Who was it for you? Whose music, whose voice, ran deep into your heart, staked its claim and never let go? For me it was British singer-songwriter Sarah Jane Morris, when a dear friend of mine pushed the live jazz album, “Blue Valentine,” into my hands in 1997. Flash forward and it's been musical love and a magical friendship with Sarah Jane ever since. For me, her voice is filled with the richness of earth, the salt of the oceans, and stardust from the heavens. Across nearly four octaves she soars, she dives, she growls, like Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, and a hip Sarah Vaughn, three of whom she’s often compared to. All heart and soul, she pours notes like liquid fire, like a color wheel spinning through a dark night. Add her big bright smile, the flame of red hair, and the mesmerizing rhythm and vocals that bring audiences to their feet or to awed silence: she’s bold, fearless, compassionate, and wise. In my book, holy.
Perhaps best known for The Communards #1 pop hit, “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” in the ‘80s – her baritone in splendid counterpoint to Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto – and a stirring cover of “Me and Mrs. Jones” that was banned by the BBC, Sarah Jane’s career has spanned many musical genres and countries, especially her beloved Italy where she regularly performs. Along the way she discovered her own songwriting voice, her lyrics telling stories about the human condition and human rights around the globe. Headline news can come with a sad refrain, as she sings about corruption, war crimes, honor killings, and homophobia, but Sarah Jane’s love and optimism shine through and she somehow takes risks without being preachy.
A humanist who resonates spiritually, Sarah Jane and I spoke about her core belief in “the goodness of human beings,” her latest album, “Sweet Little Mystery,” celebrating maverick songwriter and guitarist John Martyn, and her extraordinary music collaborators (guitarists Tony Remy, Antonio Forcione, Dominic Miller, Marc Ribot, and others). We also spoke about the oft-used religious iconography in her songs, particularly angels. Her journey is long (she’d be the first to tell you she turned 60 this year), and the captivating and charismatic Sarah Jane continues to jump barriers of all heights. But then, angel wings fly high, don’t they?
RG: Hello to you, my dear Sarah Jane Morris! I fell in love with your music and voice when a friend handed me your ‘Blue Valentine’ album in 1997, and then through what I would call a gift from the universe, we became close friends. Between what I know about you and what I don't know, we could be here for days talking.
RG: By way of introduction, you're a singer-songwriter in jazz, soul, rock, pop, world music, you're comfortable across many genres. You've always been a human rights singer and more recently songwriter, and some might have described you at one time as 'the redhead belting revolutionary songs.' How do you describe you, and how would you characterize your artistic sensibility?
SJM: Gosh. I think I've developed into someone that tells, through song, the human story. But I started out as someone who was drawn towards those that were fighting for human rights, as you said, and I think it all began when I was at drama college at the age of 17 in Stratford. I found myself getting involved with Amnesty International and with a fellow drama student I organized an evening to raise money and awareness for them. That's really my first memory of being aware of how people around the world were suffering because of their political beliefs. It struck a chord with me at that point. My father had just gone to prison for something he felt he was innocent of and so I as his daughter felt very alienated. None of the teachers at our school knew how to deal with the children of someone who was locked away in prison. The damage was done, the splitting of the family, the losing of the home, the doubting what is truth and what is a lie.
I was looking for something to believe in and Amnesty was the beginning of my being interested in the human story. I was aware of what it was to be without. We had no money, we survived through church charity. My mother at the time was a secretary at the local Grammar school and when Dad went to prison she broke down at school in the staff room and the religious education teacher came to her rescue by suggesting we come as a family and live in the small church-owned house for a low rent in her village as her husband was the vicar. We were rescued by the church.
SJM: My mother was a strong believer and as young children we went to Sunday School every Sunday and were very much part of the small village community. I discovered that the mother of the girl that became my best friend in this new village, was having an affair with the vicar. I felt awful finding that out, because this woman who'd come to our rescue knew nothing about this, and yet I did. I'm afraid at that point I think I decided whatever church was about, it was not for me, because this was such a mass of contradictions for me. So I guess my new interest in humanity was initially through Amnesty, and then through the drama teacher that I had at the drama college that I went to aged 17. Gordon Vallins was my introduction to socialist politics, because he was the leading authority in the country on Bertolt Brecht and Brechtian theater. Brecht was all about alienation, and I was alienated.
RG: Social issues are clearly your passion. I think everyone who knows you knows that. You have stood for women's rights, for gay rights, you did a cover of ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ that was banned by the BBC, you've written songs protesting honor killings and exploitation. I guess it's kind of the ‘heart and headline’ tragedies of our time, and sadly there have been a lot. But you also have incorporated other emotions in some songs. You wrote a very catchy Calypso song, for example, 'Men Just Want to have Fun,' about men's unwillingness to wear condoms.
RG: So in the mix of what you're doing, you are finding a place of meaning in a song and yet you're not alienating audiences. There's no finger wagging here. How are you incorporating those two sides?
SJM: I think I learned that knocking someone over the head with your politics doesn't actually do anything, it just frightens them away. By listening to the way other artists approached songwriting and also by understanding and seeing the reaction of an audience I learned that if you can be subtle with your lyric and actually seduce with the beautiful melody of the song, that you find a way of getting your message across. I tell the human story. I don't have any answers. I like to think that a song I write starts a debate or starts a conversation. There's something about the combination of music and the storyline that allows me to do this. Sometimes I'm almost speaking in song. But the strength of the melody and the seduction of the melody is what actually is initially making the contact with someone and then the lyric gradually sinks in. For me, the lyric comes first because I'm often writing it as a poem, sort of stream of consciousness. But I'm aware that many people would rather be seduced by the music and then find out what that song is about afterwards.
