The wife-and-husband duo Megan Jean and The KFB (Klay Family Band) spent their first two records– Dead Woman Walkin’ and The Devil Herself– making music that was essentially peerless: a bizarro, horror-show composite of America’s pre-rock ‘n’ roll sonic landscape. Vocalist and then-washboardist Megan Jean and multi-instrumentalist Byrne Klay trademarked a brand of folk and bluegrass filtered through the lens of roadside carnival noir. Think The Dresden Dolls living off the Appalachian Trail.
With their third record, 2018’s Tarantistas, the duo found themselves at a crossroads, growing weary of the sounds and trappings of their prior records and reputations. The album’s lead cut, “Voodoo Doll”, signaled the band leaving the front porch for the dance floor, its disco rhythms lightyears away from the gothed-out Vaudeville of their previous releases. Tarantistas not only gave the band a chance to experiment with a more orchestrated sound, but also afforded Jean the opportunity to showcase her muscular, yet emotive vocals. The album succeeded in breaking new ground, but perhaps also in alienating fans of the KFB’s earlier sound, a style the band had long ago outgrown.
Instead of falling back into complacency and tired formulas, Megan Jean and Byrne have regrouped, distancing themselves even further from their past by adding drummer Tommy Bailey to the fold and rechristening themselves as Megan Jean’s Secret Family. Armed with goodwill and a renewed love for music, the trio is hitting the road, showcasing new material and reimaginings of KFB standards.
Megan Jean’s Secret Family plays Macon’s JBA on Thursday, April 7th.
The obvious place to begin is, “What precipitated the name change?”
I felt, personally, before the pandemic, that I had hit a wall. I was very much burnt out from touring a lot. We had heard a lot from music industry experiences that our band was silly, and no one was going to take us seriously with the washboard. I was just wanting to move past that sort of Vaudeville aspect. I’m really proud of the work that we did as Megan Jean and The KFB, but worst band name ever.
For me, it was about pouring my entire soul and being into my music and my lyrics. I like to think of them as being a little bit more intellectual, and to have that all boiled down to the washboard and getting confused with KFC was very disheartening for me, and it was actually making me angry and resentful.
When the pandemic happened, I was grateful because it kicked us off the road, and I didn’t have to just keep beating that dead horse and hoping that something would change. The only reason why we did it so long is because I got to tour with the love of my life. The last album that we did with the KFB is called Tarantistas. If you listen to it now, it sounds a lot like what Secret Family is sounding like. During the pandemic, I was telling Byrne, “Hey, this isn’t working anymore. It’s not working for me creatively. We’re not pulling the audiences that we used to pull. I can’t play the washboard anymore because it hurts my hands and back. And it’s not challenging me musically.” I believe in the sunk cost fallacy, which is when you think that if you keep pouring your money and your resources and your time into something that’s failing that you’re going to be able to somehow get all of your investment back and then some out of it. But there is a point when you need to cut your losses and go, “This isn’t working. I’m losing my precious life to this, and it’s not taking me where I want to go creatively, professionally, or personally.” I got to that place during the pandemic where I had to be honest with myself and say, “This isn’t working. It’s not taking me where I want to go. It’s not for propelling me to the places that I want my music to be taking me.”
So we decided we were going to figure out something different while we had that forced break. I started playing the bass. I thought, “My husband’s an excellent bassist, and he can teach me how to play it.” At first, we were going to incorporate electronic drums into the KFB and be like, “Yeah, maybe we can do this electroclash thing.” We said, “Maybe we would like a drummer,” after we started playing with that canned percussion. We did a couple of shows here and there, and then we were playing at a festival called Groovin’ with the Grove that’s put on by a band called Fletcher’s Grove. The drummer for that band, Tommy Bailey, came up to me and said, “If you guys are looking for a drummer, I’d like to audition for the spot,” and we said, “You got it; you got the job.” So we actually didn’t even try to look for a drummer– this all happened very organically.
To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be associated with the washboard anymore. I don’t have any hate for the washboard. It just really hurt my hands, and I hated for all my efforts, all my passion, all of my intellectual pursuits to be boiled down to a dingy bell and a washboard. I said, “I’m playing the bass now. We have a drummer and sound a bit different, so we really can’t just say this is the new Klay Family Band.” We had to signify that it was something different, but an evolution of something of where we come from. The guys had to talk me into keeping my name on the front because when your name is on the front of a band, you’re the target– you get a lot of good attention, but you get a lot of bad attention. I’ve gotten some pretty nasty pile-ons on social media in the past. I thought, “Maybe I don’t want my name to be on the front and all the pressures on me,” but you get that name recognition, and it’s very hard to get it back. Then when we were coming up with a band name, we wondered if we should just keep “family” in the title because people associate us with the Klay Family Band. Then we came up with Secret Family because it’s just kind of funny– women can’t have secret families (laughs)!
