For years the term singer-songwriter has conjured images of hirsute men wielding harmonicas, ramshackle Spanish guitars and Bob Dylan chord books. Today, however, we’re witnessing the renaissance. Or so reckons Rae Morris: “Nowadays when you say singer-songwriter to someone, it’s hard for them to make an assumption that you are one certain thing, because there’s such a vast variety of people out there,” says the sweet-toned Blackpudlian musician. “Ben Howard springs to mind – he’s a singer-songwriter, but he’s doing something quite euphoric and anthemic. There are so many different ways to be a singer-songwriter.”
Starting out when she was 17 – three and a half years ago – and signed to Atlantic after an A&R got in touch via Myspace, she’s currently on the cusp of releasing her make-or-break debut album, ‘Unguarded’. Renowned for her oh-so dramatic live performances, fluttering, feathery vocals, jangly piano chords and a Disney soundtrack-like knack for a ballad, think Fiona Apple but with added crossover appeal. She certainly has it in her.
Sat on a bench in a pastoral part of Wales, she reflects on her formative musical years. She speaks of her childhood Christmases when her uncle would whip out his guitar and her family would sit around and play old Geordie folk songs. Next, her Dad’s inculcation of Carole King and Steely Dan classics, then short-lived stints in high school rock bands, and finally her late teens when she became obsessed with Feist, Cat Power and Joanna Newsome, “women who were doing really out-there things, incredible stuff which had a message as well.”
But the influence she speaks most keenly about is televisual: Later, Live with Jools Holland, and the time fellow Blackpool singer-songwriter Karima Francis bagged a slot on the show. This is what made her realise it was possible to get out and make it. Recently, as if to cement her status as fast-rising talent with a rosy future ahead, Morris sung vocals for Clean Bandit’s ‘Extraordinary’ on the programme, an experience she describes as “really, really nerve-wracking, probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
‘Unguarded’ is apparently a coming-of-age self-portrait pegged with the time-old doing-it-for-yourself cliche. But with Morris, you do sense the genuineness. “It just felt like I wanted to show people who I am and this album is what I’ve been working on since I was 17,” she justifies. “And I think it’s just a depiction of me, and I just wanted to try and keep it simple and not try and come up with a cool title. It just felt like, this is me, and this is who I am.”
To record the album, she decamped to LA to work with super-producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira), “exactly the type of person [she] wanted to work with.” Principally, he encouraged her to take a chill-pill, and not to overthink anything. “I was almost too much of a perfectionist,” she explains. “I would almost kind of do things for the wrong reasons sometimes, because I was wanting to make sure that it was the right thing to do. But Ariel very much goes with the flow.”
One tune enhanced by such an approach was recent single and album standout ‘Do You Even Know?’ “I wrote that just before I went out to America, to meet Ariel, and to potentially work with him,” she says. “I think I was kind of going through that thing that every artist goes through, where there’s a pressure to kind of meet the demands of commercial music, as well as being an artist. And I think I was kind of getting slightly frustrated, and I wanted people to understand who I was. I was questioning whether anyone did know who I was. It was an outpour of frustration.”
Even if you haven’t heard Morris’ incredible punch as a solo artist yet, you may well have heard her beautifully wispy tones on recent collaborations with Bombay Bicycle Club (three tracks from ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’) and Clean Bandit (‘Up Again’). “The collaborations I’ve done have been really eye-opening for me, and I’d never expected that I’d be an artist that collaborates when you don’t have a big, like, pop voice. That’s been a really amazing learning curve, and I think writing with bands like Clean Bandit is really amazing.”
Her biggest emblem of pride at the moment is ‘Not Knowing’, the record’s epic closing bang, “the best way to summarise everything that [she’s] ever done” and something of a clarion call to other plucky youngsters stuck in the far reaches of the UK. She wraps up: “I want people to know that throughout all this, I first and foremost write the songs. I think there’s a difference between just being someone who sings songs, and being someone who writes them.”
Taken from the September issue of DIY, out now. Rae Morris’s debut album will be released early 2015 via Atlantic Records.