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INTERVIEW – Russell Morris, August 2013

| 11 September 2013 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

It’s been a hell of a life for Russell Morris.

He first hit it big in 1969 with The Real Thing, the psychedelic pop single written by Johnny Young and produced by Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. This was followed up with another four Australian top ten singles over the next three years, including the classics Wings Of An Eagle and Sweet Sweet Love.

Russell Morris 01

Morris never stopped touring the country and recording music, playing at various times with Brian Cadd (whose band The Groop provided the backing track to The Real Thing), Masters Apprentices singer Jim Keays, Darryl Cotton of Zoot and former pop idol Ronnie Burns.

Despite this, a record deal doesn’t come easy in the 2010’s, even to someone with his talent and pedigree, and every label in the country passed on the album, which has since gone on to sell over 50,000 copies.

“I had three albums prior to Sharkmouth that sunk without a trace,” Morris explains, “and I wasn’t really expecting success, I just wanted to do an album that I wanted to do… and it just took on a life of its own, it was like Frankenstein, the monster who got up and walked!”

He’s not exaggerating – Sharkmouth, for one thing, is an Australian blues album in a pop and rock marketplace. Secondly, lyrically it covers tales from Melbourne’s 1910’s, 20’s and 30’s – notorious gangster Squizzy Taylor (also the subject of the TV series Underbelly: Squizzy and, according to Morris, “a nasty little bastard – he really was a prick of a guy”), legendary racehorse Phar Lap, champion boxer Les Darcy all feature in its songs stories.

Morris reflects that although he felt the industry had pretty much put him out to pasture in recent years, he was determined to record the project based on the stories his Grandmother used to tell him as a youngster.

“It’s funny – I think when they put me in the Hall Of Fame,” he says, “it almost felt like I’d been working for AMP, and they were giving me my gold watch, like ‘you just go away and sit on the porch now, we’ll take care of everything, you’ve done your duty and been a good soldier’ – it was almost like that and I think it might have spurred me on to do an album. I still didn’t think the album was gonna be successful, I just wanted to record.”

But successful it was, striking a chord with people as a truly Australian blues record as well as an urban history lesson – and when it was awarded Gold status (50,000 sales), Morris said “you could knock me down with a feather, never expected it in my wildest dreams.”

“It’s quite incredible the way it’s gone,” he continues, “it’s just been a really nice thing to be able to do and actually go out on the road and – not that I ever worried about playing my older songs, ‘cos I really loved it – but to actually go out on the road and have people yelling out for my new songs, for songs that I’ve just recorded… you sort of feel validated, in a way.”

And it’s the new songs that are at the heart of the record. Morris says he knew he wanted to do a blues record but it took a few stabs at it before the final concept gelled for him.

Russell Morris - Sharkmouth CD

“When I decided to do a blues album, I could have done Russell Morris Sings John Lee Hooker, or Howlin’ Wolf, or Muddy Waters or anything like that. But I thought, I really need to feel these songs – the blues is from your soul, you really need to feel it, it needs to be part of the fabric of your life. And I was just a little bit lost and didn’t know what to do. I wrote a couple of songs, and they were songs about chilli peppers, and things like that, and I thought hang on, this is not quite right. I was just sort of clutching at straws and punching at shadows – I couldn’t quite get there.

“I grew up in Richmond, where Squizzy Taylor [was from] – he was born in Brighton and grew up in Richmond. I went to Richmond Tech and his reputation even 70 years later, still people talked about him. My Grandmother would talk about him, she would see him standing on the corner of Bridge Road and Church Street, and all those little stories went into my head, but I never thought about writing about them until I saw a photo of Thomas Archer in the paper – and that’s the photo on the album cover. I didn’t expect that people would like stuff from another era that they might not be able to cotton on to, but I’m a real big history buff and I just love history.

“That photo spoke to me, it was almost like ‘I’m right here in front of you – this is your life, you’re Australian, write about me, write about history that you know’. ‘Cos if you want to do a blues record that’s about your roots and your inner soul, you’ve got to write about what you are! And that’s why it probably worked – I think people probably understood it because they instinctively know its part of me, and part of us. The great part about Australian history – ‘cos I’ve read so much about it – 100 years ago if I said to you ‘wasn’t your uncle a convict?’ you would have gone ‘NO! No way, no no no – we were settlers, not convicts!’ because the stigma was unbelievably terrible. The English really gave us a hard time – we were colonials and we were ashamed of ourselves.

