Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Interview with Cahalen Morrison Part 2

BC:  Do you try to get through a whole song in a day when you write.

CM:  It depends, a lot of times I do because if I don't.  If I fall off the track it's hard to get back on and get back into the place where I was.  It won't feel linear or the verse I write 3 days later doesn't fit that well.  Like the content fits well but it doesn't have the same feel or way it rolls.  As far as the main structure or lyrics, I'll work on them for a month or whenever.  Every time I play it I work on subtitles.

BC:  You fine tune it?

CM:  By no means it's done after a day.

BC: I remember Paul McCartney saying that when him and Lennon were writing in the early days they would meet at noon and try to have a song done by the end of the afternoon.  That was just it.  It didn't matter if they were inspired or not.  It was, we're meeting at noon and we're writing to 5.  It was very set up.

CM:  I think that's great.  You know Matt Flinner (Mulit-instrumentalist) he does the tune du-jour.  We just did a few shows with him in Colorado.  They each write a tune on the day of the show and play it that night.  And this is not like, Angeline the Baker style, the verses are in 9/8 and the chorus' are crazy.  They're all totally crazy.  It's all written out.  It's insane.  So they do this every day they have a show.   The rule is you have to start it that day and finish it and rehearse it.  Then they play all three during the show.

Some of them kind of flop according to them but most of them are pretty cool.  And then by the end of the tour they have 3 times the material and they can say hey this one was awesome we should work that one up. 

BC:  Wow.  Inspiring.

CM:  I think that works really well in it's own way.  You know by process of elimination you can say I have so much stuff to work on now.

BC:  Do you keep a list of ideas?

CM:  I do.  A pretty scrappy list that's all over the place.  I should have a pen and paper in my pocket at all times.   That would be good, but I never ever do.  So I leave myself messages on my phone.

BC:  Bela Fleck does that, he'll hum some tune into his phone and then he'll go work it out.

CM:  Yeah, I'm just like Bela!  (laughs) I'll write it down on the back of something and then it's in my car for 6 months.  Then I'll find it.

BC:  Do you need to record with something when you're writing?

CM:  Definitely, I lose stuff.  I don't think there's a more frustrating thing in the world than playing a melody.  You have an idea and you think I can work on this.  Then you go eat and sit  down and you remember the fingerings you know, or what it was like kind of, but you just can't get it.  Something is missing and it just falls off the earth forever unless maybe later it comes back.  So, I always record every step of the process.  I'll record the first lick or write down the line and go record it.  So in that case you can turn back and look at ones you've done along the way of playing the whole song through.  With different approaches to the chorus or verse and see when you have good ideas and when they evolved.  You retrace your steps and see what you like.

BC:  Who are you favorite songwriters?

CM:  Paul Simon is my favorite, definitely.  I've never wanted to write like him that much.  But, he has been an inspiration to me.  I love the way he tells stories is a lot different than a lot of people.  He writes these vague story lines with really bright bursts of imagery.   I get frustrated when music is laid out completely for you and you don't have to interpret or think about what it might be about.  He's really good at that.  Drawing 2 lines instead of one line.  So you stay in between the two.  I love music like that.

I listen to a lot of Kelly Joe Phelps writing.  I don't like some of it as much but what I like, I love.  And also because I play fingerstyle, that was my main thing for a while, I kind of follow in his footsteps.  Tim O' Brien is another one clearly.
 I don't like all of his tunes, but the mark of a good songwriter is that even the songs you don't like you can say well that's a good song.  I might not like whatever about it but that's a good song.

BC:  I think it's important to have that approach when listening to music and not just say well that song sucks and discount it.  Maybe it's not your taste but maybe it's well written.

CM: Yeah.

BC:  As far as instrumentalism goes how do you practice?  You said that you don't play scales?

CM: In the past year I've started to try and learn scales.  I have trouble with patterns.

BC:  What is you #1 instrument?

CM:  I'm best on fingerstyle guitar.  I'm not good at improvising if I'm a jam.  I don't think of myself as a very good improviser.  I'm ok at improvising at stuff I'm really comfortable with but if somebody throws out some tune I don't know the changes to I don't know what to do.   I'm shaky.  I don't have very good ideas in that sense.  I'm sneaking up on clawhammer.  For some reason, I've been playing for 2 years and it's like, in my brain.  It's comfortable.  For some reason.

BC:  Did you take lessons with clawhammer?

