Wild Bird Unchains Herself: An Interview with Morley

Despite releasing four albums, playing festivals aroudn the world with bands like Tinariwen, and recording with the likes of Joan Wasser (Joan As Police Woman), NYC-based Morley has stayed tragically under the radar. She possess a voice wise beyond her years and an inspiring global vision, not just through her music, but through her activism and willingness to reach out to people. Here, we discuss that, and her new album, Undivided.

I’ve been listening a lot to your album, and I think the first thing that came up for me was that I recently interviewed another singer, Larkin Grimm, whose new album is inspired by woman she encountered in Morocco. She and I were talking about the way people may look upon those women and say ‘oh, they’re so oppressed, they’re so oppressed,’ when really they have certain freedoms about them that are harder to explain by Western standards.

Mm-hmm.  I have a few friends there, and it’s very true. They run the whole show. They run the whole situation.  And I feel also they are very powerful businesswomen. Not everybody covers their face or their head. I was mostly traveling a lot, so i was a lot more isolated in the desert. But I have to say the strength of the women there–I could feel the strength. And the beauty of these women! Incredible beauty. Just shock. That’s the feeling I had.

Were you traveling for your music or your activism work or both?

The time in Morocco was only for music work. I did have a chance to play several festivals, Nomad Women’s Festival in the desert. That had women from Nigera, Morocco, and several other places coming in to perform.You know the band Tinariwen? They played the same festival. They came in the day before, so it was a really great festival. The women that sang there are so vibrant, so powerful. We couldn’t really communicate that well, but we could sing together. And that was so great to know that, yeah, even the person who was going to help be translate couldn’t quite help me, but as soon as we started singing, it was like, bam! Here we are.  One perfect offering bowl that held water in it.  It just made a perfect container, something beautiful to give to people.


Have you had a lot of musical training yourself or are you mostly self-taught?

I’m mostly self-taught. I did have a vocal coach, though. She passed away years ago. She was like 91 years old, and she was at the Metropolitan Opera.  She didn’t teach me opera; she just taught me some simple scales and things to do with my voice. And she taught me that the human voice are the sound waves of the soul, and to really listen to the beauty of their own voice.  That everyone needs to close their eyes and listen to their own voice. When she passed away, I put that in a song. I called it “Bird Over the Ocean.” It’s on another album. But the human voice is the sound wave of the soul. That’s always gonna stay with me. We can hear something about each other in each other’s tone. There’s something unique about everybody in each other’s voice, regardless if they’re a singer or not.


I like that. I’ve been trying to learn the thermin, and I had a theremin teacher who told me, “You have to get comfortable with every sound you can make before you can make music.”

Wow. There it is.


At the time, I thought, ‘no! Some of these sounds are godawful!’

That’s great.

I read that you do a lot of work with crisis teenagers. I was wondering if that bleeds into your music.

Yeah. So, like the song “Be the One” and “Love and Understanding.”  Seeing the gentleness behind the eyes of a really hardened, tough, 16 year-old, seeing that light that they’re kind of hiding that they show when they get in a safe space.  And the apologizing that goes on. The apologizing that goes on for, say, the wars that go on in the US, there are war zones here, there’s a lot that covers up gentleness and enthusiasm. There’s a lot of nonchalantness.  It’s popular right now, being not so enthusiastic. Right behind that is all this light, all this gentleness, all these dreams. But there’s a cover-up.  I see that in people I work with. I see that in adults. I see that in myself. A few of the songs are very directed by them.


How did you get involved in work like that? 

This one place in particular, I did apply a few times and I didn’t get in because I didn’t go to college. I don’t have it on paper, but I have a lot of experience.  Then one day, a friend of mine called me in to to a thirty minute workshop with the kids. Whe n I finished the workshop, the director, at the time, approached me and said, “would you ever consider working with us?” So now I’ve been with them four years. I understand because it’s hard to understand somebody based on an application. At the moment I don’t do so much because I’m focused on my music; that takes up every day of my life. But in the summer I want to do more work with  FacetoFace,FaithtoFaith, which is the organization that works with Palestine, Isreal, South Africa as well. There’s like 9O students, and they’re 15 to 18 years old.

Going back to your music, I was wondering what you’ve learned and about how to make this process differently.

This is my fourth album. My first album,  I worked with producers and lerarned how to make a record.   The second one, I wrote all the music and lyrics. The third one I did was with Universal Records, and I co-wrote a lot of songs. This one I did mysef. I coproduced it. I really try to listen to what each song wants. It’s just finding the center of the song.  I learned a lot from listening to my mentors, from listening to Toshi Regan and Daniel Lanois.  And I took my time with it.


Did you record it at home?

I recorded it at Brooklyn at the Grand Street Recording Studio.


Was it difficult making decisions as a producer?

Yeah. To have perspective when you’re so deep in it, you know.  There were some moments, but all in all it felt pretty honest, you know. If I’d really felt stuck, I would have asked for feedback and then made a decision about what feels truthful.


What’s your songwriting process like?

A lot of the songs come to life on the guitar, on the piano. A lot of times when I walk, ’cause I put on shoes that are heavy, I get into the rhythm of that. Go ride on the subway.

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