Meg Hutchinson

Beauty Forged From Darkness

By Richard Cuccaro

First, there’s the voice. It’s the aural equivalent of having very expensive imported chocolate melt on your tongue — a velvety, bittersweet tone that carries with it all the pain and all the dreams in her life.

As I was building the layout of this feature article, I found myself unprepared for the iconic beauty I encountered in the photos by Asia Kepka on Meg Hutchinson’s website. The picture I chose for this first page reminds me of a George Hurrell Hollywood photograph from the 1940s. I thought, “It’s a perfect match for her sound.”

Meg’s newest CD, The Living Side, for me, is a slow seduction. The tales are carefully honed, and unravel with a steady, stately grace. This is unlike her first song to get its hooks in me, “Everything Familiar,” from her previous album, The Crossing. That song sparked a blazing infatuation that had me playing it repeatedly, over and over. Producer Crit Harmon’s skills hit all the marks brilliantly, building the initial poetic observation of birds flying low in early morning into a drum-fueled, driving hallelujah to the thrill of love’s power: Never knew the birds could fly this low / guess I’ve never been up this early / you know I’d sleep if I could / but when I do I only dream of fleeing war torn countries. By the time she reaches the crescendo of: Oh, and if love is the distance between you and what you love* (*from a poem by Rilke) / Then look how far, look how far I’ll go, I am soaring. It happens again and again with the other songs. I could have picked any one of them for that first amphetamine-like high. My tendency to get swept up in melody and rhythm led to a late-blooming awareness of Meg’s poetic lyricism. Similarly, my knowledge of Meg’s journey through the dark landscape of bipolar disorder came only after my online discovery of other interviews she’d done. As I continued listening to her music, each bit of knowledge gave the songs greater weight.

A phone interview with Meg uncovered some of the unique elements that went into the creation of this fiercely dedicated poet and songsmith.


Born in 1978, Meg grew up in South Egremont, Mass., the middle child of three sisters. Her childhood was spent without TV; the internet was still years beyond the horizon. Wikipedia states: “Growing up in the Berkshires, the mountains, woods and ponds were her childhood muses, as were poets she read (like Mary Oliver, Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats).”

Meg affectionately referred to her parents as “hippies,” [extremely bright hippies] and said that their record collection included all the classic stuff, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. Music was everywhere. Her mother would go on walks and play the recorder and both her mom and dad sang lullabies to all three kids. Her father played music in the car all the time.

Words were a currency — they had value. Meg’s father has been an English professor at Simon’s Rock College (now called Bard College at Simon’s Rock) all her life. Her mother stayed home to raise the children and later became a writing teacher at the same college. “She’s an amazing writer,” Meg said. “She’s written a poem a day for a decade and has taught many writing groups.”

Like the author, Meg was slow to warm to one particular folk icon. She remembered, once, after playing in the yard, she came stomping into the kitchen in protest while her mother was playing Bob Dylan. Meg said, “This is horrible! Turn it off!” Her mom understood, but said, “Later on you’re going to realize that this guy is a genius.” 

Meg’s education helped her become the strong individual she is today. She went to the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School, one of the network of Waldorf schools. It was a holistic kind of education — like a Montessori school. They encouraged children to be creative — allowing them to move their bodies, draw, build stuff and make gardens — a path to letting the child be a whole person. One main teacher acted as a ‘“core” teacher and “that teacher would become like a third parent,” Meg said. Hers was the music teacher for the entire school, so it made an impact. Her teacher would have the children sing all the time. In one instance, they sang a song to thank a guide who showed them around a museum. Additionally, Meg’s teacher would write musicals for them to perform.

Meg started playing instruments in the fourth grade. She learned the recorder in school and could sight read. Around 9 years old, for about a year, Meg took guitar lessons from a teacher, Mrs. Morris, who lived near school. On Wednesday afternoons, Mrs. Morris used “all the most morbid old folk songs, such as ‘Delia’s Dead and Gone.’” Meg said, “I was a little traumatized by how dark the songs were, but I was learning all my chords and she was a nice lady.” Meg got the impression that folk music was “serious business,” and definitely not “Hot Cross Buns.” This less-than-thrilling experience was more favorably augmented and expanded on by her older sister’s boyfriend who taught her Neil Young songs. Meg remains grateful to this day. “He was like a rock star to me,” she said. She also took piano lessons outside of school for around three years.

The Passing

One event made a huge impact and foreshadowed the path Meg would take. Meg’s paternal grandmother, who’d taught guitar for many years, lived in California. The family didn’t have enough money to visit her often, so she remained an elusive revered figure.

