Steve Morrison: “I Like To Be Lucky”

An interview by Andres Roots - 18 March 2009

It is not easy for a guitar player to admit that someone else’s playing is out of this realm; it is conceivably even harder for a blues player to say that about someone who is white, under 80 and from Europe. So I don’t say this lightly at all, but London’s Steve Morrison has managed to blow me away every time I’ve heard him play. Below is my modest attempt to find out more about the man, his blues, his guitars, his bands, his thoughts on working live and in the studio and on 21st century British blues in general.

Your bio specifies "brought up in London". Where were you born, and when?

I was born in Tottenham, North London in 1958 and lived there until I was 10 years old. My family then moved to South London where I finished my schooling and spent my teen years.

Your father played the guitar. What sort of music did he play, and what sort of music did you grow up listening to?

My parents grew up in Glasgow, Scotland where music and dancing was an integral part of their lives. I am told by their friends that they were renowned Jive Dance partners who spent many evenings at the Glasgow dance halls listening and dancing to the big Swing Bands of the day.

As a young man, my father taught himself to play guitar. His musical interests were varied, including Jazz, Swing and Blues, but his first love was probably folk and country music. I was brought up listening to this music but for some reason it was Blues that really affected me. It didn’t matter whether it was Elvis, Louis Jordan, Big Bill Broonzy or the Allman Brothers. I just loved it. As a young boy I would often disappoint my father by playing crude blues versions of his favourite folk ballads. He forgave me. Eventually.

Who or what made you decide "this is what I want to do full-time"?

In 1990, I went travelling on mainland Europe with my harmonica-playing partner Al Richardson. We travelled through France, Belgium, & Holland, playing in bars and busking in the street. When Al decided to go home, I settled in Maastricht in the south of Holland for a year or so. It was during this period that I began to write more songs. I think being away from home was a catalyst for my writing together with my guitar playing growing stronger and more assured as I was dependent on my music to survive each day.

In many ways, it was probably the interest of strangers who would compliment my playing or ask who wrote a particular song that led me to believe that I could make a life from music. I recall saying to myself that if I gave 40 hours a week to my music I could really do something of value. It’s a work in progress.

Have you ever regretted that decision?

Yes! When it’s time to pay the bills. A talent for music doesn’t necessarily come with a talent for business. I read somewhere that a career in music can be made if you spend 10% of your time on music & 90% on the business side of things. Somehow I got these equations the wrong way around.

Who would you say have been the biggest influences for you as a guitar player and as a songwriter?

I often consider the early country blues guitarists as my teachers - Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and my particular favourite, Big Bill Broonzy. I love Big Bill’s driven guitar style, and the way he blends it with his voice is astounding. Later on, it was Johnny Winter that crossed the world of Blues & Rock music for me. As for songwriting, I came to realise that it was the influence of country and folk music as well as blues that helped me structure and shape my songs.

The Blues Abuse website lists a number of line-ups of various sizes. If you were to break down a year's worth of gigs, how many do you do solo and how many with the different line-ups?

I would say that the majority of my gigs are duo working with either Al Richardson on harmonica or Richard Ansell on piano. This would account for at least 50% of my gigs. The other 50% is divided between solo performances and work with larger ensembles.

Which do you prefer?

I am very lucky and get to play with a variety of very able musicians. There may be weeks when on a Wednesday I’m performing with guitarist Billy Jenkins, on Thursday I’m out with Al Richardson, harp, Friday may be with Richard Ansell on piano, and I really love Boogie Woogie music Saturday sees the band get together with Tom Fairs on bass, Rick Carrero on tenor sax and Al Hughes on drums, and I get to rock it up a little. Sunday could be a solo gig which lets me get back to the roots of my music.

Which do I prefer?

Impossible to say. I enjoy them all and feel extremely lucky that my music offers me the opportunity to explore such a variety of sounds. It's great fun to get together with everybody for a big band night and to rock the house late into the evening. It’s very different to perform solo where the relationship with the audience is personal and more immediate. This intimacy often produces a magic of its own that’s no less powerful.

In London, it seemed the live-music scene is sort of drying up the small clubs and pubs appeared to be going with DJ's more and more. Also, it seems the fees in London as probably in most "big" cities in any country seemed almost too small to allow for a steady income for full-time musicians not as big as the Stones. Would you say that is a correct impression?

Yes, there does seem to be a contraction of the number of music venues in London. Certainly the medium size venues (200 capacity) are disappearing as modern developments turn these places into offices, restaurants, and clubs. So as you suggest in your question, the gap between the big acts and those trying to establish themselves is growing. On the other hand, small bars and clubs (50-100 capacity) are seeing the value in bringing their customers live music events. There is also a growing trend towards house gigs where individuals are putting on gigs in their houses. Interestingly, this kind of events can be equally or more lucrative for the performers.

Do you feel the UK blues and live music scene has changed a lot over the last ten years?

I don’t really feel qualified to answer this question. While I have been gigging regularly in small bars and clubs maybe playing 150 to 200 gigs per year. I have yet to establish myself as part of the music scene in the UK. Certainly it is the hunting for gigs that demands the most from the musicians I know and it requires a lot of persistence. As for the last 10 years, there seems to be a move toward acoustic music and an interest in going to see live performances. Real musicians playing real music rather than studio-manufactured music. As for the blues scene, there seems to be a market for Rock Blues and Acoustic Blues, but not much in between. Needless to say, I think of myself as sitting in that space between.