But that’s where it all came from– it was super organic; it just kind of happened. I’m never going to tour like that again– 200-to-250 shows a year. We just want to be a lot more purposeful, a lot more deliberate. And I want to be able to break out of that box of the washboard. People barely noticed what caliber singer I was because of that stupid washboard. The last time I played an event with the washboard, I kid you not, I said, “Show me a sign. Show me anything to tell me where I should be going with this, with his music, this career of mine.” I put on that washboard, and it disintegrated in my hands! It fell apart!”
You didn’t have to smash it? That was going to be my next question…
I didn’t smash it. Literally, I started playing it, and it fell apart, so I had to take that as a sign. It’s scary to start over, but it’s also really exciting. It keeps you from being complacent. I didn’t want to be phoning it in. There were times when I’d be playing with the KFB, and I’d be thinking about grocery shopping and when I needed to do laundry. I can’t do that while I’m playing the bass and singing. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. With this new band, I just can’t help but grin ear-to-ear. Every time we play, it feels so good to play with these two absolute monster musicians. And people can’t talk over us anymore (laughs)!
How did you maintain your composure when the suits were calling you essentially a novelty act?
We never approached the music industry– that was a strange thing. They would always come to us and tell us why we weren’t good enough. And we were like, “Yes, yes, we had assumed this,” but I think– not to toot my own horn–when you can sing like I do, there’s natural interest. I’ve been offered spots on pretty much all the karaoke contest shows on television, and I’ve turned them all down because I’m a songwriter. I’m an artist. I’m not a karaoke singer, and I don’t care if that gets you overnight famous. It doesn’t last. It’s not a career that inspires people. I don’t think that’s the right livelihood as a Buddhist. That’s not my calling. My calling was to be an artist that brings comfort to people in their hardest times and in their joyous times, not to get famous– that’s somebody else’s bag.
It’s hard because they’re all so smug, they’re all so effete, and they’re also generally talentless do-nothings themselves. I think the industry gets fairly jealous of artists because if they could do what we do, they would. They resent us for it– they wish they were on the creative side of their industry, but they can’t hack it. So what do they do? They tear down the people that are easy marks, man. I think it makes them feel a little bit more in control, like they’re taste-makers, like they’re the ones that know what talent is. What I mostly got was that I needed to lose weight and that I needed to dumb my music down for people. Literally, a guy from an organization in Nashville told me that audiences are stupid and that I needed to start writing dumber lyrics because audiences are stupid. I said to him, “That’s the difference between you and me, man. I don’t think my audience is dumb. I think they’re actually generally pretty smart people, or they wouldn’t listen to my music in the first place.”
They wouldn’t say, “You need to lose weight.” They would look you up and down and go, “You need to make it more commercial. You need to tighten this up a little bit,” and look up and down my body. Now, I don’t body shame anybody because I’ve been a bigger woman my whole life, which is why my voice sounds the way it does. Hormones are tied to voices. I have a hormonal imbalance that I have had since I was 13. That’s why opera singers are fat ladies– because fat cells produce estrogen, and the estrogen makes ovaries produce more testosterone, which leads to thickening of the vocal cords, and there you have my voice. That’s why opera singers are fat ladies.
So, specifically, when you exclude fat female bodies from the music industry, you are systematically excluding the deepest voices that the human body is capable of. That always strikes me as rather ridiculous, but I’ve learned that people look at music; they don’t listen to it, especially in the industry. You kinda have to play into that. You got to put on a show for people, but at the same time, the men don’t have to do it. I look at Americana and blues acts coming out all the time, and these men, if they looked like that, and they were women, they would not be given a chance. It makes your blood boil a little bit. But it has forced an excellence upon me– I have to work harder. I am literally held to a higher standard than men are. I think that if I was a man, and I could sing the way that I do and write the songs that I do and get a grass-roots audience the way that I have, I think that I would have a much bigger career, to the point where when this tour is done, I’m coming home and recording a country EP as a man in drag. The character’s name is Gunnar Studwell, and the EP is called He’s Down To Truck. We’re going to see how it goes just because it’s an experiment for me because I want to point out the hypocrisy of this business. I want to point out the double standard between women and men. I can sing like a man if I want; I can sing like a woman if I want it. That’s hormones, baby.
