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Sarah Jane Morris larger-than-life voice helped front the enormous Communards hit Dont Leave Me This Way which was four weeks at #1 in the UK in 1986. Before and since then she has pursued an idiosyncratic solo career ranging from Greek #1 disco hits to jazz, from singing Brecht/Weill with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to winning the San Remo Song Festival then having her trophy swiped by Grace Jones. We have a raucous interview with her from June 29 2000 in London, also provided in streaming audio, laughs and all. Diversions include barbed wire scrapes and broken bones on a Greek island.
Streaming audio of Sarah Jane's answers can be heard by clicking on the player after each question. For help in playing music, see our Playing Audio page in the Big Help Desk.
you think of yourself as an artist, a singer, or a performer or a writer?
I hadnt discovered that I had a singing voice until that date. I found it quite difficult to get my equity card, but it was easier to do it bycalling yourself a cabaret artist. If you could speak to the audience between songs, it was considered cabaret. I teamed up with a fellow actor who was leaving at the same time as myself who played the piano. He needed to get his card so he taught me Billie Holiday songs. So, I learned them first from him and not from Billie Holiday. It's quite bizarre and maybe that explains why I dont sound like her. A lot of people end up sounding like the first person that sort of influenced them and somehow fell into singing. I found out that people would come back and seeing us perform at pop clubs, northern clubs, you name it, every dodgy venue in the country I probably played at some point or other.
I also found out that I had a low voice for a woman. People enjoyed what we did and would come back each week, which very much threw me, and threw me into a dilemma about what I should do. Really, its been twenty something years now that Ive been doing it and Ive continued to juggle between being a singer and an actress. But, I am better as a singer. Ive got far more experience. Id be good in certain sort of cameo roles, but Im a larger than life character and that sort of rules out a lot of roles as an actress. I probably have more experience on stage and theater than I have in film and TV, but I enjoy both.
Along the way, because Tom Waits didnt decide to write a whole catalogue of work for me, or I didnt find my Bertolt Brecht of the eighties and nineties, I sort of fell into writing myself-once again an accident-but to start with was disastrously bad. Some of those songs are on my first album, my first co-writes. The first song I co-wrote was probably one of the best songs Ive ever written--a song called Cry. It was a song about the end of a long-term relationship with a mad painter, and I think, because I was so honest with it, it was quite a complete song but that was put away for many, many years and didnt see the light of day for a long time, but the songs that I co-wrote with American producers that were placed in front of me by major record companies were pretty crass. Lyrically, if the lyrics were written down without the music, they would be very, very embarrassing--a finger down the throat job, but somehow the music allows me to be remotely credible.
But you won the San Remo Song Festival with a co-written song.
Where is your trophy?
Well, at least you won.
Youre actually a pop star in Italy. Are you ever tempted to head for a more conventional course?
Everyone around me is tempted for me to head towards a conventional course, but theres something in me that is missing that wont quite make the connection. I think its because I had such an unconventional background and I so fought categorism, which, indeed, my father did, too. I feel like I have to carry that flame, that torch for him, and not get pigeonholed and, yes, it makes everyones life around me including my own more difficult because it is much easier to sell a product that fits nicely into a category and be PRd easily that way. But, it wouldnt satisfy me as an artist, and I dont think I fit into any category. It would be such an imitation to me, and having sung the phone book which I have over the years, I want to be able to have the freedom to carry on singing that phone book rather than one tiny little, say, part of music.
Of all the genres of music that I sing, the most obvious, I suppose, to do that with would be Jazz. But the Jazz world has never accepted me as Jazz singer. All the venues have and the audiences have but, because Ive had a Pop career and because I also sing Rhythm and Blues and some Classical Music, and you name it, I havent dedicated my life to the world of Jazz. As a result, they close their doors on me. Im quite handy every now and again to come and sing on someones record or whatever, but really the actual, you know, the world of Jazz is quite an anal one. Which is a great shame because most of the Jazz performers that I know and I respect are amazing and actually crossover just like I do, but maybe they had their initial success as a Jazz artist. Whereas, Ive had my initial success as a Pop artist. I think thats what confuses it all. So, yes, me with a nice little Jazz quartet Im sure I could probably sell far more records than I do, but that would be limiting me to doing just that, and that is only one part of what I do.
You keep coming back to jazz. It seems to be central to what you do. Why do you gravitate towards that?
The biggest success you had was with the Communards, the most prominent recording that you have made so far. Do you miss that success? Do you hanker after it or are you happy with the very flexible niche you are in at the moment?
Youre successful in Italy, youve been Number 1 all over the world and youve also been Number 1, with your own writing, in Greece. How did that come about?