RG: Did you have a sense when you were first doing concerts, and when you were first starting to sing, that your social activism and music could be combined in this way?
SJM: Nearly all of the bands I've ever been involved with have combined politics with music. Like you said, I've become a songwriter. I wasn't initially. I was the singer, I was the interpreter, and I'm sure the early bands I sung with influenced me. The first band I was in, the African Caribbean Latin band, ‘The Republic’, were musically what we would now term ‘world music.’ Back then it was termed crossover music, this was the early 1980s. The songs were making people dance to the music because of the rhythms and the melodies. Lyrically, we were dealing with the Royal Family, we were dealing with the Malvinas War, we were dealing with racism.
There was one song we did that was all about a controlling relationship called, 'My Spies.' The lyrics are, 'My spies are in position around your house, reporting back to me on all you do, there's no use for you to try to run away, wherever you may go I’ll get to you.' This was a relationship of control and is fairly sinister. Years and years later I co-wrote the song, 'Blind Old Friends,' which in a way was linked back to that song. It's that idea about jealousy destroying a relationship and the photographs of friends and lovers have had all the eyes gouged out because of the jealousy of the partner of someone's past. Singing the lyrics of these songs in the early part of my career very definitely influenced the way I would later tell the human story in song.
RG: And yet worldwide, you may be best known for being in The Communards with the hit version of 'Don't Leave Me This Way,' in 1986.
SJM: Which was a disco hit. It's a long way away from where I am now but it opened doors and singing with Jimmy was a great experience. That song and band were quite important in my journey. Jimmy and Richard were writing songs about gay love at a time when others weren’t yet brave enough to do so. We were standing up for gay rights, marching to change abortion laws, we were talking about and fighting against Margaret Thatcher and all she stood for. Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles were some of the only out gay men in the music business back then.
"Don't Leave Me This Way" video link with Jimmy Somerville, The Communards
RG: Where was Elton John at the time? He wasn't out then either.
SJM: Jimmy was one of the few people that was out and proud and wrote through Bronski Beat many incredibly important songs for other young teenagers, boys and girls, that could find out through his songs that it was OK, they weren't on their own. 'Don't leave Me This Way' was in a year where we were struggling under the Thatcher government. It was a very hard time. We'd just come out of the miner's strike, it was all doom and gloom and that song allowed people to dance and celebrate. It was a celebratory song. I think it became a hit because of exactly where it was placed in that decade. People needed to party and to be able to forget quite how bad things were.
RG: HIV and AIDS.
SJM: Yes, we lost so many good friends during the 80s and early 90s. There was a huge ignorance by a vast majority of people and the media were spreading fear. Ignorance and fear led to gay bashing. There were so many families who were turning against their gay son or daughter for fear of contamination and fear of what others might think. There was so much ignorance around HIV and AIDS.
RG: What was that time of your life like? You were traveling the world in support of the song and it was 1986. What did that look like for you?
SJM: When you're successful everybody wants to be near you. It was party time especially traveling the world with Richard and Jimmy. I was enjoying being in my mid 20s and everybody wanting to know me, having doors opened to me through the success we were having, not having to pay for things. As someone who had up to that point struggled financially, I couldn't quite believe it all. It was mind blowing. One of things I noticed during this period was that men either wanted to bed Jimmy or they wanted to beat him up.
RG: They didn't want to be him, though?
SJM: They wanted to be close to him or because of their homophobia destroy him.
RG: Was this everywhere or were there particular places that were worse or better?
SJM: The middle of England was bad, Birmingham and Coventry, as I recall, and up North, very homophobic. I would say it was worldwide, although I don't think we experienced this kind of treatment in New York, San Francisco, or London. I didn't understand people's fear of homosexuality. We were traveling the world, we were having unbelievable attention, and at the end of a year long tour I found myself realizing that I was lonely, and I'd quite like to be in my own home, and I'd like to spend time with my close friends and family and my boyfriend, David. Every time I got on a tube somebody would recognize me and start talking to me and I really wouldn't know whether they genuinely knew me or whether they had seen me on television. I was very confused about people and I didn't know who my friends were. I was worn out and realized I didn’t want to be part of this pop business, I wanted an ordinary life as well, I wanted to be home, I wanted a family, I wanted to be near my friends, and I didn't want to be owned by the public.
"Sweet Little Mystery" video link, with Tony Remy, featuring the songs of John Martyn
RG: It's interesting from the observation side, right? I mean, I've heard you likened to Janis Joplin, to a hip Sarah Vaughn, to Nina Simone, to maybe an Erika Badu, to a lot of people, and some describe you as kind of a soul on fire. I have always said your voice is so hot it could blister tar in winter! So much power and fire. In the midst of what you're talking about, how did you decide back then what musical direction you were going to follow? A lot of people have a certain version of success which certainly comes with pop music – you're at the top of it, but you're saying, 'I don't want that anymore.' How do you decide what musical direction to follow and what you do want? And how do you make it work?
SJM: Well it took me years and years and years to find my way back to where I was before ‘The Communards,’ because everybody thought I was crazy not wanting to capitalize on this worldwide success. Record companies, obviously, because I was making them a lot of money, wanted me continue. I started to be known as the difficult singer in the business because I had made that choice. At that point I wasn't a songwriter, I didn't yet know how to achieve that. I followed my gut, and it took me years and years to find myself in the place I needed to be. I don't regret it. It's been a very long, twisted journey, and lots of doors closed to me, but lots of very interesting doors opened. I'm very aware that a lot of people around me judge success by the dollar, by money, by how much money you have.
