Putting the Cat Among the Pigeons
Richard Cook on the eclectic Sarah Jane Morris
What's so bad about categories? Are they the iniquitous, round holes into which so many pop squares are pressed, complaining all the way? Do they stifle progress, hinder success? A singer such as Sarah Jane Morris seems to walk into this problem every day.
"No one music has contained me. Everything influences everything else, I haven't tried to recreate anything, I've tried to introduce my own personality. I already have an identity crisis, as far as the general media is concerned. We all like to categorise. I was brought up on soul and I love soul. But jazz is the music I know best. Either way, I fall into the same trap - there are so many people who do it better than me. It takes a couple of albums for any good singer to find themselves".
Stylistic boundary-hopping has become a useful kind of virtue. Some people wear their classification problem like a medal of honour, as if they were somehow more credible than a mere pop or soul or jazz person. Maybe it's like collecting Brownie badges. Or perhaps it's a shame that a gifted performer won't settle for excellence in a single area any more.
Actually, Morris isn't such a contrary figure; she's just gregarious about her music. A tall, spindly woman with a merry gait and huge, frothy mane of hair, she seems quite unperturbed by the many curious stares she gets. When she laughs, her mouth seems to open up and swallow the rest of her face; a great row of teeth looks like a mountain range. At 29 she is about to release her first album, "Sarah Jane Morris", as a featured singer after nine years of impromptu appearances, jazz club dates, bits of cabaret and a steaming hit with the Communards, "Don't Leave Me This Way".
One might expect her to be brattish about her career - a bit of singing, a spot of theatre, the odd film part here and there. But Morris is rather older and more sensible about it than that. She does do some theatre and film work, having trained as an actress, but her distinctive gift lie in her singing voice. "One of my problems is that, as a singer I've got nine years' experience. As a songwriter I've got one year. It's a skill I have to develop. I need a good song and at this time I don't feel able to write it".
Didn't she want to do an LP of cover material?
"God, no! I'm looking forward to the day when I can sing songs as good as the ones I've covered, which I can be the first person to interpret. If there's a modern-day Brecht, he hasn't come my way yet. If I can find a more specific crossover between jazz and soul as Anita Baker did with her second album, getting an identifiable sound where one song would lead into the next. I haven't done that yet". It's true. Although it's not really Morris's fault - she delivers every song with a gusto that few white female pop singers could match - the LP is really an awful muddle. The song list looks like a fan's notes on her favourite songs: Beatles, Billy Paul, Natalie Coole, Gilbert O'Sullivan. But the record's like a bag of Liquorice Allsorts: a mad jumble of colours and flavours. The card-carrying protest of "The Rains Have Failed Again" and "This Ain't Livin'" rubs against straight disco-pop in "I'll Be Your Angel" and the gospel-styled fervour of "This Will Be". "Sunny" becomes tongue-twisting in her effort to sing jazz licks into a slender little melody. "Alone Again Naturally" is a rarity, a pop hit with a complex and ingenious melody; but Morris overwhelms this one too, as if convinced that it has to be stretched out of its skin.
There's still much pleasure to be had from the sound of her voice, a fascinatingly gloomy, prodigiously deep instrument that sometimes grants an eerie power to a line. Couldn't she have done a straight jazz record? It is, after all, the music she knows and loves best. "It doesn't have a great commercial potential", she smiles. "I did sing on a number one hit. They see me selling a few more points than that".
What's so bad about categories? I guess they limit your potential.