Interview: Jess Morgan
As she starts work on her third album, due next year, we catch up with rising Norfolk-based singer-songwriter Jess Morgan
inger/songwriter Jess Morgan has been rapidly establishing a name for herself since her first album All Swell was released in 2010. Championed by BBC Radio 2’s Steve Lamacq, many of her songs tell tales with a modern spin on traditional ballads.
Accompanied by acoustic guitar, Jess’s style has been likened to that of singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling, but with her own easily distinguishable voice. Songs are peppered with influences from British folk music as well as country and blues from across the Atlantic. She has toured extensively across the UK and established an international fanbase with tours of Norwich, Germany and Holland, and supported bands including the Paper Aeroplanes, First Aid Kit, The Urban Folk Quartet and Teddy Thompson.
2012 saw the release of second album Aye Me, and in March 2013, Jess released her Richer Thinner Smarter EP, a collection of songs recorded live in ‘one-mic, one-take’ fashion at locations close to her home in east Norfolk. The EP showcased four new tracks, along with three new recordings of favourite tracks from Aye Me.
A new full-length album is due out in April 2014.
When did you decide you wanted to become a singer-songwriter?
“I kind of always knew I wanted to make music, I was bass player in bands at school. I was at York St Johns university and there was an open mic night on campus and I went along about five times before I played any music. When I did it seemed to go down so well. I’d never had a reaction to something I’ve done, like that, ever. And so I got into the York scene where everybody was writing songs.
What music were you brought up with?
“My parents brought me up on quite an eclectic mix. They lean towards rhythm & blues and rock. My dad was in a band called Serious Risk when I was growing up and we used to go along and they were pretty good. They did introduce me to the big emotional vocalists like Annie Lennox and Tina Turner, so I had the feeling you could do things with your voice.
“The songwriters I went off and found for myself. Our history teacher teacher played us some Country Joe & The Fish and Bob Dylan. I bought my first Bob Dylan when I was 13. My friends thought I was mad, but kids now are well into it. I was also into Britpop and the kinds of things that were on the radio, like Pulp and the Manic Street Preachers, all writing great lyrics.
You have a poetic approach to songwriting. Did you write poetry as a child?
“No, although I did quite a bit at university as I did an English Literature degree with quite a leaning towards creative writing. I like writing things that are linear. I used to like writing stories at school. I’m fascinated by the small things you can do with language.”
“I write ideas in a book, but I also think in pictures”
What’s your process when writing songs?
“To some extent I catalogue in my head things I want to write about and things that ought to be written about, or places I’ve been. I usually go for music first and the music will lead me to what the song is about, and if I’m very lucky it will be one of the things I’ve catalogued in my head.
“I write ideas in a book, but I also think in pictures and keep these ideas in my mind. I’m quite luckily as I’ve got a good memory for those kind of things.”
What advice do you have for aspiring singer/songwriters?
“I would say you have just got to give it a go – you can’t be afraid of what it’s going to sound like, because you could really be surprised at what will happen. Then do it again. Find a community. I was really lucky as while I was at uni there were musicians on campus and there was a York scene.”
Is it easier now to make a career without a major record label?
“Tricky one… I wouldn’t say I’d always choose to be independent if the right people came along… but whatever it is, it has got to be a good fit. To me I don’t pay any mind to the old model that you need to be signed and you need this, this and this. If somebody can do something for me that I can’t do for myself, then great. But there’s so much you can do for yourself if you’re prepared to work hard and put your hours and your energy into it.”
Tell us about the writing of Richer Thinner Smarter? We loved lines like, “And I wouldn’t bat my eyes, I wouldn’t slip a hand up your thighs/I’d woo you with sweet untruths and desperate lies”
“I was in Bristol, in the Ibis hotel, and I’d just come off a week’s worth of touring with Paper Aeroplane. They’d sold out venues and it was such a privilege touring with them and we’d gone our separate ways and I’d gone off to Bristol for my gig which was a disaster. It was a pretty terrible gig and I was feeling pretty miserable. So I decided I would write something happy. I had a happy chord sequence with C, F, and G.
“The initial premise didn’t really have a lot of thought in it, apart from wanting to write something happy. I some visual ideas that went with it, perhaps someone sitting on their own in a bar and kind of thinking to themselves about someone else and what they would do to win that person over. I had some fun with the words. I like to have something simple with the chords and the melody and then you can be more playful with the words with double meanings and scanning.”
Your song Musket Of My Own has a very traditional feel to it, tell us about that one…
“It was a re-write of the old nursery rhyme Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me? That always struck as a weird one, even as a child. I always felt really bad for the poor girl who gives away all her grandfather’s clothes and then the chap is married, so I thought I’d write her a better ending. Sometimes I like to write a story with beginning, middle and an end. It was one on the album that I felt I’d rushed it, so I went back to it on the new EP.
“I’m definitely influenced by traditional music. I really like Pilgrims Way. I think they have a fun approach to traditional music. I was lucky to see Kan, I love the combination of fiddle and whistle.”
Another key ‘story’ song is The Thompson Family Singers And I from Aye Me…
“That’s another start, middle and end song. That happened to me when I was driving, I do spend a long time in the car. It’s something about living in Norfolk where most places I go to, I drive over the flats and over the Fens and my mind wonders. It’s a true story about my grandfather who was actually abandoned as a baby and people told me they liked that song. I was still concerned with the ideas of families and what it is to be in a family and being related by blood and what it means.I think maybe there was some unfinished business.
The song Connecticut includes the lines: “And big old Gene’s playing blues in a bar downtown/He thinks he’s BB King but he’s more like Comic Store Man”. What’s that about?
“I wrote that when I was in Connecticut. I did 30 gigs in 31 days. It just rained so much, for four days. You get a bit wet and a bit miserable. And the only way was to have an argument. I used the surroundings in a grotty hotel in Manchester, Connecticut.
“I thought, right, you’re going in my song…”
“That night was a blues jam night and there was a man who might have been called Gene. He was very, very condescending to me as a female guitar player, which really gets up my nose, and I thought right, you’re going in my song… and he did look like Comic Store Man in The Simpsons!”
Another song on your new EP is Missionary, what inspired you to write that one?
“I spent some time in Kenya and with a friend called James. We did a lot of travelling around, and we met a lot of missionaries. I suppose the essential story is about a missionary – various things happen to him and his home to potentially make him lose faith but ultimately they don’t.
“Whether you agree with what he does or not I’m always amazed by people who are so robust. They have something to live for. They endure.”
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
“My new album, I’m making it at the moment. Hoping it will be done by Christmas with a release in April next year. All the songs are linked by a sense of place. Rooted in places. That’s the thread that runs through… to the degree that I’ve chucked songs out that don’t fit.
To find out more about Jess Morgan, visit her website. Below, you can watch the video to Richer Thinner Smarter