[DRUM-'N'-VOICE] When Neal Morgan walks into Stepping Stone Cafe for our interview, his body freezes and his face tightens with puzzlement. Then he points a finger into the air and his face loosens into a knowing smile. Smog's "A River Ain't Too Much to Love" is playing through the overhead speakers. For the past few years, Morgan has been playing these songs alongside Smog's Bill Callahan, perhaps the most critically adored songwriter of his generation.
Pretty artsy stuff for a guy with a business degree.
"My dad suggested it," Morgan says of studying at UC Berkeley. "He said, hey, if you're going to be an artist, you might as well study business. I thought that made sense. But, oh man, what a waste of time."
It's hard to imagine Morgan—unkempt and contented, he speaks in circular sentences that hint at his upbringing in weed country—in a suit and tie, but he did take a crack at the nine-to-five world, working his way up the ladder at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. "[My bosses] were so supportive of me having [visual art] as my career," he says now. "But somewhere around 2004 or 2005 I realized that what I was doing was 10 percent drumming and 90 percent other things, and I wanted to flip that around."
That's when Morgan moved home to Nevada City, Calif.—"there are no basements in San Francisco," he says—and teamed up with childhood friend Joanna Newsom, the child-voiced singer-songwriter who was already making a name for herself in indie music. He has been her drummer ever since, and that role led to one with Callahan. He calls both gigs "extremely rewarding," but touring and recording in a supporting role doesn't entirely scratch Morgan's creative itch.
"I love drumming, I love singing, and that's it," says Morgan, who moved to Portland in 2008. Early incarnations of his solo project involved making four-track recordings with guitar and piano, but none of it felt quite right. "It took me a while to figure out that I could do only what I love doing and make art that way."
The recently released In the Yard is Neal Morgan's second record made exclusively with drums and vocals. Upon listening, though, one rarely notices the limitations. Sometimes, as on "Father's Day" and "The Evidence," Morgan's sharp, engaging singing voice tumbles over itself to create an orchestra of voices backed by tribal percussion; on other tracks, he speak-sings descriptive passages from tour journals, with tweets and train whistles off in the distance. The tapestry of sound Morgan can create seems limitless; lo-fi production techniques (overdriven drums, tinny backing voices captured by a laptop microphone) effectively become extra instrumentation.
For Morgan, performing these songs—written on instinct, as he has no formal musical training—alone onstage with his drum kit is an entirely different exercise than backing a singer-songwriter. But the jarringly intimate shows may be more intense for audiences than they are for Morgan, who was born without the nervous gene. "It seems like it would get dangerous, artistically, if you started thinking of whether it was good or bad," he says, as if contemplating his audience's opinion for the first time. "I would assume that those are thoughts that create nervousness."