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October 25, 2008 @ 8:00 pm – 10:00 pm EDT
Singer-songwriter Morley is a breath of fresh air in the current climate of political and social crisis. Her voice as a singer and as a lyricist is rich with honesty, vulnerability, introspection and compassion, simultaneously gentle and urgent- a force that compels even the most cynical or apathetic to listen and be moved. Her newest recording, Seen (2008), has just been released by Wrasse.
Local presentation of Morley is made possible with the support from the New York State Council on the Arts.
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In the current social and political climate, singer-songwriter Morley is a breath of fresh air. Her voice as a singer and as a lyricist is rich with honesty, vulnerability, introspection and compassion, simultaneously gentle and urgent – a force that compels even the most cynical or apathetic to listen and be moved. Her newest album, “Seen,” is as reflective as it is generous. If music can be a mirror, then this release is “a patient look into myself and a not-so-patient look into my country at this time,” Morley explains. “To be looked at is one thing, but to be seen is an experience.”
Seen means “understood” in Jamaican patois. Its many meanings are explored and contextualized in different ways throughout the album. In “Bird Over The Ocean” Morley writes, “All that is seen cannot be shown,” while in “No Evidence” she discusses that which is “Sight unseen, sound unheard,” calling attention to the atrocities happening right in front of us to people whose voices are stifled or silenced behind a veil of false patriotism. “Temporary Lighthouses” (inspired by the Daniel Lanois album “Shine”) pays tribute to Morley’s musical heroes and heroines, and you can hear echoes of Sade and Billie Holiday in her singing. Sure, there are unabashed love songs, like “Somebody New” and “Call On Me,” but Morley’s political convictions unfold slowly, surely, with subtlety. By “No Evidence” we’re hearing about rape in the US military, and “Crimes in the Garden” was inspired by the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. “Say What I Know” is an indictment of George W. Bush’s America, and if there’s a “title track,” it’s “Hearts Horn,” which ties many themes together, touching on the approaching environmental Armageddon. And of course, there’s “Women of Hope,” an homage to the many named and unnamed extraordinary women in war-torn countries who rise above and help others transcend circumstances to find hope. “A lot of the music that I’m drawn to is about growth and transformation,” Morley says. “I believe in people’s capacity to change.”
A former dance and yoga teacher in New York City’s public school system, shelters and community centers, Morley was born in Jamaica Queens, New York. She spent her formative years absorbing the sights, scents and sounds of this multi-ethnic community – an experience that clearly informs her worldview and the diversity of influences in her music. Morley’s artistic journey began not with music, but with dance and poetry. She attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC and won a full scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre. After a knee injury derailed her career as a dancer, Morley briefly worked as a fashion model in England, but she soon returned to NYC and took up choreography and formed her own company, Undercurrents Dance Theater. With her new company up and running, she had the opportunity to work with jazz legend and civil rights activist Max Roach, an experience that brought her face to face with the power of music as a vehicle for change. Although she was profoundly inspired, music wasn’t yet the vehicle for Morley to express her ideas. It was in the late ’90s, when Morley was spending time with great musicians like Amp Fiddler, Toshi Reagon, Hod David (Maxwell) and Joan Wasser (Joan as Policewoman), that her musical voice began to emerge. “They’re heroes to me, music just pours from them,” she says. “Hod David gave me a track to write to just for fun, and said ‘don’t write a protest song, write a love song’ because everything I was writing was very political.” These experiments and explorations expanded her artistic expressions from dance and poetry into music, and ultimately became the foundation for her first album, Sun Machine (1998), produced by David with Chris Dowd (Fishbone), and featuring Jeff Buckley on guitar for one track and contributions from Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji. Unfortunately, the label folded at the time of release and Morley continued teaching and doing choreography before music called her back in 2001, when she resumed her writing and picked up the guitar for the first time.
By the next year, she had started performing in earnest and establishing her presence as a musician. Her urban-folk sophomore album, “Days Like These” (2006), was the culmination of the years that ensued, performing and writing mainly in New York City. Self-released and self-produced with co-producer Ken Rich and licensed to Universal France, Days Like These brought Morley together with her current production team of Jay Newland and Jean-Philippe Allard, and was a hit in France. Joining them on Seen are a stellar cast of great musicians, including pedal steel maestro Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Liz Wright), whose tasty licks lend a widescreen Americana feel.
On Seen, Morley writes songs of love as opposed to love songs. And like the heroines in “Women of Hope,” Morley is a woman with hope. But wishful thinking isn’t where she’s at: “It’s not hoping and wishing for the best, it’s finding the confidence to do what you can,” she explains. In this tender tribute, she quotes Burmese human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi: “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.” It evokes the power to heal ourselves and each other at the same time, and generates global change through our individual journey. As Morley says, “If we allow ourselves to have hope, while everything around screams, ‘you’re only one, you’re helpless,’ then we give energy to real change instead of fear and complacency.”
Morley’s music is the energizing elixir to create that change. “Music changes the feeling of a room, I see and feel it happen all the time. When I collaborate with musicians from other countries, we merge. We don’t have to speak the same language, share the same religion, or even philosophies, but we can make music together! That for me is evidence that we can live together in harmony. But a lot of us are cut off from our sensuality – the music within – and find it too difficult to find our reflection in another, so it makes it easier to be intimidated by, dismiss, or even cause harm. Music is a great teacher for me in that respect. It’s real and sensual.”
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