"Hold on a minute. My dog's trying to kill a squirrel," Megan Hickey says on the phone from her Brooklyn apartment where she's talking about the luscious dichotomy of the lap steel guitar - or, more specifically, the way she plays the instrument - a bewitching amalgam of earthbound heartache and otherworldly grandeur.
Last year Hickey, who performs as the lone permanent member of the Last Town Chorus, released a stunner of a sophomore album called "Wire Waltz" that has catapulted the 33-year-old singer-songwriter into a late-blooming limelight.
But right now, Hickey is distracted with a more immediate matter: summoning her dog, Sailor, from terrorizing said squirrel outside her door. She promises him a dog treat and the strategy pays off, although the reward is not nearly as lasting as the slowly unfurling splendor of "Wire Waltz," which features a cameo by Sailor (barking, presumably, at another squirrel) on the song "Caroline." Although the lap steel guitar shares a storied history with country and blues, the long, rolling ribbons of notes the instrument makes in Hickey's hands have struck audiences as something slightly strange, and especially entrancing.
"I think the sound of the lap steel, when I put it through different effects, has an otherworldly, transcendent sound to it, and people hook into it emotionally," says Hickey, who'll bring a version of the Last Town Chorus (she wasn't sure of the lineup configuration) to the Lizard Lounge tonight. "It doesn't sound like a lot of other things. I make the music push my spirit toward some weird corners of consciousness, and it's something people have an instinctive reaction to. The music takes me to some deeper place than I'm capable of getting to otherwise. But it's accessible."
Indeed, "Wire Waltz" is, at times, steeped in the radio-friendly sounds of '80s pop and '90s alternative music. Hickey offers a majestically forlorn update of David Bowie's "Modern Love," for instance, that transforms the dance-floor bauble into a luxuriously elongated sigh of resignation. Her voice, all clouded confection, stretches the vowels over the verses as slowly as her fingers slide across the lap steel. Elsewhere, nestled plushly inside the beautiful bummer "It's Not Over" is a swirling guitar hook from another epically heartbroken, slightly better known ballad: Prince's "Purple Rain." She laughs at this bit of sonic trainspotting. She didn't know her fixation was that obvious.
"I think you're the only person that's ever caught that," Hickey says. "What I love about that sort of dreamy '80s and '90s pop and new wave stuff is that it was so unabashedly dripping with feeling and affect. I also listen to a lot of mainstream country music and love that it was created with the intention of having a lot of people relate to it. It's so unapologetic in that way. I wanted to marry those two things - good concrete songs and harmonies and sonic textures that put people in a different head space."
It's clearly working. Hickey says rarely a day goes by when someone does not e-mail her or come up to her after a show. "They tell you these stories about how the music is wound into the fabric of their life, and that totally blows my mind and makes me feel like the album was a success," she says. "When that happens, you know you're on the right mission."
Her mission didn't start as something nearly so focused and driven. Hickey, who grew up in Pittsburgh before moving to Brooklyn, was like most other teenagers who loved music and felt secretive about what she thought were private obsessions: the Smiths, Sundays, Cocteau Twins, and the Pennsylvania chamber-pop outfit the Innocence Mission. "Huntsville, 1989," a standout track that she calls "painfully autobiographical," offers a fond memoir of these nascent discoveries. Eventually, she learned some bass guitar but didn't pick up a lap steel until she was about 27 years old. She had never even seen one.
"No, I didn't know anything about it," she says. "One day I just sat down with one out of curiosity and plugged it into these delay effects. That sound was eerie because it was the essence of what I had imagined - something dreamy but also something that felt very real. And when I heard it, that was absolutely it. It was probably how the Reese's people felt when they put chocolate and peanut butter together."
BITS & PIECES Tomorrow: Rhett Miller headlines the Paradise Rock Club. Jonathan Kane's February is at Church. Shaun & Suzi's 15th annual Mardi Gras ball commences at T.T. the Bear's. Scamper plays its final show at the Middle East Downstairs. The Curses are at the Abbey Lounge. Nate Gibson and the Gashouse Gang are at the Plough & Stars. Tuesday: School for Robots top a "Zombi Gras" show upstairs at the Middle East. Madi Diaz is at Great Scott. Session Americana continues its residency at the Lizard Lounge. A Fat Tuesday benefit for "Common Ground Relief" with Ryan Montbleau, the Sam Kininger Band, Peter Prince, and the Johnny Trama Unit gets underway at the Paradise Rock Club. Thursday: Cat Power headlines the Orpheum. Gene Loves Jezebel, featuring Jay Aston, is at the Middle East Upstairs. Territories (members of the Prime Movers and World's Greatest Sinners) are at Church. All These Kings host a CD-release show at Great Scott.