Sarah-Jane Morris - "Inside out"
Dressed in army-clothes, with bright red lips, she hits the stage - tough, but, at the same time, fragile in an amiable way. The show starts immediately: A Sarah-Jane Morris concert means coming face to face with a woman, who, on stage, likes to assume various identities. She sings totally diverse songs, covering everything from nice ballads to sequences that are almost screamed.
What´s remarkable amidst all theatrics and transformations is that each role is really a part of her - that´s what makes her so special. It´s what her many fans all over the world love so much: "Their" Sarah-Jane Morris is a person just like them. She isn´t some distant pop star. Sarah-Jane is for real - and as vulnerable a person as anyone else.
Carina Prange talked with Sarah-Jane Morris in Berlin.
Carina: You have just recorded a new album: "Love and pain". After the CD "August" with "your favorite songs" - what's the new one going to be about, what's the concept?
Sarah-Jane: The concept is: it is twelve songs, they are all original compositions. Each one explores and celebrates the contradictions of being a woman. The whole album explores this - each one in a different way: there are many contradictions to being a woman. But it "celebrates" it. It doesn't say, this is terrible, but: "So, this is how we are! It is O.K." - We accept the fact that we are very complicated, but as something to be celebrated rather than to be frightened of.
Carina: "August" has been released on your own label - why? How does that feel to have everything in your own hand?
Sarah-Jane: This album for me has been a very happy experience. I financed it and I produced it. And put the whole thing together - on a very little budget. Absolutely on my own, without management, without agency, without record-company. I "became" all those people. I did it with one of my all-time favorite musicians and we recorded it live - no tricks involved. It was my baby that I was able to see all the way through to the end. I also used my brothers photographs in the booklet, to make a whole coffeetable-concept. Which I have never been able to have before, because record-companies like to control it. So that side of it was wonderful. - And then - an album that you've really enjoyed making: to see that it actually is quite successful is something you never bargained for. You make it because you wanted to make it. - And the response to this album has been fantastic. Particularly, because we weren't being expecting anything from it, we just wanted to do it and to open a door. The whole thing has been about opening doors and about saying: I am a grown-up girl, I am standing up on my own two feet and I am gonna do anyway!
Carina: The album featured - in the first row - your own voice and the guitar-playing of Marc Ribot. How did you know that he was the right musician for you to support so different songs and ideas?
Sarah-Jane: Well, my husband is a multi-instrumentalist and was in a band called the Pogues who were also Tom Waits' favorite band. So bit by bit they all got to meet. My husband and I - we like a very diverse sort of sections of music. When we meet on middle-ground it is Tom Waits - my husband is much more of left-center. We got to meet all of Tom Waits musicians over the time, we have all of his albums: really huge fans. So we as well started to buy the music of the different musicians within his bands. And that's when we discovered what an amazing player Ribot was. We became friends with him and with his wife. Also our children are friends. So, luckily there is a friendship there as well. But it wasn't until I saw him perform live: he controls his "madness" through his pedal-board - and I control mine through my whole vocal cavity. II can see when he is sitting there playing, he appears somewhere else but yet he is still there. And that is exactly what I do when I sing: I travel somewhere else, but I am still "there enough" to do whatever is needed and to bring it all back. But I have gone to somewhere, I am floating somewhere over to a "dangerous place". But he does that - and it was the first time that I had seen a fellow musician that did what I did with his instrument. So I just knew, he was the right one for this album!
Carina: "Don't leave me this way" - this was your hit with the Communards in 1986 - why did you choose this song as an opener for "August"?
Sarah-Jane: I wanted to lay a ghost. "Don't leave me this way" has been a door-opener and a door-closer for me. Most people know me - that is a reference for me. Which is fine and I don't knock that - everybody has to have some point of reference. But I wanted to prove that I was more than just this "belch of a voice" that had had "this big disco-hit". And I also wanted to prove that it was more of a song than people remembered it being. We listened to Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes' version and didn't use the Communards version at all. When we listened we realized there were lyrics there that we never used with the Communards. So I wrote them down and then we just decided it would be so good to so strip it down to a blues. And by stripping it that far down you would suddenly listen to the lyrics which you don't do when you have got so many instruments around it. Because actually it is a desperate song, it is about this broken woman, who is begging somebody. This weakness in her is begging somebody not to go. So it's so vulnerable. And I think, it's the first thing we did in the whole recording session, and so it felt right that it should start the album. Start the album by closing a chapter. It felt right for me to do that.
Carina: Nowadays, how do you define yourself - as a singer in the field of "blues, jazz, soul", as a "songwriter in general"? What makes you special - is it your "fabulously gritty three and a half octave voice" a reviewer once wrote about ?
Sarah-Jane: I think everybody has their own voice. Mine, from what I gather from other people tell me, that when I perform - it's the whole thing from what I was talking about before -: I transform, I meet my demons on stage. I meet them "head on" - I allow them to tease and torment me. And then I try and control them and I turn it into a sound. . I sing from my gut. I don't stand there and think what I look like, I just do - I react with the moment. Sometimes it is disastrous and sometimes it's brilliant. But I let myself into that dangerous zone. So I think that might make me different from some singers. But I am not the only person who does that. But that would probably be what distinguished me from a lot of the popular music. There are definitely some amazing singers out there, but I know that as an audience I want to connect somebody, I want to believe them. I don't want them to be contending to me, I don't want them to be so acting a role that I don't know who they are. And I think that's why my particular audience responds to me, because they see that I am being real. I found an audience, they found me, too. - The pop-industry doesn't like that reality, they can't cope with that. And that's O.K.: I am not trying to be a pop-singer.
Carina: "The Republic" - their music was very political. How much influence does music have on politics and the other way round?
Sarah-Jane: Politics had quite a lot of influence on my early music, on my career, my acting as well - I went to drama-school, I studied Bertholt Brecht. My lecturer, the guy who run the course, happened to be the leading authority on Brechtian Theater in the country. So that was my first instruction to socialism - at the age of seventeen. And I found that for me that was fascinating to come across the lyrics of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler - through the lyrics of Brecht. Which I still think are very relevant today! I actually think that Brechtian Theater has a hell of a lot to do with the way I perform and the way I tell a story! I actually think that Brechtian Theater has a hell of a lot to do with the way I perform and the way I tell a story. When I used to sing the Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler-lyrics - as an actress - I became "the madam" or "the prostitute". I became the vulgarity that was needed, but I was still the earthen role. And I think too many people don´t do that. - One being Ute Lemper, who everybody saw as being the new Lotte Lenya. No denying that she is incredibly beautiful; that she has this incredibly note-perfect voice. - But where is the dirt and the rawness and the grit that those songs were about? - That´s what I want - and it doesn´t come out very often. But music influencing politics - certain people have really put themselves that on the line: such as Billy Bragg. He still does, still waves the flag, hasn't compromised and is very much - in England - a voice of the people. He is always on the radio and TV as the voice of the public. But whether he has influenced politics - I wouldn't know. He has been a spokesperson for the normal everyday person - I don't think, it's influenced politics, it might have influenced people in their thought, but I don't think, it has influenced the political machine.