California is burning. When Meg Duffy, the L.A.-based musician who records as Hand Habits, was writing songs for their sophomore album placeholder, record-breaking wildfires were ripping across the state—the Mendocino Complex, Woolsey, and Camp fires of 2018 were the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history. “I remember walking around with a cup of coffee and seeing ashes fall into my coffee,” they told Flood Magazine. “I had never been so aware of the environment.” Thanks to climate change, California’s fire season is now year-round, a “new normal” that, as David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, is a kind of illusion; it is “the end of normal; never normal again.”
In a note for the wildfire covers EP, Duffy writes that, between gas-guzzling vans, intercontinental airplane rides, and end-of-night Solo cup clean-up, being a touring musician is “often not the most environmentally conscious career.” In search of some helping hands, Duffy enlisted fellow musicians like Angel Olsen and Tara Jane O’Neil to put their own spins on the title track and has partnered with Bandcamp and Saddle Creek, with all proceeds from the EP going to the Amazon Conservation Organization.
Hand Habits’ original track is a piece of simmering Americana. Duffy’s singing—“California / Only one who knows / How to burn without desire”—is enveloped in the heat-haze of Brad Cook’s production. The track’s basic elements, from the dirge-like pacing to the isolated and lonely voice, remain on every cover, but are transformed with jaunty lounge piano flair on one track and overwhelming digital distortion on another.
Angel Olsen isolates a rear-view sadness with just her voice and pedaled piano chords, while Kacey Johansing channels the song’s romantic notes into dreamy ’60s country. There is something clarifying in hearing the same themes inhabited by so many different voices, lending a certain particularity to Duffy’s purposefully-vague lyrics. But no matter the dressing, the song’s drama remains the same, and no matter how many times the singer refuses to tell us “where it all ends up,” their end feels pre-determined: in “wildfire / wildfire.”