Feature: Jess Morgan
I’m enjoying the myth
Norfolk songstress Jess Morgan’s latest album, Langa Langa, has been picking up rave reviews. Shire Folk caught up with her at this year’s Wallingford Bunkfest festival. We got on to discussing the myth of the singer-songwriter, but first we talked about what influences her …
SF: Your album Langa Langa has had a really good reception – you must be very pleased. What was the inspiration for the album title?
JM: It’s a line from The Missionary – ‘and Langa Langa was a hard town’. It’s the name of a town in an area of the Rift Valley in Kenya where I was travelling through quite a bit. It was a tough little town really. When I write songs they all have accompanying pictures and 8 times out of 10 they’re places I’ve been. If I do go somewhere interesting chances are it might crop up … about 10 years ago I was travelling in East Africa and I’d wanted to get it in for a long time. I don’t like forcing things, but one day a story and a picture came together, so why not reference the real thing?
SF: Calling the album Langa Langa – is that emblematic of anything? It’s quite onomatopoeic, but is it a metaphor as well?
JM: Well I like two-word titles [laughs]. As far as I know it’s a Masai phrase that means ‘round and round’. That town used to be a racetrack and there’s a track on the album called ‘Round and Round’ as well, so I thought it would fit. The way I feel about ‘The Missionary’; when I was writing it and when I’m playing it – it’s a strange synaesthesia thing – it has all the colours in it, all the rhythms and the textures that I wanted the album to be made of. I don’t know whether I’ve achieved it or not. When I was making the record – it’s not a tangible vision, but I was clear about the things it must include. So yes, emblematic is the right word: that song led to other songs.
SF: So does travel form the main influence on your songs? ‘Annie of Greyfriars’ is one of my favourite songs on the album. Is she completely fictitious?
JM: Not completely. There is no Annie, but there is a museum in Great Yarmouth – I love Great Yarmouth, it’s where I pretty much grew up – my mum and I have this tradition around my birthday, depending on how many gigs I’ve got, we hit the museums in Yarmouth. A while ago we went to the Old Merchants House, which is on the South Quay. It’s an old herring curing house – it’s amazing, it smells like kippers … it’s in the timbers – and as part of it there’s a restored Yarmouth row. A bedroom is done up as it would have been when the herring girls lived there. They have journals and diaries and possessions there. I found it fascinating and I thought I’d like to write something about that.
SF: The character of Annie comes through.
JM: Great. That’s what I was hoping for. The other thing is that it’s kind of the flipside to my version of ‘Silver Dagger’ as well, as I localised that a bit.
SF: You have a very distinctive clawhammer guitar-playing style. Was that a deliberate choice or did it just develop?
JM: I’m not really sure, but it’s something I’m aware of now because people have picked up on it. I’m self-taught, so no one showed me how to do it. I remember there was a time when I was playing and I decided it was time to knuckle down and learn to fingerpick and as with most things I put my mind to, I spent about two weeks dedicated to it and then started doing other things [laughs]. I think I was playing in a certain way and when I started to move my fingers independently that’s probably the point that it became what it is now. The other thing is, being a solo musician, I love the idea of textured music. It’s something I’ve always admired about Megson actually – the way they get so much from the two of them. I always tell people to go and see them live because you’ll be wowed by the amount of sounds they can make. I like the idea of being able to use the guitar in different kinds of ways; trying to create ‘build’ in a song, a little bit of light and shade and variation by using different strings and you’ve got to use your fingers on your right hand independently of each other to do that. So my thumb’s developed a bit of a life of its own. It does things and I look down and I think hey what are you doing!
SF: You’re clearly an accomplished artist, how do you manage to fit the two things together – art and music?
JM: I’m not doing much ‘Art’ art at the minute – I haven’t touched a canvas in a serious way for some time. Graphic design and stuff to a brief, I really like. Presentation is a side of the music I really like. When you grow up leafing through CD covers, record covers, posters – particularly in this genre of the singer-songwriter … for me the life of the singer-songwriter has always felt much more of an adventure than being in a rock band. I’m sure being in a rock band is all the things that everybody says it is, but there’s something romantic about the singer-songwriter thing. When I first started buying Bob Dylan records they just looked so exotic, you almost get into that fictional world of their pictures and their paintings … all those Joni Mitchell paintings. I don’t know where this is going to take me, but I’m enjoying the myth. The artwork really feeds into that. The photos, not so much videos, but I will get there with videos.
SF: So what’s next?
JM: I’m always writing. I’ve got an idea that I’d like to do an EP and bring it out next year. My hope is to bring it out on vinyl. There won’t be large profits from vinyl so doing it close to the album is a smart move so that I can still afford to tour by selling copies of the album, but at the same time I can just afford to break even on a more art project.
Jess Morgan’s latest album Langa Langa is out now. www.jessmorgan.co.uk