CM: No.

BC:  Who were your main guys to follow?

CM:  I didn't really have to much of trying to sound like anyone.  I listened to Dirk Powell.  That was probably my main thing but it was more subconscious rather than I love the style of whoever.

BC: So you just started going for it.  Clawhammer is such a picky little thing, there's so many different ways to do.  Did you feel like you were influenced by any distinctive style?

CM: Not so much.  In the general sense of I like the plunky the over the head style instead of slapping the head style.  It has it's place but I generally went for the over scoop style.  It's hard to do with Eli cause when we're playing he's so loud.  The volume of his guitar is insane.  When we're playing live on some fast song I have to go way back and twang on it.  Which is good since that's what it calls for.  That's a challenging thing to do that live cause it's so quiet.  You've got to have a quiet listening audience.

BC:  Do you play anything else?  Mandolin?

CM:  Yeah Mandolin, same thing, self taught.  I've kind of plateaued on everything a few times.  I just kind of walk up the ladder of getting better at certain things.

BC:  Did you start with fiddle tunes on the mandolin?

CM:  Yeah and I can kind of play scales on the mandolin.  I have a mandolin student now so I was like, uggh, I guess I'd better learn some scales.  So I learned them and taught them to her.  And that's been really helpful.  Knowing your way around the instrument is swell.

BC:  How much music theory do you apply?

CM:  A good bit.  I'm OK with theory.  I did pretty well with theory.  I took theory in college and it was all classical.  I had a really hard time with it at first cause I had never read a note on the page or thought about 1-4-5 type stuff, but then it clicked and that door just opened.  It was like, all of this stuff is true.  It's great now.  If I'm stuck on a tune it's fun to be able to say, OK where can I go to?  With a progression that's not cool, I can say how can I make this cooler.  You know put the 5 of 5 in there or whatever.

BC: Do you get crazy with what keys you write in or change keys or go to strange parallel keys?  I guess it's not real folky to do that.

CM:  Yeah I'm not trying to stay all traditional sounding.  But I don't change keys very often.  I'm working on a fiddle tune now.  It's weird.  It started off as a reel then turned old timey is kind of in between an Irish and Old time tune but with a weird twist.  It kind of does change keys for a second.  It's in A and then it modulates to D and then back to A.

BC:  Do you practice modes at all or just the major scale?

CM: Never.  I know what they are but I couldn't just play them.  I know what a C Lydian scale is but to apply it is insane.

BC: Do you work on more complex chords?

CM:  A bit, I'm comfortable in first position.  Not because it's easier, but I just like the sound.  I'm much more of a Norman Blake fan than a Tony Rice fan you know.  I just go with that.  I don't work on to many chords really.  More so in fingerstyle I do more complex stuff.

BC: Could you name all the notes or just know how it sounds?

CM:  I could figure it out but I just know how they feel and what they sound like.

BC:  When you practice instrumental stuff do you set goals or just think you know today I'll practice this?

CM:  I didn't used to but this year I'm trying to learn a tune a week.  I have trouble learning tunes cause I've just worked on my own stuff.  But I decided I need to know a large catalog of songs cause it'll help my writing, playing, and jamming, everything.    I've learned like 4 tunes in the past 2 weeks.  It's like OK that was easy.  I've just started doing goal setting with learning tunes and getting licks down.

Double thumb tricks on clawhammer.  Just things like that.  I'm becoming more goal oriented which is working really well.

BC:  How do you approach a new tune?  How do you set off to learn it?

CM:  Well I just learned twin sisters.  It's an old fiddle tune.  I started the first phrase and it's this cool double thumb trick that makes it sound really linear.  Any clawhammer player that plays 16th note runs you're like how do you make it do that?  How is that possible?

BC:  Melodic clawhammer?

CM:  Yeah.  If you get the right fingering you can play very linearly and it sounds so cool.

BC:  That stuff is hard.

CM:  Very.  I'm trying to play the fiddle melody as close as I can.  And I have a recording of that which is helpful.  I just got these field recording which is Edna and Sydney Fuller.  I was listening to those and thought, awesome tune.  And one just had banjo.  That was great.  It made it easier to learn.

BC: Do you play it note for note?

CM:  In the beginning.  Then I stray a little bit and do what I like.  Which I think is how traditional music should be.  You shouldn't play just like you heard it on the field recording cause it's not them anymore.  You're not that guy.  You should play it like you want to play it.  I see no harm in changing things up.  If you like a certain note over another note, music has been evolving for how many years?  I do that with no shame.