Now that I’m 60 I realize that I am successful. I'm not incredibly wealthy, but I am still doing what I love passionately, I'm singing better than ever and through my music I'm connecting with people. I give 150% every time I step on a stage to sing. I am fed back by my audience, I am given back love. It's a circle. I receive the love back, I'm refueled. I might not be connecting with millions of people, but I connect through the year with thousands, and that is success. Forty years later I'm still doing what I love passionately. I don't know so many people who could say that. I know so many of my contemporaries have fallen by the wayside because it knocked the hell out of them or they had their financial success and decided to go in a different direction, or they just didn't have the strength to keep fighting the doors that closed.
But somehow I always found the strength, the little cracks in the wall that I could attach my nails to and scratch my way back up again. I am a survivor. I am passionate and singing is my expression. I would be absolutely lost without being able to express myself through music. I'm rewarded by knowing there are thousands of people out there that get something from that which I write or sing. As soon as you write a song it's like giving birth, it's out there in the world, it's for the receiver to make of it what they will. It becomes their song.
RG: Let's talk about your audience connection for a bit. I've seen you perform live many times now, and it's clear that you are in communion with your audience no matter the size, no matter the location. It could be a cavernous concert hall, it could be an outdoor Italian arena, you sell out shows at Ronnie Scott's every year, and you also do a lot of very small, intimate concert settings. I find that the audience seems to experience a transcendence, so to speak, when you're on stage. What’s happening for you that allows that magic to get made? Does it come naturally? Do you even think about it?
SJM: No, I don't think about it. I disappoint lots of people when they ask me what my warm up routine is or how I prepare for a concert. I've never had music lessons, I've never trained my voice, I don't have any of those clever techniques. I (with my manager) look after my career and my band, and I always want to make sure that they are OK. I'm the person writing the set list by hand just before going on stage. I've got very little time to put a dab of makeup on. I carry clothes that are very easy to sort of pop up into looking like a glamorous dress but there's no ironing involved, there's no preparation. I go on stage without any preparation and I react immediately to the audience I’m presented with. I allow myself to go on whatever journey we are going on that night. I can see the audience, and I can see some of their expressions, and if it's a tiny place I can hear them. I'm there but I'm not. I've gone on a of journey where I've almost left my body.
RG: I have to say, sometimes it's like watching a possession, so to speak. It's like the spirit takes you over.
SJM: Yes, it does.
RG: Are you ‘there’ anymore or are you entranced with what's happening?
SJM: I think I'm entranced. I allow myself to go on the ride, I allow myself to enjoy it, I allow myself to be dangerous with it. But what you have to remember is, especially in the last 20 years, I am on stage with musicians that I would trust with my life. They are not only incredible musicians, they are also beautiful human beings and they are people that I have chosen to be my musical family. We all trust each other and we are all good enough to, if one person musically takes it in one direction, we all go, and so the songs are never the same which is exciting for us. We allow ourselves to reshape the song every single time. I think that's another reason why we all enjoy working with each other so much. We don't get bored because even though it’s often the same set list, it's never ever the same concert. We are forever pushing the boundaries and exploring musically, and spiritually exploring.
RG: Recently I was reading a piece about John Coltrane, how he would play solos, and he was of course very spiritual, and he would talk about taking people to the divine in those solos and then coming back. Do you think about anything like that when you're on stage? I was thinking about you, it's perhaps a way to relieve human suffering even for just a little while, at least for those people in the room.
SJM: Yes. I mean, we've talked about this many times, you and I as friends. I am a very empathetic person. That’s why audiences are so important to me, and meeting them afterwards. People tell me things they probably wouldn't tell other people, or I just get that sense about them, I just feel it. I pick up people's emotions and I have a sixth sense about people. I care hugely for my fellow human beings. I have a lot of love to give. I tend to give it either through my hugs or through the songs that I write. I don't know a lot of people that are in my audience, but I love them unconditionally.
RG: I think they feel that, very powerfully.
SJM: I think they do feel it, and they let me know, and they love me back. It's a wonderful circle. It's a very healing thing.
RG: Healing from both sides, even better.
SJM: Yes, and I think the fact that I've been able to write so much of my own story into song, it's saved me from having constant therapists, you know? I've been able to help heal myself through the songs that I write. Initially they're poems. I've always written poems, since I was a young girl, and it's always been a way of being able to get trauma out of me. I think it's kept me remotely sane. I come from an incredibly dysfunctional family but I've been able to keep my feet on the ground.
RG: Is art at all a spiritual excursion for you?
SJM: I would say I was a spiritual person so I think anything I choose to do has some connection with that, yes.
RG: Can you describe what that intersection might be between a creative life and spiritual life, and I ask that knowing that you consider yourself a humanist.
SJM: I don't align myself with any particular religion. My mother was a real believer, as you know.
RG: Your mother was so lovely, and I'm grateful I got to meet her.
SJM: A gorgeous human being. But what I suppose are the big strengths I picked up from her and from my father was to not be judgmental. Both my mother and my father would tell me their secrets and therefore I was knowledgeable about things that I probably shouldn't have known about at a young age. I was old before my time. I've always approached life and anyone that I've met by trying to find out what their past was and what has led them to the place they're at. Being able to forgive my father for some of the things he did along the way was easy and such a relief. We are all making it up as we go along anyway. Once I found out how complicated his background was and what had happened to him in his life, it allowed me to understand and forgive. I’ve gone off on a tangent and I don't know what your original question was!
