Interview with Alan Morrison – March 2011
by Johannes Flink – Director, Folkkulturcentrum, Stockholm
“For the release party of your new album “Ride my Heart”, Boulevardteatern described your music as: “British folk-rock with a tint of Northern sadness”. Do you agree to that description? And is there something special you would like to add”
Well, I’ve always found it difficult to classify my music style because it adapts itself according to the song. I don’t want to get stuck in one groove precisely because my songs don’t. Yes, there is Folk-Rock of both US and UK varieties in my music. There is also what can be called “Alternative Country” in there too and West Coast rock. But there are other things which I bring from my own heart which probably can’t be classified.
As for the “Northern sadness”, it is true that a number of my songs are drenched in melancholy. I prefer that word to “sadness” because melancholy has much beauty and longing in it, whereas mere sadness can be stultifyingly stuck in its own trip. I think this is why my music seems to have found a place in a number of hearts in Sweden in particular and Scandinavia in general. You know all about longing and yearning and wistfulness here – more so than in other countries. It seems to be built into your soul. That also must explain why I feel so at home here musically.
“In the so-far reviews for “Ride my Heart”, your references have been taken to be Dylan and Springsteen, whereas your singing style reminded one reviewer of Rod Stewart. Is this your opinion as well? Are these artists really your main inspirations? Or what other artists do you look to for inspiration?”
Actually, of those three artists I would say that only early Dylan has been anything like an inspiration to me. I remember being totally knocked-out as a young teenager by songs like “Masters of War”, “Desolation Row”, “She Belongs to me” and “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m only Bleeding”. They are masterpieces which showed me the importance of the text in a song. They were poetry set to music and that is what my own output is too. I think the references to those three artists in music reviews has come about when a reviewer heard some inflection in my voice which he has then expanded to become a major reference point – one that he or she understands. That’s what reviewers do; but it isn’t necessarily real.
My own musical development grew out of a passionate interest in 1960s groups like the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash. They were all really pure folkies who added rock to the folk. Similar developments were happening at that time in the UK too, with pure folkies like John Renbourn and Bert Jansch forming the group, Pentangle, with the Scottish folk singer, Jacqui McShee. Another true folkie, Donovan, was also bringing a more rocked and jazzed-up folk influence before the British public. Then other UK folk-rock groups came along, such as Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention – both with a pure folk background. It was a tremendously creative and innovative era. All those artists and groups have been a huge influence on my musical landscape in one way or another, even if you can’t hear all of that directly in my songs.
Some contemporary songwriters, such as Lucy Kaplansky and Kim Richey, have also affected me deeply. Listening to them has honed my understanding of the art of songwriting.
However, in spite of all the above, in the final analysis I am me and my true inspiration is my own Muse. I stand alone with my experience and my songs, for what they are worth.
“In virtually all descriptions of your music that I have read, your text-work comes to the fore. It is said about your texts that they are poetic, ambitious and that they all thematize love in some form. How did text become so important to you? And are your texts really the prime motor of your music”
The truth is that I am really a poet who gives wings to my poems with music to create songs. The music is the vehicle to steer the poem into the listening heart. The harmony is the handmaiden for the words. I am first and foremost a wordsmith. Words are the essence of my music. They have work to be. It’s not just about entertainment. Words are tremendously powerful. They affect people at the deepest level, whether they realise it or not. And when they are accompanied by harmonious music then that process is even more profound.
All my songs thematize love in some form because love comes in many forms. In this sense, all my songs are love songs. On the one hand, they speak about what I call the “perils and privileges” of relationships. On the other hand, they address an issue of importance in the social context of the world. So you can have a song such as “Sparks” about a relationship breakdown and what lay behind it alongside a song like “Anthem for Someone’s Child” about the death of children in war. My songs are both born out of love and speak about love. I know it’s a cliché but love is all there is. In that sense, I suppose one could say that with my music you don’t just get words and tunes; you get a whole philosophy. My favourite classical composer, Gustav Mahler, famously said in a debate with Jean Sibelius that “the symphony should embrace the whole world”. That is what I want my music to do also, in my own small way; to reach inside hearts and change people. Nothing grandiose. Just an artist doing what any artist should do. It is like being a mirror of human experience, with all its ecstasies and empathies – all its flaws and foibles. Music – poetry, all art – should reflect the whole of human life. If enough people are changed by music then music could change the world.
