A visit with BILL MORRISSEY by OTTO BEST
On June 21, 1996, Bill Morrissey performed at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem, PA. His seventh album, You'll Never Get to Heaven, had just been released, and he had just published Edson, his first novel. Bill had scheduled a stop at WDIY-FM that afternoon, to record an interview with Otto Bost, but traffic delays forced him to go directly to Godfrey Daniels instead. Otto also went to Godfrey's that night, brought along a portable tape recorder, and interviewed Bill in his dressing room, just before the performance. The interview was edited and broadcast three days later (along with highlights from the evening's performance) on Otto's weekly radio program, "Acoustic Eclectic".
The broadcast began with Otto's introduction of Bill from the stage of Godfrey Daniels. Bill took the stage and performed "HANDSOME MOLLY".
Otto: Tell me about some of the new songs on the new album.
Bill: Well, we recorded the new one down in New Orleans, and I had for a long time been wanting to work with horns a lot. I love horn harmonies a lot. I'm a big fan of bebop and things like that. And also Duke Ellington, before that, and I – Initially, as I was writing the songs, I'm thinking, "Okay, horns would be great here; horns would be great punctuation, and we can do this." And I hadn't used horns before, because I hadn't written a song where they'd be appropriate. And so I was thinking about going to New York, to work with the Uptown Horns, who I'd worked with before, with David Johannsen, and – those guys are great – and they can do, you know, just head arrangements, and just – they're wonderful. But one of the producers for this album said, "Well, what about New Orleans?" And that took about a half a second to, you know, say "yes", 'cause not only would I get the horns, but I would get the New Orleans rhythm section, which I did. I mean, I got Johnny Vidacovich on drums, who's worked with Chet Baker, and Al Green, and Professor Longhair, and Dr. John, and Johnny Adams, and that sort of musician. The trumpet player is in Allen Toussiant's band. The electric bass player's in Buckwheat Zydeco. The acoustic bass . . . it's that sort of thing. I could go on. And also, the coolest thing is they brought down Michael Toles from Memphis. Michael was the house guitarist at Stax for years in Memphis, going back to . . . he played the wacka-wacka guitar on the theme from Shaft, you know, for Isaac Hayes – and also worked with the Jacksons. He was their guitarist, and the Bar-Kays, and the . . . and it all just fit together, you know, the guys from Irma Thomas' band. All these R & B and jazz guys were doing a folk session, and so they couldn't "phone it in." And they . . . and they were great. They were complete professionals, and they were really concerned about the lyrics and they would go, "Bill, okay now, how's . . . how's this line, now? Is that gonna step on when you – you know, step on you when you come into the lyric after this break?" They were wonderful, wonderful musicians. And we did the album in five days.
Otto: I've heard that you're a horn player yourself at times. Is that true?
Bill: I've tortured the neighbors with my alto on occasion. It gets worse in the summer, you know, when the windows are open. But, yeah, I mess around with a lot of instruments, just to get the feel of it, so then when I'm working with somebody who can really play the instrument, I have a little . . . just a little more knowledge as to what can be done, and maybe I'll play this sort of . . . this little riff that I like. The tone'll be pathetic and this and that, but say, you know, "Okay, can you do something like this? Something like that?" and let them really do their work. But it helps me, uh, as far as arranging and stuff.
Otto: So you would probably not ever consider playing horn on your own albums then, I guess.
Bill: Uh, not at this point. I would love to, eventually, if I ever got good enough to do it, or just needed a very simple alto part, but right now, no. It's more like for fun – home studio stuff, and then I, uh, hire the pros.
Bill's performance of "WHEN SUMMER'S ENDED"
Otto: I understand you started this tour with a band, and now you're back to touring solo again. What happened?
Bill: Well actually, what happened was I had a rhythm section – bass and drum, uh, out of Berkeley, and I had Michael Toles, who played guitar and keyboard on the record - the guy from Memphis who I was talking about. And Michael and I hit a nice groove, and the rhythm section was . . . was good, but it was . . . it was stiff, and I thought that I could get the songs across better solo rather than, than . . . you know, it was . . . If the band was "B-plus," and I thought I could make it an "A", you know, and it was a very tough decision. They were very nice guys. And they weren't . . . weren't . . . I couldn't, like, say that "you're playing this wrong." It just didn't sway the way that I wanted it to, um . . . so, we did that for a month, and then I, uh, finished the rest of the tour – well, tonight, and then one more night, and then we're done with the tour. At least then I get my week off.
Otto: Was that a tough decision to make?
