Music Interview! Sarah Jane Morris: A musical journey of soul and inspiration

From iconic collaborations to The Sisterhood Project, here’s my intimate conversation with soulful singer-songwriter Sarah Jane Morris. Catch her at Cadogan Hall on Friday 6 October 2023, 19:30. Tickets from here.

Sarah Jane Morris image

Your musical journey spans several decades and includes collaborations with various bands. Can you share some of the most memorable moments or experiences that have shaped your career as a singer-songwriter?

Sarah Jane Morris (SJM): Over Christmas and New Year ’85/’86, Jimmy Somerville, Richard Cole and I were recording in New York. On New Year’s Eve, I found myself at 7th Ave. South, then NYC’s most famous jazz club. As a new singer in town, I was invited on stage to join the band for a short set. It was only afterwards that I discovered that Jaco Pastorius, Steve Gadd, Hiram Bullock, and Mike Brecker were some of the most celebrated jazzmen in the world. Another cherished experience was duetting “Many Rivers to Cross” with Gil Scott Heron at Brixton Academy for Artists Against Apartheid in 1987.

Sarah Jane Morris

“Don’t Leave Me This Way” became a global hit in 1986, showcasing your powerful vocal range. Can you tell us about the creative process behind that iconic duet with Jimmy Somerville?

SJM: We recorded our album at Sigma Sound Studios in New York. Yoko Ono was recording in the room next door. Jimmy was a huge fan of seventies disco, and “Don’t Leave Me” was absolutely his choice. Our vocals were fed into producer Mike Thorne’s Synclavier, a digital synthesiser. Mike’s contribution as engineer/producer was an essential part. The super-human elongation of the ascent: “Aaaaah Baby!”, so many times sampled, was the Synclavier.

The Sisterhood project pays homage to ten influential female singer-songwriters who have inspired you. Could you share some insights into how each of these women has impacted your own musical style and approach?

SJM: This question is massive, and could be adequately answered only with a novel-length reply. Here are a few short answers:

Bessie Smith – roots; the quintessence of the blues.

Billie Holliday – art and the struggle; Strange Fruit; the art of jazz.

Nina Simone – art and the struggle; the emotional intensity of song.

Miriam Makeba – Africa acknowledged; political commitment.

Aretha Franklin – great art can conquer anything; great singing mesmerises a room, goes on to hold the attention of the world.

Janis Joplin set the standard I have often followed.

Joni Mitchell, the great songwriter and compulsively active artist.

Rickie Lee Jones – living the lyric to the ultimate degree, icon of Americana.

Annie Lennox – pop diva par excellence, near contemporary and musical associate.

Kate Bush – an almost exact contemporary and an example of the power of self-definition as an artist; to some extent we (especially we artists) all invent who we are.

It’s remarkable how you’ve woven the stories of these legendary artists into your own music. Can you explain your creative process in translating their narratives into songs that reflect their unique writing styles and musical idiom?

SJM: Of course (speaking for myself and my collaborators) we were not to be held rigidly to any rules, and musical ideas often originated in our own musical comfort-zones – but we accepted the challenges as they presented themselves, and the result is a broad-ranging and diverse album. It showcases all of the things we and our musical community have made our own, and many of us have well over forty years of learning and music-making to work with. You could say that The Sisterhood is a post-modern album, and that we are ideally equipped post-modernists.

Working with legendary guitarist Tony Rémy must have brought a unique dynamic to The Sisterhood project. Can you discuss the collaborative process and how Tony’s influence contributed to the rich musical history and stylistic range of the album?

SJM: Tony’s knowledge is not confined to his specialism – although his guitar knowledge would make him a master-mind contender – he has the integrated knowledge I need in a co-writer, co-arranger, and co-producer. We trust each other and have few if any differences of opinion, although the surprise and excitement we both experience in our partnership are what make it so amazing.

The Sisterhood is a project that delves into the lives and minds of women in the realm of song. How do you see this project providing a 21st-century perspective on the legacy of these remarkable women?