I think of the music industry, and I think of artists as doggies at the track. What I’ve learned about the industry is that all these guys are all gamblers. They literally play fantasy baseball and shit together, all these label guys in Nashville. They’re all gambling– they know that they’re not always going to win, but they like hedging their bets, and every once in a while, they win really big. But moreover, they just like hanging out at the track, watching all the doggies run around the track chasing that little white rabbit of fame because we’re the ones that keep animating our bodies around that track; we’re the ones that keep chasing a little white rabbit down the hole. They just like hanging out at the track, looking at the doggies, and hedging their bets, and every once a while, they win big, but they’re gamblers. That’s it, that’s all.
It’s been a few years since you released Tarantistas. How have the last few years affected your songwriting? The Devil Herself feels like a record about characters trapped in purgatory, a scenario I think a lot of people might identify with these days…
For our fan base for the KFC, they’ve never really moved past The Devil Herself and wanting that sound from us, which is why we needed to start over with a new band. I was tired of getting strapped into that and feeling like I had to be there for the rest of my career. I’m a different person than I was in 2013 when that album came out. That album came nine years ago. Tarantistas really does represent the bridge between that sound and where we’re at now. Our first single, “Foxes In The Henhouse”, is very much about the insurrection, and we have been influenced politically. I became a Zen Buddhist since Tarantistas. I had to become a Zen Buddhist to deal with the anger that you get in this life– that’s my journey spiritually. There’s a lot of Buddhist themes in our stuff.
We have a full-length written for this new band already because I never stopped writing songs. I write songs all the time, but we do play some old stuff from the KFB because I feel like we got to throw our audience a little bit of a bone there. Plus, they were really good songs. I don’t want to stop performing then, and the KFB is still in the band– Byrne and I are still there– but we’ve moved on artistically from that. I think it would be folly to expect any artist to stay the same. If you tell there’s an artist that sounds exactly the way they did 15 years ago, that’s someone who’s given up and just wants to stay where they’re at. People, when they get successful, get so scared that they’re not going to be as successful as they used to.
In the most joyous and freeing way, everybody has to die someday, right? That’s realistically what we’re really looking at– what are you going to do with your wild ride? Are you going to live in fear that you’re not going to be some big important artist with a bunch of industry people telling you that you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread and a bunch of fans saying never change your tunes? Or are you going to actually be a vital human being who experiences this world in the most fulfilling and dynamic way possible?
I really did get into that little fear mode for a while, but then I thought, “What am I going to lose?” I have literally nothing to lose by starting over, and we’re not really starting over. We’re still the same musicians. I’m still the same songwriter, and the only time the band really changes is when you get a different singer. But no, we’re not going to play the Vaudeville-y stuff that we used to play. This is more of like a power trio, like indie rock with blues influences, and even some jam and funk stuff thrown in there. It’s a different direction for us, but it’s also very reminiscent of where we’ve been. We always had songs that didn’t fit in with the KFB, and those tend to be the ones that were performing now.
I actually am really optimistic, even though I sound all doom and gloom, angry and stuff. I just want to say to people, “Would you want to stay the same that you were for the rest of your life, never change, even if it wasn’t working?” That was the hardest part– to acknowledge that it wasn’t working because, by the end of 2018, we were playing to empty house after empty house after empty house. No one was coming out to shows anymore. And it takes a bit of self-awareness and guts and egoless-ness to go, “This isn’t fucking working.”
I just had to try something new. I really admire artists that take that dare to reinvent themselves and not stay complacent in their artistry. I feel like Secret Family, for me, is where we’re headed. I feel like it’s a more forgiving thing. It’s not a washboard and a duo, or that’s what people expect all the time. There’s a lot more expression available. I can write the kind of songs that I want to write still, but also playing the bass and singing is very challenging, but I really love it. I think it gives me a little bit more credence as a musician, instead of people being like, “Oh, she plays a silly little washboard with the dingy bell on it.” No, in the words of Nicki Minaj, “I’m a motherfucking monster, and I’m going to show you.”