BC: I guess with a tune like that you're very methodical.

CM: I worked on that first phrase for an hour and a half.  You drop your thumb for a couple of notes bring it back up for a couple.  It's a three dimensional space when you start double thumbing.  When you have a melody note on your first string, it's a bit warping at first till you get the muscle memory.  It's counter-intuitive.  It's not going to be my main thing but it's fun to work out a tune.

BC: Do you get stage fright?

CM:  Yeah, not very often but if it's over 200 people that are silent, that get's pretty scary for a second.  But, it's just at the beginning.  As soon as I play the first tune then I shake it off.

BC:  Did you have some gigs like that on this tour?

CM: Yeah gigs in quiet silent big rooms, which is a beautiful thing.  Everything is better about it, but that first tune is a little tingly.

BC: Do you ever get the shakes?

CM:  Yeah, and that's difficult to deal with.  I remember the first time that happened to me in front of a big audience in Colorado.  I open with this intricate fingerstyle song and it just did not work.  I was jittery and I just could not do it.  I dive bombed.  I'm sure a lot of people noticed and some people didn't.  I was still doing finger picky stuff and they didn't know how clean I was trying to be.  If you get shaky that's hard to deal with.

BC:  Do you warm up before a performance?

CM:  I just go for it.  I think it comes from practicing.  I never learned anything formal really so I just go for it.  Occasionally I'll warm up my voice a little bit.  I feel like you'll sound better in the middle of a gig than the first song.

BC:  Do you practice singing at all?

CM: No.  I never do that.  I never work on doing little twirls or stair stepping down.

BC: Do you work on your voice through recording?

CM: Not on purpose.  I'll hear myself and but I haven't ever sat down to work on my voice.  But if I hear myself and do something at gig I don't like I'll say I won't do that again.  Or I'll do things that I think, Oh that was cool.   In the beginning my singing was really rough.  It was pitchy and weird and my phrasing was weird.  I just feel like singing is a thing of subtlety.  It doesn't really matter if you can hit the notes all the time.  It's not the point as much as your phrasing and inflection.  I've worked on phrasing and inflection more than anything else.

BC:  Do you feel like your songs have developed your vocal style or the other way around?

CM: Probably.  I let the song tell me what to do.  There are certain things I'll do.  I like a lot of space.  I like to have space to move things around in a phrase.  If it's a 4 bar phrase that I have a few words in I don't like repetitive words to sing.  I like to have long open phrases with a short vocal phrase in it that you change the length of words.  You can shorten them.  Jealous sea is a good example of that.  Sometimes I'll finish the whole phrase 5 bars before the phrase ends musically.  I feel like that is a fun way to change how songs feel.  If people have heard this song before it's going to catch them off guard.  It's fun to play with.  To put a lot of room in songs.

BC:  How did you develop your harmonies with Eli West?

CM:  That was pretty natural.  Most of them are pretty standard harmonies and I think Eli and I have voices that blend really well just by chance.  Sometimes we'll hold a note for a long time and I can't tell which one I am until we diverge.  That's pretty crazy.  That's a fun thing.  Some songs have a crooked melody, like Lost Loving Gal, a weird melody, it's pretty funky.  We worked that out cause it would be cooler to do something different than some standard harmony.

BC:  Eli is a tremendous harmony singer.

CM: He has a great ear.  I'm not a fast learner.  I can't learn songs quickly but I can write songs.  And he doesn't write much but can learn quickly.  So we have an easy musical relationship.  I'll bring in some weird tune and he'll put some harmony on it and it works.

BC: What's next?  A full band.

CM:  Yeah, it's be really fun.  I'd love to get another multi instrumentalist.  Like guitar/banjo/fiddle/mandolin.  Any combination of those.  Bass player.  That would be really fun.  I'd like to keep playing my stuff you know.  But I'd love to play more with the guy who plays fiddle on the new record.  It'd be fun.  He plays so many styles.  I would like to do a crossroads of bluegrass/old-time/celtic record.  With more of a celtic influence.  A bit like Tim O' Brien's The Crossing.  Those records are IT for me.  It all fits so well together.  I don't why more people don't do that.  It makes so much sense.  Historically, musically.  I'd like to do something in that direction.  With a bigger sound.  Maybe a piper?

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