When Ohio-born Megan Palmer began writing songs in earnest somewhere around 2004, she was a violinist gigging with Ontario-based Luther Wright & the Wrongs, known for their bluegrass reworking of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. This exercise in genre twisting serves as well as any to hint at the range of stylistic territory spanned in Palmer’s own music, which straddles the Americana and adult alternative radio formats while drawing from an even wider-ranging palette of influences that she blurs into original hues. Her voice, attractively austere and affectation-free, is nonetheless versatile enough to suit the varied styles housing her intelligent lyrics and deft melodies.
Her 2006 debut, Forget Me Not, showed signs of a blooming individuality and a knack for expression that belied her fledgling songwriter status; the experiences that have since unfolded along her self-confessed “rambling road,” though, have both weathered and honed her as a writer. “It’s sort of like a lifelong process to find out what your own sound is,” Palmer says. “It’s an ongoing self-discovery. You’re going to find things inside of you that you didn’t even know were there.”
Musical matters aside, Palmer discovered a mettle she wasn’t aware was there after an X-ray found something unexpected inside her: breast cancer. The diagnosis arrived in doubly disheartening tandem with the June 2016 release of her fifth (and first Nashville-recorded) album, What She’s Got to Give, scuttling plans for a string of summer shows. Palmer filled the advance orders, played two release shows, and pulled the plug on everything for about a year.
Now gratefully cancer-free and back in action, Palmer — who’s also a part-time nurse — says that being forced to switch caregiver and patient roles “tweaked something in my writing. Instead of writing about how everybody was annoying me, I wanted to write about, you know, what it’s like to be vulnerable.” This new development will doubtlessly flavor her next album — the wistful, as-yet-unreleased “Stetson” chronicles the inevitable hair loss of cancer treatment and poetically imagines “a ‘perfect’ hat as a way to keep me in my body, perhaps more metaphysically than physically,” she explains. But even before turning a personal corner and still prone to writing about her aggravations, Palmer was writing therapeutically and, to an extent, vulnerably.
Moving to Nashville in 2013 after a soul-sucking five-year stint in Brooklyn, N.Y., she caught a badly needed second wind, rapidly resulting in What She’s Got to Give’s title cut, a declaration of renewed purpose that simultaneously addresses her family members’ struggles to understand her unorthodox path.
“The title track I wrote literally the week I moved to Nashville,” Palmer begins. “There was just something about this place. … I let out a sigh of relief when I got here. It had a lot to do with being near the river, and hearing birds, and just feeling like there’s a little bit more nature around me, even though I’m in a city.
“And there’s a lot of like-minded people in Nashville that are working hard to write and they want to share their music, and there’s a place for it,” she continues. “Whereas in New York, you just get lost in the shuffle. So that song to me is the cusp of me reclaiming myself as a writer.”
The local music community, she says, provided a feeling of belonging, but also posed the challenge of facing the city’s outrageously high level of talent, stirring up the nagging self-doubt so familiar among artists. It’s a thread loosely woven throughout her current album, particularly on “Jealous Mind,” written “in response to feeling like maybe everyone’s passing me by,” Palmer explains. “You look to the left and your friend gets a record deal, and everyone’s getting their opportunity. Sometimes instead of being happy for them, you’re kind of jealous of them.”
While attending a Shovels & Rope show, a kind of epiphany came to her. “I realized they were inspiring me and making me want to be better at what I did,” she recalls. “I’m learning to convert [jealousy] into inspiration, and that’s really healing for me.”
For Palmer — a longtime caregiver whose artistic search for transformation offers curative messages for kindred spirits — healing is clearly part of what she’s got to give.