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Sarah-Jane Morris - "I write my life into song"

One year ago she was touring with Sting's guitarist Dominic Miller-just the two of them-and played some extraordinary concerts by chosing a repertoire that fitted perfectly into this intimate atmosphere with just acoustic guitar and voice. In the 80's Sarah-Jane Morris was the singer of the "Communards", an engagement which made her famous. In the years that followed she positioned herself as a very political singer-songwriter. After a period of withdrawal to the country-side, she is back in London now-and also back to political and social engagement.

Sarah-Jane Morris

The songs on her album "Migratory Birds" (together with Marc Ribot) give an impression what is relevant for her presently. And will be in the future—it is not even conceivable that this woman with her wonderful deep voice and abundance of experience at hand might ever stop her musical journey...

Carina Prange talked to Sarah-Jane Morris for Jazzdimensions

Carina: How would you describe your musical cosmos at the moment? What's going on, what are you aiming for?

Sarah-Jane: What I am aiming for? Well, I mean, I find, that every new album I do, I somehow reinvent myself for the moment. And I become whatever it is that I am with the groove of musicians that I am writing with at the time or performing with. In the moment I am very fortunate that my band is Dominic Miller (because Sting is on tour with The Police), Tony Remy (because Annie Lennox isn't gigging)—and Henry Thomas and Martyn Barker who I have been playing with for many years.

So it is a really interesting combination. Everybody is connected from years ago. Martin was in a band with Dominic years ago. I know Dominic from years ago, who was in a band with Tony Remy years ago. Henry Thomas was in a band with Tony Remy—so we are all linked. But this is the first time we have played together as a group. And we have been writing. I have been writing with both Dominic and mainly with Martin, who is my main character.

But I am also becoming politicized again. I went into a role of becoming mother and my politics become rising in my son. Now he is about to turn thirteen and I find myself suddenly looking at the world in a discontent way again. And I am putting it into the words of my songs.

I mean, tonight for instance, we are doing a couple of songs. One is about refugees: the idea is… are we looking for a promised land, that doesn't exist? And about the world's attitude to refugees. One is about the Burma-crisis, called "We still have a world to win". Yet another one is about Kenny Richey who is just been released from death row after 21 years of being innocent. This is a ballad written for him. I feel really good that I am managing to tap into social issues as well as writing from my life-experience and what I watch around me.

Sarah-Jane Morris

Carina: You mentioned working with Dominic Miller. What's special about the working-relationship between you?

Sarah-Jane: We are born on the same day. We have the same birthday.

Carina: Which is?

Sarah-Jane: 21st of March, the first day of spring. I think, we have a similar kind of background. But I have known Dominic for years and years, just never had the chance to work with him. And I just think we are at a similar point of our musical life, where it's perfect, that we combine. He needed to go off and explore music outside of Sting. And he will obviously return.

And I really wanted to work with particular guitarists, that really know how to accompany. Dominic knows how to accompany, he is the perfect accompanist! And his roots is in classical as well as jazz and rock and soul—every place I need to go to musically! So it just naturally happens.

The songs that he and I have written had only ever been done in five to ten minutes in hotel rooms. But we utilize our time well. And I think, a lot of that comes when you are both parents. You learn how to use that very precious time, because you really rarely get that down time. So you just home in and you do quick stuff, that takes other people weeks to do, because you have no choice: That's all the time you have. He is also such a busy guitarist—you grab your time and use it.

But I mean, fundamentally we are friends and I think, we understand each other and like each other. And that's at our age a terribly important factor of making music, that you actually like each other's company as well. You are not just writing and recording together. You are travelling. You are having to have many conversations. And so you need stimulating conversation and you need your minds to be working along similar paths sometimes.

Sarah-Jane Morris - "Migratory Birds"

Carina: You also mentioned some new albums…

Sarah-Jane: Well, I have got several albums in the pot. One is my second album with Marc Ribot, called "Migratory Birds". It's the follow-on from "August". That will be a spring release. And I will be promoting that both with Marc and with Dominic at different times. So I am very pleased about that. The artwork is by my brother Rod; it's color photographs and following the theme. Marc and I will do another album together, which will probably be released the year later. So it follows this one.

But in the meantime we are going to be recording the new album, that Dominic and me and myself and Martin have written in March as well. So it will be recorded partly in France and partly in England. And we will do it live, we are at the "Blue Note" for three nights in Milano, next week, which is an 800 seats venue, it's a great sound system. So we are recording all three shows.

