Features Editor Sarah Lay chatted with him before his solo show in Carlisle.
“It’s like candy. That’s what I wanted it to look like. I wanted it to look like a sweetie. Soft, camp and full of sugar. I just had this idea of joyous, fun, pink record; you could lick it.”
Mark Morriss is describing the colour of his latest album, The Taste of…, as we chat backstage ahead of his co-headline show with Chris Helme (The Seahorses) at The Old Firehouse in Carlisle. The coloured vinyl edition of his latest album is a delicious-looking pink confection, an eclectic mix of covers originally recorded by artists including Scott Walker, Madonna, Sisters of Mercy and OMD.
A third solo album for Mark and coming 20 years into his music career it seems like an interesting move to make.
“Doing a covers album I’m there to be shot down, I’m making myself an easy target and at the same time this is my ninth record so if I can’t do something for a bit of fun now, then when?
“That’s not to say it’s throwaway, it’s not. It’s just fun, and people can read into it whatever they like. For me it was just a bit of fun.
“I think the most pleasing thing for me is I do feel satisfied. It does sound like a fun record.”
After 2014’s well-received A Flash of Darkness Morriss found himself suffering writer’s block when it came to going into the studio to record the follow-up. Rather than force what wasn’t coming he began recording covers, just for fun, to relax and to try and kick-start his creative process once more.
“I thought it could get the wheels turning again for me again and the juices flowing. It was just a less pressurised way of working for me. All I had to do was pick the songs I wanted to do and see if I could do a half decent job of them.”
But what started as a way of easing back into songwriting began to emerge as a project in its own right with Mark delving into his own music collection to choose the tracks he wanted to cover.
“I went in with four songs straight off the bat that I kind of wanted to do; Jess Conrad’s This Pullover, Rock and Roll Woman by Buffalo Springfield, the Scott Walker song Duchess and the Pet Shop Boys’ Love Comes Quickly. I had these sort of cornerstones in my mind, then it was a case of trying to visualise the arc of an album; if this song starts it and this song closes it then what does it need to flow?
“My selection after that was a case of songs I just wanted to sing. I didn’t have to have a personal or emotional story connected to them. They were just songs I wanted to inhabit for a little while. Which is why the Laura Brannigan song Self Control is on there, because it’s just a brilliant song to sing. It’s a singer’s dream to sing, a pop singer’s dream.
“The OMD song Souvenir I heard in my head in this sort of Glen Campbell-style version of that beautiful, beautiful melody.
“Lucretia (My Reflection) is just one of my favourite songs from my youth. I was obsessed with Sisters of Mercy for about 18 months and that song has always always been something that makes the hairs of the back of my neck stand up. The original is amazing.
“And so a part of me was thinking songs I’d like other people to hear, forgotten songs, like Lucretia. And that Madonna song, that’s a forgotten song, Angel.”
As the album progressed some of the covers worked better than others, some appearing almost fully formed as faithful renderings of the originals while others were re-arranged. Lucretia gets a slow-build with an almost Tubular Bells glockenspiel intro, saxophone and synth introduced across other tracks. Overall the album has a lounge-music feel, a laid-back loose vibe full of the pleasure of playing music for the sheer love of it.
Covering another artist, or an already-loved track, can be fraught with pitfalls and for every track there is the desire to pay tribute to with your own version there are many that should be left well alone.
“Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood; only a damn idiot would try that.
“Certain songs are so idiosyncratic to the artist that to do them, it’s almost that the original artist’s version is The Thing and for other people to do them is wasteful, it’s kind of missing the point.
“Almost anything by The Smiths is best left alone. Something like Imagine or anything really iconic by The Beatles like She Loves You. Rolling Stones songs, you should leave them alone.”
We talk about how the song, rather than the artist, was once the norm and that multiple recordings, by multiple artists were the usual route with one emerging as a definitive version over time.
And the chat talks to the current artists (or perhaps more correctly the industry around them) who don’t see the classic or iconic status of a song as being a reason not to have a go themselves.
We talk about Susan Boyle covering the Rolling Stones, about One Direction’s foray into the back catalogues of Blondie and the Buzzcocks. Is there a difference between manufactured pop acts trying to reflect authenticity onto their performance through covering songs, and where Morriss has come from with his own covers album?
“I play all the instruments. It’s not like I’ve turned up and just gone ‘I want to do that song and that song and that song’ and then churned them out and gone home again. It’s been a real labour of love.
“And that was the whole point, about doing this because I was feeling blocked. Dissecting these songs and putting them back together, that process just reinvigorated my with my own writing.”
So, he’s moving forward again having found a freedom in other people’s songs.
“There is a freedom. In many ways more freedom that when you’re doing your own stuff. I think you feel that you yourself are under the microscope when you’re recording your own songs. And it didn’t feel like that. I feel more like just a performer so I was indulging that side of myself I think.”
