[RELUCTANT POP] When it comes to sagelike figures in rock 'n' roll, few give off the aura of a bourbon-drunk Dalai Lama more than Tom Waits. Morgan Geer knows this personally. In 2006, when the rootsy 38-year-old songwriter was living on his dad's farm in Northern California, Waits, who lived nearby, came into the bookstore where Geer worked. They struck up a brief conversation; Waits recommended a gospel album, while Geer sold him a book about rats. Soon after, Geer encountered Waits again, at a local fish market. It was close enough in time to their previous meeting that Waits actually remembered him.
"You haven't lived until you've heard your name come out of his mouth," Geer says over midday burgers and wine at North Portland's Bar Bar. That second time around, he and Waits spoke for over an hour. It was a transitional period in Geer's life, having just left his hometown of Asheville, N.C., in search of inspiration, and he admits to mining Waits for wisdom. "I was at a real crossroads," he says. "I was out of the creative rut I was in, but once you get out of the safety zone of that rut, it's like, well, now what do you do? I talked to him and he was like, 'Well, everything. Don't put a fence around that property.'"
Geer left the conversation determined to find his artistic voice. He wound up finding it in Portland.
Growing up in the South, Geer felt chained to the region's deep musical history: If he wasn't playing the blues, no one wanted to hear it. In Portland, a city he knew little about before moving to, the burden of expectation lifted. He was free to roam around and explore within himself. The result of that exploration is Into the Missionfield, his second album under the name Drunken Prayer. Although he now splits time between the Pacific Northwest and the South, Geer says the record is "a reflection of someone who's been in Portland awhile." That doesn't mean what you might think. Geer, tall and burly with an oil-black beard and a look more trucker than indie rocker, didn't suddenly start wearing skinny jeans and playing a synthesizer. He did, however, find himself being challenged by the many songwriters now surrounding him. Competition, it turns out, is exactly what he was looking for.
"I wanted to get my ass handed to me creatively," he says.
Taking Waits' advice, Geer didn't allow himself to be fenced in by his own predilections. For Missionfield, he experimented with different chord changes, different phrasings, different subject matter. Most of all, he learned to not be "afraid to do things that were either transparently personal or bafflingly obtuse," he says. The music is rooted in country and folk (Geer bristles at the term "Americana"), but it's not beholden to any particular genre. If anything, the tone—dark, but not without humor—is closer to the amorphous pop songwriting of Warren Zevon, Harry Nilsson and, yes, Tom Waits, which for him is a bold step forward.
"Pop music was always a dirty word as far as I was concerned," he says. "It wasn't until I moved here that I realized how hard it is to do, and do well."