SJM: That’s one for the critics, I guess. If our project raises the profile of Miriam Makeba, helps renew interest in Billie or Nina, of course I will be happy. It has occurred to me that the niche in which this work fits – songs written about songwriters and singers – has not been tried very often. Dylan’s “Song to Woody” and “Blind Willie McTell” and Danko & Robertson’s “Bessie Smith” are the only ones which come readily to mind.

Your music has been described as soulful, with an ability to convey a wide range of emotions. How do you approach infusing your performances with such passion, from joy and sorrow to hard times and highs?

SJM: Like most things we identify as strengths, they originate with a ‘self-surprised’ moment (“I can do this!”) followed by the question to be tested repeatedly (“How far can I take this?”). My background as an actor and in studying for the theatre certainly gave me a sense of the potential for drama in songs, which can only be realised in the singing. Most good songs are, in fact, stories, and it is the singer’s job to tell those stories as fully and as appropriately as possible. As a singer of The Human Story, if my concern is what it is to be human, then I should be ruled by truth and by passion.

In your extensive career, is there a particular song or album that holds a special place in your heart? Could you share the story or inspiration behind it?

SJM: Bloody Rain, released in 2014, has been the album I would talk about in answer to this question. Co-written with Tony, our first major collection written and produced together, the premise of the album was one close to both of our hearts: it was a celebration of African influences; rhythms, melodies, and lyric-patterns all seemed to hark towards Africa as we wrote it, so we decided to embrace the African-ness of it, giving free rein to the music which had meant so much to us. Now, of course, I am inclined to think that The Sisterhood will surpass Bloody Rain as my most accomplished album.

The Montreal Gazette described you as embodying soul rather than just interpreting it. What does soul mean to you as an artist, and how does it influence your musical expression?

SJM: What is music without soul? Surely, that would be one of the most damning of criticisms. Any singer who sings truthfully, using their gifts to express love, sorrow, passion, joy: this is soul music, I think. Of course, Soul featured strongly in my musical development – the soul music which came out of Motown and which fuelled the dance-subculture which was me for several of my teenage years. All-night dancing was its main attraction, but when the Wigan Casino was no longer my destination, I found myself aware of some of the most significant influences of my life – Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and Bobby Womack to name just three.

As the audience experiences ‘The Sisterhood,’ what do you hope they take away from this timeless voyage into the lives and music of these extraordinary women?

SJM: Well, of course, I want audiences to leave with the echoes of our songs ringing in their memories, I want them to be inspired and informed and entertained. I want this project to grow wings and fly, and the first objective we can aim for is to leave our audiences thrilled and wanting more. The project is layered with meaning, with stories of heroism and with wonderful examples of achievement and expression. It’s a lot to communicate, but that’s what The Sisterhood does. All I have to do now is reach my audience.

Can you give us a glimpse into what’s next for Sarah Jane Morris? Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations that you’re particularly excited about?

SJM: To quote another artist: “the schemes in my head would keep me busy forever”, but right now The Sisterhood is what absorbs all my thoughts: there are film, TV, radio and live-theatre versions and developments to be explored, as well as a second full presentation of the concert to be scheduled for International Women’s Day ’24, when the album will finally be launched worldwide.

Finally, what message or advice would you offer to aspiring musicians who are looking to make their mark in the music industry, based on your own journey and experiences?

SJM: I have always tried to encourage and support young musicians. I think, as a stalwart of my profession, that I have a duty to teach and to share. That’s the point of The Sisterhood. The torch is passed on. First, you have to find out what it is you want to do. Then you have to be persistent, be resolute, be strong, be self-believing in spite of the setbacks when they come. Behave like a professional. Have standards. But above all, have something to say. Be aware of the circle of communication between singer and audience. It’s a real-life experience. You’re the initiator. Respect your audience. Sing to their intelligence. Sing to their humanity. Complete the circle.

 

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