Russell Morris 02

“But now we’ve matured… I just went to Hobart with a guitar player, Tony Naylor, who came from Tasmania. And we were in a historical bookshop which I’m always fossicking about in, and he goes ‘look, look – here’s my great, great, great grandmother, check it out!’. And there was a reference to her in this book which was called ‘Whores, Strumpets And Bad Women Of Tasmania’, and he was absolutely over the moon about it! But if that had happened a hundred years ago he’d have been denying he had any connection to her! So we’ve matured and we’ve grown up as a society, and people are quite happy to hear these stories now, because they’re us, they’re about us. And I think the Blues was a really good cradle for them, rather than doing it [sings old fashioned ocker nasal style] ‘he came down from Nanaboon with a swag upon his back/ his dog Billy was…’ you know – that sort of jug band music or lagerphone music. A lot of people might say well that’s really Australian, but it wasn’t, it was Irish and English. And the other kind of music is American. The really true Australian music is indigenous music!

“People get so excited about having convict relatives, they think it’s fantastic! So things have changed and I think if I had released this album a number of years back, it mightn’t have worked. But the timing was right – and timing is everything in life, it just depends on which sliding door you open at a particular time!”

Morris says it’s not just his older fanbase buying Sharkmouth, either, but the album has reached new people.

“There’s a completely new audience out there,” he says, excited and slightly disbelieving at the same time. “It’s been a whole new generation, and not entirely a younger generation, though there are plenty of younger blues fans, but it’s been a completely different audience that I’m working with, which is fantastic, plus the older audience as well thrown in!”

Russell Morris 03

Morris says he was thrilled to here from the descendants of one of his song’s subjects.

“I’ve had messages from Les Darcy’s people, that they were very delighted that I’d actually mentioned him in the song.” He beams, before laughing “They were delighted – but I don’t think I want to hear from Squizzy’s people… I dunno what their connections are like these days!”

Morris shopped his latest album Sharkmouth around to every label in the country to no avail, eventually deciding he’d take the risk to self-finance and self-release it.

“I figured I’d make half the money back.” He says now. “I couldn’t get any of the record companies interested, no-one would pick it up. And I thought if I press 500 – which I did – I’ll be able to sell them at shows, and I will make half my money back that way, but at least it will be a project I’ll enjoy doing. We did the rounds with the first four tracks that we did – which was Black Dog Blues, Ballad Of Les Darcy, Sharkmouth and the song about Phar Lap, Big Red – and no-one was interested, not one record company wanted them, they just kept saying no. But I thought ‘damn them, I’ll do it anyway’ so I went and did it, and then we did the rounds again with the full album and a rough of the cover, and they said no again. I said I’ll give them my publishing on Wings Of An Eagle and Sweet, Sweet Love and all that – but they STILL said no. Oh well, so I pressed 500 copies, just to sell at shows to make my money back, and at the eleventh hour a guy called Robert Rigby, who had just started his own little independent company, said ‘listen, I’ll run with this.’ And he got a distribution deal through EMI/Universal, and for the first month it just sat there doing nothing. Then a few stories started to appear, it piqued people’s interest, the ABC jumped on it, and all the community stations jumped on it, and it started to really move. Then we got a great review in The Australian, and that pushed it and everything started to fall into place after that and it kept growing and growing and moving and moving, and it’s been great.”

Morris does his best to stifle a laugh at the suggestion that some of those labels may be kicking themselves now.

“I ran into Michael Gudinski at the APRA Awards,” he chuckles, “and he went nuts, [saying] ‘I nearly fired [my guy] over this. I didn’t know we were offered this – I had the worst argument with him, I threw papers at him and everything’”

Karma is a wonderful thing!

Morris admits he was concerned, once the album was finished, how the new tracks would sit alongside his classics in his live set.

“I was really worried about that,” he says, “I really agonised over that. Then I came upon the idea that I’m really a time traveller and we’re going to travel through time, and at some point I may end up pressing the warp button and end up in 1969. So I’ve sort of done it that way – and when the new album comes out, which we’ll record over Christmas, the show will be completely all blues & roots, then right at the end I’ll probably come out and do four of the old hits to appease the people who have come along to see them.”

The new, as yet unnamed, album is planned to follow directly on from Sharkmouth as the second in a trilogy, and Morris says he has “got ten songs written. I want to write 16, record the 16, probably drop three and do it that way.”

