Pamela Morgan's latest recording, "Play On"
There are certain things that inspire a creative mind, and there are things that drive it. Sometimes, once in a while, there’s something that compels it like nothing else — a song or poem or story or painting that calls for its own way out and doesn’t rest until it finds it.
In Pamela Morgan’s case, it’s happened more than once in the seven years since she released her last solo album, and the resulting songs have found there way onto her latest recording, “Play On.”
One of them is a commentary on the lack of local search and rescue services.
“100 Miles,” the song is called, and it talks of crab fishermen leaving at dawn for the middle of nowhere, and Burton Winters, the 14-year-old from Labrador who, last year, became disoriented on the ice and walked 19 kilometres away from his snowmobile before freezing to death.
“A place as large and as wild as Newfoundland not having its own search and rescue things — I had to make a comment on that,” Morgan explained.
“Burton Winters really, really struck me. Rather than have a song just about that, which would be very hard to write and very hard to listen to, I incorporated that into a thing about the whole plight that we as Newfoundlanders find ourselves in without a search and rescue. It’s just madness to take it away.”
Also on the new record is “All the Pretty Flowers,” a statement on the tourism industry and how the exploitation of our culture often leaves those who created it behind.
“See the natives dancing, tour bus arrives at three,
Trained seals, a soirée circus, stolen dignity,
Pale shadows dreaming in a replica of home,
Forgotten spirits sighing while the icebergs moan”
These are a sample of the lyrics of the song, which Morgan uses a combination of spoken word and singing to convey.
“It’s kind of like, yes, prosperity and change is inevitable, but you don’t take the culture and package it as something that is really wonderful, all the while ignoring the people that gave it to you,” she said.
“They are the ones who are being ignored in the face of this new prosperity and the oil industry and that kind of stuff.”
“Play On” is the fourth solo album for Morgan, who spent 19 years as the lead singer and guitarist for Figgy Duff, pioneering Celtic music as a genre in Canada and touring around the world. Figgy Duff members Dave Panting, Kelly Russell and Anita Best perform on the new record, as do Paul Kinsman, Rick Hollett and a number of British musicians, since the album was made both here and in England over the past year and a half.
Since Morgan’s last album, she hasn’t been doing many live performances and went back to school to study graphic design, more for herself than as a career choice.
“People who grew up with it, it’s like a second sense, but for me it was a big learning curve,” she said, smiling.
“I kind of realized I wasn’t going to be able to work in the industry as such, but I did my own album layout and I do my own website and I’m less intimated by the computer now than I was before.”
As her mother used to say, ‘Change is as good as a rest,’ and it’s a fitting theme for “Play On,” which has 12 tracks, each of them stylistically different.
Along with Celtic influences and spoken word, Morgan meshes elements of pop, jazz and folk in a genre she calls “nouveau retro,” stitched together by her voice, as ethereal, haunting and silky-smooth as ever.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, Morgan said, but a consequence of using whatever instruments she felt a specific song called for. Some were written on piano, others on guitar.
Not having a pigeon hole isn’t a new thing for Morgan.
“When (Figgy Duff) started playing, we’d play mostly in blues bars because we were too rocky for the folkies and too folky for the rock clubs,” she said. “My engineer in England, Mark, who’s also my friend, said, ‘Well, the unifying thing here is your voice. You give the songs whatever treatment they call for.”
It’s a delicate balance — push your musical boundaries too far and fans get annoyed because they don’t recognize you, Morgan said.
While in England, Morgan was working on a second project she hopes to complete within the next year or so: Figgy Duff’s original score for “The Tempest.”
The band was hired to write a score for a run of the Shakespeare play at the LSPU Hall in 1982, but only ever recorded one song (which went on to become the title track for the second LP, “After the Tempest”).
It’s taken this long for Morgan to get around to recording the rest, she said, and it’s proved a lovely experience for her.
“In a strange way, it’s actually kind of grounding because it brings me back to a place where I was then, and that score is chock-full of (Figgy Duff founder) Noel Dinn’s original compositions. He passed away in 1993 so it’s kind of like a way to keep him close and to keep the vision that we had in those days in my view,” she said.
“The other good thing about it is I’m able to develop it as I go. I’ve used the score in three different productions now since the original and each time it develops a little more and as I mature, I get more out of the play. While I’m still using the same music, the fleshing out and development of it becomes better as time goes on.”
Morgan’s also hoping to bring her folk opera, “The Nobleman’s Wedding,” to fruition. Started in the 1980s as an idea to combine storytelling and folk songs, the theatre piece was mounted by Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity in 2005, and remounted the following year.
In 2008, a new piece toured the province’s arts and culture centres. Morgan’s goal is to incorporate a scaled-down symphony.
“I’m very privileged in that I have an awful lot of Newfoundland melodies in my head that I’ve learned over the years that are very rare, and I’ve incorporated them into this opera. What it is is a feast of all the beautiful melodies that are woven among each other to make a complete story, and I’ll eventually get back to that after these other projects are done.”
Morgan is currently on a mini-tour, performing in Ontario and Nova Scotia, and will have the official release event for “Play On” at the Masonic Temple in St. John’s March 5, with Panting, Duane Andrews, George Morgan, Wayne Hynes and Chris Harnett. Cover is $15, and cocktails begin at 7:30 p.m. (showtime is 8:30 p.m.).