RG: It was about art being a spiritual excursion for you and describing that intersection between your creative life and your spiritual life. You always seem to me to be someone who has extraordinary faith.
SJM: Yeah, but I don't worship a god. I believe in the goodness in human beings, and that's what keeps me going. I remember my father saying about me that I was someone capable of fighting the Brixton riots singlehandedly and at the same time believing in fairies. I have a naiveté about me that I've managed to keep hold of, and I see it as a strength. I co-wrote a song for my son when he was a little boy and the chorus was, 'Wrap your innocence around you,' meaning that's a strength. I think that's been my strength always through my life, my innocence, my naiveté.
I've had a complicated journey, but I haven't allowed it to make me bitter. I've fought hard to not be bitter and to forgive. I think the biggest thing you can do in life is to forgive and let it go and not carry it. I'm very glad that I learned to do that. But I stopped believing in a god at that point where my best friend's mother was having an affair with the vicar. That was where I started to really challenge the idea of a god. I remember my mother saying, 'Look, regarding the Bible, these are just stories that were written by men, that's all they are.' And if you look at the Koran, once again it's stories written by a man. I see the same good in nearly all the religions that I read about and I see the same bad. I don't have a problem about people believing. I think that's wonderful when someone has a belief, that's a wonderful strength that keeps them going. In my life you've been an angel for me, my gosh you have.
RG: You're an angel in my life too! That goes both ways!
SJM: Those are the angels that interest me, the angels I can actually see and feel them near. They're all over the place, you know. I believe in the living angels.
RG: So let's talk about angels. You use the word quite a lot in your lyrics, the name of your record label is Fallen Angel, and in scanning through a lot of your song titles and lyrics there are a lot of angel references and spiritual references – ‘Mother of God,’ ‘Good Night God Bless,’ ‘It's Jesus I Love (but it's the devil I need tonight).’ One of your songs that I just love, 'Comfort They Have None,’ the lyric, 'If there were a God he'd hear my call.' You also are relatively famous for covering the Nick Cave song, 'Into My Arms,’ which is a similar subject.
RG: So where are you on angels, how do you describe them, how do you think about them, and how are you using them lyrically?
SJM: I love the iconography, I love the kitschiness of it all. I'm quite a camp woman, so I love the presence of the angel. I have a cabinet in my studio here which is full of different angel tokens. I've one outside and it protects our house, a wonderful angel that you had made out of scrap metal, which has a barbed wire halo!
RG: It does! Vallery Coats is the wonderful artist and friend who made it.
SJM: I loved that present, it's still with me! Part of my relationship with angels is it's sort of a kitsch camp one, and part of it is that sense of goodness wrapped around the world. What you're doing with Radio Gabriel is connecting positive energy with other human beings. That's why I think we all ought to be doing far more, and I suppose my references to angels in songs is that I have a belief but I couldn't put it into words as to what that is! It's just a feeling, but I suppose really more than anything is I believe in the beauty of the human being and the human intention. I talk to my father, I talk to my mother, so it’s the spirit of them that I find myself talking to. I'm an absolute contradiction you know?!
RG: Then the obvious question, you name your label Fallen Angel, which is kind of the antithesis. What was the guiding premise of that for you?
SJM: The fact that we all struggle with being good, with being wrapped up in ourselves. There's a big part of us that wants to be able to help the world, to find a better way of sharing this earth, to treat nature with respect and care about the survival of our brothers and sisters, but there's a part of us that has to survive and look after ourselves. I suppose the fallen angel is the one that hasn't quite got its act together, and that's where I'm at, I'm still searching. I think I am fundamentally a good person, but I struggle with my own selfishness and my own need for survival and that makes me feel like I am that fallen angel.
RG: But don't you think that’s just part of the human condition?
SJM: Yes it is, it is.
RG: It's not necessarily struggling against it, it's just who we are in some cases.
SJM: Yes, it is what we are.
Film of the recording of "No Beyonce" from the "Bloody Rain" album
RG: Which is kind of interesting. Also, in full disclosure, you very kindly released a CD of some Christmas songs that I had co-written and you came up with the title, 'Angels at Christmas,' which I particularly loved, and your wonderful brother Rod Morris, who is an extraordinary photographer, provided the brilliant photo for it.
SJM: Yes. But like I said, you've been one of my angels!
RG: That's incredibly kind of you. Let's go back to faith for a minute. You're somebody who never gives up, you never quit in spite of whatever difficulties might be in front of you. You always keep going. This is a very simple thing, but on a personal note, I remember being with you inside the cathedral in Canterbury near to where you live and you chatting up one of the Anglican priests, a woman, who happened to be there, about gay rights and why the Church of England wasn't coming around!
SJM: That was the day before I got married, wasn't it?!
RG: It was! You never miss an opportunity. It's sort of who you are, and I'm wondering if that sensibility is what you hold sacred and you keep doing that because that's what's necessary and it's who you are.
SJM: I think that is the case, indeed. I love connecting with other people, I love to hear other people's stories. Obviously it feeds me as a songwriter, but I just get such joy from it, whether it be a woman on the bus or a man on the train or wherever I am. I like to connect with people. I don't want a day to go by where I haven't let someone know that I have time for them and that their story is important.
RG: That's gorgeous, I love that!
SJM: It's a huge part of me. I have a huge amount of love to give, but one of the hardest things to learn is to receive it, too. It is hard to receive gifts, but the gift of love, and I've been very fortunate with the people around me. There are many beautiful human beings in my life, and I'll continue to meet them, right through to the end. I've been particularly lucky to meet my second husband (Mark Pulsford), who's the most remarkable man and has taught me so much.
