much of the success she has since gained, from a No. 1 on iTunes to landing a song on Netflix’s TV show “Firefly Lane” and performing on “The Late Late Show” earlier this year.
Now, she further claims her musical identity, zipping from the chain-rattling “Devil You Know” to the tender flickers of “Winter Sun,” and each song is a stepping stone further into the stratosphere. Produced by the Dunwells, an indie/pop group featuring brothers Joseph and David Dunwell, the record found great influence through a host of artists O’Neill had been obsessed with at the time, including the likes of The War on Drugs, Ruston Kelly, and Fleetwood Mac.
There’s an earthy richness that’s settled into not only O’Neill’s voice but her approach to songwriting and composition. “My style as an artist and songwriter was always going to change as I grew as a person ─ and I knew with this album, I didn’t want to be stuck inside one genre box,” she says.
The recording process, spread out over 12 months, also allotted more time for the songs to simply “breathe, and we could come back with a new perspective, every few weeks, and make changes that were needed,” continues O’Neill. “There was no rush. With previous records, I would have had a few days or maximum a few weeks to get everything done.”
And the music has clearly benefited from such a meticulous, strung-out recording method. Opener “Should’ve Known Better,” co-written with the Dunwells, reveals the aching pains in navigating the music industry. Who am I to say I didn’t try / When I’m the one who laid on the line, she howls. A bluesy Shovels & Rope stomp creeps beneath, and guitar sizzles, accentuating the push and pull to create for the sake of art and commercial validation.
The rock-soaked cry was born from a place of “constant questioning, in those early stages of your career, in particular, where you’re wondering if you’re doing the right thing chasing this,” says O’Neill, who dishes up one of her most striking vocal acrobatics to-date. “When you’re broke and exhausted and tired of being shot down at every turn – maybe we should have known better.”
Yet the chorus offers a sliver of hope, as she concludes: I can’t see the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s the acceptance that whatever will be will be and uncovering the courage to keep fighting and taking up space. “I know beneath it all that I have to live my own life and make my own mistakes. I could never learn from someone else’s,” she adds.
As evidenced through the middle eight section (of “Should’ve Known Better,” in particular), O’Neill blossoms into one of the most commanding vocalists working today. Across 13 songs, she delivers a smokey lilt here (“Sometimes I Learn”), a mournful call there (“Fire with Fire”) ─ and often pulls back with exquisite restraint (“Ireland” and “Time in a Bottle,” a Jim Croce cover).
“Joe and Dave had a big part to play in this,” says O’Neill of a new-found vocal daring, “and they really pushed me in ways I probably couldn’t have pushed myself. They created such a safe space for me to explore, creatively, and I think this led to more emotive, powerful vocal performances. We were really concerned with capturing the emotion in these songs ─ more so than getting the perfect take ─ and I think that comes across on the record.”
“Strangers Before We Met,” written with Ben Earle, arrives as another vocal showcase, perhaps one of the most subdued and touching. “This song is written about the fact that we are all strangers before someone says hello ─ in a beautiful, serendipitous way. People often meet someone, who they believe to be a stranger ─ maybe abroad or somewhere completely random ─ to later find that they are connected somehow, through shared experiences or mutual friends.”
Relatively new to guitar, O’Neill takes the reins with a performance that feels both “simple and timeless,” another instance of Dave and Joe’s willingness to give her “freedom and space to creatively explore in these sorts of ways,” she says. “And so I gave it a go. What you hear on this recording is actually a live take; I recorded the acoustic guitar and vocals together, in the room, all mic’d up.”
Another musical cornerstone, “Underrated,” written with Denis Kilty, slides with a blues groove, as O’Neill continues wrangling frustrations over the music industry. Lyrically, it deals with “constantly having to jump through hoops that are set-up by other people and facing impossible barriers to get to where you want to go,” she explains. “But ultimately [it’s] understanding that the power lies within you ─ having faith in your own abilities, talents, and the future you can create for yourself.”
Later, “London City,” another Dunwells co-write, waxes bittersweet about the London apartment she’d called home for five years. She unexpectedly uprooted her life and now resides in Ireland, but the war of emotions still pounds in her chest. “Even though part of me was ready to go, I struggled a lot with the change. It’s a hard city to leave,” she offers. “This song is about my relationship with London, I suppose – the rush, the excitement, the opportunities but also the loneliness, the anonymity, and the unrelenting nature of city life. I did a lot of growing up in London – the majority of my 20s actually were spent there – so I think it will always be a sacred place for me.”
It taught me how to be myself amongst the crowd, she sings, letting her tears fall into the piano’s orbit. If the pain feels real on the recording, that’s because she “could not stop crying when tracking the vocals,” she admits. “I was a mess. Poor Dave was torn between letting me go outside and walk it off and capturing the emotion that was coming out. We did a bit of both in the end, and I managed to push through some tears and get these vocals done.”
“Break Hearts,” co-written with Kaity Rae, and featuring Joseph Dunwell, snaps between two perspectives. Both in different relationships, the two people attempt to quiet the new rush of emotions, but the pull is too strong. “[They] are too afraid to leave the relationships they are in, for fear of breaking hearts – either their own or their partners,” reflects O’Neill.
“I loved tracking this duet and having Joe feature on it. His voice just melts me every time and brings the song to another dimension,” she continues. “We used lots of pop elements in this track, as well, which brought it to life in an entirely new way.”
O’Neill feels like she’s arrived, finally slinking into the sun and feeling the warmth on her skin. Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty, also bringing together a bevy of musicians, including Lewis Warne (electric guitar), Tod Doyle (drums), and Lucy Revis (cello), is very much a statement piece. While the Dunwells supply plenty of guidance and musical talents (on acoustic guitar, keyboard, electronic drums and banjo), it’s O’Neill’s story being told with fearlessness and drive.
“I feel that this album is a lot more mature than my previous material,” says O’Neill. Two or three years ago, the musician may not have had the focus or ability to write such a record, which also anchors itself in life’s “impermanence and loss.” But the growth on display here is astounding. “I have to say that I’ve invested a huge amount of time into my songwriting in the past few years, and I feel so much more confident in my abilities now.”
Photo by Mich Behan