‘Something truly special’….one of the phrases used by Folk Radio UK to describe Jess Morgan’s 2014 album Langa Langa, a collection of beautifully crafted songs that floats gently in the mid-atlantic between the coastlines of American and British folk.
We’re not unique in our assessment. The Norwich born singer-songwriter has won praise from music pundits abound including Mark Radcliffe, Bob Harris, Tom Robinson and Steve Lamacq. Virtually every artist I speak to seems to know Jess and hold her in high regard.
In fact it seems like the only person that’s yet to be convinced that Jess Morgan really is ‘something special’ is Jess Morgan herself. Notably modest and understated, on the occasions I’ve met Jess she’s always struck me as charmingly unaware of just how good she really is.
When she visited Coventry last week to perform at the Big Comfy Bookshop (tickets were sold-out), I took the opportunity to catch up with Jess to talk about writing, world-travel and rumours of a new EP…
FRUK: The last time I met you Langa Langa had just been released. It was such a fantastic album. Now that you’ve had a year to reflect how do you feel about it?
“When I think of it, I always think of it as the album that maybe…perhaps I could have done more with it in the promotional stage, but actually as something I made for me I’m really pleased with it. I told some of the stories I wanted to tell on that album…I was pleased with how it looked and how it sounded, and I really enjoyed every minute of making it as well with Stephen MacLachlan. I’ll always looks back on that as a really happy period of my life…and that never goes away.
FRUK: As you’ve performed the songs live over the course of the last year, have they continued to evolve?
Yeah I think so. A lot of them I hadn’t even performed, hadn’t toured them, they’d gone straight on the album. But then I did a lot of gigs last year so they found their way. I really know the songs now, I don’t have to worry about them. When I hadn’t gigged them at all I’d go out there and be ‘Oh my God…here’s that one with the slightly tricky guitar bit and why did I write that?!’. But now they’re easy to play.
FRUK: I’ve been looking at your crazy tour schedule…are you still enjoying travelling?
Yes definitely! I like that music’s taken me around the country and around the world…I had a really busy year last year and I told myself I wouldn’t do that again because I probably did a few things last year that maybe were unnecessary. But things are getting busy again!
FRUK: Didn’t you just go to the US recently? Can you tell us about that?
I got the idea to go to this conference called Folk Alliance which happens in Kansas city. I got a scholarship to go from the people that put it on…eventually they gave me a showcase spot. Also I’ve got two sets of friends in New York that I haven’t seen for such a long time and one of my friends has had two babies since I saw her last….I thought I must find a way to see her! So I knew I needed to go to New York and Kansas…I had to plan a bit of a road trip. I travelled by public transport…buses and things like that…and I made my way from New York to Kansas city, just nipping through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and I did a week in Nashville. I played a couple of gigs, but mostly it was writing and seeing people. I did a lot of writing on the road…
FRUK: I was going to ask you if you’re writing at the moment?
Yeah I’m always writing…whether it’s anything any good or not, time will tell. Out there…it’s funny when you’re not driving you get that little bit of extra space in your brain back and I find that I’m a hundred times more productive when I can just look out of the window of the bus. I tend to not do hotels, I do AirBnB. There’s usually a nice kitchen table I can sit round as opposed to a clinical hotel room…that’s a really good spot for writing.
FRUK: What’s influencing your writing right now?
Always travel, places, new things. Seeing something new will always give a freshness to some ideas that I might have been carrying for a while…that helps me link things together into songs. I guess all the travelling and the work I did between Langa Langa coming out and now….it’s the last year, maybe the year before as well…two years where I’ve certainly done a lot of time on the road and spent a lot of time on my own. There were some times when I felt like I was looking at life the wrong way. I missed a lot of family commitments, I didn’t see my friends much…relationships came and went. By the time America came around it really gave me a new perspective.
I’ve always been a little less interested in putting much of my personal life into songs. I never know really whether that’s appropriate or not, or whether people expect or want that from me. But I think I’ve decided that if I don’t do it, then I’m not being very true to myself. I think if you can’t write your own story then you can’t really expect to write anybody elses. So I decided to weave some of that stuff in as well. I’ll have to see what people think!
FRUK: I’ve noticed you’ve been blogging of late…is that a new passion?
