Songwriter Sarah Jane Morris: “I feel at the peak in my 60s”
Maybe it’s that fiery red hair or her eclectic background that have helped her embrace so many challenges, but Sarah Jane Morris‘ voice keeps roaring stronger than ever. Ageing made her simply bolder: “I’ve grown as a songwriter and feel that in my 60s I’m at my peak – she said to CrunchyTales-. I have now so much more to call on for my references”. Currently writing a new album, she is one of Britain’s most distinctive and versatile Jazz and R&B singers able to combine a visceral lyricism with intense moral and political engagement. She didn’t plan this path for her self, though. With a background on Brechtian Epic Theatre and Arts, she realised the potential of her wonderful voice only when she joined a drama school. Many of us would remember her for the commercial success “Don’t Leave Me This Way” in 1986 (performed with The Communards), but it was “Me and Mrs Jones“, the cover of Billy Paul’s hit, which turned her into a world sensation.
Sarah Jane, you have such an eclectic background. Does it just happen to be that music is what you’re using to be creative or it could be something else potentially?
I trained as an actress at The Central School of Speech and Drama, alongside Kristin Scott Thomas and Rupert Everett. I left drama school before the end of the course (as did Kristin) and answered an advert in ‘The Stage’ and ‘Melody Maker’ for the part of a singer in an Italian Rock/Blues band, based in Florence. I had no training in music whatsoever but had discovered I had a low, interesting voice whilst at drama school. I got the job and moved to Fiesole, just outside Florence to live in a villa, which had been built out of the rock, by an American architect. This was to be my base for several months whilst the band supported Gianna Nannini. This was the beginning of my career in music.
Did success come easily to you, or did it come with a lot of blood, sweat and tears?
My journey has been an interesting one and I’ve enjoyed all aspects of it, even though sometimes it has been very tough. I hadn’t planned to be a singer-songwriter but I have happily had a career in music for 41 years. In the beginning, I sang in working men’s clubs, pubs, wine bars and – as I got the equity card – I also performed at ‘The Edinburgh Festival‘. In the early 80s, with the African Caribbean band The Republic, I recorded a single and LP. However, we were too political with our first single being about the Falklands War, and Radio (with the exception of a newly formed Capital Radio) wouldn’t play the song. Then, I joined ‘The Happy End’, a 25 piece Brechtian Big band and recorded several albums. We collaborated on ‘Coal Not Dole’ with Kay Sutcliffe’ a Kent Miners wife, and this became the anthem of the Miners strike. Then I met Jimmy Somerville at miners benefit, thanks to Richard Coles (a friend of my brothers). We decided to do a duet at a ‘Gays The Word’ (at the Fridge in Brixton) which was across the road to where I lived. London Records was there and watched as Jimmy and I camping up Billie Holidays ‘Lover Man’ and the audience went crazy. Suddenly I was asked if I’d like to go to New York to record the album with Jimmy and Richard and the following year we went to Number 1, everywhere but the USA, where it went to number 50. Doors open when you are successful and I was offered a solo record deal with Jive Records, which I of course accepted. My first single was a cover of ‘Me and Mrs Jones’, the Billy Paul classic, written by Gamble and Huff, who also wrote ‘Don’t Leave me This Way’. However, the BBC seemed concerned that I might be a lesbian covering this song, by not changing the lyric to ‘Me and Mr Jones’. The song ended up being banned and had Simply Red not asked me, to support them around Europe, I might have disappeared altogether. The song became a hit in the rest of Europe a few years later and with KD Lang coming out loud and proud, I was contacted by all the major labels hoping to sign me, presuming that I was a lesbian. Life is strange.
Which song from your repertoire means the most to you or has played the most significant part of your life?
‘Me and Mrs Jones’ has played the most significant role in my career as it opened and closed doors for me. Once banned, I recorded a version on nearly every subsequent album I made. I have sung the song to death, but as it was a big hit for me in Europe I need to continue singing it.
What would you consider your best performing experience? Where and why?
Singing a duet with Gil Scott Heron for ‘Artists Against Apartheid’ at the Brixton Academy of ‘Many Rivers to Cross’. I had been a huge fan for years and found his presence on stage very moving.
