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| 8 November 2016 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar


A veteran of such ‘60s and ‘70s pop hits as The Real Thing, Wings Of An Eagle and Rachel, Russell Morris felt he was treading water creatively through the start of the new millennium, until returning full circle to his blues roots with the Sharkmouth album in 2012. Van Diemen’s Land followed, then most recently Red Dirt – Red Heart, and now the Aussie legend returns to WA this weekend for shows at Friends Restaurant on Friday, 11th November, and Blues At Bridgetown on Saturday, he tells SHANE PINNEGAR.

It wasn’t an instant epiphany that led to his new direction, though. Morris says that there were a few false starts before he found his voice for these records.

“l tried to imitate my heroes – like Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf and Leadbelly and [people] like that,” he explains, still obviously in awe at his own creative process, “and the first songs I wrote I thought, ‘this sounds not quite right,’ and I couldn’t work out what was wrong. It took me a while, and then all of a sudden I stumbled upon it accidentally, stumbled upon the style that I was going to do. It was just really a total accident, because I saw something in the paper and I thought. ‘wow, this is bizarre, but I’ll give it a go.’ I’m very happy the way it turned out for me.”

Even after finding his voice – a new way to interpret the blues through uniquely Australian historically true stories – and recording one of the best albums of his fifty-year career, commercial success was not assured. Practically every Australian record label turned the album down, and even its creator had modest hopes for it.

“No, I couldn’t have hoped for a better result, but I didn’t plan it, that’s the funny part about it,” he says. “I just did it because I wanted to do it, and I think I’ve said before, for 30 years I hadn’t had really any successes as a sales artist in the recording charts, so I didn’t even consider that it was going to be successful. In fact, I only pressed 500 copies of Sharkmouth to sell at shows, and what happened just took everyone by surprise, including myself. So, no, I didn’t expect it to be successful, but I liked what I was doing. That was the main thing I guess. I was really happy with what I was setting out to achieve, and I was really pleasantly surprised, along with everybody else, when it did as well as it did.

“Really, I didn’t think I would find an audience, but I didn’t care because I was quite happy with what I had done. People had already said to me, ‘people don’t like the blues.’ I said, ‘well, I do. I don’t care.’ They said, ‘well, how do you expect you’re going to sell the new records?’ My reply was usually, ‘I haven’t sold any records for 30 years, so why would I worry about that?’ It was a little bit of that, and I think a little bit of faith came into play, which is really lovely.”

Russell Morris - Sharkmouth

Last month Sharkmouth – an album full with rich tales of 1920’s and ‘30s crime figures and notorious personalities, including the titular Squizzy ‘Sharkmouth’ Taylor (whose image graces the front cover) and other gangsters, boxer Les Darcey, and racehorse Phar Lap – even got a U.S. release.

“Yes – it was just released, it’s been out what, 4 weeks now, and getting great reviews, which is something which is really lovely,” Morris admits. “You don’t know how it’s going to go in a market like that. You need a lot of luck. You need airplay. You need people to jump on it. I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing, and everything’s a bonus these days. If it works it works.”

Along with the Stateside album release, there is interest in Morris touring across the pond for the first time in decades.

“They want me to tour,” he confirms excitedly, “they want me to do a couple of tours next year, but that’s also dependent on getting the right agent, because you can’t work over there without an agent working for you. Hopefully you can pick up an agent along the way, which is what we’re trying to do at the moment, because we just did some shows over there in the hope that we could get someone engaged and then say, ‘oh yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go with this.’ So I’m just in the process of waiting because we have got the New Orleans Jazz Festival booked, but I can’t go over and just do one show.

“That’s impossible, you’ve got to drag a band over, because I want to use an Australian band, I don’t want to use an American band. It would be much easier if I used an American band, I could just get them to rehearse the songs, fly over, and do the show, and it’s not hard to do it, but I want to use Australian guys, and that’s hard because you’ve got to pay air fares, you have to pay for visas – and the visas aren’t cheap, you’ve got to pay wages while you’ve got the guys over there, so it’s all a bit of a big, big picture, and if it works it works… if it doesn’t well I just I don’t know.”

Some 47 years after the Johnny Young-written and Molly Meldrum-produced The Real Thing was a smash international hit, Morris insists that this time round it’s different enough to not feel like déjà vu.

