Play On

Photos by Kyle Bustin

Hey Rosetta’s Tim Baker interviews singer-songwriter and Figgy Duff lead singer Pamela Morgan about her new solo album—her first studio album in seven years.

Tim Baker: I got an advance copy of the record, but I’ve never done an interview before. I’m always on the other side, right? I don’t really have question-questions, just sort of ideas that came to me.

I kind of want to talk about limitations a little bit. I’m very interested in this as I’m in the middle of writing and putting together our new record, and I found your new record to be without limitations in terms of the style, the sound, or the lyrical content even, and I thought that was really cool. I expected it to be folkier I guess. I don’t even know what that means, but especially the first three songs, they’re very different. Do you consider the limitations of being a folk musician, or of being perceived as such, or of what your creative voice is perceived as?

Pamela Morgan: No, I don’t give that any thought. And that’s probably why I can’t really market myself. I can’t and I don’t fit in any niches. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the whole gamut of things that Figgy Duff did, but we started out as a folk rock outfit, but Downstream was all original material. A lot of the stuff on this record is kind of on that continuum. There was a lot of experimentation with styles.

So you’ve long been bending your limitations.
Oh yeah, [we did that as Figgy Duff] and then I did an album of purely traditional songs with just the guitar, then did another album of original music. I’m pretty old, so I’ve done a lot of albums [laughs]. Yes, I’m probably mostly known as a folk singer, but it never was a limitation.
But every time you do something different you piss off your fans, so it’s hard to do it.

I’m sort of struggling with that myself. What we’re working on now is a bit different from what we’ve done. And in a way it has to be, right?

You’d want it to be. We do have that consideration of what our voice is, and how people perceive us, and what our fans think of us, and how far to go outside of that. Certainly, when I’m in the writing process I pay that no heed whatsoever. Because that’ll close you down. At that point you don’t want anything to limit you. You want to be able to say, “Well, we could perform this with Bulgarian folk singers.”

Or “this could be a full orchestra. Let’s get it out and see what it is.” Every now and then we’re rehearsing and the song, it just doesn’t—it’s too far away. Then I let it drop and I feel sad about it. I don’t know if that’s something I should do. I don’t know.
I’m a really bad one to ask about that because I tend to make mistakes over and over and over again. I haven’t got any of that figured out. Not only that, but I don’t have a producer, or a label, or a manager, or any of those things. I’m totally independent. So I’ve got nobody to keep an eye on that or tell me that’s the wrong thing to do.

But I don’t think experimenting is necessarily the wrong thing to do.
I did most of this album in England, and the engineer (Mark Lee) I was working with, occasionally I would tell him, “Geez, I don’t know if I’m going too far.” He said, “Well, the Beatles went with whatever album it was. Every single song was completely different.”

That is true.
He said, “You should just steady on. My opinion is that you should just give the song whatever treatment it asks for, no matter what.”

I was listening to Abbey Road the other night, and it’s all over the place.

And that’s what is so good about it. What is it that ties it together? I don’t know.
Mark says, “It’s your voice.” That’s what he said to me when I asked that. “It’s your voice. It’s your sensibility. No matter how it’s presented, that’s the unifying force.”

That’s the place that I’m in now. How far you can go outside of what you’ve already done and whether that should even be a factor at all. I’m leaning towards forgetting about it all.
As an artist, that’s what I do, but as a very unsuccessful artist. I’d say maybe you should listen to people who want to market it.

I suppose it is a bit of a balance, you do want to remain recognizable and I guess, yeah, even marketable.
Marketing, that’s the thing. I’m a marketing nightmare. I’ve never had any success with marketing.

We’ve been much the same. Before we started this, I just wrote whatever. Then we’d go away and especially in America and in England, people questioned me: “What is your sound? What do you sound like? What is your aesthetic? What do you look like?” It’s just like, “What?” I never even thought about that ever before. Now it’s sort of been jammed down my throat and I’m still kind of gagging on it.
When Figgy Duff started touring, we used to play blues bars because nobody knew what the hell to do with a band with an accordion and a fiddle and a mandolin with bass and drums. We couldn’t do the folk bars because we were too rocky and we couldn’t do the rock bars because we were too folky, so we actually most of the time where we fit the best and people understood it best was in blues bars… But there was no Celtic, there was no such thing, there was no such genre.

Yeah and you helped establish that. And create that.
We sure did.

Long live the lack of limitations and the merging genres, really, because you created something new.
Yeah, not to say that it wouldn’t have evolved, but we certainly helped it.

I’ve been writing songs for a long time. I’m fairly young, but I’ve been writing songs since I was a child, really, about probably 20 years. Then it sort of became my profession in the last five years or so, and I feel like it’s much more difficult when it becomes your profession. It’s a watched pot. It only really comes to a boil when you’re ignoring it. I struggle with that a little bit. When you’re looking for an inspiration, it kind of hides from you. Do you find that at all? Is that’s your experience?
I’m not a prolific songwriter at all. I’m more of a music writer, a composer. I’m really most comfortable writing music to somebody else’s poem or lyric or something like that… This is my first record in seven years, and the last one I did was totally traditional. I do have some songs I didn’t use, but… You know what I find in my writing that I really find I have to put a lid on? Something I need to curb?

What’s that?
It’s moralizing… I catch myself doing it, but I have to tell myself no. I have a song called “Peter Pan”, for instance, it’s about men who leave their wives for younger women, and I didn’t put it on because I thought, “Here I am again.” I mean, I love the song, but I don’t want to be always moralizing. I edit myself that way. I try to create a range of subject matters.

The older I get—maybe it’s the watched pot thing and doing this as a job—but I feel like the older I get, the less I get inspired by little things. A political idea is still easy to get really engaged in, but a simple observation on life isn’t as amazing. So do you find that you’re drawn more to that sort of subject matter?
Yeah. I found myself more and more engaged in politics as I got older, too. The condition of the world. Ron Hynes: one time we were having a few drinks and he said, “You’ve got to stop writing things that have ‘I’ in it. Learn how to tell somebody else’s story, stories from somebody else’s point of view.” I consciously did that with “A Hundred Miles”, the one about the fisherman on this album. I told it from a point of view of another person, and it worked for me in that song. But it doesn’t always work for me.

It’s a good thing to be conscious of though, because when we’re younger we write a lot of, “I feel this way and I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I,” but perhaps later we should probably try and look a little bit further outside of ourselves.

I actually write too much in the point of view of the second person, that’s my favourite. “You do this and then you do that, you feel this.”
Oh, is that right?

I’m trying to impregnate the listener’s brain with ideas. “You are walking outside and you are under the sky,” or whatever. I love the “you.” I don’t know where that came from, but it’s my favourite one.
Talking to the person you mean?

Yeah, like, “You’re walking down the road and all of a sudden you stop,” sort of putting someone inside the story. I’m into that, probably too much actually.
I don’t, I really try not to analyze. With the exception of a few little things, like we just spoke about the thing Ron told me. What I tend to do is write everything that comes to me and then pick the ones that have the most promise to them.

That’s definitely the wisest way to do it.
Like you said, it’s wrong to censor yourself off the top just because you may think that it’s not going to work.

I have bandmates that I work with and managers, and they often say, “So what kind of record do you want to make next?” I’m always like, “I don’t know. I really don’t know and I don’t even want to think about it, I don’t even want to speculate because it’s going to colour the process too much.”
Exactly, yeah. It’s like giving birth. You don’t know how hard it’s going to be until it’s born.

The St. John’s release party for Pamela Morgan’s Play On will take place at the Masonic Temple on March 5th.