You are an incredible story-teller and your wonderful voice is the most distinctive ‘instrument’ you play. Can you tell us more about your creative process?
Over the years I’ve grown into being a teller of the human story through song. Somebody’s’ story usually catches my interest, in the news or on the radio and I start to do some research. I begin by writing a poem, which is usually a stream of consciousness and then the next day starts to look at the poem to see if there is a hook or an obvious verse. I take the poem to pieces and put it back together in a new shape.
Research shows that musical tastes shift as we age. In which ways has your music evolved along the years? Has the way you’ve interpreted songs changed over time?
I’ve grown as a songwriter and feel that in my 60s I’m at my peak. I have so much more to call on for my references. My son who is 25 and a singer-songwriter, keeps me up to date with interesting young singer-songwriters. It is encouraging that there are many out there.
The on-going debate about the treatment of women in the music industry exploded over the last year. Would you let us into your own experience as a musician in a world which is struggling to shake off an ageist, sexist image?
In the early days, I didn’t have the confidence to stand up for myself, or what I believed in. By the time I was 30 all that changed. I was then deemed difficult my men in the industry as I had an opinion and I soon learned that the major companies were not the way forward for me. I moved to an independent label and eventually set up my own label ‘Fallen Angel Records’ in 2000. I can now write and put out what I want to without asking anyone’s permission.
You come across as a very independent woman and artist. How can we preserve our identity from the pressure of society as we age?
I have become independent by taking control of my career. I dare to talk about what I see and believe through my songs and don’t know any other way now. The music and acting world have always been very ageist. I just keep doing what I do and hope I can continue. I am very fortunate that at 61 I am still making my living doing what I love.
Do you have any magic formula to unwind after a stressful day that you would like to share with us?
I discovered sea swimming this lockdown and try to swim at the beginning and the end of the day and I find this helps greatly. I love to read and this transports me away from my life to somewhere else, which I find very useful. I bought myself a sewing machine for my birthday just before lockdown and have made many things for our home and for others. For years I hand sewed, as I didn’t have a machine. I find this very therapeutic.
You have championed important causes with your music: civil rights has often been the subject you’ve included in your albums. How has your approach to life, equal rights and social justice evolved over the years?
When I was 17 my father went to prison. I was his only defence witness and he sacked his barrister and represented himself. I found myself very involved in his life and survival. It was at this point that I went and studied Brechtian theatre, which was all about alienation, something I was feeling on a grand scale. I got involved with Amnesty International at this stage and started to organise benefit concerts, to raise money and awareness. Working with ‘The Republic’, ‘The Happy End’ and ‘The Communards’ made me more aware of the injustices in life and led me towards becoming the human rights songwriter that I am today. Through a human rights solicitor, I met Leila Hussein and got involved in her FGM – Female Genital Mutilation campaign, co-writing a song with Tony Remy called ‘Perfect’, telling the story from the mothers perspective. I took part in many other projects including ‘Side by Side by Refugees’; with the Italian acoustic guitarist-composer Antonio Forcione, I co-wrote a song called ‘The Sea’. I felt it very important for my son, to see his mother, stand up for what she believes in.
At midlife, some ladies feel that they’re ready to start a new chapter: are you exploring any new chords to play at the moment?
I’ve had long, hard menopause and at 61 many aspects of it are still with me. Lockdown forced me to stop for a while and take account of where I was and what I still want to do. I’ve loved having a routine (the first time in my life); walking with my husband and the dog, swimming and doing pilates online. I also have enjoyed not being on an aeroplane many times a week. After lockdown, It was a pleasure to return to Italy on the 1st of July to do an interesting project called ‘Who Killed The Beatles’. It involved an actor, a script, a director, a string quartet and myself. We performed at Salerno Cathedral to a socially distanced audience and then at The Ravenna Festival, Tivoli and Jesi and Padova and Catanzaro. I’m also promoting my current album and award-winning show Sweet Little Mystery, a joint project with Tony Remy. It is a homage to the genius songwriter John Martyn who died aged 60, just over 11 years ago. I turned 60 last year and it seemed the perfect time to do this.
Sarah Jane Morris will play at Ronnies Scott’s (London 21 – 22/10); Blue Note (Milan 16-17/10); Kino Theatre (St.Leonards 31/10)
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