Inspired by 12 legendary female artists, seasoned songsmith Sarah Jane Morris offers insights on crafting melodies based on real-life stories
A singer-songwriter renowned for her incredible vocal range, Sarah Jane Morris has been making music since the 1980s. Perhaps best known for duetting with Jimmy Sommerville on The Communards’ No 1 hit Don’t Leave Me This Way, her solo career extends to 15 albums that explore jazz, folk, soul and blues.
Morris’s latest album The Sisterhood celebrates the female artists who’ve inspired and shaped her life, making her the ideal person to advise on how to go about writing songs about real people…
I have always been a writer. I was the kind of child who wrote stories and poems as soon as I learnt how to write. I came to music through an original fascination with Brechtian theatre. As a singer-songwriter, I describe myself as a follower of Brecht. My writing of The Sisterhood involves the intention to use art as a form of participation in the struggle for social justice. This is the Brechtian ideal I adopted early on and have tried to uphold ever since.
My project honours the art of The Sisterhood and is a song-cycle recalling struggle and sacrifice as well as artistic and personal triumph in the life stories of 12 female singer-songwriters. They are all, I suggest, examples of Brecht’s ideal of the artist devoting their energies to the struggle for justice, either explicitly or as embodiments of courage and sacrifice as well as artistic leadership.
1. CELEBRATE PEOPLE YOU LOVE
My project set about to honour the women who went before me in my chosen profession of being a popular-music-singer-songwriter. Kate Bush is close to my age; Sinéad O’Connor was eight years my junior. i loved them all before researching them. I love them more now.
This is my sisterhood of 12: Bessie Smith; Billie Holiday; Nina Simone; Miriam Makeba; Aretha Franklin; Janis Joplin; Joni Mitchell; Patti Smith; Ricky Lee Jones; Annie Lennox; Kate Bush; Sinéad O’Connor.
2. BE TRUE TO YOURSELF
With my art, I participate in the struggle for social justice and human rights. This is the Brechtian ideal I adopted when I was a young adult studying Brechtian theatre, and which I have tried to uphold ever since. The project is a song cycle recalling struggle and sacrifice as well as artistic and personal triumph in the life stories of The Sisterhood. They are all examples of Brecht’s ideal of the artist committing their energies to the struggle for justice, either explicitly or by example, or both. They understood that artistic leadership cannot be separated from moral leadership, and that sacrifice may be a part of taking a moral stance.
My list contains the names of women who were ready to suffer and even to die for the causes they proclaimed.
My songwriting method has always been collaborative. My bands have been assembled to facilitate my voice, which is my instrument. I am not a self-accompanist. Rather, I surround myself with colleagues whose musicality, knowledge and technique complement my own.
Band members’ professional understanding of my voice built up over months and years make them potential collaborators, and so it has been that musicians supremely qualified to ‘get’ who I am,are the people I have co-written songs with. In recent years and in the case of The Sisterhood, that co-writer has been Tony Remy, long-time band member and one of the foremost virtuoso guitar players in the world.
The complexity and ambition of The Sisterhood, referencing as it does popular music idioms through a century, stretched Tony’s and my musical knowledge to the limits, but our combined experience gives us authority – we know what we’re doing musically, where we want to go, and how to get there.
4. WRITE SINGABLE LYRICS WITHIN A STRUCTURE
Lyric-writing has always been my department. Usually, I have something which I consider worth writing a song about, and the idea is first formulated as words.
The rhythmic structure is determined at this stage, and the rhyme scheme. These structures are not rigid, and may be adapted and contradicted for the good of the song. ‘Singability’ rules.
The emergence of verses, a repeated refrain, a middle eight and a ‘destination’ for the song should be considered at the lyric-writing stage.
When the subject is real people and the real stories of their lives, you have to resist the temptation to make stuff up.
I read biographies and autobiographies, listened to them being interviewed, watched film of live performances, replayed archives of recorded work. I made scores of pages of written notes for each member of the sisterhood, assisted by my husband (and second collaborator) Mark Pulsford.
Sarah Jayne Morris presents The Sisterhood takes place at Cadogan Hall, London on 6 October. Find out more about this and her other forthcoming concerts at sarahjanemorris.co.uk