What do you think the future will hold for the blues and live music in general?

There is a lot choice for people when it comes to entertainment. Computer games, DJ’s, TV, Sports, Computer networking to name a few, but live music still has its place. For myself, I would like folks to sit and listen and involve themselves in the music and the message one tries to share in the lyrics but life brings its own demands and often I find myself playing for people who want to have fun and take time off from their concerns. With this in mind I have to remind myself that I am an entertainer. I have learnt over the years to try and bring the audience music they can dance to, have fun with as well as some songs that share my social or philosophical concerns.

In light of the global turmoil we find ourselves in these days, I believe live music will grow in importance. As for earning a living from music like other industries all over the world we’re likely to have to work harder for less but we at least we’ll have music in our hearts and a song on our mind.

"One Step At A Time" was recorded in 2007/2008. Are there any plans for a follow-up?”

I am currently involved in  a recording project with the drummer/percussionist Mark Walker. We spent a day in the studio, recording live. We put down 13 songs that we will be mixing down soon. The early signs are really positive and we seem to have captured the energy we both create when we're playing together live.

How many albums have you got out there?

There are 6 CDs out there. Two of them were recorded with the guitarist Billy Jenkins. I am a big fan of Billy’s music and have a real fondness for anarchic approach to blues. It's not easy to bring such originality to a music that's been around for more than a hundred years and he does it with such style. I have learnt a lot from this man.

There are two live CDs. One with guitarist Matt Percival and harmonica player Al Richardson. I have been playing with these guys for nearly 20 years and we continue to get together down at Oliver’s Jazz Bar on the first Sunday of the month. The other live CD was also recorded at Oliver’s, this time with pianist Richard Ansell. I really love Boogie Woogie music. If Boogie Woogie was a place I would go and live there. I always listen to Boogie Woogie before I play as it helps me lock in to the tight bouncy rhythmic aspect of the blues that I like to bring to my music.

The ‘Walk On’ CD is a solo project that stretches the blues into my interest in what is described as ‘World Music’. The most recent release is the album ‘One Step At A Time’ that returns to the blues with a mixture of solo performances and performances from the the musicians I perform with regularly.

Do you have a preferred method of working in the studio?

Yes, I like to be lucky. I thrive so much on the energy of an audience that playing in a cold room can be really difficult. All my work on the guitar lives in a big bucket that I carry with me, and when I’m performing, I’m never quite sure what I’ll fish from the pot. That’s not to say that songs don’t have a shape and aspects that are arranged, but rather each performance is to some degree unique. So when preparing for a recording session, I try not to overwork the material but make sure my thumb is on the groovy spot and my physical and mental stamina is up. It can be very allusive sometimes.

What about writing songs - where, when and in what order do the music and words usually come to you?

That’s an interesting question. It varies. Sometimes I find something sweet on the guitar and I’ll mumble a nonsense lyric over the guitar part looking for a melody. If I’m lucky and sensitive to the music, the words I’m mumbling will just naturally begin to fit themselves to the sounds and present me the beginnings of a coherent poem. Other times, I may overhear a chance remark made by a stranger or catch myself saying something succinct and musical that possesses something more than the sum of the words. Then begins the work. Some songs come with the flow of consciousness, others just don’t want to be born. There are always half a dozen songs laying about unfinished. Much like a breakers yard, just waiting to be fixed up or used for spare parts.

Finally - it's a strange, strange guitar you use. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Yes, that old Fender Bullet of mine. Most of my life I had played mainly acoustic guitars but in 1988, I was about to start university and decided to use some of my college grant to get some electric equipment. I went to the local store and told the owner “I’ve got £500 and I want a guitar, amp mic and stand because I want to play in the college bar”. Not good. He sold me a H&H keyboard amp, a chorus pedal, a digital stereo delay pedal, and a Gibson Les Paul Custom. I just couldn’t get that stuff to sound right. I knew nothing about valve amps, humbuckers, single coils and stuff. The Les Paul was pretty (Cherry Red) and it said Gibson on the headstock; I hated it. I tried graphic equalizers, compressors, phasers, and anything else that might give that guitar some edge to its sound. Eventually, in the same store, I saw this little white Fender hanging on the wall. The same guy that sold me the Les Paul said, “you don’t want that old thing, it’s rubbish”. Well, that piece of rubbish has become an integral part of my life and an essential part of my music. I believe they were made of leftover bits of Telecasters and assembled in the USA in 1981 and released as a student guitar. Its small body means I can wear it high and wrap myself around it. Also, it doesn’t sound like a Les Paul, a Tele or a Strat, giving me a chance to find my own sound. The edgy crisp sound of that little Fender was what I’d been looking for.

In 1990, Mo Clifton, a bass player and luthier I was playing with in the early line-up of the Blues Abuse band got fed up waiting for me to change tunings when we were performing. He told me about this gizmo that would allow me to change tunings automatically. Wow! He lent me some money and I got my first ‘Hip Shot’. This machine replaces the string support and bridge on the guitar, adding leavers that can be adjusted to give three preset tunings to each string. It took a while to get used to it. I think I might have removed it for a time, thinking it was of little use. Now I would not want to be without it. My style of music is immersed in the world of open-chord tunings, and the ability to switch between them fairly easily allows me find the sounds I want when I want them and all from the one guitar that has become a part of me.