RG: No pun intended, the remarkable Mark!
SJM: The remarkable Mark, yes! Who also has an enormous amount of love to give, and I think I helped him release some of that love. But I feel just as much love back as I give out.
RG: There's also a lot of love for your beloved Italy.
SJM: Yes! Wonderful Italy!
RG: Your face lights up! You've performed there a zillion times by now, you've won the San Remo Festival Music Award, and I'm guessing you know the country like the back of your hand at this point. Why do you think the Italians in particular love your music and love you? It's a country with a Catholic tradition and comes with a lot of contradiction.
SJM: I know, I know. Well maybe they see me as this contradiction, too! But I think they love the fact I've got red hair, they love the fact that I've got some Celtic blood, they love the fact that I dare to dress differently, that I'm not conventional in my dress, that I dare to push the boundaries, and I think they love the passion that I sing with and that I tell my stories with. So even if they haven't necessarily understood the lyric, they somehow picked up on the essence of my intention.
Sarah Jane performing "The Sea" with Antonio Forcione, "Live in Pompeii"
RG: It is particularly interesting that you are so beloved in a country whose language is not English.
SJM: And I'm singing in English! But they're just picking up on an energy. I'm a very visual singer so my arms are going all over the place. I can't stop that. I see myself sometimes in videos and I think, 'Why am I doing that?!' But I can't stop it whatever it is I'm doing, it just happens. The voice comes out of my massive mouth and my arms do this strange thing while I'm making these sounds! One of my musicians named my dance on stage as, ‘the constipated octopus!’
RG: That's part of that possession we were talking about earlier.
SJM: Yes, and I think there's something about how low my voice is, how powerful it is, and my intention. My audience allows me to take them on a journey.
RG: That's the John Coltrane idea of transcendence with the audience, and taking someone somewhere.
SJM: We all go there together and we all come back at the end.
RG: It's evident when you go to concerts. But there are some who you can sense the same spirit of just allowing to happen what needs to happen and going on that journey.
SJM: Well Janis Joplin was one, my gosh!
RG: But that's a long time ago. I can tell you one right now who is doing it, and that's Lisa Fischer.
SJM: Yes! I remember you mentioned her. She's great!
RG: She's somebody who is taking you on that journey and it's not a canned performance. It's a total experience.
SJM: Another person who very much did was Nina Simone.
RG: Yes, absolutely! To whom you've been compared many times.
SJM: She was a huge influence on me. I've got a much lower voice than Nina. I make her sound quite high. But what I loved about her was her honesty and also how she managed to mix her politics with her music. She stood up for what she believed in.
RG: Did you ever get to meet her?
SJM: I watched her in concert three or four different times and each time at some point in the concert she either walked off stage or was angry with the audience or the situation. They were nevertheless incredibly magical and I was in awe of her. She would probably go down as my all-time favorite singer.
RG: Who are your kindred spirits?
SJM: Obviously Janis (Joplin), too. I mean, if you think I go on dangerous journeys musically, my God, she was just sort of hanging off the cliff, wasn't she!
RG: Well, there are arguably times when it seems you are hanging off the cliff! And doing it without alcohol or drugs.
SJM: Yeah, that's very true! Imagine, God, what would I be like if I were on drugs! My God, if I'm like this on water! That just doesn't bear thinking about. I mean, once again, she didn't fit in, did she? She didn't fit in with her look, with her free mind, with her family, with what was musically going on, she was made to feel alienated.
RG: Do you feel that way about your music, your career, at all?
SJM: I could easily, if I dared, if I allowed myself to go down that road, but that's a dangerous one. Like I said, I'm lucky, I'm fortunate. I might not be wealthy, I might not be playing to millions of people. I like it the way it is, I like connecting with the people I connect with. I have wonderfully intelligent, passionate audiences. I like the fact that sometimes people come along who have never ever come across me before and they're meeting me at this point, they're meeting me at this time when I'm at my best, and that's great that they've just connected with me. I've never had a music lesson in my life but music is my language. I would be lost without it.
With guitarists Tony Remy and Tim Cansfield
RG: Is there an artistic language that you've found for yourself and utilize when you're writing lyrics and composing? Is there somewhere that inspires you the most? I guess what I'm getting at is where do you think these songs are coming from? Is there a spiritual component, is there anything you do to put yourself in a receptive state? I know it's a broad question!
SJM: Once again, it's my compassion with human nature. If I read about or hear from someone, whether it be on the radio or from a friend, about a situation and it triggers something in my brain, I allow myself to imagine being that person and then all of the lyrics start to fall into place. Maybe it's part of my acting training. You know when I co-wrote that song 'Comfort Zone,' about the murder of sex workers, I couldn't sleep the night I'd heard about it. It had been on the news and stayed with me. It haunted my dreams and I woke up and luckily had a notepad and pen beside the bed and I wrote those lyrics. In my nightmare I had become that last victim. That song is for the sex worker who is about to be the next victim.
RG: Do you not have the notebook and pen in bed anymore?
SJM: I don't, actually. I’ve now got a mobile phone and an app that records me singing or speaking the lyric. I write nearly all of my songs on my mobile phone.
RG: I did not know that!
SJM: So occasionally when I’ve had a mobile stolen I've suddenly lost a whole load of songs that will never get written again.
RG: Print them out or back them up!
SJM: I know, but I'm not that organized.
RG: I hate to think of them being lost. When you're writing, though, do you ever get the feeling that these songs are kind of sitting out there in the ether waiting for you in particular to reach out and write them? Like this great songwriting river in the sky, so to speak? Have any of them ever come fully formed?
