Meg and Dia Frampton's 2000s output went under-appreciated in a male-dominated rock scene; now they're back, bolder and wiser than before.
The stage fright certainly isn't for lack of experience: as a contestant on The Voice in 2011, the NBC staple's debut season, she impressed superstar judges Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera alongside over 10 million viewers, finishing as the first runner-up. Eight years later, staring at a sprawling Warped Tour audience in late June alongside her sister Meg on guitar, the younger Frampton is nothing if not battle-tested. But as she looks out upon the sun-kissed Jersey Shore crowd in the early summer heat, old fears bubble to the surface. She takes out a pen and writes the following words on her set list: "This isn't going to kill you."
And it doesn't: To rapturous applause, Meg & Dia deliver familiar mid-2000s tracks like "Monster" and "Roses" -- songs that had them on the brink of stardom, at a time when several of their Warped Tour peers soared to gold-certified albums and Grammy nominations. Yet Meg & Dia have been largely inactive for most of this decade. A posse of old diehards among the masses, there to see headliners like Blink-182, are also thrilled to see the sisters reunited.
Those pressure-packed Voice performances drained Dia's onstage exuberance over most of the past decade. "For years after The Voice, I had a really hard time performing," says Dia. "Perfectionism took over my life." Even worse, her newfound solo career ravaged her relationship with her older sister, once her closest confidante in an unforgiving industry. "It was like having my identity and my best friend taken away at the same time," says the elder Frampton, now willing to criticize the way she reacted to Dia's ascent.
For years, the sisters didn't speak. "I had tied up all my self-worth in being famous, having money, and being a rock star," says Meg. "I felt really jealous, thinking my sister was gonna be rich and famous, and I'd have nothing left."
The Utah natives admit the Jersey show wasn't their sharpest, but their Warped gigs this summer proved a vital step forward for the reformed band. Today (July 26) marks the surprise release of Happysad, their fourth studio album and first since Dia auditioned for The Voice eight years ago. Fans might have figured they were up to something after the recent shows (they also played in Cleveland in early June and Mountain View, Calif. last weekend), but Happysad was recorded in complete secret. A pact with Pure Noise Records -- home to pop-punk staples like State Champs and Senses Fail -- and a fall headlining tour were unannounced until today.
It didn't come easy. Dia traded in her solo career to rekindle the band; Meg put her musician-for-hire work on the backburner and sold her share in a successful Salt Lake City coffee shop she'd co-founded after the split. "We'd been separate for so long, it was nice to get everything together without the public eye on us," Dia says. "We got to figure out what we wanted to say to the world, which we never really knew before."
Although they were raised alongside four other sisters, Meg and Dia grew up with a special closeness. Draper, Utah, about 30 minutes outside of Salt Lake City, wasn't the ideal launching pad for musicians in the pre-social media days, but their parents -- a British father and Korean mother -- bought them instruments for the holidays and shared their extensive record collection. With Dia the natural singer and Meg the whiz guitarist, the songwriting pair formed its first band when they were just 16 and 14, respectively, and soon rebranded to Meg & Dia in 2004.
As the band filled out with a trio of touring members (guitarist Carlo Gimenez and bassist Jonathan Snyder still play with them), the Frampton sisters wrote punchy rock songs, combining Hot Topic power chords and coffee-shop strumming, often inspired by literature most fellow high schoolers could relate to (the lyrics of their vicious single "Monster" were written as a direct response to East of Eden). Helped by fledgling online resources like MySpace and Purevolume, they linked up with KMGMT's Mike Kaminsky, who manages them to this day, and signed with the indie label Doghouse Records, who'd recently helped launch the All-American Rejects to stardom.
Expectations were high with the release of their debut LP, Something Real, in 2006. "I immediately looked up top albums that week, because I was certain ours album would be there," Dia remembers (the album peaked, modestly, at No. 12 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart). "That's just the mind of a 17-year old, excited girl. It felt surreal and every show was exciting. We just felt we are building to something bigger than ourselves."
They toured with bands like Say Anything and Angels & Airwaves. They played Warped Tour stages sponsored by MySpace and Hurley. They got nominated for an MTVU Woodie Award. Warner Bros. Records picked them up and released 2009's follow-up Here, Here and Here -- brash with newfound pop grooves and disco-rock influences -- but dropped them a year later after the album failed to meet commercial expectations. 2011's self-released LP Cocoon was greeted with crickets. Shortly after, management suggested Dia try out for a then-unknown singing competition show, figuring the label-less band could use some traction.
"I was not expecting to go far on The Voice at all," Dia remembers. "I didn't think I'd get signed to Universal, I didn't think I'd make it to the battle rounds, I didn't even think I'd make it into the blind auditions." Voice coach Blake Shelton -- "He's just as cool as he seems on TV," Dia assures -- picked her for his team on the show, where she was pitted against a field of singers with credentials and brushes with fame comparable to hers. Masterful performances of hand-picked covers like R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" and Kanye West's "Heartless" made waves. After two grueling months, Shelton's guidance and the support of The Voice viewers -- most of which were unfamiliar with her band -- catapulted Dia to all the way to second place in the season finale. "I was like a deer in the headlights the whole time," she recalls.