And just as the block is lifted on moving forward, it’s time to look back and run his solo touring alongside a tour with The Bluetones. Having called time on the band in 2011 they have reformed this year to mark twenty years since the release of their debut album Expecting to Fly. We talk about the Britpop anniversaries being marked and whether this love of looking back is a help or a hindrance to artists trying to record new music right now.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong. Art always looks backwards before it can take a step forward. You can’t hope to carve a new future without knowing a bit about the past and I do think it’s great that things are celebrated on anniversaries.
“I remember in the early part of the century when those The Smiths albums were being re-evaluated and feeling ‘well, this is great as a whole new audience is going to discover and explore them’.
“I don’t think it encourages bands to suddenly become copyists. It’s just the way inspiration works.
“I mean we started a band because we saw the Stone Roses and we came out of that gig, with about 250 other people, and we were just like ‘do you wanna start a band?’ ‘yeah, I wanna start a band, like tomorrow’ ‘yeah me too’ ‘let’s start a band’ sort of thing and that’s it.
“For a couple of years of being in a band, your first band, you’re just trying to be whoever it is that made you want to be in a band, that inspired you; the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Stone Roses, Nirvana, whoever. But going through that you find yourself, you find your voice and your way of doing it.
“I think it’s brilliant when I hear young bands and they remind me of old psychedelic bands and stuff like that. It’s as if they’ve discovered something for the first time and that, for me, is exciting.”
We talk some more about The Bluetones and about what those songs mean to a lot of people, how people come to his solo shows and want to hear him perform the songs of the band as much as the one’s he recorded, or covered, since the break up. I ask whether they still mean something different to him now, some of them two decades old?
“Of course some of them mean something different. Some of them have retained their sort of universal appeal and value to me.
“I remember this a few years ago when The Bluetones toured Expecting to Fly in 2009 and I hadn’t listened to a lot of those songs in a while. In the way that you don’t. Of course you don’t. You would have to be some kind of maniac to listen to your own songs over and over.
“And it felt odd. I’m a different man now to the man that wrote these words so singing them now I feel the distance, and I had to overcome that. There was a strange period of feeling distance and re-aquainting myself with certain songs. But that’s cool. That’s life.”
And with such a long career in music, still being a working musician, a troubadour of the constant tour circuit, has Morriss had that moment, experienced that spark of feeling that he’s found what he went looking for when he first started a band?
“There’s not one moment. It happens with regularity. It’s why I got into this. I mean I’m still doing it and that’s almost like justification in itself
“I love it, I’m lucky. I’ve worked hard to kind of still be here, there’s been some lean times, times when you consider what it is that you’re doing but I just have to accept that this is what I was put here to do.
“It’s what I was made to do and I’m at peace with that and if it’s going to make me a millionaire it is, if it’s not going to make me a millionaire that’s fine. If I have to starve and die in a garret then that’s the case as well.”
With that Mark is called to the stage and for a relaxed set of material from across his whole career, interspersed with humour and a real appreciation of the crowd. The set includes Bluetones’ numbers (Bluetonic, Marblehead Johnson, Keep the Home Fires Burning), tracks from his previous two solo albums (Consuela, Space Cadet, It’s Hard to be Good All the Time, I’m Sick) and a selection of the covers from the new album (Self Control, Weezer’s Don’t Let Go, Duchess and Lucretia (My Reflection)).
Through showing his own passion for music by recording his versions of the songs he loves or finds pleasure in performing Morriss has found a way to walk the line between the safety of the past and moving forward into a new future, as he has between The Bluetones and his solo career.
It’s an exciting prospect; an artist with experience, the quiet confidence that comes with it, skilled enough to take the creation of music seriously but relaxed enough to find the fun in every performance.
The Taste of Mark Morriss is an unusual step, but worthy record. And longer term it may well come to recognised as an amuse bouche of sound for a songwriter who now has the ingredients to give us some of the best work of his solo career.
A Taste of Mark Morriss is out now on CD, download and vinyl.
Catch him on tour:
- 21 August – MK11, Milton Keynes
- 22 August – Liquor, Lincoln
- 3 September – The Lilly, Llandudno
- 5 September – Cottingham Folk Festival, Cottingham
- 6 September – The Woolpack Inn, York
- 2 October – The Square, Harlow
- 22 October – The Thunderbolt, Bristol
- 23 October – The Flapper, Birmingham
- 30 October – The Rose and Crown, Tiverton
- 14 November – The Four Crosses, Shrewsbury
- 20 November – The Victoria Inn, Derby
- 21 November – All Saints Centre, Lewes
- 27 November – Fred’s Ale House, Levenshulme
- 28 November – The Railway Inn, Winchester.