The Star Phoenix, Montreal 2003
SHADES OF SARAH
COMPARED TO THE GREATS SUCH AS BILLY HOLIDAY AND JANICE JOPLIN, THIS 'NEWCOMER' WILL LEAVE YOU WANTING MORE.
SARAH-JANE INFUSES HER SONGS WITH HINTS OF FUNK, SOUL AND BLUES
Sarah-Jane Morris has enjoyed a 20-years career in the UK as an actor, singer, activist and songwriter, but she's virtually unknown in this part of the world. Which is to say, we don't know what we've been missing.
As she displays on her new album Love and Pain, Morris is a vocal titan, infusing her original songs with shades of funk, soul and blues and either belting them out or singing the notes between the notes. Her singing has been compared to an array of strong female voices: Billy Holiday, Nina Simone, Janice Joplin, Macy Gray, Erykah Badu and others.
Married to former Pogues member David Coulter, Morris is also the mother of an eight-year-old boy and the leader of a band which features scions of the folk legend the Seeger family. It's fair to say there are more than a few sides to Sarah-Jane Morris.
Morris first played Canada in the mid 80's when she was a member of the gay disco band the Communards, which scored a couple of international hits. (A few years later, Morris's cover of Me and Mrs. Jones started false rumours that she was a lesbian.) All
that history won't matter much when Morris entertains at several Canadian jazz festivals this summer, and that's just the way she likes it.
'It's a very nice position to be in - I'm being treated in Canada and America as a newcomer,' Morris said recently from her home near Stratford-upon-Avon. 'How fantastic is that? You've done the 22 years hard groundwork. You're releasing what you consider to be your best work, which is totally original material. And you get introduced to a new territory that treats you as an intelligent human being. '
Morris's terrific experience last year at the Montreal Jazz Festival compelled her to return. She'd like to do more than the few show's she's set up, but simply can't afford it. The size of the country alone is daunting, she finds. 'I had no idea how large Canada was. It's huge isn't it? We're flying from Saskatoon to Montreal and we get on the plane at seven in the morning and we get there at two in the afternoon.'
Morris is pleased to be able to show off her new album, which had humble roots, it was recorded in a garden shed. In fact, the shed was so small that Morris had to stand in the yard to sing. 'Often with people moving their lawns nest to me and phones going off in the background.' Fittingly, the album art features portraits and objects made from actually grass and turf The word 'Love' is in lush green lettering while 'pain' is brown and lifeless.
There's a story behind every song. A Horse Named Janis Joplin was inspired by Morris auditioning to star in a Paramount movie about the famous singer. 'I felt sure, stupidly, that the part was mine.' Later she heard that Britney Spears was being courted for the role. 'I thought I had been let off the hook because this is going to be a terrible film. But I did fall from a great height - bruised ego.'
The horse metaphor is an honest one: Morris is a racetrack enthusiast because her aunt was the first female trainer in Britain.
Morris seems surrounded by fame.
The only daughter of a family of six boys ('I became a judo champion. '), Morris recently tracked down her American relatives, the ones no one talked about. It turned out she is a cousin of famous gay author Armistead Maupin, an icon in San Francisco. Morris' fellow musicians have their own unique history. Her guitar players, brother Calum and Neill MacColl, are the sons of Peggy Seeger, the step-mother of Pete Seeger. Their father Ewan MacColl wrote 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', Roberta Flack's mammoth hit, and one of the Pogue's biggest songs, Dirty Old Town. And their sister, Kirsty MacColl was a Pogues' singer who penned They Don't' Know, which Tracy Ulman made famous. Tragically, Kirsty died after being hit by a boat whilst swimming in Mexico in 2000.
'What a musical history they have,' Morris said of Calum and Neill, 'They are two of the most amazing guitarists that I've worked with. Because of where they come from, that whole folk tradition of lyric being the most important thing, they know how little to play and that is quite something.'
Morris will also have her bassist, Henry Thomas, along on the tour. He looks as imposing as a New York rapper, but he's 'just a soft puppy,' she says. 'He's a bit of a legend in England. He's called King Thumb.'
Morris is looking forward to the tour but still feels a pull back to home. On this trip, she's had to miss her son Otis's school play. 'I think it's harder for a child to have a mother going away than a father going away. And as a woman you're born feeling guilty, so I give myself a hard time about it.' Morris will be thinking of her boy when she sings her song Innocence, which she wrote for him. 'What saved me and continues to save me is my innocence. It's believing the best in people, believing 'why would someone want to harm me?' Believing in fairies, believing in beautiful things rather than seeing the ugliness of life. And so the message I passed on to him through this song is 'wrap your innocence around you. '