And something might come from that, but at least we are trying all the fourteen new songs, that we will then go and record. So that will probably get a "later in the year" release. Will it be on my label? Possibly, possibly not. We are talking to a few labels at the moment. It might be bigger than what I am capable of.

It depends on what it sounds in the end of it. Because it's rockier and I suppose that is the element, the combination of Tony and Dominic together—making it rockier. It might end up by being a bigger project than my little label can handle. So I can't answer that truthfully yet.

Sarah-Jane Morris

Carina: Will there be a tour with both of the new albums?

Sarah-Jane: Yes, there will. For both. I think, both will overlap, because we are still trying always new material for the next album. So I think, when I get booked with the band, it will be the next new album. An when it's just Dominic and myself, it will be a mixture of the two. So there are many, many concerts.

Carina: Do you regard yourself more as a singer or a singer-songwriter? Or as a musician?

Sarah-Jane: I think, it has changed over the years. When I started, I was a singer. I have become a singer-songwriter. But I have just, at my old age now, I have just for the first time started to study music! I have no musical training at all. And I had been offered a part in an opera, to go to the Met in New York. But I couldn't do it, because I didn't read!

So I have now started to do the theory of music and to learn the piano in a straightforward way. So I am becoming a musician. So all of these three things tie in. Singer turned into a singer-songwriter, becoming musician. (laughs)

Carina: A long journey!

Sarah-Jane: Ja.

Sarah-Jane Morris

Carina: How far is the bandwidth of singing related to one's own experiences in life?

Sarah-Jane: Totally! It is my language on life. I am very fortunate I have been able to start to write songs. I find it very healing and therapeutic, because I write my life into song. Or I write the lives of others around me. I weave it into my own life. So for me, it's vital. It's all entangled.

Carina: Can a very young person sing with the same deep expression as a mature one?

Sarah-Jane: No, I don't think so. Maybe some people are born with a knowledge, that they don't know about and somehow have a connection. But it's so rare that you see this. I have seen many industry-sort of weird-young singers lately, which have everything from the good looks to the good voice to the good songs put together. But there are very few that I believe, because very few of them are writing about the age that they are.

The reason I believe Amy Winehouse is because they are so very definitely her lyrics about her life. The reason I believe Kate Nash, because they are the lyrics that a six-former teenager would write; it's believable. The reason I don't believe Joss Stone is because she is singing songs about being at least thirty and she has only just turned twenty.

It's not that she hasn't the most fantastic voice and doesn't look beautiful. But I personally don't believe her. I am waiting though she has lived it. I had the same problem with Norah Jones, when she came out. I didn't believe her. I thought she had all of the qualities. But she wasn't… It didn't move me in the right way!

I need to engage with somebody for a raw gut-thing. There are certain people that do it for me and certain… It is obviously a very personal thing. But I believe that you need to sing about your life. You need to sing about someone that you have actually experienced or understand because you have watched it.

Carina: Joan Armatrading told me about her approach of writing lyrics: "Well, the songs are always written from observation, I am always looking around to see what's happening to different people around me. And how people are treating each other. Things like that. So I definitely write about what I see."
Is your own approach comparable to that? Or do you have other ways to find ideas for lyrics and songs?

Sarah-Jane: I have other ways, too. But I tend, the way I write is I write a poem. I start from a poem and then I strip the poem down. And I find different lines that suggest possibly a chorus and I start to tear it to pieces, this poem. However, some of my better songs have been a complete poem. And all I have done is put a gap within the lines! So some songs are as quick as ten minutes from start to finish and others are crafted over a long period of time.

But I think, I draw very definitely from my own experience and from that what I see around me. It's a mixture of the two on the whole. Unless it's a real love song. Then it's purely from my own experience… or heart break. So I bear my soul through my music. Sometimes it is a dangerous thing to do.

Sarah-Jane Morris

Carina: You told me in the interview we did some years ago—five years now—, that when you go on stage you "…travel somewhere else… floating over to a dangerous place." Is this still the same?

Sarah-Jane: No, the same thing applies! I dive over a cliff and my toenails hang on! (laughs) And luckily they are quite strong and maybe my leg-muscle is strong and I find a way of getting back before the end of the song. But I allow myself the release and the danger in-between.

Carina: Is music in general all about experimenting and searching for new ideas and new challenges?

Sarah-Jane: I think it is. I think it is a constant journey of challenges. And what is fantastic about performing live, there is nothing save about it. Not in the way that I do it, or that Dominic does it. I mean, this is just acoustic guitar and voice! Very little ever rehearsed. I mean, the soundcheck is all you ever get as a rehearsal.