When her grandmother passed away, an uncle sent the grandmother’s guitar, a beautiful old Martin, to Meg’s family. When it arrived, it had a hole in the side of the body from being shipped. Their grief for the loss of their matriarch seemed to transfer to the guitar and everyone wept upon seeing the damage. The entire family suspended their normal routine and made a pilgrimage to the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pa., to get it fixed. Meg said that this was a powerful, extremely moving experience for her, bonding her with her family over the value of music and this particular instrument. The family was given a tour of the Martin factory. They left the guitar there, and it was later shipped (safely this time) back to Massachusetts. Meg still uses it at home and for recording, but will not take it on the road.

Epiphany, Then Respite

In eighth grade, Meg wrote a song, “Freedom’s Ocean,” about apartheid in South Africa for a geography project. On Martin Luther King Day, she performed it in a talent show at the Waldorf school. She sat onstage in the auditorium, calmly playing for the very first time in front of an audience. When she finished, she walked off stage and burst into tears. A classmate said, “Why are you crying? You did a good job!” Meg was actually overwhelmed with the sudden knowledge that she had just experienced what she was meant to do. She walked out of the school, into a snowy day, carrying her guitar case, feeling that she was “home.” The song was so well-received that later she performed it at a number of open mics in town.

Waldorf schools typically span from first to eighth grade. Afterward, Meg went to regular high school. It was a culture shock. Academically she did OK, but the system felt entirely foreign. She wanted to have class outside all the time and her classmates called her a “tree hugger.”

In spite of the revelation that came after singing her apartheid song at the talent show, Meg, overwhelmed by the culture shift and her parents’ unraveling marriage, put her musical ambitions aside in high school and concentrated on athletic pursuits. She became a varsity runner and track star. Meg still played music at home. She laughed as she recalled how, at one point, she’d fallen in love with a champion high school wrestler and lost him to a cheerleader. She wrote an unrequited love song that was the extent of her song production during high school.

Fortunately, high school for Meg lasted only two years. Simon’s Rock College had an early entry program for students with good grades, so she began her college career at around age 15 and, because her parents worked there, got free tuition.

By the time she was 17, while attending Simon’s Rock, Meg had her own apartment and worked at an organic farm. She began playing open mics at a bar in Pittsfield, Mass., where, as Meg put it, “the construction workers played darts and got wasted.” The owner liked her and, errant darts notwithstanding, gave her a “residency,” playing a steady gig every couple of weeks.

Beyond Artistic Temperament

Meg experienced many mood swings during her early years that she attributed to “artistic temperament” but they became more pronounced as she got older. Her first heavy bout of depression occurred when she was 19. There were manic periods of great energy where she’d write and perform, feeling very powerful. Then, there were periods where she’d hit bottom. “I was energetic and willful and pushed though it, using mind over matter,” she told me.

Her first self-titled album grew out of her college poetry study, working on the farm and dealing with her varying emotional states. She said that she had no idea how serious things were, but attempted to express the depths of her feelings through poetry and music. The album was produced with the help of friends. One friend had a four-track recording setup and allowed her to use his living room as a studio and put the tracks together. Another friend did the artwork. A woman who’d heard her play at open mics helped her get “real” gigs in places like Albany, N.Y., and got a press kit together for her. “Everyone pitched in for free to help me out,” she said. During this period, she’d express elements about her recurring depression, but not own it as being about herself. In one interview, she mentioned “Song To Ophelia” as an example: Ophelia jump not into the water / The river is deep and you’ll go down / Ophelia chase not the white bird of silence / The rot is in Denmark not in your heart.

Her next album, Against the Grey, was more formally produced at a studio by musician Robby Baier and released in 1999. Meg was now being managed by the same woman who’d helped her earlier, and “was teaching me about the music business,” Meg said. Against the Grey was nominated for a Boston Music Award. “That really woke me up to the fact that I really wanted to be in this city [Boston, where she now lives].” Meg had heard that Tracy Chapman had been discovered while busking in the Boston subway and had a longtime dream of playing there herself. In 2002, she made her way there and began busking underground herself. She played the subway for about a year and a half. She told one interviewer, Bob Edwards (Sirius xm), that it was possible some days, between tips and selling CDs to make $200 in a few hours. (She said that now, with everyone plugged into their own iPods, this way for a fledgling artist to make money is all but gone — she probably experienced its last gasp).

On this album we can see more evidence of the darkness haunting Meg in “Ship of Fools:” Lead me down, to the ship of fools / I belong to no one but the sea tonight / And my insomnia …  Set sail when I wanna be crazy / Load me on my watery asylum / And I’ll lean out from the railing / Over the dark ocean / Into the salt wind.

The next album, Any Given Day, was recorded live and released in 2001. It contains the song “True North” which deals with her parents’ divorce: After thirty years as best friends / They smiled as they read irreconcilable differences … He said can’t you see we’re moving in new directions / Can’t you feel the pull? / But you’re still the one by which I chart my course  / Still my, still my true north. The ache here is palpable.