SJM: Yes, ‘Comfort Zone.’ Let me think back to the ones that have come fully formed. The song ‘Innocence,’ the one about Otis (Coulter), my son, that one was fully formed, and the song, 'Only to Be with You,' the song that I wrote on the train on the way to scatter my Dad's ashes.
RG: I love those songs.
SJM: The song for Mark for our wedding was a poem written the night before the wedding. A lot of them come fully formed but some I work on over months on the computer. I co-write with many people from Johny Brown, a long term and brilliant lyricist, with Tony Remy, Dominic Miller, Martyn Barker. Sometimes I have a couple of lines. Over the last year I've started writing with Mark, my husband. That's been lovely. Things going backwards and forwards and he's a very fine writer in his own way. He writes in a very different way to me but it's quite a good combination and we've written about eight songs together. It's part of a project called, 'Fisher and the Crow,' and it was inspired by the film, 'I, Daniel Bake,' which was very much about breadline Britain. I found it very upsetting and found myself writing a stream of consciousness song and that triggered it off, so I wanted to write a cycle of songs about man's inhumanity to man but that had hope at the end.
So last winter Mark and I started reading back through Greek literature. We wanted to look at greed, revenge, and fear. The journey of the songs touch on the refugees, on climate change, and we end up right at the very end with a song called, 'Let Only Love Remain,' which gives hope. It's a cycle of songs that we perform in Italy with an Italian actor who, because the subject matter is quite heavy, is telling a totally different story, a fairy tale. So you've got these two stories being woven through each other, and because of his fairy tale you're able to accept and not be crushed by the weight of the songs that I'm singing.
RG: Is Mark on stage with you?
SJM: No, it's myself and Tony (Remy). Initially it was with the violinist Alessandro Quarta who co-wrote the songs with us, but I also perform this with Jenny Adejayan on cello, Henry Thomas on acoustic bass and Tony on acoustic guitar. We are allowing the songs to be very flexible and change with the particular instruments that we choose for the concert.
RG: It's interesting that you mention Greek literature because you've always said that one of your favorite poems is 'Ithaka,' by Constantine Cavafy, and I want to read part of it so it goes into the record:
“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”
RG: What is it about that poem that speaks to you? I love it too, it's gorgeous.
SJM: It was just at the time that Dad had gone to prison, and a Canadian poet came to my college to have a look around. He was in his early 30s, he'd come over to Cambridge University to do his MA and he happened to come down to Stratford-on-Avon to have a wander around. He took a liking to me. He saw that I was quite naive and vulnerable. He was at least ten years older than me and we sort of started a relationship. It was Bill who introduced me to this poem. I remember reading it and thinking, 'That's what I'm going to do, I am going to enjoy my life as it happens, I'm not going to wait thinking it's all going to fall into place when I'm old. I'm going to enjoy it now, those jewels are what's happening each and every day and that's how I'll survive.'
In the early 1980s with the Afro-Caribbean band, "The Republic"
RG: Some of that perhaps comes from your background, which we should cover. So, born in Southampton.
SJM: But never lived there. It was in a nursing home. In those days you were given, by the government, vouchers towards your babies' welfare. My mother collected hers and believed in natural childbirth. There was a natural childbirth clinic in Southampton that she went to for nearly all of her children. She had a child a year for God knows how many years. I have five natural brothers and one half brother, so I've always considered it six brothers. But that is the only connection with Southampton, the fact that the nursing home was there.
RG: It's interesting because you had the background that you had, and you have the artistic sensibility that you have. Do you see them being directly related, and in particular your father's circumstances? Did you have to work hard to find your artistic voice within your family or do you think your artistic voice came because of the family you had?
SJM: I had to work hard. When you come from a big family you all have to work hard to be noticed, to be the one to be heard. We were a very loud family, mealtimes were crazy. My father quite enjoyed the idea of us thinking he was brilliant. He was a very intelligent man. We would never be able to leave the dining table until we'd answered 20 questions each.
RG: That's a long dinner, then, with that many kids!
SJM: I know! My poor mother! An hour after the meal she would be going around and whispering some of the answers into people's ears because she couldn't get on with getting anybody ready for bed. Sometimes there were maths questions, sometimes it was Greek literature, sometimes it was Latin, sometimes it was French.
RG: What would happen if you didn't know the answer?
SJM: You had to stay there, you had to stay at the table.
RG: Would he keep asking new questions or did you have to come up with answers to the old ones?
SJM: Yes, new questions. I think it was about feeding that thing of, 'Our Dad is so intelligent, he knows everything!' I think that's what that was about, really.
RG: Was it about showing you that he knew everything, or about trying to help all of you know everything, too?
SJM: It was probably a bit of both. He was an architect and a very gifted artist, and he was a good carpenter and incredibly good with his hands as well as having this amazing brain. He got into Oxford to do Classics and he didn't go because his mother wanted him to be a doctor and his father wanted him to be an architect. He should have been an Oxford don, but he took a different journey and he had all of these amazing children along the way!
RG: He did have amazing children, you have an extraordinary family and everyone is very talented in their own right.
SJM: They're all lovely people. I love my brothers. They are such lovely human beings, they really are. I think Mum and Dad would be very proud if they could see quite what lovely people they all have grown into!
RG: It's interesting, how many you have from a family line with an artistic sensibility. I mentioned your brother Rod, who is incredibly talented, and on the American family side, you also have a very talented and famous cousin in Armistead Maupin, who is perhaps most noted for 'Tales of the City,' about gay life in San Francisco that was a groundbreaking series.
