Sarah Jane Morris, Singer-Songwriter
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?!