Soulful, sensual and seductive: Sarah Jane Morris
Singer-songwriter, Sarah Jane Morris, is someone whose passion for social issues will appeal to the music lovers and revolutionaries of Hastings and St Leonards. Performing at The Masonic Hall this Friday – 4 September – HOT’s Zelly Restorick spoke to Sarah Jane about her career and her love of Hastings and St Leonards.
In her late teens, Sarah Jane Morris attended The Central School of Speech and Drama alongside Kristen Scott-Thomas, French and Saunders and Rupert Everett, but realised she hated the experience: “I found myself being slotted into a category that I didn’t fit into, so I rebelled”. Leaving without a degree, but desirous of an Equity Card, she began working as a cabaret artist – singing and talking to the audience between songs – discovering a distinctive, unusually deep (contralto / baritone) and mellifluous voice and a natural ease with performing and exploring her own unique interpretation of the lyrics and rhythms.
“Being at drama school helped me with the interpretation of lyrics, especially my time studying Brechtian theatre in Stratford Upon Avon… the script is very important… there’s a story to tell.”
Performing at a wine bar in Chalk Farm in 1981, Sarah Jane was spotted by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, recently departed from The Tourists, who asked her to sing backing vocals on their first single, Into The Garden. In exchange, she was given recording time in Stewart’s Chalk Farm church-based studio.
In the mid-1980s, in response to the plight of the miners, Sarah Jane co-wrote Coal Not Dole with Kent miner’s wife, Kay Sutcliffe and Matt Fox; the song later became the anthem of the miner’s strike. In the same year, she performed at a ‘Gay’s the Word’ fundraising concert at The Fridge in Brixton alongside Jimmy Somerville, leading to a collaboration and US tour with The Communards and the Number 1 Hit, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Jimmy Somerville remains a good friend, whose voice “continues to get better and better” – and she’s sure they’ll get back together again at some point.
“When I left The Communards, I knew I didn’t want to follow the pop route… I wanted privacy, normal life… and to be able to express myself without being told by other people – who didn’t know more than I did – what to do. I’m the daughter of a father who went his own way – and I’ve always followed my own path.
Had being the only daughter in a family of six boys had a big effect on her life? “I was the big bossy sister… I was organised, taking responsibility, like a second Mum… and I’ve re-created my family set-up on stage, working with six guys! (Tony Remy, Dominic Miller, Henry Thomas, Martyn Barker, Tim Cansfield and Adriano Adewale.) Having grown up with men, I know how to relate to them without flirting. I feel I have a very privileged position within a group of men… they treat me with respect… I hear everything they say to each other… they’re all very sensitive.”
Just to keep life interesting, Sarah Jane will sometimes take a new song along to pre-gig sound check with her band and then they’ll perform it live for the first time that night. ‘We’re talking danger… not all musicians like this. But the audience doesn’t know what the song is meant to sound like – and if one of us has an instinct to take it somewhere, we can follow that. I stretch the musicians… although I’m limited with my knowledge and training, I have an incredible instinct and a good ear. It’s a very freeing experience.
“Because I’m not musically trained, I did feel inferior for years, thinking ‘they’ll think I’m a charlatan’… but my musicians have taught me belief in myself… I wouldn’t be able to write or perform without them. There’s never a concert where I don’t show my appreciation for them. I love them. They’re like my family.”
Sarah Jane has a reputation as a social comment songwriter, writing about issues that other people might avoid: the politics of gender relations, the power deficit endured by women, suicide, injustice and bigotry, the theme of the politics of Human Rights and humanitarian socialism. “I care deeply about people… All of the songs on Bloody Rain (her latest album) relate to human stories that are really happening. I can’t help but write what I write… I’m not battering people with my politics, but seducing them with a human story, to get them thinking… raise awareness. I still have more questions than answers.”
Via her ‘Pledge Music’ fundraising campaign, Sarah Jane managed to gather together some amazing musicians and collaborators to work on the creation of Bloody Rain: the Zimbabwe-born singer Eska, Senegal’s Seckou Keita on kora, UK-Caribbean saxophonist Courtney Pine, The Soweto Gospel choir and Adam Glasser from South Africa, the Nigerian singer Keziah Jones, American/ Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen and the famous James Brown arranger and co-writer Pee Wee Ellis.
“The songs and music will do much to celebrate the people of Africa,” writes Sarah Jane on her website, “while issuing an urgent call to action to right the wrongs they suffer. Songs about oppression, exploitation, ignorance and cruelty must never mask their purpose: to help dignify the lives of those who suffer and are oppressed and to celebrate their courage and wisdom.
“This album deals with love, pain, Human Rights, contraception, rape, corruption, honour killings, childhood, homophobia. It should also reflect the humanity of those involved, both of the oppressed and also of the oppressors. Thus our art attempts to illuminate injustice.”
As someone with an incredibly full-on schedule, I asked Sarah Jane what keeps her motivated, on a day to day basis? “My husband is a very bright man… he’s lived a life… very important to talk to him every day. And I’ll hear something from a fan or via Facebook… something catches my attention and I have to do something about it.
And finally, an odd question. I read that, standing next to Dionne Warwick, Sarah Jane had once met Pope Benedict XVI, having performed at The Vatican – and that she shook his hand rather than kiss his ring. Why? “The Vatican, I feel, is responsible for so much damage, particularly around the issue of homosexuality. I wanted to perform at The Vatican, but I couldn’t be a fan.”
After her 50th Birthday, she came to live in a little flat on the Marina in St Leonards, “where I opened the shutters in the morning and there was the sea” – and then moved to the Old Town in Hastings – and she married her partner Mark – ‘the love of my life’ – at the Registry Office here, had the reception at The Land of Green Ginger and spent many happy years here, especially enjoying time with close friends. It was only after the sad deaths of her closest friends, Angie and Len, (whom many of you will remember if you’re local), that she and Mark left the area for a new start in Kent. She looks forward to returning here; Hastings and St Leonards are amongst her most favourite, close-to-her-heart places in the world: “It’s very real, very creative, a reality check. I love it there.”
Sarah Jane Morris
Masonic Hall Assembly Rooms, East Ascent, St Leonards-on-Sea, TN38 0DR
4 September Doors Open 7pm. Concert 8–10.30pm Tickets available from Land of Green Ginger in the Old Town or Hastings Tourist Information Centre in Aquila House on the seafront, and can also be purchased from their office by phone on 01424 451111. Also online here.
Sarah Jane Morris website here.
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