Newly solo Portland artist Morgan Grace releases her third album, Valentine
, this Sunday—intimate and darkly-beautiful indie ballads that indulge formerly restrained songwriting talents. WW
sat down with the local chanteuse to discuss American Idol (Underground), recovering rockerdom and the benefits of bedroom recordings.
WW: Where did you record the album?
Morgan Grace: In my living room. Self-produced with a stolen copy of Cakewalk. Self-released. Well, Lady Lush Records—which is pretty much me in my bedroom on my laptop. Our minutiae of success is nearly unmentionable. Of Lady Lush, that is. This album's a total testament to what DIY's capable of.
Yeah, it's sort of a new direction. I parted ways with Sam Henry [of Wipers fame]. We're still friends and everything, but I was really frustrated the last couple years always trying to write music for the bands I played in. I was a solo act for a looong time, just playing solo acoustic, and, around 2003, I figured out you can get a lot more attention if you have a band and if you dress and act like a big slut—so I did that for a few years. Then, I just got really tired writing for a band, especially a trio, cause not every song I write is going to translate to a heavy rock trio thing. Me and Sam had a falling out in October, and I started demo-ing all these songs. First on this crappy 8-track, and, then, eventually, after Idol hit, I upgraded with some nice microphones and everything. The rest is history.
Explain how the American Idol Underground contest came about?
Well, number one—I'm a big fucking dork. I entered the thing for $25, uploaded my song and kinda forgot about it. I uploaded two songs – one in the rock category which tanked and "Rules Of Dating" in the pop category which was a big hit on the site. I'd get these weekly chart reports saying 'you're 77 out of 1,300' and, then, all of a sudden, 'you're like number 8 out of 2,000' and I just consistently stayed in the top ten. Round two was the voting round, and I hit up every person I knew. I'd run into people I know, total hardcore punk-rockers that were like 'this is the lamest thing I've ever done and I'm doing it for you'. It was adorable, it was awesome, and, turned out, I won. I won ten grand and a bunch of cool shit. I also won a duplication package so I was able to press my first album for real instead of just burning copies at Kinko's. I also won a really nice condenser microphone. I bought a two thousand dollar Gretsch and a nice Musicman amp. It set me up for a while.
Strangely, no. It was actually just affiliated with American Idol, it was American Idol Underground, and, I don't know what happened, but they lost their affiliation. I logged in to check, and it's now called Artist Underground and the prize packages were, like, karaoke equipment and free subscriptions to Billboard. So they're not…succeeding. Nothing really came of it aside from the prizes—and I did get an interview in, like, American Idol proper magazine. The issue that I was in had Katharine McPhee, the season five runner-up, on the cover, so that's kinda cool. SOO DORKY, but an absolute Godsend.
This album's all me. I recorded it, I played drums, bass, guitar, sang—everything is me. Sam plays drums on one track, but, other than that, it's my vision. It was a very, very cool process. Some songs came about literally just as I was watching tv, sitting on the couch, watching the Kardashians or some shit, and I pick up my guitar and go to the computer and just let the momentum take me to the finishing of the song. Awesome, you know. Each of the ten tracks is just inspiration seen through from beginning to end.
And what was that vision?
The songs are mostly about love, I suppose—one muse in particular that really struck a chord in me the past year, almost every song is about him. It's a lot more personal, even down to the vibe of recording because I wasn't in a studio surrounded by people I don't know that well—I was in my bedroom up til four in the morning laying down vocals all by myself. The recording is obviously only going to capture what's there, and if that's someone themselves deeply embedded in the belly of inspiration and that moment…that's what it felt like it captured. Just really dark and honest.
I think it sounds a lot more like the kind of album a songwriter would make than the kind of album a band would make. The last album I wanted to sound like a rock band and, with the help of Sam Henry and Howard Gee, we translated all my songs to the rock format—heavy drums, heavy bass, heavy guitar. I mixed this new one by myself, and I didn't have to accommodate a drummer or a bass player saying more drums or more bass. I had people that I would send these demos out to and the most common criticism was: 'turn the vocals up!'
My voice is kinda high and sweet. It's nice that I don't have a rock band to try and be heard over. I don't have a rock voice. I'm not a growly, yelly sort of singer. I sing in my high voice a lot which doesn't project to be heard over a loud rhythm section. For a long time, I was afraid to play beautiful songs because you get a lot of rock shows where we were opening for Dead Moon or Hell's Belles where you have to deliver the fucking R A W K, and, if you don't, people aren't going to like it From a songwriting point of view, that's kinda frustrating because there was only this small window of my repertoire that I brought to the band. Now, I have a small rotating community of players that I recruit for shows as I need to. The CD release show's going to be half solo, and half with Michael Carothers and Sam Henry.
We're actually playing for 2,000 teenage girls at the convention center. It's for an organization called Girls Incorporated. It's just this weird thing. I contributed a track to the Deep Roots project this year. It's a non-profit, this is their tenth or eleventh year, and they've had so many musicians—Stephanie Schneiderman, Lewi Longmire, Richmond Fontaine, all sorts of people. They team with the high schools or organizations like Girls Inc., get kids to write lyrics, they hook them up with local musicians who write the music, and they're doing the release as part of an annual summit—I was told there's going to be 1,500 to 2,000 screaming girls. I'm going to pretend I'm Frank Sinatra. Should be fun.
How were the lyrics?
It was a little hard to connect with them because I'm always coming from this place of darkness and tragedy and her lyrics were actually really inspirational—it took me fucking forever to get into that happy mindset…I ended up sounding like Avril Lavigne.
Did it make you happy? Temporarily?
I don't think it's possible. Not for this jaded songwriter, anyways.
Morgan Grace CD Release @ Doug fir, Sunday, June 1, with Oh Darling, London and the Look.
Photo by Brian Lee.