Well I’ve always liked writing in that way. On the America trip I had some time to do it. There were some days when I was travelling for eight or nine hours and it’s a really good way to make the time pass. Because when I’m writing song lyrics, I can just really think and think and think….sometimes I really labour over just one word…but just writing continuous prose, I don’t want to say it’s easier than writing songs but I didn’t feel the pressure. I felt like I’m not trying to be a journalist or a novelist or anything like that, this is just stuff for my blog. No-one has to take it seriously and I can take it down if it’s awful!
So they were kind of my journals….but I felt really encouraged by some of the comments and feedback so I thought well I’ll build my blog a little bit and I’ll keep writing. I studied English at University and they told us that ‘writers write’. So I thought, well, if it feeds into my lyric writing then I should do it. I feel like it does…I’ve felt really productive in the last couple of months and I think it might have something to do with just gradually getting less phased by the blank piece of paper and using words every day, considering different words, listening out for the story…
FRUK: Did I hear you have a new album coming out soon?
It’s an EP. I’m writing the next album…I’ve got some ideas about what I want it to be and the next kind of mark I want to try to make….but there’s some stuff that I feel has to come before that so this will be the EP that I’m going to release on 8th June. I’ve delayed the release because I want to try and do it properly and, with any luck, put it into the hands of people that would like to come to the gigs…as opposed to going after some of the things we try and chase when we’re putting our pride-and-joy album out. Not that the EP is a side-thought in any way, but I just really want people to hear the songs and maybe think ‘I’d like to see that live’.
I’ve been making it in Norwich, mostly with a guy called Jose McGill who is the frontman from The Vagaband…a really great Norwich based band, they’ve got some fantastic albums. It was really fun working with Jose because he has lots of harebrained and brilliant schemes when it comes to production. It’s like no ideas are off-limits and he inspires me to think out-of-the-box too.. We’ve done some interesting things on those tracks and there are a couple of demos on there as well. And there’s something that I recorded in Nashville on there as well…
FRUK: I’m looking forward to hearing that! I speak to quite a few musicians and you’re one of those artists that lots of other artists know and think highly of. Are there any ‘Jess Morgan collaborations’ on the cards?
There are! I’m writing with Stylusboy tommorow…writing with other people is something that I’ve always felt a bit self-conscious about, but I did some of that in Nashville and it removed the myth that it’s difficult and awkward, it isn’t at all. If you have a good relationship with that person anyway there’s no reason why you can’t write a song together, I think. But then again I’m quite inexperienced…maybe I’ll have a massive fall-out with Stylusboy tommorow and we’ll never speak again!…hopefully not.
I’m doing a tour with The Hut People in October, I think we have five or six dates. They were round my house yesterday and we were just putting together a mix of some trad folk stuff, some of my songs, some of their tunes. It’s really interesting because Sam is an accordion player and Gary is a percussionist, but he has loads of things…he has these two great big boxes full of things so he’s so much more than just a percussionist. The accordion and my style of acoustic guitar…I can imagine why people would think it wouldn’t go, but actually Sam’s got a way of finding a melody that just fits. He’s that kind of a musician. I just love it, I’m just there to enjoy it really. I feel really privileged that I get to work with these guys, I think that tour’s going to be really interesting.
And I’m gigging with a band as well. I’ve got a couple of gigs with a trio made up of me, Jose (mentioned earlier) on double bass and Noel Dashwood on Dobro. We’re rooted in Norwich but I’m dragging the guys out to Folk By The Oak this summer. Can’t wait! ”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
April 10th – The Bullingdon | Oxford (sup/ Larkin Poe)
April 11th – The Railway | Winchester
April 15th – Hagglers Corner | Sheffield
April 19th – The Tower Of Song | Birmingham
April 23rd Prinz Willi | Kiel (DE)
April 24th Mobile Blues Club, Hamburg (DE)
April 25th House Concert, Kiel (DE)
April 26th Cafe Erlesenes | Bremen (DE)
April 29th Secret Show | Bedford
April 30th – The Octagon Chapel | Norwich (w/Blue Rose Code)
May 30th – DeutzKultur-Sommerstart Festival | Cologne (details tbc) (DE)
June 2nd – Liebe in 4 Sprachen | Cologne (more details tbc) (DE)
June 18th – The Green Note | Camden, London
July 3rd – The London Folk Festival
July 11th – Ely Folk Festival
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos