Sarah Jane Morris in interview

Sarah Jane Morris interviewed by Mike Thorne for the Stereo Society

 

Sarah Jane Morris’ larger-than-life voice helped front the enormous Communards hit Don’t 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.

Do you think of yourself as an artist, a singer, or a performer or a writer?
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Today I see myself as all those things, but, at the beginning of my career, I think I saw myself as a singer because I hadn’t written a song. I started to write more out of desperation than anything because one can live off the publishing. I sort of cottoned onto that along the way. I trained as an actress so, I suppose, at the age of eighteen that was how I saw my career going. I hated drama school. I went to a London drama school, found myself being slotted into a category that I didn’t fit into so I rebelled. I left before completing the course, with no degree, and no final year of sell. Somehow I had get my equity card and that's when I accidentally fell into singing.

I hadn’t 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 don’t 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, it’s been twenty something years now that I’ve been doing it and I’ve continued to juggle between being a singer and an actress. But, I am better as a singer. I’ve got far more experience. I’d be good in certain sort of cameo roles, but I’m 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 didn’t decide to write a whole catalogue of work for me, or I didn’t 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 I’ve 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 didn’t 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.

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Yes, I suppose because of my early introduction to Disco music through you and the Communards. I loved Disco and what I did was collaborate with a very famous Italian singer-songwriter, who’s probably half the size of me. We made a very interesting visual duet team as I did with Jimmy (Somerville), who was also half the size of me. He had an equally a low voice as myself and like Jimmy. He had written a song and wanted me to collaborate. I said really it’s a song writing competition and it’s supposed to be international. I’d rather write; I’d rather co-write it with you. So, it went back to the drawing board, and I wrote the lyrics that meant something to me at the time. David, my husband, was living in France. It was the Gulf War. It was one of those situations where you really don’t quite know, based on the news that you’re getting on the television, whether you are ever going to see each other again. So, I wrote this love song about how water divides--a very passionate love song--to a Disco beat. It actually ended up winning the San Remo Song Festival which was fantastic because I got to play it for the first time. I also sang with an orchestra because with the competition, each song that competes has to be performed with the San Remo Orchestra. I think it is every singer’s dream to play with such a big group of musicians.

Where is your trophy?

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My trophy? There lies a story. My trophy, I would imagine, is either in the record company office of Grace Jones or else it's on a doorstop for her somewhere along the line. Grace Jones was another artist who was collaborating or was singing an Italian songwriter’s song at the Festival. I don’t quite know what drugs she was on that night, but, whatever they were, they made her oblivious to everybody else around her. I think, she thought-she came second. She and her collaborator came second-and with the information, because maybe her Italian is as bad as mine, the messages being passed down the line told her that she won. So she sort of pushed past me, and pushed me into a corner. She obviously thought I was the cleaner, and she had this incredibly camp chap tottering on high heels behind her with his tongue sort of poking out very, very fast like a lizard and he was carrying her mink coat. He tottered on stage. This was live on television, and she went and got the trophy. So, I would imagine it is probably somewhere with her. No, I never did get it. I did go into a corner and cry. Having gone to these great lengths to write this song and to have this fantastic accolade. It was a huge hit, the actual song, but to not take the trophy home did sort of knock my ego, rather. There you go; these things happen along the way.

Well, at least you won.

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At least I won, and it made me a household name in Italy, which is not sort of a bad thing to be. It’s kind of kept my career going over these years, and a household sort of name in Italy means that as many grandmothers come to see you as the youth, and that’s quite a sort of leveller, really. What I like about the Italian culture is the fact that because the weather is so beautiful most concerts are outdoors and the whole family comes. That makes it quite easy for me to take my family, too. For my child to wander around.

You’re actually a pop star in Italy. Are you ever tempted to head for a more conventional course?

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Everyone around me is tempted for me to head towards a conventional course, but there’s something in me that is missing that won’t quite make the connection. I think it’s 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 everyone’s 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 PR’d easily that way. But, it wouldn’t satisfy me as an artist, and I don’t 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 I’ve had a Pop career and because I also sing Rhythm and Blues and some Classical Music, and you name it, I haven’t dedicated my life to the world of Jazz. As a result, they close their doors on me. I’m quite handy every now and again to come and sing on someone’s 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, I’ve had my initial success as a Pop artist. I think that’s what confuses it all. So, yes, me with a nice little Jazz quartet I’m 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?

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Maybe it’s because this bloody pianist [Richard Coles of the Communards] who left drama school the same time as me taught me those Billie Holiday songs. Maybe he should have taught me some kind of Pop or Rock first. I think maybe it’s just that because I didn’t know anything about Jazz in my teens. I didn’t know who Billie Holiday was or Sarah Vaughn or any of those people. It definitely came in my twenties. I think because my voice; I’ve just got such a warm voice and it’s very textured, very much like a tenor saxophone. I have a very similar range so next to the sax, which is a very conventional Jazz instrument. It just sounds right, and it’s easy for me. It’s like falling off a log to me. It’s the other stuff that’s more complicated. So, maybe that’s why I keep harping back to it. Also, I like all the blue notes. I have a very black voice as opposed to a conventional white voice. A lot of people who hear me on record but haven’t seen me presume I’m a big black woman which I always find a compliment because most of the music that I love to listen to is black. Once again that’s something else people get confused about. I don’t even look how I sound. In fact, I look very unlike the way I sound. It’s kind of a no-win situation. I’m lucky to be making a career out of this thing really when you add it up like that but I can’t really explain why my music is so Jazz-tinged because even the heavy Rock stuff that I do goes to Jazz chords. I can’t explain it, but somehow it happens.

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?

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I’d be a fool to say that I wouldn’t want a modicum of the success for my own career rather than that of a band that I was once in. We were Number 1 nearly all over the world. We had everybody licking our asses. It was at times fantastic and at times vile, because you never knew who was your real friend. You must have found this as a top producer; you produced so many hits you must have had so many people-you were in vogue for that period of time and everybody is your best friend-and because I am such an open person, I didn’t kind of get it for a while. I thought everybody was my best friend. I didn’t realize that people were out for themselves, and it was a hard lesson to learn. I never really made a huge financial success with the Communards. I had more of a name than I did a healthy bank account. Maybe it’s because I left after a year and I didn’t really give it a chance to grow. Well, none of us did. They split up a year after that. I think if I had carried on having that kind of success I would have slotted it into a nice little niche. I would have been someone like Celine Dion which, as far as a bank account is concerned, is fantastic, but I think I would have been very bored and very dissatisfied because, as I explained in the question before, I don’t want to fit into any nice little niche. I think even if other people don’t make my life complicated I will make it complicated. You know, it’s in my nature to have a complicated life, and you of all people know that. You’ve known me all these years; nothing is straightforward. Sometimes I long for it to be, but I don’t think I know how to deal with it.

You’re successful in Italy, you’ve been Number 1 all over the world and you’ve also been Number 1, with your own writing, in Greece. How did that come about?

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I’ve learned to kind of close my eyes to certain situations. I remember when I was Number 1 in Greece being asked to open a club which, they presumed, because I was doing these huge TV promotional things, that if I mentioned this club on TV a whole entourage, the in-crowd, would follow me to the club and they did. I was then asked to go back about a month later. In the meantime, I had gone out to do a huge TV show, live TV show in Greece on a beach--20, 000 people-and I’d been sold the story of rather than getting paid, my husband and I will receive a cruise around the Greek Islands. That sounded very, very exciting to us. So, I said yes.

On my flight out, I found out that my husband hadn’t 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 hadn’t. 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 don’t want to be caught with your knickers round your ankles by a camera and that to be in the newspaper. It’s 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. She’d 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. They’d 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, didn’t 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 I’d finished the third concert our places at the table where we were eating were removed.

We didn’t 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 weren’t 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. Didn’t know how we were going to get back to the airport; didn’t 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 I’ve had three Number 1’s 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.

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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 I’d left my job as a paste-up artist for a graphic design company and gone out there, they’d 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 drummer’s house. He was a hermit; he came out at night; he didn’t really surface in the daytime. It was miles from anywhere, and I didn’t 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. It’s really, I suppose allowed for my continually dislocated knee ever since this event.

After about six months I was very, very homesick and hadn’t 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. Don’t 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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. He’s 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, I’ve always been linked with politics, but I don’t think I am a very political thinker but, because there weren’t many women in the music industry that were part of that kind of eighties thing, I think I’ve been held up to be far more important politically that I ever was. I was terrified of letting people down. I’m a humanist, and I’ve got involved in things that have meant something to me, and I felt I could do something about, but to actually have-I don’t have an incredibly strong political angle on things anymore. Once I had a child, my child came first. I didn’t 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 don’t really watch much television so I’m not really linked that way. I listed to Radio Four; that’s my age, and probably the most likely radio station to interview me because of my age. I know I’ve gone roundabout in circles, but all the bands up until my solo career were political. I suppose you’d expect the Wop Avenue, and I’ve 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?

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In a way, particularly Rap music, I mean, everything has been explored and exploited, you know, particularly sexually with Rap music. It’s been a very good medium for really any viewpoint. So, I think more people have been able to have their say without being sort of held up as a spokesperson as they were in the eighties, really. I think they have been successful together, politics and music, along the way. I’m definitely trying to think of examples now, but I know that they have.

The Communards are one example of political expression.

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Yes, it was, because of the whole, I suppose, homosexual angle that Jimmy took in a time when it wasn’t incredibly safe to be out and Gay, but, also, he did write quite a few songs about the poverty line. Breadline Britain, I think, was a very good song. I suppose, yes, just being brave enough to speak about his sexual position which wasn’t the so-called norm. But, then, just before him you’d had Tom Robinson doing his Glad to be Gay, which is a brave, brave move. It’s interesting when I look back at some of my early influences like The Temptations. The Temptations back in the seventies were doing quite strong lyrics with their music; much more so than you’d imagine. Or the Confusion, coupled with the Rolling Stones, they were making statements through their music back then. I think of Bob Dylan, the sixties were quite a political time with music. I think it can be done. There are times when it’s done well-subtlety-and there are times when it is in your face and it is embarrassing, but I definitely do think there is a place for the two.

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?

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I think we’re all owed it, but I don’t think we’re all owed anything on a plate. We have to find a way to get to our goal. I think we do need to work for it. I think there is a ridiculous amount of money in the music industry, and, as a result it’s become a very, very greedy industry. There are many, many talented people out there that really do struggle with it to make ends meet and often have to do other jobs they wouldn’t necessarily choose to do to still pay for the main musician singer and that’s any age from teens right the way through to musicians in their sixties. You know it’s not necessarily straightforward. If you have a hit quite early, and you’re sensible with your money, and you make your money work for you, then you kind of free yourself up so that your not so tied up with the industry. You don’t have to do as they say. You have control early on and you can reinvent yourself each time. You don’t have to slot into the industry, say. I’ve always found it quite difficult; I’ve struggled financially with it. I’ve had times when I’ve been in vogue, and it’s all been fine.

Then it’s all dried up again or I’ve 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 hasn’t been a straightforward ride for me. I imagine a lot of people out there think because I’m still going I’m probably very wealthy. I’m not; I still have to struggle. I still don’t own property, but I don’t 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 doesn’t throw me. Other people have had it handed to them on a plate, but I don’t think that, if it is handed to you on a plate, I don’t think it actually stays that way. You’ve got to be pretty clever with the people you put around you and what you continue turning out. I mean the public isn’t stupid. It doesn’t 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. I’ve 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 it’s allowed them to do these very interesting projects, which a record company wouldn’t necessarily allow them to do because they’re not commercial. There are definitely grants there to help people. It’s hard just believing and just being on a mission, really. I don’t believe I’m owed anything. Yes, I’ve paid my dues, but people don’t 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 wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t sing anyway.

To Bronski Beat/Communards Central
To Thorne's commentary on the Communards' production
Download a free 'Cry' and other tracks

Sarah Jane Morris external:
The official Sarah Jane Morris website