SJM: I gather it was his way of being able to come out to his parents through his newspaper column which eventually turned into the series of books.
RG: It's also interesting how the two of you intersect from a gay rights standpoint from two different countries.
SJM: Yes! It's very interesting because for a huge part of my life I didn’t know we were related. We had met years before, in fact the first ever time I performed with Jimmy Somerville, which was the Gay's the Word bookshop benefit at ‘The Fridge’ in Brixton, where Armistead was reading from his book, 'Tales from the Fallen Angel.’ All those years later I name my record company Fallen Angel.
RG: Having no idea, right? You were doing this independently.
SJM: Having no idea that he was my cousin at that point! Isn't life extraordinary?!
RG: It is and it also raises a question, because the concept of synchronicity seems very powerful in your life as well. Do you think about that? Do you use it? Do you look at it seriously?
SJM: I don't think I do! I've always been someone who reacts to things with that gut instinct and that's how I face everything.
RG: Without going into details, there was quite a bit of synchronicity happening in a certain way for you and me to meet and get to know each other, and I think that watching your life over these 19 years it seems like there's been an extraordinary amount of synchronicity going on so perhaps it's just a question of paying attention to it.
SJM: Maybe I need to start paying attention. As I'm in my 60th, I have to start observing a little more my own journey!
RG: You have a lot of interesting things happen to you. One I was going to mention when we were talking about Italy. You were invited to perform at Christmas time for the Pope, and it was Pope Benedict at the time.
SJM: The Pope is not a fan of music!
RG: That had to be a tricky moment for you. How did you navigate that?
SJM: Well I needed to be honest, and I have a problem with the way the Catholic Church deals with homosexuality particularly, and as you know I would call myself spiritual and not religious. A lot of people would have given their eye teeth to have met the Pope. I was presented to him at the Vatican because I was going to be performing there that night. I was there with Dionne Warwick and an Irish pop star, Rona Keating. Dionne Warwick had met many popes, she is Catholic, as is Rona Keating. I found myself in between these two Catholic singers, and they are getting down on their bended knee and they are kissing his ring. And I'm thinking, I am not going to kiss the ring of a Pope that allows such things to happen through his church, that gives permission, that turns a blind eye to what is going on. I can't do that. So I put my hand out and shook his hand and said, 'I'm singing for you later.' I had to make it real. I didn’t want it to be adoration. I don't know how to describe it but I had to be real in the moment and I couldn’t get down on my knees and kiss the Pope's ring.
With Antonio Forcione
RG: Do you have an inner voice that you actively listen to? Do you rely on your intuition?
SJM: I absolutely rely on my intuition, yes. It's a feeling, but probably a voice, too. I think I do hear voices, yes, so I think both.
RG: Let’s talk more about synchronicity. You have experienced a lot of death in your life, and you've written songs about losing family, losing close friends, you've written about suicide. With synchronicity and spirituality and spiritual connection, you mentioned talking to your parents, you mentioned a voice. Is there a connection to all of this for you to the songwriting, to the synchronicity, to how you live your life, whether you're even aware of it or not?
SJM: I think sometimes I'm aware of it and sometimes I'm not, because I'm going through life at such a bulldozer pace. In order to be able to do this wonderful thing that I do, music, it's quite complicated to finance it and the amount of people that I carry along with me to keep them going is quite an exhausting thing so I don't think I have very much time in my life where I can just sit down and think about what's going on. I'm doing nearly all the time. I feel like my life is a bit of a fast train and I'm on that train most of the time.
RG: One thing you do, though, that helps make that train work as well as it does, and I know it's not easy, is that you have a huge amount of loyalty that you give and that you get from the people you work with.
RG: Do you think that helps allow that train to keep moving?
SJM: Oh, it so does! Where some people go wrong is to start to believe the sycophants around them telling them they are genius and that they need no one, and that it's them that's creating the success or the beauty. I am very aware that my songs enter the wonderful world that they do because of many other people and their contribution. This music wouldn't be happening with me alone, none of it would. It's a mixture of many people that make my songs, from the writing side to the music we play on stage. It's absolutely down to the people who are part of my team, my musical family, and I let them know that most of the time. I always allow my musicians solos, I celebrate them on stage, and I think the audience enjoys that, too, to know that it's not just about me being the front person. I've always felt a bit uncomfortable about being the front person because I was in so many bands in my early days and because I come from such a big family. I wish in a way that it wasn't my name that was leading all of my projects. I'd love it to have been a band's name. I like being part of a community with them, my musical community.
RG: It's a huge community. I won't say worldwide, but there are many countries where you have community, so to speak.
SJM: Yes, there are.
RG: You've been on stage and written with some extraordinary musicians through the years.
SJM: Yes, and everybody brings something different to the table. I would never want to be someone who wrote on their own. I'd carry on writing the same thing over and over again. But someone else's energy and ideas just takes you off somewhere else. I write very quickly with Antonio (Forcione), I write very quickly with Tony (Remy), I write very quickly with Dominic (Miller). We could be sitting down having a cup of tea and we could have written a song within 10 minutes. That's how quickly I can write with certain people.
With Dominic Miller
RG: Why do you think that is?
SJM: We're tuned into each other, we're absolutely tuned in, and feel safe with each other, and respect each other.
RG: What is that feeling that happens between you? Because it's not about an amount of time getting to know somebody. You seem to be able to do it quickly.
SJM: Yes, I do, I manage to get from A to B very quickly, you're right. I don't know how I do it, I really don't know how I do it. But it's back to that being in the moment and getting something from every moment. It's back to the Cavafy poem.
