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For the past few years Minnesota native Michael Morris has embraced the open road, splitting time between Northfield, Portland, Seattle, and plenty of places in between as he has embarked on multiple national tours spent refining his singer-songwriter craft. As he prepares for his latest tour, a 33-date run with his new full-band project, Dewi Sant, Morris has finally dispensed with the notion of a formal place to call home once and for all—after years of kicking in rent money for places he barely set foot in ("One of my bandmates says that the last place to find me is where I'm paying rent," he jokes), Morris is officially declaring himself a couch-surfer.
"If it's a choice between rent and a home versus tour and record, I feel like I have to choose the latter," Morris explains. "Which sucks in so many ways, because I miss having a 'normal' life, but I feel like I have to do this."
The same earnest dedication that comes across so palpably in conversation with Morris powers the music of Dewi Sant's debut, May, a collection of shuffling folk-pop confessionals that dresses up Morris's simple strumming and plaintive, subdued tenor in beautiful accoutrements (most prominently cello, pedal steel, and some lovely female harmony vocals). It's a remarkably assured and focused collection, sounding more like the work of an artist hitting mid-career stride than a full-length debut—perhaps because it was far from his first crack at trying to complete an album.
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"I spent almost a year recording a nearly finished full-length," explains Morris. "I spent a few intense weeks recording an EP. I pulled the plug on both of them before anything was released. I feel really bad about the efforts that other people put into them, but I was uncomfortable with each recording. I didn't understand why until recently; they were all too self-conscious. None of them were just telling a truth that I'd experienced and needed to share. There were beautiful things going on in each recording, but none of them felt 100 percent honest, and the onus of that is all on me."
True to Morris's word, the plainspoken bent of May's lyrical world—a first-person chronicle of the downside of being perpetually in motion, struggles with faith, and the simultaneously satisfying and frustrating aspects of long-distance relationships—doesn't offer much in the way of ambiguity. "The lyrics aren't always word-for-word true life experiences, but sometimes it's painfully close," admits Morris. "I feel a responsibility to only communicate feelings I've actually had, so it's all emotionally autobiographical. Songwriting for me has always been a way to work out problems in my personal life that I feel unresolved about. If I write about it in a song then I feel like I've at least addressed my thoughts on it and can move on."
As is fitting for a tried-and-true Minnesota music lover, the inspiration behind Morris's inward-looking lyrical excavations isn't the typical wounded singer-songwriter signpost like James Taylor or Conor Oberst—it's Twin Cities hip hop. "Obviously, I don't make music anything like the Rhymesayers crew, but it's what I listened to growing up more than really anything else," says Morris. "Something Brother Ali says at the beginning of the song 'Forest Whitaker'—'Whatever comes up, comes out/We don't put our hands over our mouths'—has always sort of been my music-making ethic. To me what that lyric means is, say who you are without shame. I'm not trying to persuade people to adopt a certain worldview with my songs, I'm just telling my story in the hopes that I can do the same thing for a listener that artists like Brother Ali have done for me, which is basically just made me fell less alone and more empowered."
With the ethos of Brother Ali beating in his heart and the sweeping folk-rock songwriting of Fleet Foxes in his hands, Morris's future looks bright—he says May was conceived as the first part of a trilogy, with work slated to be begin on the second chapter next month and plans for even more exhaustive touring in the works. What comes next is anyone's guess, but it seems likely that Morris's muse will keep him busy enough on the road that he won't need to worry about writing rent checks for the time being.
DEWI SANT play a CD-release show with Starfolk and Alison Rae on FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 19, at the CEDAR; 612.338.2674