“No, I don’t feel deja vu. I feel sort of like… look, I drive people nuts – if anyone has the unlucky fortune to invite me to dinner, I bore people to death and you can see people’s faces clouding over and going ‘oh, Jesus, why did we invite this guy?’ because all I ever talk about is astrophysics or history, and my big thing is that with the astrophysics thing is that it’s almost like the future is joining the present into what we’re supposed to do. It was almost like I was meant to do that album, and I don’t know why because in the scheme of things, we’re all just really small ants on a very tiny rock that’s hurtling around the sun which is hurtling around the universe. I don’t know, but I almost felt like the past reached out and grabbed me in a way along with the future and told me, it was almost like, ‘you have to do this,’ and that sounds a bit sort of airy fairy, but it really did feel like that, to be honest. Once I’d written that first song, I thought, ‘that’s a neon sign.’ I don’t know whether that’s really my imagination, or whether I felt that it was almost like a sense of destiny I was meant to do it.

“Yeah, it’s almost like I didn’t write it myself,” he says, echoing a sentiment popular with creative talents since time began, “I did – but it was almost like I was on autopilot for some of those things. It’s a good feeling, a great feeling. I am very excited about what’s happened. Who’s knows, I’m content if it stops here, to be honest.

“I’ve been really lucky,” he adds humbly. “I really believe success is born out of 60% luck and maybe about 30% graft, hard work.

“You know what it’s like when you’re writing a story – sometimes you write a story and you labour over it and you go, ‘I’m never going to get this. I just can’t get this thing right.’ You can’t work out why, and then all of the sudden one day you’ve got another story, and you write it and everything just goes clang, clang, clang, clang, and then just all the wheels, the cogs fall into place, and you think, ‘wow, that’s one of the best stories I’ve written.’ That’s what happened to me with those albums.”

It’s obviously a very different music industry now from when Morris first started out. Record sales are minimal compared to what they used to be. Has the singer/guitarist found it easy to adapt and negotiate the choppy waters of the music biz as things changed every 5 to 10 years?

“I tried to. I tried to adapt and I tried to change, and then in the end I thought, ‘bugger this. I’m chasing the Pied Piper here, and he’s already left.’ I thought, ‘let’s just do something for me. Let’s record, let’s do what I want to do. I don’t want to try [to fit in],’ because people are always saying, ‘you need to write a single, you need to write a single,’ so you’re constantly thinking about that.

“I started off doing blues and rhythm and blues, and then met Ian Meldrum and he said, ‘no, we’ve got to get more commercial,’ and I went down the commercial road, and it was a big success. I thought, ‘well, I was obviously wrong – this is what I should be doing.’ So you do that and then all the sudden you fall out of favour – which you always do in the media business – and you’re thinking, ‘oh, I’ve got to get another hit,’ so you’re trying to write like you used to write, but that boat has already left. And you think, ‘oh, I should be more like Coldplay, or I should be more [like whoever]…’ so you’re chasing whatever’s successful, and that is the biggest mistake you can make.

“What I did, I got to the point where I didn’t care anymore,” Morris continues, explaining the harrowing life of a fading hitmaker, “and I thought, ‘well, I want to do music for me.’ That was when I decided to do a blues album and go back to what I started doing and start playing those earlier blues and rhythm & blues sort of songs, and try and write my own. That’s how it happened I guess, so I think the advice to younger people is if you’re going to play music, play what really turns you on. Don’t go following trends because if you’re following trends you’re always trying to catch the ship that’s already left the port. You really need to find your own [thing]: if you like playing polkas, and you love polkas with all your heart, play polkas. You may not be successful, but you’ll do it and you’ll have a good time.”

Russell Morris - Red Dirt Red Heart cover

Most telling of all is that Sharkmouth and its sequels have been hits not off the back of a couple of hit singles, but as albums – bodies of work – in their own right.

“Yeah, that’s a really interesting thing,” he agrees, “because I remember when I first played it to a couple of people, I said, ‘listen to the album.’ They said, ‘have you got a single?’ I said, ‘it’s a blues album! When was the last blues single a hit. I’m not trying to have a single, I’m trying to have a concept here!’ People were a little bit confused, but fortunately some people liked certain tracks off the albums and picked them and played them, so that was a good thing, which is great.”

From the start Morris envisaged a trilogy of Australian-themed blues albums, so with that fulfilled, has he started planning what’s next?

“I’m at a loss at the moment,” he confesses. “I’m just pottering around playing these three albums. Red Dirt Red Heart is still in the blues charts, which shocked me, so I’m just waiting for them to sort of peter out I guess, because I brought these albums out pretty quickly right on top of one another and everyone said, ‘that was a mistake.’ My argument was ‘listen, it’s a trilogy – you can’t keep them too far apart, that’s ridiculous – they need to be all grouped together.’ I’ll probably take a fair while until I record again – not until probably the middle of next year maybe. I’m writing and fiddling with stuff, but I won’t be doing history songs – I’ll be doing rootsy songs, but I won’t be doing any real Australian history.”


