Songwriting spends time with one of 2015’s rising stars and finds an artist who just wants to keep moving forwards
uring 2011, Rae Morris went from a little known songwriter playing gigs in her hometown of Blackpool, to the BBC Introducing stage at the Reading and Leeds Festivals and became the target of a record label bidding war. Having chosen Atlantic, because the label “would take it slow” and “didn’t blow any smoke up my arse”, Morris released her Skins-featured debut single Don’t Go later that year. Between 2012 and 2014 she then released an impressive six EPs, but no album. That was until January of this year.
Unguarded came out to widespread acclaim, including from our own review, and served to confirm what her inclusion on the long list of the BBC’s Sound Of 2015 had claimed: Rae Morris is a songwriter of enormous promise and looks set to be one of the most recognisable artists of 2015.
We caught up with Rae in the midst of her first, sell-out, headline tour and talked performing, writing and how her piano dictates the tone of her songs…
How has the tour been?
“Everything’s going wonderfully. It’s kind of at that point now where I need to drink more lemon and honey, but that’s fine and normal… I think! It’s the most exciting tour that I’ve ever done, which is probably because it’s the album tour and also the first tour that sold out.”
Have there been specific songwriting tips you’ve taken from any of the artists you’ve toured with?
“When I did the collaboration with Bombay Bicycle Club on Luna I was quite taken aback by it. He [Jack Steadman, Bombay Bicycle Club lead vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter] had written this melody and needed someone to sing it for him, and I guess I’d never heard myself sing in that way, or tried to. It really showed me that I could do something like that, which made me think that maybe my record needed a song on there that could show that vocal range. With songwriting, Jack is a huge inspiration. Everything he writes he’s able to make sound so unique and so personal.”
I’M EXPLORING WRITING STRAIGHT INTO LOGIC AND THINKING ABOUT THE PRODUCTION AT THE SAME TIME Do you have a particular way that you write songs?
“Being on tour I find it quite difficult to write, which is probably because I’m just getting used to it and haven’t been on a tour long enough yet to find a rhythm. Hopefully though, the more I do it the more I’ll get used to it and I’ll find time. I do prefer though to have a bit of separation and to be in a peaceful home setting when I’m writing. That’s how I wrote my first songs in Blackpool. I also like to be able to pop into the house and get a cup of tea, then go back and start again and just have that space to breathe. At the moment I’m exploring writing straight into Logic and thinking about the production at the same time, whereas before I was writing on the piano and it was just about the raw acoustic track.”
So initially you would have heard the bare bones of the song and now you hear them more fully formed?
“Yeah, I guess before I just didn’t know what I could add to the ideas, that I could add a beat or a cool synthy part. But, after being in the studio so much, working on the album production, now I think about that at the start of my writing, which changes how a song is formed I guess.”
Did your producer on Unguarded have an impact on that side of things?
“Yeah, I worked with a couple of people, but Ariel Rechtshaid, who I made most of the album with, was really influential. I didn’t write anything with him, and the album was all based on songs that I already had, but we definitely turned some of the songs into what they became. When I was in America with him, it was all about finding the right musicians in the right studio space, recording each song in its rawest form and then giving it what it needed to be able to live as the song that it should be.”
Do you think it’s useful to have another perspective when you’re writing?
“In the very beginning I wouldn’t let anyone else get involved and was so protective of my little idea that was going to take over the world! But it was mostly a confidence thing – I didn’t know whether it was any good and that’s why I’d finish a song before I played it to anyone. Now I have ideas and still have no idea whether it sounds special, so having another person’s ear is helpful. As the process developed, I would take ideas to people like Fryars, and we’d draw ideas together. Creatively, it’s really helpful to have someone else’s opinion and for them to say ‘yeah keep going with that.’”
Lyrics though are kept strictly to yourself?
“On lyrics I will take people’s advice. I think it’s important to have someone you trust who can say ‘maybe that’s too wordy.’ I have written songs with other people – Closer I wrote with a guy called Tom Hull and that was very much a song that we wrote together and he has an equal share of the writing. That scared me because I was thinking maybe I didn’t do enough, but then I realised that the song wouldn’t have been written if we hadn’t done it in that way.”
What moods inspire your writing? You’ve said before that being melancholic inspires you, but do other states come into play?
“It’s not always being sad. I really like peaceful moments, like on a Sunday afternoon when it’s just calm and there’s not really anything going on. To be sat at the piano and playing is kind of my dream state. I don’t really write the content of what the song’s going to be about at the start – I always write the music first. So it’s almost like it’s what the piano comes back with that dictates what kind of mood the song is going to be.”
So you wouldn’t sit down at the piano and have a melody in your head – you would allow the melody to come to you?
I DESPERATELY WANT TO KEEP PLAYING BIGGER GIGS “Very rarely have I sat down at the piano with an idea. Only a couple of times and they’ve usually not been very good! Normally I’ll just sit and play melodies and come up with a chord pattern that feels good and that feels like me. I just wait until I know which way I like to voice things and then I’ll sing around that.”
Do you have performing in mind when you write?
“I wrote a song called Love Again, which is my most euphoric moment in the set and the album. There’s a very important piano piece in it, but live my keyboard player Curtis plays it, and I just stand up and have a moment of elevation. So I did calculate those things with having the song played live and what it could be to do so.”
You’ve said that Unguarded is a ‘coming of age’ album. Is that still accurate?
“Yeah, I wanted to take time over writing my first album, because there were a lot of people involved when I was getting signed and a lot of opinions. A lot of people were very quick to say what I should be and who I should be, but I didn’t even know for myself. So I was very keen to just keep gigging because that was what I knew best and what I loved. As that happened, I started to realise that the songs were documenting that time, that journey into myself and who I was trying to find on the way.”
Do you have a journey for your music mapped out in your head – can you see the direction that you’re going to go in?
“I don’t see that next point yet, and I think that’s good because there are so many possibilities and so many options. It doesn’t scare me. I’m not afraid of it yet because I have a bit of time to explore and decide which way I want to go. But I do feel like a real comfort in the fact that this first album’s there and that it will always be there, and if I go off in another direction then there’s still this thing there as a reference point. I definitely have huge ambitions of playing live, and for me it’s about writing songs that will translate in a bigger context and that excites me. I desperately want to keep playing bigger gigs and keep moving forwards.”
Interview: Damien Girling
Unguarded is out now and Rae Morris is currently touring throughout Europe.