Her riveting voice defies categorization and has made her a popular choice to play Janis Joplin in a recently planned high profile film.
When audiences hear Sarah Jane Morris they encounter a soul on fire. After years of success and challenges how does she still summon the energy that makes her performances unforgettable? In an exclusive interview for Voice-Council Magazine, Sarah Jane Morris shares her soul with vocal artists.
You have been just as good at having your music banned as breaking into the popular market—I’m thinking of your version of “Me and Mrs. Jones”, infamous for its lesbian connotations.
That wasn’t my first banned song. When I was the lead singer in the Afro-Caribbean-Latin band The Republic, Margaret Thatcher was just coming into power and had decided to invade the Falklands. We produced an anti-war piece called Don’t Believe It’s In Your Interest. Even though we were an up and coming band destined for big success, the lead radio stations would not touch this song, nobody would have anything to do with it, in spite of the fact that we were on the covers of NME and Melody Maker at the time.
It can’t have been a smooth career path.
I have very definitely chosen a difficult path. I could have made my life easier if I had found a niche and stayed within it, yet it seemed like a terrible betrayal to myself to just do one thing and nothing else. I didn’t do that—well, I did it for a while, thinking that maybe the industry knew what they are talking about…but I realized later that actually they were bluffing, they knew no more than I. You have to listen to yourself.
Yet, you’ve tasted enormous success—are you looking for more of this?
Back in the 80’s Jimmy Somerville from The Communards became fascinated with me—a tall red-headed woman with a very low voice. He asked me to do a concert with him. London Records were there and you could see money in their eyes when we brought down the house. So I rushed off to the USA and our single “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a huge success.
I hadn’t experienced this before. I thought it was exactly what I wanted: traveling and becoming an icon. It meant that I was away for most of the year touring, away from my boyfriend and home…I became confused. All these people were imagining they were my best friend and people were following me home after TV appearances. I felt incredibly vulnerable. I watched Jimmy either being revered or beaten up (depending on people’s views on homosexuality). I saw him disguising himself—you couldn’t have a normal day out. I was witnessing all of this and asking myself ‘Is this really what I want?’ I knew that if it continued, I would never have a private moment and it would effect my family. I found myself thinking, ‘I can’t wait until I can get home and return to normality’.
Yet, when you did get home you launched an incredibly active solo career.
I thought that being a part of a smaller label would take some of the pressure off of me. That was not to be. I’ve had an incredibly active career—but there have been challenges too: there are so many times you don’t get paid along the way, so many things go wrong— even natural disasters that stop a concert from happening. As a musician you have spent it before you’ve got it. You’ve got to wake up the next morning and say ‘this isn’t going to finish me’. You find another crack in the wall.
If you could share one insight that would help singers to reach towards their dreams, what would it be?
When I was 18 I had a Canadian boyfriend doing an MA at Cambridge. He introduced me to a poem I’d never heard before—Ithaka. What I remember about it is this: when you go on a journey the jewels you are looking for are actually found along the way and not at the end. I have tried to make this my path: to be in the moment and to live in that moment absolutely. Whether or not what has happened has been good or bad, I know I have been there in the moment—that is my definition of success. “Success” as others might judge it is only the icing on the cake; it isn’t what is driving me.
That’s pretty good. How about a second one?
Free yourself from blame. Think of the enormous amount of energy that gets trapped in blaming others. Looking at myself and other people as fallen angels frees me from this. There were many incidents throughout my childhood that created a huge amount of blame and anger. Whenever I attached myself to these pains, the weight of it all made me ill—I realized that no one was benefiting from this. Accept that we are fallen angels. Accept that shit happens. It helps to look at the big picture of what can cause someone to inflict pain upon others. This wider view helps me to be free to get into my art.
I take it these insights didn’t just drop down ready made from heaven.
I’ve experienced huge amounts of sorrow and alienation. I studied Brechtian theatre at a drama college before becoming a singer; understanding Brecht’s alienation helped me to accept my own. You see, my father had just gone to prison. My whole life had changed from that moment. I was without anywhere proper to live…the main man in my life was removed for a number of years.