On my flight out, I found out that my husband hadnt been given a plane ticket so he spent most of the day going backwards and forwards to different airports with me trying to let him know that a certain flight had been booked. Apparently, it hadnt. It was just a nightmare. He got out after the concert. The next day we found out that this cruise was actually a ferry to an island where Leonard Cohen had once written songs. We stayed at a very beautiful hotel where Gina Lolabridgida had filmed many films. It was wonderful for a day-no air-conditioning-just a beautiful, beautiful old hotel. And, we were taken to this fantastic private beach by boat to swim. At the end of the day I decided to go have a quick wee in the bushes, but there were all these fishing boats around so I had to go quite far away.
Being Number 1, you dont want to be caught with your knickers round your ankles by a camera and that to be in the newspaper. Its not a good move. So, I got these platform espadrilles and I sort of got further and further into the rocks. I was starting to pull my knickers down and saw what I thought was a snake, sort of went over on one espadrille, landed on barbwire, broke my ankle and three toes and had to be carried to the boat to be taken back to the island which you could only go via donkey. There were no cars anywhere. I was taken to the local hospital via donkey. Unbelievable pain. I think I had my knickers pulled up at this point. A whole crowd visits this town because I was very famous at this point. This tiny little hospital met by Nurse Ratchet, I swear, David had to go, because I had fallen on barbwire, to some chemist. He was told to go off and buy the injection. I was lying down, sort of bottom pointed up in the air in this non air-conditioned hospital with Nurse Ratchet at my side and, as she put the injection into my bottom, the donkey brayed, I swear. And, suddenly there was a whole line of people beside me wanting autographs. Shed let them in and here I was with my bottom in the air and this line clamoring to sign fucking autographs. Anyway, I broke an ankle.
I got back to England eventually. The only way I could leave the island was they put an armchair on a truck. Theyd nailed the armchair down so I could sit on this armchair so it was like Jesus leaving the island. It was unbelievable stuff. Anyway, we got home and were asked for a small fortune which would have been a deposit on a house in Dorset which we were looking to get at and play at three more clubs by this, unbeknownst to us at the time, the owner who had very successfully opened his club before. Came over and did the concerts. Each concert he said he would pay me after the next one very foolishly. My manager at the time, who friends call "mismanagement" as a result, didnt get a proper contract. It was a faxed contract, which, at that time meant nothing in a European court so you had nothing to fall back on. Basically, as soon as Id finished the third concert our places at the table where we were eating were removed.
We didnt exist, and the chap was walking around the place-he was about 6 5"-carrying a gun, and I realized at that point that we probably werent going to be getting our money. Got back to the hotel to find that the hotel bill was not paid. We had been booked into a suite. Didnt know how we were going to get back to the airport; didnt even know if there would be plane tickets. Eventually got home and borrowed some money to pay the bills. No, we never ever did see that money and never did buy that house in Dorset. So Greeks and I-I love the Greek Islands and I love the Greek people, but, and Ive had three Number 1s in Greece, but never received a penny. So, I have a love/hate relationship with Greece. They love Soul music. They love my music. Of course, I am going to like them for that. But, I think, in the future, I will have the money in the bank before I go.
You seem unduly fond of these countries. One of the other groups that you were with started off in Italy. Quite at the opposite end of the social scale.
With Wop Avenue. I left drama school and after all these attempts to try to get my equity card through northern clubs and the likes of, I answered an ad in Melody Maker for a singer with an Italian group which had an American deal and needed either an English or an American singer to front the band. At the time they were called Panama, and they were sort of a Blues/Blues-Rock band. By the time Id left my job as a paste-up artist for a graphic design company and gone out there, theyd become a Heavy-Rock band confusing themselves with Joplin and the likes of, but just a few years too late really-sort of Psychedelic Rock. I quickly became their Janice Joplin and loved it, but it was three guitars, bass and drums--very unmelodic, very loud.
I was living in an apartment that was attached to this incredible architect-designed house. It was built into the rock overlooking Florence, which was the drummers house. He was a hermit; he came out at night; he didnt really surface in the daytime. It was miles from anywhere, and I didnt speak any Italian. They would come for me when we had a concert, and I would be forgotten in-between. So, it was a strange arrangement, but I had an Italian boyfriend and that seemed to rescue me a little. But, I tripped up the iron staircase going to my apartment one day, broke all the tendons around my kneecap just before we were about to start a tour. So, they whipped me off to this private hospital. They plastered me up rather than operate-I should have been operated on, and did this tour with plaster from my ankle to above my knee and developed a very, very peculiar dance which has stayed with me ever since because I have this stiff leg. My band calls it "constipated octopus," but it is really one of the strangest dances in the history of dance. Nobody would copy it; nobody could copy it. Its really, I suppose allowed for my continually dislocated knee ever since this event.
