Megan Tillman and Chris Beale sit on a wooden bench by a cinderblock wall at the Music Lab rehearsal complex in South Austin. It’s Friday night and they’re happy to be done with their day jobs, but ready to put in work.
Her hair, a mop of neat twists, often tucked tomboy-style under a backward ball cap when she performs, is wound into an impressive knot on top of her head. It adds close to a foot to her petite frame. He’s slightly disheveled, with a scruffy beard and thick glasses that give him the air of an absent-minded scientist. He’s the producer and she’s the rapper. They’re also known as Dougie Do and Megz, the core team behind Magna Carda, the live band hip-hop outfit that burst onto the Austin music scene a few years back as a scrappy gang of golden-era groove enthusiasts. Their debut full-length album, “CirQlation,” drops Feb. 9. It’s an ambitious, but cohesive, platter loaded with smooth segues between moody jazz and blues, wistful neosoul love songs and classic hip-hop party hooks. It also packs the firepower the band needs to ride their slow-burn rise to the next level.
“CirQlation” is loosely nostalgic — the band still revels in a jazzy throwback vibe — but it’s rooted in the present, with hints of trap bravado in Tillman’s rhymes and EDM beats sprinkled along the way. The album title is a meditation on the cyclical nature of life, a theme that carries through to the sound. “It was kind of like a cycle of music and also like a cycle of life,” Tillman says.
Late last spring, the band was in a down swing. All five members found themselves jobless and personally adrift at the same time. Instead of allowing circumstances to drag them down, they threw caution to the wind. Financing themselves with money squirrelled away from local gigs and merch sales, they hit the road on their first cross-country tour.
“We took this long trip to California and we got really close to each other,” Tillman says.
“Twenty-eight hours close,” Beale adds with a laugh.
The trip wasn’t a blockbuster success — for a minute they thought they had $60 to treat themselves to lunch on the final day, then they had to fill up the van — but they broke even and sold out of every copy of their 2014 mixtape “Like It Is.” That’s a solid first run for a fledgling indie act, and with satellite radio providing a soundtrack to their adventures they came back sonically recharged and ready to record.
“We had a lot of musical inspirations, everything from like jazz to trap music,” Tillman says.
They also had time to contemplate the personal journeys that brought them together, stories Tillman weaves together in “The Root,” one of the album’s most introspective and powerful tracks. “This past year’s been kind of like really, a reflection for me, and I thought a lot about my childhood and I was just moved to write,” she says. “I feel like I’ve literally lived both sides.”
Tillman spent her childhood in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, “the hood essentially,” but her family was swept into Texas with a wave of Katrina evacuees in 2005. Her parents, deeply rooted in the city, were reluctant to leave. The family held out until the day before the storm hit. When they finally decided to heed the warnings of newscasters pleading with the population not to underestimate the coming catastrophe, they made it out of the city just a few hours before the highways were closed.
Tillman landed in McKinney, north of Dallas. She was 13, about to enter high school — a difficult age under any circumstances — exacerbated by the sudden uprooting. “Friend slate: zero,” she says with a laugh.
In her first week of school she was missing home, drawing names from her former neighborhood in bubble letters in her notebook. A teacher spied her doodles and mistook them for gang signs. She was sent to the office and suspended. The transition was tough, but Tillman says she believes it was ultimately for the best. In Texas, removed from the trappings of the old neighborhood, her parents were able to provide for the family better than they could have in New Orleans. “I wouldn’t have had this life or nothing close to it I think,” she says. “I would have went down a completely different path if I was still there.”
Beale’s life also wound an unorthodox path. His father’s work in natural gas found his family bouncing around the globe with long stints in London and Perth, Australia, when they weren’t in suburban Houston. Like Tillman, he found the relocations isolating. In typical teenage fashion, he remembers commiserating with his abandoned Texas friends on instant messenger about a move down under. “I was crying every night,” he says, “Thinking about it now, I (was) like two minutes from walking to a beach.”