What was he arrested for?
For 21 charges of fraud, corruption and theft. All of which he believed himself to be innocent and being his only daughter out of 6 boys, I utterly believed in his innocence. Later I learnt that he was a Walter Mitty character and could convince himself of anything. I had put him on a pedestal. I was his only defense witness as he had sacked his defending attorney, so it was bad news as far as the judge was concerned. It was my first acting job, really, at the age of 17.
All of this ties into your career as a vocalist—how?
I realized then that I was truly alone and on my own and had no one to fall back on, so what was the point of lying to myself? Each time I just pick myself up, dust myself down and get on with it. I thank God for my journey, my precarious childhood, constantly moving, one of seven kids, father evading bills, forever starting new schools, trying to fit in, never knowing where I was gong to live next. It has somehow prepared me for this life of music where one never knows where one will be next, having to make each place your home for that short while, sometimes living on air, never knowing where the next bit of money is coming from.
The energy behind your singing catches people off guard. When I heard you at Ronnie Scott’s in London, you were so engaged in the performance that my friend thought you must have been drunk.
I drink water. No drugs. No drinking. Why would I get drunk? I’m responsible for a child, a band and an audience. I can’t allow that to happen.
Was this always the case?
When I was in The Republic I remember a concert where there were cocktails laced with strong alcohol and I knocked back 3 or 4. I was holding on to the mic stand knowing that if I let go I would never find it again. I remember afterwards that I felt so ill and so sick—I realized then that I would never let that happen again.
Can you describe that inner place you go to when you perform?
I am very much there, aware of my audience. But as soon as I open my mouth I go to a dangerous place. It’s like I’m hanging upside-down off the edge of a cliff, with only my toenails holding on. It allows me to fly, then I come back. I can see most of the audience, so I am still aware, but I’m allowing myself to be free to move and sing without barriers, daring to make mistakes, as it’s from these that we learn. I am very fortunate to have made this journey without a need for alcohol and drugs. I feel I control my madness on stage; I let it free and then let it return to its cage at the end. The songs flow like blood through my veins and I have no choice but to do this thing called music. I do believe I was meant to be doing this and will continue to do so for as long as I can get away with it.
How do you maintain a ‘soul quality’ to your life when you travel and have to stay in corporate hotels?
I turn it into my space. I always bring a candle and light it so that the room smells familiar. Then I get my ipod going; I have music all around me. Once you have a smell and something to listen to then you have your own space. You can now cope with the fact that others have slept here—it doesn’t matter that those ghosts of other people are there—maybe they will help my music and my journey.
If you had a minute to sum up your advice to younger vocalists who are just beginning their career, what would you say?
Be excited by life. Go out there and know that you’ve got a place out there—believe it. You have a place inside of you that knows you should be counted. Hold onto that.
But I have something more to add: your music can only work if you connect it to other people. No matter how small your audience, it is still an audience. If you’ve got a story to tell you need to find an audience…and you need to find a way to connect with that audience. They are as an important part of the relationship as your music. If they don’t receive it, you don’t go on a journey; if they do, their reception will fuel you. Acknowledge the importance of the audience and your fans. My fans have saved me; they have absolutely kept me going.
† Migratory Birds by Sarah Jane Morris in collaboration with Marc Ribot (Tom Waits) is now available. The 12 track CD is her second with Marc Ribot and is a collection of songs from Bob Dylan, Rickie Lee Jones, Janis Ian, Damien Rice, Dolly Parton and Velvet Underground. Cat. No: Fallen009 Distributed by Weatherbox via Pinnacle. A new album of original self penned songs will be released in April 2009 called “Where It Hurts”, co-written with Dominic Miller and Martyn Barker; it was recorded ‘Live’ in 3 days, warts and all! For more about Sarah Jane Morris see www.sarahjanemorris.co.uk
© Gregory A. Barker 2008. Greg is a writer and editor living in the heart of Wales.