It’s extra fulfilling to get a taste of success on the back of something that everybody told you was a mistake.

“It is! It’s nice,” agrees Morris, “and I didn’t thumb my nose and go, ‘nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah,’ because I’ve made millions of mistakes myself listening to people and going, ‘that’s never going to work…’ One of my famous mistakes is I was a really good friend of Bon Scott, and he was in a band called Fraternity, and I loved Fraternity, and Bon Scott. I’d see him every time go [to their place] up in the South Australian hills, and we’d have like a bit of a party and drinks and things, and he took me aside and he said, ‘I’m leaving Fraternity.’ I said, ‘why? It’s such a great band.’ He said, ‘I’m joining a rock and roll band.’ I said, ‘a rock and roll band, really? Okay…’ Next time I saw him was on television and here he was, this older guy with these four young guys playing this music, and I thought, ‘Bon Scott’s lost his marbles. This is never going to work’! I can’t thumb the nose at anybody, because I’ve made some disastrous mistakes myself. AC/DC are still one of the greatest touring bands in the world and I didn’t get it, so it happens!”

Morris has been circling the country, racking up frequent flyer miles for years – especially since Sharkmouth was released. He’s sanguine about life on the road, though, and rarely complains about the waiting around in airports and hotels.

“I don’t mind the traveling – I quite like it. The only time I don’t like it is like what has happened in the last couple of weeks. We flew out of Canberra to Melbourne, we got to Melbourne and there were giant storms, like really, really seriously big storms, and the plan couldn’t land. Normally planes in Melbourne will go to Tullamarine and they’ll put you up there, but the storms were really bad there. The winds were just really terrible, so we had to fly to Adelaide and we had to sit in the Adelaide airport for 10 hours waiting to get back, so that’s when it gets to be a bit of a drag.
“Otherwise, I quite enjoy it. I quite enjoy the process and going away, eating in a hotel, and going out with the boys for dinner and things sometimes. I enjoy meeting different people and things like that. I don’t like getting back, and having to wait at the airport for ages for your luggage or anything like that. That usually drives me a little nuts. Sometimes it takes longer to get your luggage than to fly to Tasmania. That’s a bit of a drag.”

This won’t be Morris’ first visit to Blues At Bridgetown. He says he keeps coming back for the event because it’s such a fun weekend for performers and fans alike.

“It’s great – it’s a really, really good festival. Everyone’s really in good moods. They have a really good quality of talent there, I’ve seen some great acts at Bridgetown. It’s always a lot of fun to actually perform at Bridgetown, and the boys love it as well so it’s great.”

Morris says his audiences no longer call out just for the older hits, which is heartening for any performer.

“I remember when I first started, every now and then you’d hear someone yell out, ‘play Rachel – play The Real Thing.’ But really interestingly lately, I’ve had people yell out, ‘play more of Sharkmouth’! That’s good. That’s really good, yeah.”

As a performer through the ‘80s and beyond he must have thought he might never have had a hit that would rival those old classics from days long gone by.

“Through the ‘90s and 2000s, I thought that I’d had my run,” he admits. “I was pretty lucky. I had had a really good run and I couldn’t begrudge anything, and I was really quite lucky and blessed, and never ever thought otherwise, because if you look at the history of my peers, none of them have ever had a big hit album as they’ve got older, so I didn’t expect it. I didn’t think I would ever have one, it was just like, that’s why I think it was a total luck thing that fell into play. Some of my mates from that era and later have had some really good albums – really good albums – but none of them have been hits.

“I’ve never understood it, and I thought, ‘I guess it’s just the cycle of things.’ So the cycle, I guess I’m out of the cycle, I’m out of the loop – so it would be wonderful to be included in it again, because you always feel it, you want to create something people are going to say, ‘wow, gee this is good,’ but for so many years you release, I think I’ve released five albums and they all sunk without a trace, and no one was really interested in any of them, so you think, ‘oh well, I’ve had my day in the sun so I can’t complain.’ To have it happen is a really lovely feeling.”

We close with a chat about after the gig: meeting the punters. Morris says he’s usually fine with it, except in extreme circumstances.

“Oh, I like it, I like it – except when they’re drunk and they grab me by the arm and they go, ‘do you remember me from 1970?’

“They’re the ones… and you say, ‘nah, I can’t remember, sorry!’ They go, ‘yeah, yeah you do. Yeah you do.’ ‘No I don’t. I’d like to – but I can’t!’”

If America snaps Russell Morris up again it might be a long time between tours out West. Catch him this weekend while you can.

Category: Interviews

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