AFTER almost 50 years in the music business, Russell Morris is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance, with his last two albums reaching numbers six and four on the ARIA charts respectively. It’s all thanks to throwing a bit of caution to the wind and getting back to his roots, says the 65 year-old Victorian.
“I remember an ex-manager asking me what I was doing next,” he says. “I said I was doing a blues album. He said ‘why would you do something stupid like that?’ and I said because I really like the blues, to which he replied ‘but nobody will ever buy it’. I’m not doing it for that reason, I’m doing it because I really love it, but I think what happened is that people really do love blues music, but they hear American blues mostly. They can hear it and love it, but it’s not in Australians’ hearts. I think people can relate to the music lyrically and like the sound. A lot of traditional Australian music is real corny country stuff that a lot of people can’t relate to, with lines like [adopts country accent] ‘he came down from Nanadoon with a swagger on his back’. I wanted something with a bit more meat to it.”
2013’s Sharkmouth and the recently-released Van Diemen’s Land tell stories about a range of colourful Australian characters from as far back as convict times.
“History is something that really intrigues me,” Morris says. “I’d done probably six albums that had sunk without a trace, and I was sick of trying to write songs that I thought people might like. So, I decided to go back and make an album of stuff that I would really like. I thought about what got me into music, and the first album that really got me into rhythm and blues was the very first Rolling Stones album. I thought ‘wow, this unbelievable, I’ve never heard anything like it’. Then I realised they weren’t writing all the songs; they were written by a whole lot of other blues artists, and we started collecting their albums. I started off performing with a blues band, and I think that was the happiest I think I was. So, [with Sharkmouth] I decided to write a blues album. At the time I think I had written about four songs and I thought it didn’t seem right. One of the songs was called ‘Chilli Pepper Woman’ or something, and I thought it seemed a bit fake. I sort of put it on the back-burner, but then I was in Sydney and I saw a photo from 1916 of a guy called Thomas Archer being arrested. The photo really transfixed me and I took it home. One afternoon I was sitting looking at the photo and it almost spoke to me, telling me I’m not American and asking me why I’m trying to write songs about America, and almost telling me to write a song about it. I wrote a song called ‘Sharkmouth’ and as soon as I wrote it, I sort of saw the light and thought ‘that’s what I’ve got to do’. I’m Australian, with an English/Irish background, so that’s what I’ve got to write about and talk about my history and my blues. I can’t write about the Mississippi or New Orleans; I need to write about something I feel in my guts. That’s when I started writing about where my ancestors came from, the gangsters and stories I heard about when I was a kid.”
Morris will bring his new lease of life on a national tour beginning the first week of August.
“What I’m trying to do with this tour is to combine the [last] two albums,” he says. “Hopefully it’ll be an entertaining show. I’ve picked all the songs from the albums that I think are the best to do, and hopefully we can entertain the crowd. I think we should do, because we’ve been doing a lot of blues festivals, and it’s been really, really good; a lot of fun.”
Fans of Morris’s material from the sixties and seventies needn’t worry; he still plays classics ‘The Real Thing’, ‘Rachel’ and ‘Sweet, Sweet Love’ live.
“I almost become a sort of Doctor Who as we take a trip through time and end up in 1969,” he says. “That’s a way I can introduce it. I still enjoy doing the old songs, but the newer songs are much more fun, because as an artist you always hope you can engage audiences with new material. But people spend their hard-earned money to come and see me, and I don’t want them going away disappointed. If they’ve spent money to come and see me, I really have to give them the best I’ve got.”
When & Where:
The Capital Theatre, Bendigo Aug 3
The Palms at Crown, Melbourne Aug 8
The Wool Exchange, Geelong Aug 9