|Sarah Jane Morris
Photo: Richard Kaby
Jane Mann met English soul jazz diva SARAH JANE MORRIS in the star’s green room at Ronnie Scott’s before one of her recent sold-out shows, reviewed here. The conversation was relaxed and wide-ranging. She talked about: how she started out as a singer; the bands she played with in the 1980s and ’90s; the significance of Janis Joplin in her life; about Italy, where she is mobbed in airports by fans; and about the importance of politics in her life and work.
Sarah Jane Morris did not start out as a singer. She did not study music, not at any of the 13 schools she attended (her family moved around a lot). A key part of her education was studying Brechtian theatre as part of an A-level theatre and liberal arts course at college in Stratford-upon-Avon, where comedian and writer Ben Elton was a contemporary. She talks warmly of an inspirational teacher, a Brecht expert, who took her under his wing, and acted as surrogate father when hers was not around (he was in prison at the time). Brecht really spoke to her – she was a troubled teenager, and this was her introduction to socialist politics, and to alienation.
She went on to Central School Of Speech And Drama, where her contemporaries included Kristen Scott Thomas and Rupert Everett. I was surprised to hear that Morris didn’t realise she could sing until drama school. To get an equity card, she started singing with a fellow student actor who played the piano – he taught her Billie Holliday songs, they performed widely, and she found she had a voice.
Morris has a remarkable low contralto, and at first her influences were singers with a similar range. A major early inspiration was Nina Simone, whom she heard play three times at Ronnie’s, a few feet away from where we were sitting. She also mentioned Gladys Knight and the great Mavis Staples as important influences. Other key singers in her life are her close friends: Ian Shaw – “He is an extraordinary human being, he’s a star!” – and Liane Carroll: – “She makes me weep, I don’t think she’s ever sung a wrong note in her life!” The other female singer who lets herself be “absolutely possessed by the music” is Eddi Reader, with whom Morris sang in a Ghanaian band called Fufu And Light Soup. She adds, “Her Robert Burns is beautiful, she’s a phenomenal singer.”
She directed me to a YouTube video of her singing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free with “the best backing vocals I’ve ever had, Ian Shaw and Eddi Reader.” They called themselves the Trio of Enormous Love.
Here it is:
Morris is also a huge fan of Annie Lennox. “She’s so strong, so emotionally and intellectually intelligent. I have enormous respect for her. She writes great songs.”
She and Scott Thomas both left drama school early, without finishing the course. Scott Thomas famously headed for France. Morris answered an ad in Melody Maker for a Janis Joplin-like singer for an Italian band who had an American deal, and needed an English speaking vocalist.
She stayed in Fiesole, just outside Florence, for about six months, homesick and isolated, and then fled home. Italy however would be significant in her career. Years later she became a regular at the San Remo song festival – like a Eurovision for Italian pop songs. English and American artists are invited to sing anglophone versions of Italian songs. It’s a glamorous televised affair.
She says, “It’s real showbiz stuff, part of you loves it, and part of you hates it. But, it opened doors for me. An Italian no.1 hit from San Remo helped establish me there. Everyone needs a territory – you’d quite like it to be your home, but that doesn’t always happen.”
Morris is huge in Italy, and performs there frequently. She was awarded the keys to the city of Verona, after playing the Roman arena. This year she is doing various shows in Italy, including a reprise of her 2011 CD Cello Songs, an Italian project featuring 14 cellos. She is also taking part in a prestigious International Women’s Day event in Rome – the three Rome-based UN agencies – Food and Agriculture Organisation, International Fund for Agriculture Development and the World Food Programme – are holding an event today (8 March) at which Morris is speaking, and at which she, and her musical right hand man, guitarist Tony Remy, are performing.
Also on the cards in Italy is an exciting classical project – celebrating the music of Kurt Weill. She has previously toured a Weill song cycle with a full orchestra, and, being a Brecht specialist from way back, she is very keen to revisit this material.
Music and politics and hit records
We talked about what is important in singing a song. Morris is emphatic: “For me it’s always been about intent. You don’t have to be a great singer. But if you’re telling a story and you mean it, and you’re treating your audience as intelligent, that’s all that’s needed. We can be impressed by vocal gymnastics, but I, personally, want to be moved.”
Political integrity is another theme running throughout Morris’s career. She says “I have tried to be true to my beliefs.”
Then we talked about all those amazing ’80s bands. She sang with the Test Department, The Redskins, The Annie Whitehead Band, and recorded and toured with the even more overtly political band The Republic. I told Morris that the first time I heard her sing was with the 21-piece Brechtian big band The Happy End. She was delighted.
