Matt Morris's music gets an extreme makeover

Whatever image you conjure up when we say Matt Morris (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater with Danielle Ate the Sandwich), forget it. It's now as obsolete as a Hollywood Video card. You wouldn't recognize the guy these days. We didn't. When we stopped by Macy Studios just as he was finishing recording songs for his next album (currently untitled and without a definitive release date), he was completely clean shaven and looking all of nineteen-years-old. The change is rather startling.

The transformation isn't half as startling, however, as his new songs. An impressive leap forward artistically, Morris's new tunes scantly resemble the material from his Tennman Records debut, When Everything Breaks Open. He's made a dance record. Well, Morris's version of a dance record -- electronic-based and very pulse-driven, but there's plenty of organic instrumentation.

The vocals are noticably treated to the point where they almost blend into the song like an additional instrument - interesting considering how formidable Morris is as a vocalist. There's also a distinctive tribal vibe to the proceedings with some unmistakable spiritual undertones. It's a very dramatic shift, one that Morris says stems from his forray into bass-playing last year.

Westword: Your change in appearance is fitting since you've changed your sound so dramatically. So you finished the record and took it out L.A. What was the response?

Matt Morris: I took it out to L.A., and I played it for my publisher and the staff of Tennman - well, before I played it for them, I played it for Justin. He just turned thirty. It was his birthday party. I stalled him for a little bit and went out to his car to listen to it, and it kind of blew his mind.

He said... well, for a while, he just didn't say anything. He just listened to it, and he has this ridiculous system. Sounds great. And he would occasionally just turn it down and start to say something - like he would start to say something - and something would happen in the song, and he would turn it back up. He's like, "This is crazy music." He's like, "You made a dance record." I was like, "Yeah, I think I made a dance record."

I haven't spoken with him at any great length since then. He's not quick to make judgments about what to do, so I think he's living with it for the moment.

It's exciting. The next morning, I played it for my label, and I played it for the publishers. They all just sat there in stunned silence. They just could not believe it. They didn't expect it to be so rhythmic. They didn't expect it to be so driving. The sound of my voice - I think all of it just caught everybody off guard. They loved it.

We talked a little bit about why you went in this direction. Part of it was because you had difficulty playing the older songs live with a full band. Can you expand on that a little bit?

When I wrote the songs for Everything Breaks Open, I wrote them over the course of several years. I wrote them with an acoustic guitar, with lyrics and melody and song structure first and didn't think much about performing the songs. It was all about crafting the right kind of songs, songs that I thought delivered the right kind of message or songs that were just good, smart songs. And then we took those songs, produced the record that did right by the songs.

Then I was faced with the challenge: How do you tour this material? I hadn't really thought about it. I had thrown the idea out there on occasion during the sessions, and would sometimes get the response, "Don't worry about it. There's always a way to figure that out." Well, figuring it out is actually kind of complicated sometimes.

I made a record that sounds great when you're playing it with thirteen people - three piece horns, one or two background singers, stings, percussion and drums. That's very difficult to take on tour, unless you're a multi-platinum artist right out of the gate. I'm still on this interesting blend of what some people see as corporate support, but I designed this poster. I went to Kinkos. I'm still handing out fliers. Everything I do is still really homegrown, and so there's that balance.

When I took all of the songs from When Everything Breaks Open on tour, I found a good percentage of the time, I found myself wishing I had faster songs. I wished I had something driving, you know, a four on the floor beat. I would even take songs like, "Love," for example, that has kind of a reggae feel and I'd flip the arrangement around, so that it would be a driving soul record, with driving drums.

And I'd play the bass and push it real hard, so that energy would be present in the show, because I was finding it just wasn't. I had all these songs that were, like, groovy, soulful songs, and when you're playing that to an outdoor crowd, you know, during your four or five minute songs, they're often going in different directions. But when I did the shorter, faster songs, I was like, "Oh!" They're with me. I'm with them. I'm enjoying myself. I should just write some songs like that in mind.

Now part of it was also because you had started playing bass, right?

Playing bass changed everything for me. I picked up the bass for the first time a few weeks before I had to go out on tour with Ingrid Michaelson. She wanted a small opener, two- three people tops, and I had to decide how I was going to do that. I could bring Dave Preston, Sam Gaffman, my guitar player and a violin player, and do a really acoustic set. But I really wanted to do something rhythmic. I wanted to do something driving. I wanted to be an opener that got the crowd excited. It's hard to do when you're playing an acoustic set. So I decided to change it around and bring John Powers, my drummer, and Dave, and I would pick up the bass and figure out how to play it. I figured, "Well, I play guitar. I should be able to play bass."

So you had never played bass?

I bought a bass maybe a year, year and a half prior, because it was pretty. It was a really pretty, blue bass, this blue Gibson bass. It was a good price, and I thought I'll just buy this bass. It was in my bassement, and I was thinking, "Well, maybe I should just take it out and figure out what to do with it. I just have to play rhythmically and hit the right notes - you know, I don't need to play any solos or anthing."

And I have a real deep musical connection with my drummer. I have since we first started playing together. And that's the perfect dynamic when you're a bass player: You want to connect with the drummer. You become the rhythm section. And all of the sudden, I found myself as part of the rythym section. That shifts your perspective around, not just the song, but thinking about the arrangement and how it drives and how you can change it around.

My bass playing affected the new, more driving arrangements. I thought, "I'll just play this more upbeat on the bass, then we're playing dance music. That's not as hard as I thought it was." Playing bass took away the fear of doing a dance song, because it didn't feel artificial. It still felt organic - you can make organic dance music. And that's what I discovered by playing the bass.

So were you playing the bass when you went on tour with Ingrid Michaelson?


