‘I’m singing a song to a musical that doesn’t really exist yet’ Meg Washington talks showtunes, motherhood, and symphony orchestras

With huge plans for 2024, Australian singer-songwriter Meg Washington offers a candid look into her world where music, motherhood, and orchestral collaborations intersect

With her signature down-to-earth approach, Australian musician and songwriter Meg Washington is as an artist that is seamlessly bridging the symphonic and the everyday. She is currently deep into the editing of a new film adaptation of Paul Kelly’s timeless Christmas anthem ‘How To Make Gravy’ that she co-wrote and co-produced with her husband Nick Waterman, due to hit our screens in 2024.

But it is another major project that is currently occupying her time: a very special performance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, taking place at Sydney Town Hall in February 2024.

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If Meg’s last concert with the Sydney Symphony is anything to go by, you absolutely must get a ticket to this one. In 2017, she performed at Sydney Opera House with the Orchestra, and a recording from that concert has just been released – the sublime ‘Catherine Wheel’.

As Meg gears up for orchestral shows across Australia, she shares some insights into the unique experience of performing with symphony orchestras, likening it to navigating waves of energy.

Happy: What are you up to today?

Meg: Working, singing lesson later. 

Happy: Could you delve into your recent release, ‘Catherine Wheel,’ recorded with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra? It’s a sublime masterpiece, intertwining classic and uplifting tones, reminiscent of the grounded theatrics in Madonna’s ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ from Evita.

Meg: I like to say that I make show tunes for my entire career, and secretly call them pop songs because what I think you are picking up on there, is a sense of narrative in the song, it takes you on a journey.

There is a theatrical epic nature to those kinds of torch songs. Evita is amazing because of the way that the music carries the story, and that’s actually something that defines a lot of my work, especially the songs that sit more in that not-quite-music-theatre-but-not-exactly-radio-pop world.

I’ve created a bit of a third space where I’m singing a song to a musical that doesn’t really exist yet. The good news is that I’ve also written a musical, which will also be out next year, that will help to scratch that itch.

Happy: This year is set to be a big year.

Meg: Releases are funny like that in that the work was 18 months to two years prior. This year is going to be great, because a lot of things are set for release but I’ve done the work already.

Happy: What sparked the original collaboration with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2017? What made you say yes?

Meg: It was very easy to say yes because there really is only one answer if anybody ever asks if you would like to perform with a symphony orchestra, and that answer is usually yes. It is an amazing experience.

Happy: Was it initially daunting?

Meg: In 2017, when that recording was done, I was 8 months pregnant with my son. So I was daunted, but only because mostly I was worried if I would have enough lung space going on in my body.

It was actually quite funny because as the tour went on, my phrases got shorter and shorter as I got bigger and bigger, as I had less room in my chest.

But now my son is six, so it’s fine. I feel really excited about these shows because I feel that I’ll be able to play and use my body in a way that I couldn’t last time.

It’s a very amazing experience to sing with a symphony orchestra. If you’ve ever caught a wave and had it carry you beyond your own speed, you know what it feels like to surf the energy of something that is much bigger than you.

That’s exactly what it feels like. When they take off, and they lose contact with the ground, you go with them. It’s quite trippy and amazing.


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Happy: How much control do you have when it comes to such a large undertaking like this?

Meg: Alot, and also none by the time it’s show day. For me the process involves thinking about a set list, choosing arrangements, talking with the arrangers, matching every song up with a compatible arranger and the arrangements they have created, and finally working out what the orchestra will wear.

Then we rehearse with each orchestra ahead of the day, and I work with the conductor to move the orchestra in various ways. And then hopefully on show day, all I have to do is close my eyes and sing.

Happy: Is ‘Catherine Wheel’ making it into the setlist? Has it changed in any way since the 2017 rendition?

Meg: Not really, I don’t think you can really change it, my friend Paul Hankinson did it, and it’s so breathtaking, I would never change it ever. I closed the show with it last time.

Happy: It would make a helluva closer.

Meg: Or an intro.

Happy: Is that a setlist give away? Any surprises? 

Meg: The whole thing is already a surprise.

Happy: What’s your game plan for mentally and emotionally preparing for a show of this size? Any routines or rituals?

Meg: I’m a big believer in boring everyday training so that the gig is extremely chill and I have been seeing my singing teacher again, which has been awesome.

I’ve been going back to my old university to see my old teacher Irene. She is still in the same room, down the same corridor, past the same lockers; it’s been a bit trippy.

Happy: Sounds dreamy. So just physical preparation then. I like the sound of that.

Meg: If you stay ready, you don’t need to get ready. Like anything, the only way to do anything is to do it.

And if you really love music, you will do it every day, whether you’ve got a show or not, which is what I’ve been doing.

Regardless of what I’m working on, my music is my time. I am doing the thing that I love to do the most, which is to sing and disappear into the universe of music and lose myself in that world.

That’s my favourite thing ever, and in that way, it becomes a regular practice because it’s something that you love to do, not because other people are watching you.

Happy: Being a part of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is no small feat, how does it feel to be a part of that tradition now?

Meg: When I performed with them in 2017, I had a marvellous time. One thing I learned is that I feel like I do everything the wrong way first, and then I have to do it the right way afterward.

When I put the first show together, I had this idea in my head that I didn’t really want to do a ‘best of’ or a retrospective; I wanted to do something fresh.

But life does what life does – the songs that I had commissioned for the symphony orchestra didn’t end up coming out by the time the shows had happened, so the audience was hearing all of this material that they hadn’t heard before, hearing it for the first time.

And it was cool in some ways, but it’s not always a vibe. And then that album never ended up coming out at all.

So this time, I’m not going to try; I’m going to do what everybody else does because it works.

Because it’s a good idea; they all do it because that is the right thing to do for your songs that people know and that they like.

Happy: What makes you happy?

Meg: My family.

Meg Washington will be performing with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on Saturday the 3rd February. Book now at Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Meg will also be performing with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.