Bill: Yeah, it was very tough. Oh yeah, it was not something I wanted to do at all. And, uh, I mean, you know, you're out on the tour bus with people, and you know, you like them personally, and everything is going well personally. And . . . and there's no real time to . . . to work on stuff. You know, I'm off doing four or five interviews a day, getting back just in time for sound check and stuff, and it was . . . it was very tough. But at least, I mean, at least we're able to give 'em, you know, severance pay and stuff, you know, and keep 'em going for . . . for a bit. And they are wonderful musicians. It's just – it wasn't the right thing for me.
Bill's performance of "PARTY AT THE UNITED NATIONS"
Otto: Talk to me a little bit about your songwriting process. I understand that you have a pretty structured approach to how you write songs. Is that true?
Bill: It's kinda evolved that way, in that, um, after an album, you know – like now – I'll go on tour for a long time. Basically, we'll be on tour until at least November, and then, um, it continues, and I . . . I . . . I can't really write on the road. I can't write whole songs. I'll get ideas. I'll get a lot of ideas right now that you get in motel rooms and backstage. But I can't develop on the road, 'cause you're always thinking about getting to the next interview, you know, getting to the airport, or this and that. So what I do is after about a year and a half or so, or whenever it's time to do another record, I'll block off about two months where I'll just stay at home. And it's my day job. I get up, and grab a coffee, and go to my office and start . . . I start working on the ideas that I'd gotten the year and a half before and then that sets the whole wheel turning a bit, and then the new ideas start to kick in. And I'll . . . I'll probably use maybe only three ideas of stuff I've put together on the road, and then all the new ideas come, and I . . . The last three records of my own stuff have really been written in about two months. And we've usually got the studio time already booked, and the musicians booked, so it's . . .it's that . . .it's that feeling of "end-of-semester-and-you-haven't-cracked-a-book," and you've really got . . . you've got two months to write your album, kid. You know, go to work. I'm . . . I'm told by my wife that I was a little cranky at that point, but . . . but that's the way it works. It's like, when you have to produce, you do. In fact, on this last album, there was one song that I liked, and I thought was okay, but the producers thought that I could do something better. So, the night before we left for New Orleans, I wrote this song called "Married for Money." And we recorded it about three days later. And I, uh, think it's about my favorite song on the record, but, you know, it's . . . It's one of those things, you know, when you have a deadline, you have to produce.
Otto: Whatever works.
Bill: Yeah, it's . . .it's . . .it's . . . The first three records or so, I had all the time in the world – especially, you know, with the first album, you have fifteen, twenty years to write your first album. And then you have maybe two years to write your second. And so that sort of writing, anyway – the way I'm doing it now – works for me.
Otto: Do you collaborate with other writers on any . . . on a regular basis? I know you've written some things with Cormac McCarthy. Is that something you do a lot of, or just once in a while?
Bill: That's more for kicks. That's more, uh . . . Cormac and I have been friends since like, 1970, you know, so we just, you know, we've . . .we're just . . . Mack's, you know, my best friend, so . . . He'll get an idea, and it's usually a lighter sort of song more than . . .more than a very serious thing, uh, and that's just fun. And I'll go to Nashville on occasion, and I'll write some things with Fred Koller, who's written a bunch of things – for Nanci Griffith, and he's gotten a bunch of hits, and uh, a guy named Leroy Preston, who is one of the founders of Asleep at the Wheel, who wrote, uh . . . He's probably best known for that Roseanne Cash hit, "My Baby Thinks He's a Train" from some years ago. But Leroy writes with Los Lobos, you know, and all kinds of people. But it's, uh – it's fun. It's an exercise. It's like taking all the . . . taking the craft that you've developed over twenty years, twenty five years, and applying it to, uh . . . not so much a commercial approach to music, but just to, you know, two guys sitting around, who both know the craft, trying to tell a story. There're a lot of Nashville writers I'm sure I couldn't work with at all, 'cause they're sort of hit-oriented. And when I get together with Leroy, it's a matter of, "Oh, let's write a, you know, a good song." And, actually, this album that I produced in Austin – Peter Keane – has, uh, one of the songs I wrote with Leroy on it. You know, it's one of those things, I didn't push it. I just said, "Hey Pete, what do you think of this one?" and he just immediately wanted to do it. So that was a nice feeling. But, I don't think I've ever co-written anything that I'd want to record myself. It usually doesn't fit into the style of my performing.
Bill's performance of "DIFFERENT CURRENCY"
Otto: You recorded a video for one of the songs on this album, too, is that right?