Nonetheless, when he was accepted into St. Edward’s University, Beale jumped at the chance to return to Texas. Since high school, he had been messing around with beat-making. He used a program called Fruity Loops, and, with a series of internet collabs with artists in New York and London under his belt, he considered himself something of a MySpace kingpin. But when a mutual friend put him together with Tillman, who was also attending the university, the ante was officially upped. “The first song I did with Megz, I was like, ‘This is the best song I’ve ever done in my life,’” he says.
The two began performing as a duo, calling themselves “Megz and Dougie Do.” They booked a gig at Club 512 on Sixth Street on the Wednesday hip-hop night. It was not hopping. After a couple runs performing to roughly five of their friends awkwardly standing around an empty room, Beale wanted to move to a weekend slot to increase the odds of drawing an actual crowd.
The catch? The club only booked bands on weekends. Beale was undeterred. “There were some pretty bad bands that were getting those slots,” he recalls.
So they added bass and guitar to their lineup to join that pool. Later they added drums to become the full-fledged five-piece they play as today.
For Beale, who earned his stripes as a web-based keyboard jockey, the transition to a full band experience involved a steep learning curve. Guitarist Eric Nikolaides taught him chords and he “went to YouTube school” to fill in the rest of the blanks. Soon the band was gigging downtown, occasionally sneaking Tillman, who was still underage, in the back door.
A hip-hop band with a female emcee in a music scene built on the backs of dudes with guitars? It took some time for Magna Carda to find their niche. Initially promoters thought the band wasn’t “rap enough to be at these rap shows,” Beale says, but also out-of-place on an indie rock bill.
“That’s kind of still the case. We still kind of get thrown on random bills,” Tillman says.
But as the band solidified their skills, they grew into an easy draw on their own.
A year or so in, Tillman, who considers herself less a frontwoman and more part of a crew, began to doubt her ability to hold the stage on her own. “Was it boring to watch me the whole time?” she wondered. “But instead of like, adding a person, the guys just kind of encouraged me to work on stage presence and be more on the stage. Be two or three people. Be that entertaining.”
It worked. She’s wickedly witty and fierce, but also warm and charming.
“Everybody Too,” one of the best party jams on the album, issues an open invitation to listeners to gather at their shows. The next opportunity to do so is the album release party Friday at the Belmont
“Bring your girl, bring your drink, bring everybody, too,” Tillman raps. “It don’t matter who you’re with, bring everybody too.”
In between the laid-back calls to join the party, she slips sly bits of wisdom, including this gem: “Think bigger. The mind is only as wide as the picture.”
After the album drops, the band plans to spend a good portion of the year on tour, first in the Pacific Northwest and then over on the East Coast. They also plan to tap friends and family around the state and in New Orleans for more regional jaunts.
The vibe is live and the picture is bright. “Good music, good people, good feelings so we cool,” Tillman raps. Magna Carda sets the scene for the kind of party you want to be at, and “bring everybody too.”
‘CircQlation’ release party
When: Doors at 9 p.m. Friday.
Where: The Belmont, 305 W. Sixth St.
Cost: $8, $12 with album, $20 with album, logo tee and VIP experience.
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Magna Carda
Members: Megan “Megz” Tillman (vocals), Chris “Dougie Do” Beale (keyboards, beats, vocals), Erik “The Greek” Nikolaides (guitar), Derek Van Wagner (bass), Mike Gonzales (drums).
Recordings: “CirQlation” out Feb. 9. “Like It Is” mixtape, 2014. “Van Geaux” mixtape 2014. “Van Geaux” (remix) mixtape 2014. “Show String Theory” mixtape 2013. “Creature Creative” mixtape 2012.
February shows: CirQlation release party, Friday at the Belmont.
Statesman video: Look for a video of Magna Carda performing in our studio next week on austin360.com.