With the album out and slowly starting to perform well, Morris says he still had to counter the perception of himself as a heritage act, but slowly they came on board and he has been playing to bigger audiences – often at blues festivals – than in many years.

“Oh it’s a lovely feeling, it really is.” He readily admits. “’Cos many years ago I tried to get on some of these festivals, but people’s perceptions are everything, and I was perceived as being a Sixties artist and maybe a cabaret artist in some ways. So they really didn’t want me on the festivals. The first festival that bit the bullet was a Western Australian Festival – the Wignalls Festival at Albany. That was the first one who said ‘we’ll take you’. And fortunately people from Bridgetown and other festivals happened to be there, and they saw I wasn’t a cabaret artist, so it started from there. Now we’ve done every blues festival over the summer and we’ve just been rebooked for everything again coming up next year – which will be interesting ‘cos we’ll have the new album. And it’ll be a lot of fun doing the new album alongside this one, they should meld together really well.”

Russell Morris 04

I wonder out loud what Russell Morris might do after this trilogy is complete – after all, he’s done pop, psychedelia, rock and blues to great success over forty five years, what could be next – a heavy rock album?

“Well, funny you should mention that,” he laughs, before getting serious again, “I nearly gave up singing back in the 70’s, the first time I heard Led Zeppelin! I thought, if I can’t sing like Robert Plant, I don’t wanna sing – that’s what I desperately wanted to do. I’m a really big fan of Led Zeppelin – the best rock n’ roll band ever, to me. I just love that sort of stuff, and I’d want to sing like him, but I can’t. Not everyone can sing like that – he’s quite phenomenal, well he was, he’s lost his voice now singing at the top of that range for so long. But I wouldn’t do a heavy metal album – I’m more into simplicity when recording, the less instruments the better for me. The only other thing I toyed with at one stage was doing a complete psychedelic album – all psychedelic songs from beginning to end, and that would have been a bit of fun.

“But I always wanted to go back to what I started with. If you look at most of the guys I know – Ross Wilson, Brian Cadd and all that – we all started in little blues bands that played covers of Smokestack Lightning, Got Your Mojo Working, Big Bossman, Who Do You Love and all those sort of songs. They’re the songs we started playing and they’re the ones intrinsically that I like and feel quite comfortable with, and I accidentally drifted into the pop scene because of the way things were at the time – that’s what happens, that’s one of the sliding doors you walk through, and you just follow it. It’s a career choice. But yeah, in the back of my mind I always think I’ve got to go back. Back to what I started doing – because I understand that a little bit better than I do everything else.”

Perhaps we will get to hear Russell Morris Sings The Blues Classics in a few years – who knows? For now, Morris knows exactly what to put his career longevity down to, and isn’t afraid to admit it.

“Luck! Blind luck.” He says modestly, but when I laugh at his apparent self-deprecation, he is firmer. “No, it’s true! I know people who are unbelievably talented, and I am absolutely in awe of them, and nothing happens for them. You just scratch your head and think ‘why isn’t this guy so big? Why aren’t things happening for him? Why isn’t she a huge star?’ And you just can’t put it down [to anything]. I had the really lucky run in the 60’s – it was a LUCKY run – and I had those hits, then all of a sudden you go into a hiatus and nothing happens. And sometimes you just drift away completely. There’s been quite a few artists who’ve done that. But all of a sudden, if you persevere sometimes something lucky will turn things around.

“I went for about 8 years where I really couldn’t get much work at all, and really had to struggle to stay alive financially. Then Jesus Christ Superstar came along and they put me in that – that gave me a bit of a boost. Then I started working with Darryl Cotton and Ronnie Burns as a trio, and that went really well and I started to earn money again. Then I started working with Jimmy Keays, then Long Way To The Top came along which was a huge success, which I didn’t plan for – it was just the timing! Then The Dish [the Australian hit movie] came along, and they put two of my songs in there, and lo and behold things started to work again, and that’s just a matter of that serendipity, that fortunate accident that you have occasionally. But you continually have to go back to that big pond where everyone’s fishing, bait up your hook, throw it in there and a lot of people go all their lives and keep throwing their hooks in and don’t catch a fish. I’ve been lucky to have sat there a couple of times on the right bank with the sun coming up at the right time and the eight planets have aligned and I’ve caught a fish! So that’s virtually what it’s like – I put down success in the music business to probably 70% luck.”


Category: Interviews

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