RG: It's a great poem.
SJM: It's a great poem and I really do try and live my creative life by it.
RG: Are there other poems or books or art or music that you keep in reach for the same reasons?
SJM: I read all the time. But I couldn't tell you. I don't retain the titles of books, I'm really bad at that.
RG: Do you remember authors?
SJM: Yes, but I read sometimes four or five books a week so I am absorbing all the time. Some of my favorite authors are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and my favorite author is Émile Zola.
RG: Is there music that you listen to regularly? I know Tom Waits comes into your life in a powerful way.
SJM: And Joni Mitchell. I love listening to compilations, music from all around the world. John Martyn, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan. I like Stevie Wonder, I think he is a genius songwriter. I think he's managed to combine the human story with beautiful music in a way that most other people haven't. He's written some very important songs along the way. I haven't actually bought anything of his since the late '70s, though.
RG: That’s a long time.
SJM: A long time, but I still think Stevie is a very relevant human being and singer-songwriter.
RG: I remember loving 'Innervisions' so much.
SJM: Oh, I loved 'Innervisions,' I loved 'Talking Book.' I think where I stopped buying him was after 'The Secret Life of Plants.' I loved that album, too. I don't think that man has ever sung a bum note in his life.
RG: I will also say I don't think you have, either.
SJM: Oh, I have, my darling.
RG: You’re also kind of the queen of the first takes, right?
SJM: Do you know what, I think Marc Ribot helped me with that. Doing two albums with Marc, who's very much someone who thinks you go for the first take, your first reaction. I remember when we were mixing our first takes and me wondering whether I could live with it, and him saying, 'Look, you might think it's a bum note, but it's the note you put down there as a reaction to what I played, and we made beautiful music together. Live with it, don't analyze, don't take it to pieces.' Back in the '60s and '70s everything was live.
RG: Miles Davis would have had the same response, too. That's the note you hit, that's the note you get.
SJM: Yeah, and I felt very freed up after that, after working with Marc. I think it changed my attitude to recording and singing. That's what you did, live with it, it's fine. I don’t want to be one of those people that listens back to the stuff I did and cringe. Just like with my whole life, I want to look back and think, 'That's what I did.'
RG: Are there places that you still want to explore with your voice? I mean, you've got a nearly four octave range.
SJM: I want to just carry on collaborating with people. I think it's wonderful to stretch yourself. I'd love to work with (Ennio) Morricone, I'd love to work with Tom Waits. I’d love Nick Cave to write a song especially for me. I'd love Tom Waits to do the same.
Sarah Jane with Boy George
RG: You have had others write songs for you. Boy George wrote a song for you.
SJM: A beautiful song for me. And Paul Weller, and they both agreed to write a song for my next album as well. That will be very interesting because I think the last time I was in my 30s when either did that, and now I'm 60 so it'll be a whole other kind of song I hope they would write for me. But every project I do I love the most because I'm there doing it at the time, you know? I'm always moving onto the next one. You have to live with the songs for a good couple of years. Often the first time you're really doing them is in the studio. Sometimes I've just written the song the night before going into the studio. It's over the years of performing them live that they really take shape.
RG: How do you know what to say yes to, though? The music business is a particularly tough one these days, and you are clearly a long stayer. That didn't just happen by accident. Is that about the choices you’ve made, do you think?
SJM: Let's face it, 'Don't Leave Me This Way' really did open doors for me, and gave me a chance to be known by a much wider public than most people get the chance to play to and be noticed by. I'm aware that that was the opening of certain doors that some people never have the opportunity to have.
RG: But doors can close just as easily as they open.
SJM: They do. Lots of doors closed to me because of the kinds of songs that I write about, the subject matter. But none of it will stop me as long as I can find enough money to keep making another record. I never make a record thinking, 'Well that's going to put me on the map,' or 'That's going to make me a lot of money.' I make the record because I just have to make the record, and by hook or by crook I find a way whether it's bartering with people, me offering something in return for them. Or I'll work for a year doing lots of concerts. I just did a concert in Moldova and the money from that paid for the two backing vocalists on my album. That's how I finance things. But because I'm not signed to a record label, I've got nobody dictating to me what I should and shouldn't do. I'm called to my own tune. I have the freedom to follow my heart's desire.
RG: Like Henry David Thoreau, marching to your own drummer?
SJM: I march to my own drummer, yes. Do you know what I think keeps me fresh and keeps me still going for it is when you don't fall into easy success and financial security, and you're still having to struggle to finance your art, you carry on creating. You've got something to write about. You're still in touch with real life. I've noticed that a lot of famous successful established artists, the more successful they get the harder they find it is to write because life's become comfortable and they're financially successful. I think the fact that I've always struggled with money has been a lot of the fuel that's kept me going. I think it's probably worked in my favor.
RG: That, along with social issues and the world misbehaving. You have ready material.
SJM: I've got lots of material out there.
Tim Cansfield, Martyn Barker, Sarah Jane Morris, Tony Remy, and Henry Thomas
RG: Do you want to talk about what's next for you musically? I know you’ve just released a John Martyn album.
SJM: Yes, he was an interesting man and a genius songwriter and incredible singer and guitarist. The more I read about him, the more I find out. I’ve interviewed friends, family, fellow musicians to create the show that we are taking to the Edinburgh Festival in August to help promote the album called ‘Sweet Little Mystery,’ which is just launched.
RG: I think of him as being a bit of a maverick.
SJM: John was ahead of his time. He had such a moving and beautiful voice and the songs he wrote were always from the heart.