After about six months I was very, very homesick and hadnt learned any Italian and really wanted to get back home. I had to get home to get my visa because they were signing a deal with Atlantic Records in America. Got back home and did a runner-basically I moved many, many times and never went back to Wop Avenue, so to speak. So, there are these tapes around somewhere. One was called Peaches in My Pockets, I remember-very psychedelic. Dont quite know what that meant. Came back and somehow got involved with this band called The Republic which was an Afro-Caribbean Latin Band-- a twelve-piece band. I do know how I got involved. A guy that Id known from Stratford-on-Avon, who is a black South African actor had joined the band to help put it together, and he started writing lyrics for it. He and I became the co-singers. He then went off and did character writing and acting, and I became the soloist--the sole singer. We were world music--way ahead of world music.
They were the band everybody said was going to succeed. We had a Grenada documentary made about us. We were on the cover of NME. We were on the cover of City Limits in the days where City Limits was the one rather than Time Out. We had a song, which was called The Royal Family, which was very anti-The Royal Family. We were too political for our time, really. This was very early eighties and after about three years an EP and a couple of singles we split up. But, we used to pack every concert we did. It was a brilliant band actually. Brilliant band-I loved it, but it was not to be. Capital Radio got behind us. This was in the days before they became Radio One really, as well. But, we just didnt get any airplay because we were too political and that led to the Band of Happy Enders, the twenty-five-piece big band, political big band.
Politics has always found me rather than me found it. When I went to drama college at the age of seventeen, eighteen, I did a drama and liberal arts course, and I accidentally fell into that. I just didnt know what to do after school, and I happened to be on the doorstep. It was run by the leading authority of Brechtian Theater in the country who was a big socialist and Ben Elton who was also on my course. Hes gone on to be, as we know, very sort of left wing stand-up, as well as a writer and stayed pretty true to his politics as much as you are able to as a millionaire. But Gordon Balance, who was sort of an early mentor, and myself made me challenge my parents politics and think in another way. So, I was in a way a willing victim to the political world because I do think I became a victim of it along the way. I became the darling of the left-wing press because of all the Communards. The Big Success was also another supposedly socialist band and also the fact that they were fighting for Gay Rights, as well. You know it was sort of another political issue.
So, Ive always been linked with politics, but I dont think I am a very political thinker but, because there werent many women in the music industry that were part of that kind of eighties thing, I think Ive been held up to be far more important politically that I ever was. I was terrified of letting people down. Im a humanist, and Ive got involved in things that have meant something to me, and I felt I could do something about, but to actually have-I dont have an incredibly strong political angle on things anymore. Once I had a child, my child came first. I didnt have the time to spend on all these different causes that I had before so I have to be far more careful about what my time is spent on. So, there are only a couple of things that I now lend myself time to, and I feel-I actually feel guilty about that. I stay in contact with what is going via The Guardian, and I get the Sunday Observer, but I dont really watch much television so Im not really linked that way. I listed to Radio Four; thats my age, and probably the most likely radio station to interview me because of my age. I know Ive gone roundabout in circles, but all the bands up until my solo career were political. I suppose youd expect the Wop Avenue, and Ive occasionally written a song which has got my viewpoint on life-political life-as opposed to just my own love life and living life, but I think I am probably still tapping into the best on that.
What do you think are the limits to political expression in popular music? How far do you think social ideas can be defined, implied or expressed?
The Communards are one example of political expression.
The artist, the singer and the writer have functions within society. But how should the people who can contribute be chosen? By what means? Do you think that society owes the singer a living?
Then its all dried up again or Ive been ripped off somewhere along the line, because I have had four managers, three of whom went bankrupt-one with all my money in his account. Definitely, it hasnt been a straightforward ride for me. I imagine a lot of people out there think because Im still going Im probably very wealthy. Im not; I still have to struggle. I still dont own property, but I dont feel I am defined by owning property. I feel I am defined by the music I am doing at the time. That is my expression. So, my particular journey is probably one of struggle with the occasional door being opened and then another door closing. I see that as my journey, and that doesnt throw me. Other people have had it handed to them on a plate, but I dont think that, if it is handed to you on a plate, I dont think it actually stays that way. Youve got to be pretty clever with the people you put around you and what you continue turning out. I mean the public isnt stupid. It doesnt mean you are always going to be successful. There are all sorts of grants out there to be had if you are shown the way to them. Ive got a lot of friends in the business who have done many fascinating projects because they have either got a lottery grant or a grant from the British Council, or whatever, and its allowed them to do these very interesting projects, which a record company wouldnt necessarily allow them to do because theyre not commercial. There are definitely grants there to help people. Its hard just believing and just being on a mission, really. I dont believe Im owed anything. Yes, Ive paid my dues, but people dont have to like what I do or, you know. I do it for me and hope that other people enjoy it as well. I have enough feedback to suggest that enough people enjoy it to warrant me carrying on doing it, but I wouldnt know what to do if I didnt sing anyway.
Sarah Jane Morris at the Stereo Society (selected links):
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To the full text of Sarah Jane Morris' interview
To the Hippodrome EFG London Jazz Festival gig review
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