Bill: Yeah, I was down in, uh, in Austin. I spent most of Austin producing an album . . . uh, most of February in Austin producing an album for a fellow named Peter Keane, who's recently been signed to Rounder Records. And while I was down there, Rounder wanted to do a video, so we . . . we filmed it off this place called the Continental Club, which is a club I've gone to a lot. You know, there's so many good clubs in Austin. And Robert Earl Keen came by to, you know, kinda sit in, and David Johanssen flew down from New York, and they both played barflies – which I assume is method acting on their part – and there was a band on stage that was lip-synching to uh – you know, playing a song – called the Naughty Ones, and I had my own video babe. I finally got my own video babe! And I, uh, I don't know how my in-laws feel about that . . . But I dancein the video. I'm wearing Timberland boots, and I didn't know I was supposed to dance, and they made me dance, and I realized that my dancing hasn't changed since I was in the eighth grade, once I saw the video. So you can turn the volume down on the video, and put on a Jerry and the Pacemakers song, and it'll fit right in.
Otto: (laughs) All right. We'll try that sometime. Was this your first video?
Bill: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, it's . . .it's . . .it's getting played on CMT, I'm told, but - 'cause I was thinking, well . . . Rounder wanted me to do a video, and I thought, "Well, what am I gonna . . .," You know, there isn't "FMT," you know, "Folk Music TV" – You'd have to pay to get it scrambled, you know, so . . .But it's getting aired on CMT. It's a . . . It's a very bizarre thing to sorta lip-sync your stuff all day, and to do . . . I'm glad I did it, for the experience. It was fun, and so now it's getting some airplay. Uh, you know, it's something new, so I, you know, why should you not do something new? You got to try it.
Otto: Think you may do it again?
Bill: Oh, sure. Yeah, yeah. Now that I've done one . . . I can make it fun. I can relax a bit more. I was a little nervous about it. But now, yeah if they wanna do another one, sure. Now I'm a seasoned vet, and I'm jaded already. After one.
Bill's performance of "LETTER FROM HEAVEN"
Otto: There's a discussion group about you and your music on the Internet that's called "Birches," named after one of your songs. Are you aware of that group's existence? Are you involved in it at all?
Bill: I've heard it's there. I don't follow it, you know. My manager follows it, and occasionally she'll like, print out some stuff that people write, but I . . . you know, I mean, I'm just not concerned with that stuff, 'cause it . . . it . . . well, I mean, some of the stuff she printed is odd. I mean, I'll play a place, and somebody will review me the next day, and print my set list and, uh, and it's a . . .it's a . . . it's a little odd. It's like, everything is so immediate. You know, it' like . . .it's like critics. I don't read critics, or I don't go out of my way to, if I'm in a town, and they're writing something about me, that's nice, sometimes, but if, uh . . . you know, I do what I do, no matter what people are gonna say about it, 'cause I – I think if you get a nice review in the New York Times, it makes you feel great, and you feel . . . but you get this sort of inflated idea of yourself for a day or two, like, "aren't I the bee's knees." And if they trash you, then you feel, you know, awful, so . . . but you're gonna do the same thing the same night the next night. So everybody's got their opinion. The thing to do is just to stay true to what you think is the best, you know.
Otto: Well, you're not the type of performer to go out and do the same thing every night, you know? You don't do the same set list every night, do you?
Bill: No, I . . . I don't, but there are certain songs I have to sing every night that, uh – not have to, I . . .I . . .I, like, uh, people come, you know, that pay their fifteen, or whatever it is – seventeen, thirteen dollars to see me, and they want to hear certain things. They want to hear "Birches." They want to hear "Handsome Molly," and a few things, and uh, I do that, you know, I've got a certain core of songs. And, uh, the rest of the night changes. It really depends on the audience. 'Cause, some nights, you feel the audience . . . you know, a summer night, and the place may not be air conditioned, they're gonna want some lighter stuff. There not gonna want the dirges. And other nights, they're gonna want to just hear the serious stuff. And you can feel that from the stage, so that . . .that . . . you know, you tailor your show to how it is that night.
Otto: Does it bother you to think that people on the Internet are posting the playlists of what you played the night before, and does that somehow take away from the, uh – spontaneity of things, or, uh . . . how does that affect you?
Bill: I don't think it affects me at all, uh, I mean, I'm glad they're interested enough to . . . post that – that stuff. Uh, and it's, you know – they have every right to. I really don't think about it that much. It's . . . it's, uh, like anything else. You never know who is in your audience, and it could be somebody from the AP, or UPI, or, uh, you know, the local, uh, you know, critic. So, you just go out and do your show, and that's really all you can do.