The “Crit”-ical Edge

Meg had been a “huge Martin Sexton fan,” and wanted his producer, Crit Harmon, to produce a CD for her. She’d met him at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, but was too shy to present herself as a prospective client. Her younger sister got Crit’s card for her. She carried that card around for two years, secretly harboring a plan to work with him. She finally met Crit at a Folk Alliance conference and he agreed to allow her to demo a song for him. The song demo grew into a series of “living room sessions” where “he’d rip my songs to shreds.” Crit would dissect each song Meg presented and send her home with pieces that were like a puzzle for her to put together again. Crit may not have known what he was dealing with, perhaps expecting Meg to dissolve and run away in tears. Meg accepted every criticism and rebuilt her songs, her lyrics becoming leaner and more concise, less dense than her earlier work. Crit finally agreed to make a album with her.

The first of the three he’d make with her was The Crossing, released in 2004. After my early infatuation with “Everything Familiar,” it’s difficult to pick a favorite. One of them would be the track that closes the album, “As The Crow Flies.” Like a prayer, it leaves me choked up: Let me bring down this castle / That I built long ago / Let me tear off this crown of mine / Come down from my window / Let me go / Let me open this heart again / Wider than the sky / To all the pain and wonder / Of being in this life…

The Diagnosis

From her interview with David Van Nuys, Ph.D., called “Wise Counsel” that I found online, we learn that: “In the spring of 2006, on the heels of a tour in Europe and a series of personal life triggers, Hutchinson tumbled into a mixed state with weeks of insomnia and ultimately an incapacitating depression. She was hospitalized by July of that year, and after several months of treatment and therapy in and out of a mental health facility, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Hutchinson spent 2007 recuperating, writing, walking with her dog, and making peace with this new knowledge and the resulting dramatic changes in her life.”

Late in 2007 Meg began recording again. She was signed by Red House Records and in 2008, Come Up Full, produced again by Crit Harmon, was released. The album, named after watching Maine fishermen pull their nets from the water, is full of new self-awareness. Once again, her clean, spare lyrics cut their way into the listener’s empathy. In “Home,” she sings: I won’t tell you where I’ve been / Only that it’s so good to be home / It’s possible to go so far down …

The Living Side, her latest CD, was released in 2010, her third with Crit. This time around, she ponders both the depths she’s plunged and the heights to which her bipolar disorder has taken her.

In “Being Happy,” she sings about the depths: I’ve been known to burn too bright, I’ve been known to flash and then go dark / I’ve been known to walk the edge, I’ve been known to trip / and fall right in … Let the old year be behind me, let the old year be behind me / What’s the harm in being happy?

Sometimes she remembers the heights.  In “At First It Was Fun,” she sings: At first it was fun, I glued my feathers on / I flew up toward the sun, never getting too warm / At first the great thrill, finally the big top / I walked the high wire, never looking down / Until the day, it all fell away … Oh I miss the ride sometimes … But I promise to stay, yeah I promise to stay on the living side.


L-R: Anne Heaton, Meg, Antje Duvekot and Natalia Zukerman

Passim, the renowned folk club in Boston, runs a fundraising festival each year called “The Cutting Edge of the Campfire.” Meg was grouped with fellow songwriters Antje Duvekot, Anne Heaton and Natalia Zukerman. They’d been on the same circuit together and quickly realized how good the combination was and how much fun they were having. They toured in 2009 and made a holiday album, Winterbloom. They still tour as Winterbloom from time to time.

In closing, Meg stated that the main thrust of her message these days is “Transformation: Opportunity for Growth.” Through her own trials, she’s found greater empathy for others and advocates for a greater understanding of mental illness, appearing at symposiums and on radio shows to promote awareness and support.

Sometimes it’s necessary to lose the vulnerable parts of one’s self to survive. In quelling her bipolar symptoms, Meg lost the manic creative highs, but forges on, banking on truthtelling for inspiration. I like to envision her now in another favorite song, the lead track from The Crossing, “Coming Up: ”so if you hear some kind of singing in the underground / you’ll know who it is without going down / and after this mean coastal winter’s gone / I’ll be the first one you see coming up, coming up …

Keep coming, Meg. We’ll be here, listening.

Upcoming appearances include:

Jun 8   8pm Midtown Scholar Bookstore, 1302 North 3rd St., Harrisburg, PA

        717- 236-1680  $15

9    8pm Burlap and Bean, 204 S Newtown Street Rd., Newtown Square, PA

         484-427-4547  $15

10   7:30pm At The Art Studio,  211 Glen Ridge Ave., Montclair, NJ 

        973-744-6484  $15

13   8:30am Public Sector Conference @ UMASS Medical School,

        55 Lake Ave. North, Worcester, MA

15   The Guthrie Center, 4 Van Deusenville Road, Great Barrington, MA

         413 528-1955



photo: Asia Kepka

photo: Jodi Sinatra

Meg with her dog, Osa …

photo: Teri Currie

photo: Asia Kepka