“On the other hand, your music is built up by complicated harmonies and often comprises a large number of instruments beside the normal rock set, such as violin, mandolin, etc. Please describe your musicianship. What are your musical references? How did you get interested in the particular kind of music that you are creating”
I could write a book about that! I believe that each song is like a painting. A painter wouldn’t use the same colours and tints for every painting. Likewise, I would feel too limited with just the usual drums, bass and guitar. I like to use extra colours for different songs, like cello, violin, pedal steel guitar, dobro guitar, mandolin, accordion, nyckelharpa, French horn, harmonica, etc. If I could afford it, I would have a little orchestra onstage, including a string section! I have a passionate interest in classical music so I have an orchestral feel for the song form. When I’m composing a song I picture the wash of colours in my mind and choose the right instrumental mix accordingly. It’s always been like that.
Interestingly, although I have made music all my life and written poetry all my life, I didn’t bring the two together until comparatively late. The poetry came first and then they started to become songs. I still principally write poems but many of them become songs too.
“Kenny Håkansson of Hellacopters used to tell me that one should always ask a real musician about his instrument and his relation to it, because it always provokes an interesting story. So now I do that: what guitar do you play and what does it mean to you?”
My main acoustic guitar is a Taylor 914. It is my lover and my best friend. Any woman in my life has to reckon with that. There will always be a rival! Many years ago, my first Taylor was a delicious cedar-topped 714 which I bought in the Netherlands. For some stupid reason I sold it after a few years just so I could have a change. Since that time I tried many other top brands but I always missed the unique sound and feel of a Taylor. It simply belongs in my hands. That’s the only way I can put it.
I write all my songs on the guitar and the Taylor is such an inspiration. I feel like a songwriter and true artist when I have it in my hands. I modified the electronics by putting in a B-Band Acoustic Soundboard Transducer for a wonderfully natural airy miced sound.
I also have a Gibson Songwriter Deluxe acoustic guitar which I use for alternative tunings onstage, a Taylor T5 electric guitar, a Godin 12-string acoustic and a Danelectro 12-string electric to bring other colours. But my Taylor acoustic will always be my top choice.
“Your album has been produced by Lasse Englund, and people like Ola Nyström from Weeping Willows and the skilled cellist Emili Jeremias have made guest appearances. How did you make these contacts within Swedish music”
In 2009 I went on a songwriters’ retreat in the UK, hosted by Donovan and Maria McKee. There I met three Swedish musicians and songwriters who became my friends. One of them, Maria Blom – who had a record label here in Stockholm – said she’d fallen in love with my music and she asked me to come here and make a CD. Then she introduced me to Lasse Englund. Maria McKee also said she thought I should find a place for my music in Sweden as she felt it would be appreciated here. That’s how it all started. One contact led to another and it seems that their intuition was right.
“Lastly, what are your plans for the nearest future and for your musical career as a whole? Will you go on working in the same genre and the same text themes? How do you feel that your music has developed and will develop in the future? What new collaborations have you planned? What are your hopes and ambitions”
That is certainly a set of leading questions! No doubt some things will stay the same and certain elements will change as time goes by – hopefully they will be improvements. I’ve found some very talented young musicians who I’m currently working with in Stockholm, which is so encouraging and inspiring. I like working with different forces for different kinds of songs. So I work solo, with trios and with a full band. I have plans to make a new CD, on which I hope to include the more orchestral elements I spoke about above – for example, a string quartet in some songs as well as the usual forces. Although many of my songs fall within identifiable styles, I like to experiment. For example, I wrote a kind of rap song recently entitled “ToyBoy”. New genre: Folk-Rap!
One other thing I am working on at the moment is creating a book of 150 of my poems and lyrics coupled with some prose passages which examine, for example, the difference between prose, poetry and song. I’m hoping to complete that by the Summer. It will also have photographs as illustrations.
The bottom line is that I will just continue doing what I have always done: follow my heart. I believe there is a supernatural element to the creative process. I have no other way to explain the way that words and music come together. It is as if something outside of oneself has supplied the lubricant for that. If one is true to one’s art then the Muse continues to provide the oil. That is the least that I could ask for.
Above all, I want to continue to develop an audience of people who love poetry flying on musical wings. It is one thing to write songs; it is quite another for them to find a home in the hearts of others. Then the circle is complete. Then I will feel some satisfaction and fulfilment.
© 2011, Alan Morrison