It’s rare to be able to sing the way that I do and play the bass. And I know that because it’s very challenging. It has humbled me– I know it doesn’t sound like it– but it has humbled me in a way that I needed because I can sing– that was a gift– but I’ve also worked on it. I went to the school of the arts for theater, and I’ve been working on vocals– I’m a vocal coach during my time off the road. I know vocals like I know the back of my hand. I know vowel sounds, I know what tongue-shapes people are doing– I don’t even have to look at their mouths– it’s just from the way that it sounds. I’m a 10,000 hour-plus vocalist. I’ve put in my time doing that job. But as a bassist, I’ve been playing for a year. I have a lot to learn. It’s very humbling. I never feel one hundred percent like, “Oh, I got it all locked up. I can’t do any better than that.” No, every time we play a show, I think I could have done better. I needed that drive. I needed that because you’ll never meet a lazier musician than a naturally gifted singer. You can quote me on that. They just go, “Whatever, I can do it.” And I need to show up and practice like the rest of the band does.
I needed that challenge. I needed to get out of my head a little bit because all arrogance is rooted in insecurity, and the more insecure you get about what you’re doing and no one showing up, and “Oh my god, I’ve been dropped from my booking agent. I’ve been dropped from my labels,” I started to feel myself backing into that arrogance a little bit, being like, “I’m great, and they just don’t know it!” and that’s no way to be. That’s not how you become a great artist.
I had to walk away from the music industry. I had to walk away from Nashville, the shallowness of it, the double standards, and all that stuff. I had to walk away from it because it was making me angry. It was making me insecure and arrogant and resentful, and that’s just not how I want to be as a person. Now I live in a really small town in western Maryland, and everybody knows my business– because everybody knows everybody’s business– but it’s a really supportive community. I’m not saying we’re the biggest band in the area, but I’ve been playing here for 15 years, and we’ve gotten a really warm reception for the new band. We’ve gotten some really good opportunities between here and West Virginia. When we decided we were going to go back on tour with a new band, with no promo materials to show anybody, we were able to book a tour, and that meant a lot to me. It’s hard to book a tour alone, but it made me feel very optimistic, having dealt with all the weird anger and animus that I was harboring, to turn a new page and be a little bit more optimistic.
But it’s been very humbling. That’s been the theme. I will tell you one of the last shows that I played on tour before the pandemic was in Georgia, actually, and I got pulled off stage by a man holding a gun on his hip, telling me I was the worst singer he’d ever heard and refused to pay me. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, and it actually took me quite a while to work up the courage to get on stage again. It was really hard. I didn’t know if I was ever going to get back up on the horse again, actually, for a while. I knew that I shouldn’t let some little turd of a man be able to do that, just because he didn’t want to pay me, but it affects you. It was tough to get back up on the horse after that. It was a whole evolution of growth. I will never play that town again. But I love Georgia. It’s not going to keep me out of Georgia, obviously. I’m coming right back. We’re in Macon, and that would never happen in Macon. We’ve always had such a warm reception there. It’s always been a place that we associate with good people and good times and Macon music. The venues may change, but the people don’t. We see the same supportive people that come out. It’s a place that I associate with really warm feelings, warm people, and a lot of encouragement. I’ve got a lot of encouragement from people in Macon over the years. It’s just meant a lot to me. We had to include Macon on this tour.
This whole tour, this getting back on the horse, it’s our first tour since the pandemic, since before that. It’s rather emotional. The whole world’s been through a lot– I don’t mean to center myself on it– but myself, in particular, I really did go through a whole lot and came out on the other side. I’m pretty happy. I’m pretty proud of myself that I did pick myself back up, and I didn’t choose to wallow in it and be like, “Oh, I failed,” because I have mad Eeyore tendencies. The one thing I love about Eeyore with Winnie-the-Pooh is that they always invite him even though he’s kind of a bummer. There’s still a place where that friend that’s just maybe a little damaged, and that’s who I make music for. I make music for people who may be a little damaged, but they still get up, and they still animate their body to live their life and get up. I have a song that says, “I just got to get to the good fight/All right/ But I just got to get my mind right/Because the sun is coming back again/ Anytime, anytime/ I just got to get my place in the sky.”
I’m just telling myself that all the time. You got to pick yourself up. You got to dust yourself off. You gotta enjoy the life that you’re given because it’s the one that you’re given, and it’s a precious gift, and the longer you spend it wallowing or wishing that you had someone else’s career, comparing and despairing, that’s a waste of precious gift that you’ve been given. I couldn’t allow myself to do that anymore.