"I've been out of the game for a long time," laughs Morgan Grace.
Following a post-recessionary crisis of faith, the rocker and former American Idol Underground champion effectively disappeared from the Portland music scene to pursue a newfound passion—long-haul trucking. After five years on the open road driving freight across the country, Grace finally returned to the Portland stage as guitarist of local troupe Bitch School, and last month led a convoy of PDX legends—including Crackerbash's Sean Croghan, Little Sue and Poison Idea's Jerry A.—through a dozen Misfits covers for her video tribute series 12 Days of Halloween.
She also returned to the studio for her first solo album in a decade—a self-titled collection due Jan. 19 and now available for pre-order. To accompany the debut of her new truck-driving-themed clip for comeback single "So Alone," WW talked with the singer-songwriter about the lure of the open highway and the long road back home.
WW: At the time of your last interview with our paper, you'd just won an American Idol contest.
Morgan Grace: Oh, jeez. It was an online voting thing called American Idol Underground. I've always entered songs in competitions. As a songwriter, you know, why not? So, I entered "The Rules Of Dating"— my "big hit" from 2003—and I kept getting votes and moving up and, all of a sudden, I was in the finals.
And, um, yeah—I fucking won. I won a karaoke machine. I also won a package that allowed me to press my next album for real. Not to mention the cold, hard cash, which also allowed me to buy a really nice guitar and fairly-decent amplifier that I still play and some recording equipment that I used on Valentine. Yeah, now that I think about it, that was really pretty fucking magical.
WW: And then you became a long-haul trucker?
Basically, I got paid to run away from home. All I wanted to do back then was get the fuck out of Portland. I quit talking to a lot of musician friends. I hadn't played my guitar in, like, six months. It was such a depressing time.
So, I went to truck driving school—there's, like, half a dozen in Portland—and, four weeks later, I had a commercial driver's license and a bus ticket. I got hired on with a company out of L.A., they put me on a Greyhound, and I was gone to start my new career as a trucker.
It was such a weird fucking life—driving cross-country nine days without a shower. I wound up in Virginia delivering to this distribution center for the Dollar Store, just trying to find a place to park, and all I had was a little 12-volt saucepan to boil water, a package of flavored noodles and a can of tuna fish. That was it to eat. I had no money. I was so fucking hungry and didn't have a can opener so I was making the rice and stabbing the can with scissors and sucking out the juice like a feral cat who hadn't eaten in a week.
What's the new album like?
Originally, I was gonna do a trucking album. I wanted to do something that I'd never done before. You know, I did a songwriter album, I did a pop album, I did a rock album—well, I'll do a country album. I'd started listening to Roger Miller and Jerry Reed. I had one drive on backroads through Alabama and Mississippi at night listening to country and it was just an aesthetic I'd never explored—the road, the long haul, the folksy element.
I got in touch with [Red Fang engineer] Adam Pike in March of this year and showed up with 15 songs. Adam played bass, this guy Nick played drums, and I did all the guitars and vocals. They were old songs except for one that's kind of a lonely trucker ballad. I'd told him I wanted to do an old-time, classic country album, but most of the ones that gave it a more country vibe I actually wound up cutting.
I didn't really have any preconceptions, which was kind of liberating. In the studio, Adam would suggest something, and I just allowed the album to be whatever the fuck it turned out to be. As songs started materializing, some weren't really feeling magical and a couple were just honestly too mean. I wrote a classic country song called "I Didn't steal your husband" and asked a friend to play the guitar solo. He was, like, "As a married man, I can't have anything to do with this song." That's how mean it was. So, I did the solo myself and just wasn't happy with it. As much of a fuck-you album as this was turning out to be, I didn't want it to be so mean that it made certain people uncomfortable.
Will there be another five years before the follow-up?
I'm ready to do the next one right out of the gate, and that'll be more like the album I would've made as a follow-up to Valentine with more of the "Morgan Grace sound." This album was more of a starting place. I just needed to work on something that didn't have any of my self-esteem wrapped up in it. I don't need you to like these songs. I don't need him or her to like these songs. I just needed to do something for myself, you know? Like, the end of Misery where he's, like, "I wrote the book for myself and don't fucking care what you think."
I don't have to please anyone. I don't have a husband. I don't have kids. I don't have a record label. I don't answer to anyone so I can do whatever the fuck I want, and I don't need to sell 1,000 copies, you know? Before I left town, I felt sure something was going to pop off any minute so I could be a legitimate musician. Now, after so many years of not doing music at all, it's a thrill to get back in the studio, but I'm not depending on music as a stream of income, which is also kind of liberating. If shit happens, great—I'll truck less and rock more. If it doesn't, I'll just go to work. No matter what happens with music, at the end of the day, I'm going to take the stuff to the place and come home.