Russell Morris has been on the music scene since the ’60s but he doesn’t just play the old hits. His recent albums have topped the charts and given him a whole new career.
By Brian Wise.
At the recent Bluesfest in Byron Bay, Russell Morris played only new songs for the first forty minutes of his allocated hour set. No ‘The Real Thing,’ ‘Wings of An Eagle’ or ‘Sweet Sweet Love.’ Instead, the music came from his trilogy of blues albums focusing on Australian themes: Sharkmouth, Van Dieman’s Land and Red Dirt Red Heart. No-one complained and the audience seemed just as enthusiastic ads if he had been playing the hits. Compare that with Richard Clapton, on stage prior to Morris, who seemed uncomfortable playing songs from his latest album, perhaps worried about the reception for the new songs.
I caught up with Russell recently to talk about his career and that performance at Bluesfest.
I wanted to ask you about your performance, I saw you at Bluesfest. It was really interesting because one of things that struck me is the fact that for the first forty minutes you didn’t play any old songs at all. I thought that was really interesting.
Well, I try not to. The problem is there are some people always in the crowd who want to hear the old stuff. We are going to America in May we are doing a showcase then we are going back in September and during that tour we won’t play any old songs we will play all the Blues and all the roots stuff.
It’s just here that some people expect the hits and I don’t want to disappoint anyone because as a performer they came to see me and I know if I have been to see acts and they haven’t played something that I wanted to hear so I tend to try and throw in a little bit.
You did some at the end though didn’t you? You waited until the end, but you certainly spent that first forty minutes or so playing all the new material which went down really well.
It was great. The people at the Blues Festivals have been really supportive. We did the same thing last weekend at the Blues Festival in Perth, it was the same thing and it was great, we only played three hits. I’m quite happy to be able to do that. If people really start howling out for the old songs, you can hear them up at the front, you tend to wait and if there is an encore comeback then I tend to do them then.
I suppose some of those hits are obvious, aren’t they? It was interesting to hear you do “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
I did that in 1967 I think it was with Somebody’s Image but we did a vastly different version. We did a sort of a version which was taken off a Chris Farlowe version which was like a Motown type of version of it.
I’ve always loved the song. Bob Dylan is like God you know, I love his songs, just incredible, he’s an amazing songwriter. It’s always good to do that plus we recorded it so I stick it in there because we have done it in the past
It’s a mighty song it really is. Bob Dylan songs are incredible hearing and seeing them and you go “yeah that’s really good,” then someone else sings them and you go “wow, the melody is quite intricate,” you just don’t notice it until someone else is singing it.
And I suppose some of the other requests are pretty obvious but it must please you that people sit back and enjoy all the new material.
It’s a lovely feeling. It’s like you’ve sort of been doing the same dance for years and you come out and you are a champion dancer and people and then all of a sudden you try some other thing and people go “don’t do that, don’t do that, just dance the way you used to do.” And you go out and you do the dance again and you do the dance again and then one day you decide ‘damn this I’m just going to do the dance that I feel more comfortable doing’ and you know people or you think people are going to yell out and go ‘stop doing that.’ But this time, unusually, everybody went, ‘Hey, we like that, do it again.’
It’s been really satisfying for me as a writer and an artist to not feel that you are completely redundant because as you get older, and a lot of my friends go through this working normal jobs they get to a certain age and all of a sudden they are handed the golden handshake and they say “well you’re too old now move on.” No one wants to feel redundant in capacity in any job.
Unfortunately, the music business is even more anxious than other businesses. Jim Keays once said to me, which is true, when I stopped recording, he said “Well what do you mean you are not going to do another album?” I said “Well why would I bother, no one’s interested, no one listens to them, no one plays them and no one buys them, they just cost me money.” He said “don’t be disgraceful,” he said “it’s what you do, that is your job in life, this is your body of work, if you built cabinets and you were a master cabinet maker and people weren’t buying your cabinets you’d still build some and put them in a storehouse. You have an obligation to do this.” He made me think about it. You always think “no ones going to buy it” and then when they did it was a really pleasant surprise. Something that I’ve said to you before was that it was totally unexpected I just did it for the pure love of going back to something that I started doing.
When you were originally playing old songs do you remember what that felt like?
I was happy. I had had my day in the sun. I am not the sort of person to be resentful, I never hold grudges and I’m not resentful about anything. So I was grateful for what I had and I was quite grateful to be able to play with Daryl [Cotton] and Jim Keays and Brian Cadd at times. I’ve had my day in the sun I thought, “you know I’m quite happy about this, this is a lovely feeling.”
In the back of your mind though you always wonder “gee wouldn’t it be lovely to do something new that people would like.” That’s the way it is. I’ve been pensioned off and then placed between a porch and a rocking chair. When I got into the ARIA Hall of Fame it was akin to looking at AMP and people going to a retiree and giving them a gold watch and saying to them, ‘Alright, you’ve had your time, just go away now, just disappear, go sit on a rock.’
That probably fired me up a little bit more. I thought well I’m going to do an album, maybe if, even if the feelings right and it doesn’t work it’s my body of work and I’ve got to do it. And I’m back to doing what I loved doing when I first got into the music business.
The first thing that really really grabbed me was the Rolling Stones first album with ‘King Bee’ and all those sort of songs on it. And then I started to listen to John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf and things like that and then Bob Dylan and then moved on and then Molly [Meldrum]came along and said “You guys need to be more commercial.”