For instance I'd introduce Dominic to some lyrics I had written about Kenny Richey, who had just been released. And I started singing to him on stage and he has to come up with some kind of groove. Something that will eventually turn into a completed song, but that night will be the first time we ever do it, not knowing what it is.

So, yes, I believe in experimentation and being save enough with what your part should be and be brave enough to risk that those people you have chosen to be around you… you know, you allow them to do the same, to put in their bit. It's a risk.

Carina: You started your career with songs of Brecht and Weill. Is the connection between music and a political message still important for you? You said something about that…

Sarah-Jane: Yes, now it is! Like I said before, there came quite a long period of disillusionment, because I voted in the Labour Party. The hell of… I wrote the campaign music for Kenning's election. I got very heavily involved! And then like so many governments right across Europe, it didn't come quite in the package that one imagines. And in fact it was just a male version of what one had before, really. (laughs)

So I got very disillusioned with politics. And I took a back step, moved to the country and wrote about love and raising a child. And now, yes now, my eyes are open! I signed my name on many petitions and I march. But I think, there aren't enough musicians at the moment, that are daring to open their mouth and say: "I don't agree!"

There are very few people who commented through song on the Iraq war, the invasion. It just seems there is a real safety-happening at the moment. I think, a lot of it has to do with the fact, that the industry are changing. People are scared of rocking the boat.

But thank God, my management is also the same management as Billy Bragg's. He still is definitely out there doing the same thing that he was doing before, which is: writing those songs and singing them. And most powerfully, when it's just guitar and voice. I would like to encourage the youth to put pen to paper and start to challenge the system again. Because I think it needs challenging. Every country I go to nobody has got the right formula. We all have politics in the middle. It's nothing extremely right or left anymore. It's all a big wash of the same.

Carina: Can a message change something in the mind of the listener? And wouldn't that result in kind on an obligation on the side of the artist?

Sarah-Jane: Yeah. You become a preacher almost. You have a power. I was particularly aware of this, just before Christmas. I did a tour of churches in Italy. With piano. And I very carefully thought about each song that I did, because it was festive season, but it was also a church. I am very much into spirituality, but I am not necessarily religious. I challenge that quite a lot…

And so I very definitely thought of what it was that I was saying. I was very aware that all of these people watching. There were often about thousand people a time. I had even more power up there, near the altar, singing these songs. They wanted to believe me even more, because they were in a church. That was a very scary feeling! And it makes you realize quite how you have to think about what comes out of your mouth. It made me think about it even more.

Because I often don't think! I speak on stage often what comes to me. But I realized the power in church. And I can understand why people get very carried away. You see these longing faces, wanting to believe you, wanting you to come up with the answer. And that's scary, too.

That there aren't more people that would challenge the system, that goes back to what we were saying before. The youth needs to be more challenged and challenging, and saying: "No, I don't agree with that! Why isn't it like this?" Questioning.—So, yes, I think you have a lot of responsibility as the person that's up there on the stage singing.

Sarah-Jane Morris

Carina: One question, that does not fit to the others before: How deeply do you feel related to Ireland? What is it that you love most about Irish culture?

Sarah-Jane: I love the contradictions of Irish culture. I think, that's another reason why I love Italy, which is very similar. Many contradictions. I love the friendliness of the Irish. They have the time of day for people! Which is something that a lot of English people don't have. Obviously I was raised in England, but I have Irish blood. My husband is also part-Irish. I think, we probably find it easier to talk to people because the way we are raised.

And it's incredibly beautiful, Ireland. And what is great is: now the industry is changing. And fewer young Irish people have to leave the country and go and make their fortune. There is far more chances for them, because the major cities are thriving. They are able to find work, so fewer people are leaving for the other shores and are staying and raising their families there. I'd love to live there one day. But I think you need to have a lot of money to move to Ireland. I look very Irish, but I feel a real Celt, because I have Scottish blood, too —and Welsh—, so I am that real combination!

But yeah, I love England. And I particularly love London. Because you are in such a mix, so many cultures there! And everything is possible in London. It might be the most expensive city in the world to live in. But somehow everything is possible.

Carina Prange

CD: Sarah-Jane Morris - "Migratory Birds"
(Fallen Angel FALLEN009)

Sarah-Jane Morris im Internet: www.sarahjanemorris.com

Fotos: Pressefotos

© jazzdimensions 2009
erschienen: 21.3.2009
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