There was no acoustic guitar?

Well, I brought my acoustic and played a couple songs like that, but the majority of the songs, I was playing bass.

So were you just playing root notes?

No. I was just going with it. Some of the root melodies were easy because I had basically been outlining that with the guitar parts I was playing. But then I found I could kind of play melody lines like I had always wanted to on the acoustic guitar, but the acoustic guitar - or even the electric -- to me, were always difficult, because there's so much room for solo. Bass, it's like you find a small register and make it sing the write way, and it can sound wicked. Put a little fuzz on it, and it sounds awesome. So, yeah, I kind of boldly lept into bass playing right on tour. The first couple of shows were an experience and a little rocky, but by the end, I felt like, "Well, I'm a bass player, too."

What was the response?

It was great.

Were people kind of freaked out because they were used to hearing your songs a certain way?

A lot of these people didn't know me, so they didn't have an expectation that I couldn't play bass. It was brand new to them. And I think people like seeing a singer play bass. I think that's something you don't see very often. I think the electric bass conveys the same energy and sort of that archetypal guitar player thing on stage. When you see the guy with the electric guitar, it just has a different presence. You look at it differently and your expectations change, as opposed to if you're the guy with the acoustic guitar. They expect you to be a singer-songwriter. If you have something electric on your body, they're like, "Oh, this is going to be rock and roll." So they were into it.

Did you go back on tour at some point and play for more of your crowd on bass?

I did. I did a number of shows, and I played some festivals, and I did a run in Canada again for some new people - some people already knew the music. I played Mile High Music Festival and did a number or two on the bass in the middle of my full band set. People got really excited. They were like, "This is a little Police-like. This is a little 'Police-y.' We like it." Especially hearing... I don't think people were used to hearing me, again, with that sort of driving rhythm that comes from the bass. People dig it.

So now, the evolution was that once I connected to being a rhythmic performer again, I started writing songs not using any instruments, just like pounding the table - like I want to use this beat. I stand underneath this [singing]... that's all I need to feel like this kind of pulse. That's what really inspired a lot of the new songs.

So it changed your writing process all together?

Absolutely. I didn't pick up the guitar once for these new songs.

Is there some trepidation on your part of how it's going to be received, or do you feel liberated?

I have been moving forward on instinct and faith and listening to what feels like inner guidance through this whole process. When I started writing the songs, when I took them in the studio here in Denver, when I shared them with my team in Los Angeles, and every step along the way has turned out to be very positive. The music's been well received.

I trust that if I continue to move forward with that same mindset for the Bluebird show, that it will be okay, that it will work out in a similar way. I don't have any trepidation - I just feel like I need to do the work right.

I still have a lot of preparation to make. It's going to be a bigger, more dynamic show than I've ever done before, and there's a lot of steps to make that work. So I just have to focus on the work and trust that the response will be what it should be.

Can you give me a sense of the timeline - when you started writing the songs, when you recorded to where we're at right now?

It's a short timeline - another thing that's really different from When Everything Breaks Open, which took years. I started writing for this... the first time came in August. I didn't actually know this song was going to be for me. I thought, "Oh, I can pitch this song. It's a good pop song." I sat down planning to have a dedicated writing time at the end of November, I think it was? Maybe it was... yeah, November. Sometime at the beginning of November and then went in for - yeah, it would have been the beginning of November because I went in for the first batch of sessions at the end of November, and recorded four songs. I sent those songs out as if to say, "This is what I'm capable of on my own. This is what I do when I produce. So, can you get behind this?"

You sent them to the label?

Yes. I sent them to the label and I sent them to Justin. I was like, "Can you support this?" And it was a unanimous 'Yes, we will support this," and they opened up two weeks of time where we were able to schedule two weeks straight in January. We were finished recording it on the 23rd or something like that, toward the end of January, and then I took it to Los Angeles at the end of the month.

What made you decide to record at Macy Studios?

I like John Macy a lot. I think his studio is stocked with really great gear. There's a really great atmosphere there. I worked with Jeff Kanan, who's an engineer who's spent a lot of time in Los Angeles and worked on some really big records. Great engineer. Understands the sensibilities of what I wanted to bring to the project - or the way that wanted to record the project. And we were able to work fast and effective. It just feels comfortable. I've done a lot of work there.

What was the way that you wanted to approach this record, and how did you convey that to him?

I wanted to approach it - it was still really songs. I wanted to approach the songs in the hopes that by the end of the sessions, it would be a record. I wanted to be able to marry electronic sounds and sensibility with an organic sounds and sensibility. I wanted to find a good balance between the two. I wanted to find a way to, I guess, bridge the gap. So I needed somebody who understood song structure, who is fast as an engineer, who also could be flexible.

Did you give him any benchmarks, other records that you admire, like "Hey, I kind of like the tone and the texture of this," or did you describe what you wanted?

I didn't do much pre-production with my engineer. I went in and just sort of dove in and tried to figure out what, exactly, I was getting at as I was doing it. It wasn't an intellectual process in the way that I delievered the plan in advance.

The very first day I went into the studio, Jeff, the engineer, and Dave and John were there. I said, "Okay, I'm going to play you what I have. I think - I'm not sure - maybe I have five songs, five more songs, maybe six." And I played all these bits of songs and tracks and beats that I'd created at home.

Playing it for them, I felt a little vulnerable. Because I don't know if this stuff is actually good. It was different for me. I'm not used to starting this way. But I played it for them, and they loved it. They heard potential where I was just hoping they'd hear something.

By the end, we had eleven potential songs that we could work with, which was more than I expected. I was worried that I'd come back for the second batch in January, and I'm only going to have three or four songs. But I had all these partial things that I thought could be good. Once I realized that, I was able to build on these.

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