Sarah Morris is just a country girl living in the big city. The Minneapolis musician pens tunes that would fit more in Nashville, but feel right at home in the Midwest. The songs on her new album, Ordinary Things, trace the connection between the head and the heart, and each track is earnestly full of heart, love, and most importantly, hope, sans the preachiness that sometimes comes with music talking about life.
Morris' pieces are almost too charming for the cynics; the listener can try and find dark undercurrents, but you won't find them here. City Pages caught up with Morris ahead of her album-release show Thursday at Cedar Cultural Center.
City Pages: Tell me about the opening track "Brighter." How did you come to writing it?
Sarah Morris: That song has a whole lot of story behind it, and is really dear to me. I composed most of the record within songwriter "challenges" I was taking part of on Facebook. Either with a group of people, where a word would be given and we all were supposed to write a song inspired by that word, or I would give myself a date and say, "I have to post a new song to Facebook by the 15th of the month." I had a ton of songs that way, that were all written very quickly. I was looking at the group of songs I had for the record and I just wanted one more song that was light — I had enough dark songs.
I write most of my songs while I'm on walks. I'm at home all day with my two little kids, who absolutely are not interested in me sitting down with a guitar and working out a melody. So I get the kids in the double stroller, get our dog on the leash and set out on a walk and start working through musical ideas.
"Brighter" came about on one of those walks in January. I was thinking about how beautiful Minnesota is in January, even though it is so cold; the world is this sparkly wonderland. My daughter who is almost 3 years old, she sees glitter and princesses and beauty in everything, so once that first line came to me, I just followed the line of seeing the world how she sees it. She really does make everything brighter. We went to the Mall of America today for the first time in ages, the moment we walked in she said "Oh! How beautiful!"
The fun thing about that track is it's the only song my band hadn't heard before we recorded it. I played it for them in the studio and Zach and Andrew (drums and bass, respectively) went into the hallway where there's kind of an out of tune piano and they worked out this counter melody, and then we just sat down and recorded it. We'd spent so much time with each of the other songs, it was nice to have this one that was arranged on the spot.
CPM: Your music has a lot of country music elements to it. Where does a Minnesota girl get these influences?
SM: I love country music so much, but that wasn't always the case. I grew up very pop-music oriented; I had an entire wall of my bedroom devoted to Mariah Carey photos. In high school I met a boy who played guitar and introduced me to some Alison Krauss, and then Garth Brooks, and Diamond Rio — all sorts of '90s country goodness. I fell in love with the stories in the songs, the clarity of the lyrics. It was a game-changer for me, musically and personally. I ended up marrying that guy! My parents were so sad about it; they had pretty much played me every kind of music except country.
I attended a music conservatory for college, and although we studied mostly opera, art song, a little musical theater, I started to teach myself guitar, and would get my Patsy Cline on in my dorm room. After college I moved to Nashville with the idea that I'd learn everything I could about country music and songwriting. I loved it there. The amount of talent all around you at every turn is staggering, and inspiring.
CPM: What song on this album do you feel best represents you?
SM: Lyrically I would say "The Strong One." That tune is so simple, and so honest I was almost afraid to share it with anyone, but it's such a true story that maybe occurs in my house every other day, It's those days when I feel like I just can't get myself pulled together, and I am so very grateful for a partner who has my back.
Also, "Hope, Sweet Hope," I love that it has these light verses up against a big chorus, and just enough country in it, but a little pop as well; I feel like it really brings the album to an appropriate close. A sweet little bow!
CPM: Tell me about your time at Lawrence University. What do you feel you learned there that shaped your music?
SM: Well, I learned that I probably shouldn't be an opera singer! But I feel like my professors there always emphasized the importance of the lyric, no matter what you are singing, remember the story, and that is such a part of my foundation. Also, all the basics — the theory — we spent our entire freshman year working on these part-writing exercises. It completely formed my understanding of song structure. When I moved to Nashville and they write all their song charts using the number system I was like, "Oh yeah! This is part-writing! I got it!" I was also blessed to have a teacher who would assign me arias, and then let me take a turn with "Crazy" or "Walking After Midnight" in our studio class.
And Nashville? Goodness, I just love that town. Nashville just sets the bar for songwriting so high. The songwriters there know how to tell a story, to bring a big, catchy melody in that gets stuck in your head. I was there a decade ago, and when we'd go out to songwriter's rounds, we'd hear so much fantastic stuff. I dipped my toe into writing there, but I was always a little intimidated. In Nashville I was introduced to all kinds of Americana/alt-country: Patty Griffin, Kelly Willis, Allison Moorer, Mindy Smith — I loved the way that they wrote songs not to be the next big hit, but to wring all they could out of an emotion, a moment. I also learned so much about dedication and diligence. All of the people who just write songs day after day after day.
CPM: What are you excited to share with this album?
SM: My songs. I'm thrilled with how this album came together. After my daughter was born, I stopped writing for a while, and I missed it. I saw a random post on Facebook about an songwriter challenge where you would write 12 songs for 12 weeks. It scared the pants off of me, but also I knew I needed to try, and it was the very best thing for me. I only used two songs from that first batch, but it started a writing routine, which I desperately needed. I needed to make writing an ordinary thing in my life. So writing these songs feels like a giant accomplishment, and I'm excited to share them.
My kids have been singing some of them quite a bit, so I think that means the melodies are catchy. Woo hoo! Also, I'm really proud of and humbled by the work that my bandmates — Thomas Nordlund, Andrew Foreman, Zach Schmidt — and my producer, Eric Blomquist, put into this thing. I would bring these songs to my band in rehearsal, and they were so generous about sharing their ideas, bringing these songs to life. They got me to rock out a bit more than I thought I would.
Like "Lie Here Tonight," this sad, sad song that I had written as a ballad, is now this awesome bar-band country rock song. Eric has been with me from the beginning, so supportive, so great at seeing the whole picture as well as the details. I really can't wait for people to hear it!
CPM: What can we expect to see at the album release show?
SM: A big gratitude fest! The Cedar is such a lovely room, and with Tim Houlihan and I both celebrating new albums that evening, it's going to be a whole lot of thank yous and woo hoos and all that. Also, we're filling out our band that evening with Shane Akers on dobro and lap steel, and Kevin Gastonguay on keys. We're excited to get to play this material as close to the record as possible! Our drummer played most of the keys on the album, so we haven't really gotten a chance to play these exact arrangements live before. I can't wait!
Sarah Morris album release show for Ordinary Things.
With: Tim Houlihan and Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Cedar Cultural Center.
Tickets: $12-$15 (click here for tickets).