The Voice convinced Universal to bankroll Red, a Hot AC-friendly album released later that year, with features from Shelton... and Kid Cudi ("I don’t know if this is true or not," Dia says, "but I heard his mom was a fan of me on The Voice, and Universal reached out to him"). But since the Voice audience was largely unfamiliar with Meg & Dia, Universal insisted Red be a solo effort. Dia invited her sister to writing sessions (she's credited with backing vocals on the LP) and to join her band for a tour opening for Shelton, but tension abounded.
"It was like being a couple that had just got separated and knew a divorce was looming on the horizon," Meg remembers. "But you pretended for the sake of the kids that things were fine."
Life wasn't easy for Dia, either. Post-Voice performance anxiety led her to consult a psychotherapist and even consider beta blockers to help manage her pre-show nerves. She stresses the actual people behind the show -- its crew, celebrity judges, especially Shelton -- were kind and supportive, yet the cutthroat nature of online commentators, and the competition itself, left her shaken. "If it was season two of The Voice, and I saw what it was, I never in a million years would have auditioned."
Relegated to backing-band duties on the Blake Shelton tour, Meg found herself seething. On the trek's final day, she stormed out of Dia's band. Meg & Dia quietly disbanded, too. "We just didn't speak," Dia remembers. "It was years like that."
Despite a bit of post-Voice hype, Red failed to make a major impact, and Dia was eventually dropped by Universal. While she continued as an indie artist in subsequent years, she parlayed her on-screen experience into TV acting roles; she also graduated from Upright Citizens Brigade's improv program in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Meg worked as a live guitarist for artists like Hilary Duff and Kate Nash. With former Meg & Dia drummer Nick Price, she co-founded Three Pines Coffee, a Salt Lake City coffee shop that turned out to be quite profitable.
Both sisters were doing relatively fine, but feared they were drifting through their thirties -- and knew they were missing the fulfillment of the Meg & Dia days. Aside from briefly acknowledging each other on Christmases with the family, they remained total strangers. "I was feeling bored, apathetic, and probably depressed," Meg remembers. "I remember talking to a friend," Dia says, "'I'm afraid I'm never gonna be friends with my sister again.'"
Finally, Dia started calling up Meg to shoot the breeze about work, boyfriends, the weather. Meg's intuition kicked in. "I started having these small visualizations every night before I went to sleep, imagining playing a big festival show with her, just having so much fun," she remembers. "After I did that for seven days, on the eighth day, she called me: 'Hey can I ask you something?' I could tell she was nervous. 'Would you want to start Meg & Dia up again?' Immediately I said, 'Hell yes, I'm so ready for that.'"
Meg's spirituality -- during their time apart, she took part in silent retreats and dabbled in psychedelic drugs -- immerses the new album's lead track, "American Spirit," an airy examination of the self-help circuit and modern existentialism (sample lyric: "My books say I'm a badass for just $12.99"). As a whole, Happysad finds Meg & Dia (now 34 and 31, respectively) examining their emotions and relationships through a lens far more informed than anything on their previous run.
The music's grown, too. Electric or acoustic, Meg & Dia's old records had been heavily guitar-based; now, guitar is just one of many accents in their pastel-coated synth-pop songs. "Koala," the album's standout, packs the giddy energy of a Carly Rae Jepsen cut; Dia sings, "I say I'm a wreck, I'm a mess / You say come here my koala, let me hold you like I oughta."
The Framptons are more self-assured in choosing their collaborators now, too. For their newfound pop direction on Happysad, Dia heaps praise on Seth Jones, who co-wrote, produced, and mixed much of the album: "When you have a very small budget, the people you get are usually there because they believe in you."
During their major label days, Meg & Dia often felt overwhelmed, and sometimes uncomfortable, in writing rooms dominated by industry veterans. "There was one producer who always had to tap out the tempo on my leg, which was really weird," Dia remembers. "He's like -- 'Do you want the song this fast? Do you want it this slow?' -- just tapping it on my leg. It made me feel weird, but he was a really big producer so I thought it was okay." This thankfully never escalated, but it left an impact. "If a situation like that happened again," she says, "I would just say, 'I don’t like you touching me; this makes me feel uncomfortable; this session is over.'"
Both sisters see the band as their core commitment going forward, even if it means facing the insecurities of an inequitable industry. In between gigs, Dia works as a waitress in Los Angeles, where she's learned to brush aside fears of potential collaborators walking through the door and seeing her in a far less-glamorous job. "Sometimes a male producer might say, 'How is it being a touring musician in your 30s? Is that really hard for you?' I just don’t think they’d ask that same question to a man," she says.
Meg has noticed similar double-standards: "There's definitely that perception that once you get older you have a hard time competing with people, with younger women. You hear it all the time: Billie Eilish is 17 and she's starting out! I'm 34. In Utah you [are expected to] be married, have a house, and a few kids. I haven't hit any of those milestones."
Reunited as bandmates and as sisters, the Framptons make it clear that, deep down, none of those expectations matter compared to their own journey: a triumphant new album to promote, plenty of looming tour dates, performances that most definitely won't kill them. "We’re more comfortable with competition and trusting our own opinions over other peoples'," Meg says. "And we’re more grateful. We know that the band can break up. We know one of us can leave if it’s not working. We both really want to be here."