So we started looking at more commercial stuff and then I walked that road for a long, long, long, long time and then it was almost thirty years with no success on radio. Radio wouldn’t touch anything I did. So I thought it’s time for me to go back and do what I really started doing and what I really loved doing.
It was interesting to compare your performance with Richard Clapton because early on in his set, maybe the third song in he played a new song from his new album, which is terrific by the way, and at the end of the song he said “Okay, why don’t we play a song that you know and I know as well.”
He’s a fantastic guy, he’s one of my best mates, I love him. You do feel insecure about playing new songs because in a lot of cases people start yelling out, “Play ‘Girls on the Avenue’,”and what it does it throws you. It’s like ‘I really like this song but they want to hear the old stuff.’
What you do is you loose your nerve and you tend to fall back into safety and try to find something that will get you through the performance because you are there as an entertainer to entertain. You are wearing a different hat. You’re not sitting down writing a song now you are actually trying to entertain or find a away to entertain people. You tend to go for safety and will swim to the buoy and hang on to that.
We made a pact when I did Shark Mouth. I just said to the guys “no matter how they scream and yell we are not doing the old stuff at all.” I’ll play their songs last. First it was a little difficult but the crowds started to get it and then they started to buy the albums, which shocked me, and now when we play we see them signing the words which is fantastic so luckily I turned that corner. I know if Richard sticks to his guns and keeps doing it he will do the same thing. But you can’t lose your nerve.
We’ve talked a lot about the trilogy of albums but what have you go planned next because you must be thinking about that?
Brian, I have honestly no idea what I’m going to do. It will be roots music but it won’t be Australian. It won’t be historical Australia. There will probably be mentions of maybe towns or people or things like that but it will be just straight roots music but I’m not quite sure which way I will go.
I was happiest with the last of the three albums, Red Dirt Red Heart. I feel that that gelled more for me and all the songs on that have more of a focus. I got the sounds that I wanted and I kept a really strong leash on that album making sure I got what I wanted. Probably, along those lines but maybe heading some little different, some little quirkiness, I’m not sure. I’m like a guy in a cave with a candle at the moment – a big black cave and I can’t see anything but this tiny little light. I can’t really find my way out of there.
I suppose you’ve still got plenty of promotion to do on the latest album haven’t you?
Well, we leave for America on May 2 and we go to the Toronto Music Festival and we’ve got four shows here, just as a duo. Then we’ve got four shows in Nashville, and then the band joins us and we go down to Brazil, then we come back. Then we go back to America in September to do the festivals because they’ve really loved the album.
I’m quite happy with the way things are going there so we will see how it goes. I’m happy with the way things are here but Chuggie’s [Michael Chugg] if talking me into going and throwing the hat in the ring and it’s almost like someone saying, ‘Oh you’re going to run against the big boys, you’re going to swim, swim with the big guys,’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah why not? It’s my time in life, I’ve got nothing to lose, let’s have some fun. If it doesn’t work who cares it will be a great experience.”
When was the last time you toured America?
I’ve never worked in America. I’ve recorded there and lived there but I didn’t have a Green Card and wasn’t able to work so I’ve never worked in America.
Well, that will be sensational after all these years won’t it?
It will be fun, yes. I think the songs will stand up. The thing that’s going to be the hardest for me is trying to engage the audience. I’ve got to tell a few stories that will get them to relate to the songs, some of which are intrinsically Australian and I probably won’t play the very very Australian ones. I’ll play a few of them because I need to because that’s what I am. I’ll play the ones like maybe ‘Kadaitcha Man’ and things like that and explain what they are about and try and find parallels in America or Canada to these songs such as the Gold Rushes and things like that. Plus with the indigenous song ‘Kadaitcha Man,’ the Indians had a medicine man or shaman, so it’s the same thing. If this man points the bone at you, you’re dead. So it’s no laughing matter, it’s very serious stuff. So I’ll sing the song and relate it to mojo when Afro-Americans sing about voodoo and stuff like that.
I’m pretty excited. I’m nervous but pretty excited at the same time.
The thing is, is over there you haven’t got any baggage of any previous hits or expectations have you? You’re not going to have a hell of a lot of people, apart from the Australians who turn up, who are going to yell out for ‘The Real Thing’ or anything like that have you?
That’s right. ‘Play ‘The Real Thing or ‘Play ‘Rachel’.’ So no one will be doing that. So what we are doing is all blues and it’s just me trying to engage the audience and see if they can connect to what I’m trying to do. So far, all the people that have heard the albums have loved them, at least the promoters, and that and so they are pretty excited about it so, hopefully, it may work.
Congratulations on the albums and congratulations on getting this tour up and running at the ripe old age of whatever it is. It’s like you’ve begun a new career haven’t you?
Yeah – very accidentally. Also, I owe a lot to that very first picture off that first album. That photograph of Thomas Archer because that literally really did communicate to me from 100 years ago and it sort of almost said ‘bring me back to life, you’re going to be Frankenstein and I’m going to be the modern Prometheus, you bring me back to life and I will walk again and live again through this song and I’ll give you a gift.’ And it was almost like that.
As soon as I wrote the song about Sharkmouth I thought I understand, if I’m going to write roots music I can’t write about Mississippi – I didn’t live there – I’ve got to write about what went on here and the roots and the blues here. Then I found such a rich tapestry of stories and it was fantastic it was just lovely. It was a great experience to do those three albums I really loved doing them.