“They really made politics swing, didn’t they?” She talked fondly of the leader, the late Mat Fox, and his “beautiful seductive arrangements”. She loved the way that the band was a mixture of very experienced musicians, and near beginners, all of whom Fox gave a role to play. She reminisced about the mass squat in Bonnington Square in Vauxhall where most of the members of The Happy End lived. She maintains that it was easier to be united politically then because “You knew the enemy – Thatcher.” She and Fox co-wrote a song called Coal Not Dole with Kay Sutcliffe, a Kent miner’s wife, which became an anthem of the miners’ strike of 1984.
Her time spent studying Brechtian Theatre really paid off with The Happy End. I asked about influences at this point in her career. Morris said that Kate Westbrook was fantastic, and that she made a big impact on all of them in The Happy End at that time, indeed both Mike and Kate Westbrook were an inspiration.
Morris’s first No.1 hit record was Don’t Leave Me This Way with the Communards – Richard Cole was a pal from Drama School. Another Italian No. 1 a few years later was a first prize winner from San Remo, Se Stiamo Insieme (I’m Missing You) recorded with Riccardo Cocciante. She has also had three No. 1 hits in Greece.
Her second British single release was a cover of Me and Mrs Jones. Controversially, it was banned by the BBC, giving it something of cult status. I asked why the record was considered so shocking, having fond memories of hearing her sing it, accompanied by Ian Shaw at the piano, at the old Stoke Newington Vortex. Morris gave me the political context: Tom Robinson had sung Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay, and she and Jimmy Somerville had sung Lover Man together at a Gay’s The Word fundraiser, each of them pretending to be singing about the same man. But no-one had yet come out as a lesbian. “It was OK to be gay, but not lesbian. Dusty hadn’t come out, nor Joan Armatrading, KD Lang didn’t come out until the early ’90s”, so this was trail blazing stuff at the time.
In contrast, she is disheartened by the current state of affairs. “Racism, sexism, homophobia – these things are learnt. Brexit has given permission to people to say all sorts of things. So much of it is ignorance. It was bubbling underneath the surface the whole time. It’s a great disappointment. Since the referendum it’s been like waking up in a parallel universe.” She reckons that the only way forward is to recreate a sense of community, to get away from what she calls a “me, me, me, now, now, now” society.
I asked Morris about her acting career. She told me the sad tale of how she nearly got to play the part of Janis Joplin in a Paramount movie. She was approached, here at Ronnie Scott’s, after a show in which she had performed (Take A Little) Piece Of My Heart. “I thought I had the part, but in the end it went to Britney Spears. I fell from a great height because I really thought the part was mine.” She co-wrote a song, with Johnny Brown, Calum MacColl and Martyn Barker, called (I’ve Put All My Money On) A Horse Named Janis Joplin, to help herself recover from the disappointment.
Names to watch
I asked Morris if she could recommend some young artists to look out for. She spoke of Sarah Gillespie, whom she described as a young Bob Dylan, and urged me to check her out.
Then she talked about two of her backing singers for the show that evening: Lilybud and Otis Jack Coulter. Lilybud (Dearsley) is the step daughter of friend Richard Strange. Morris enthuses: “She’s taken up the torch. She writes social comment songs, she’s got everything, the phenomenal voice, the intention, the staying power.” Otis Jack Coulter is her son with first husband multi-instrumentalist David Coulter. He studied music at Goldsmiths, and sings and writes music. Morris recalled singing at Ronnie’s pregnant with Otis, on her first headline week, in the days when she played three weeks a year here. Tonight he is again on stage, alongside his partner Jasper, and Lilybud.
A large part of her work has been reinventing standards and revisiting popular songs, most recently working with Orphy Robinson on his Van Morrison show Astral Weeks, and currently on an exciting brand new project. Morris has featured the music of John Martyn in her shows for many years, and is about to release a CD dedicated to his work. I asked about the role of covers in her work, famously including Don’t Leave Me This Way, and Me and Mrs Jones, but also works by Bob Dylan, Sting, John Lennon, Tom Waits. She says that she will cover a song if she feels she can change it or say something new with it – there is little point in recreating the original. She chooses a song by the lyric, and whether she thinks she can take it somewhere new.
On her website she describes song-writing:
“I have grown to love this process and find that it is not tortuous, it happens almost immediately: a song arrives complete, usually at some level a political statement, often inferring the politics of gender relations, the power deficit endured by women, often overtly so. Thus I wrote about the suicide of friends, motherlove, betrayal, divorce, redemption, while also developing my voice of protest against injustice and bigotry, the theme of the politics of human rights and humanitarian socialism.”
She maintains that putting your life problems into songs is cheaper and more effective than therapy. And she would like to put on record that she is never nasty, just honest.
Sarah Jane Morris is currently on tour in England and in Italy.
The new record John Martyn: Sweet Little Mystery will be launched on 14 May 2019, with a performance at The Purcell Room, Southbank, London.
LINK: Sarah Jane Morris’s website