Russell Morris has been a pop star and a rock’n’roller in his 50-year career, but it’s as a bluesman that he’s achieved his most recent success. Fittingly, he's returning to co-headline the 25th edition of Blues at Bridgetown, his fourth appeance at the festival.
With his recent trilogy of blues albums, starting with Sharkmouth and moving through Van Diemen’s Land and Red Dirt – Red Heart, Morris explored uniquely Australian stories, stories of both people and places. He always viewed that extended period to be limited to the three albums, and a year ago wasn’t sure what to do next, but with time comes clarity and direction, as he explains.
“I'm starting to put songs down now - I've just moved to Queensland, and I thought the change of environment would give me a different direction, and I've probably got about 12 ideas that I'm putting down. Out of the 12 there's probably four songs that I'll end up keeping, the rest will probably end up on the scrap heap. It's just a matter of me juggling at the moment and listening to it a few times and going, ‘yes, that will work - that won't work’, because I don't want to do exactly the same as I've done before.
“It's like, if I do another blues historical album it's like inviting your parents-in-law round for a week and six months later your father-in-law's still sitting on the couch in his underpants. People go, ‘oh, I've heard this’. So I wrote as many historical songs as I wanted to write. Now I'm just looking at giving it a little bit of a twist and probably a little bit more electric.”
Despite having huge success in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and an undeniable hit from Sharkmouth onwards, Morris says he doesn’t feel any pressure to have a ‘hit’ with whatever he does next.
“The music business is really uneven,” he says. “You can look at it and you think you can see the flat ground in front of you and you take four steps and you fall into a valley. You can't predict and can't try and second guess what people might like. I remember when I did Sharkmouth, so many people tried to talk me out of it, and then when it was completed no-one - not one record company - wanted it. They said, ‘why did you do this?’ I said, ‘for my own pleasure’. I never expected it to sell anyway, so I didn't really care - I just wanted to do it.
“So I think that's what you've got to do and never expect anything in the way of sales or whether people will like it or anything like that. You just have to do the best you can do and put it out there and just enjoy the moment of the music that you're making, because as soon as you start putting your eye on the anticipation of it being successful, you will lose your grip on the music and the passion will leave it and it'll become too preconceived.”
Despite being so profoundly Australian, with songs about 1920’s Melbourne hoodlums, champion horse Phar Lap, the rebellion at the Eureka Stockade, bushrangers and the Nullarbor desert, Sharkmouth et al have found an admiring audience overseas, particularly from the birthplace of the blues, America.
“I think those sorts of stories relate to all cultures,” Morris muses. “There's always been a bad gambler, or there's always been a couple of criminals who have dominated the scene, whether it be in America, Russia or Italy, wherever. That's why those stories are a bit universal. In America when we did Squizzy no one seemed to care that it was about Squizzy Taylor - they just knew it was about a criminal.”
When asked how he discovered the blues as a young fella, Morris does not hesitate for a moment.
“The Rolling Stones,” he declares enthusiastically. “The first album that blew my mind was The Rolling Stones’ first album: I loved it. It was rhythm & blues and blues in a way only the English can approach the blues, and I loved it so much. And then all of sudden I started listening to the people that wrote some of those songs, and that's how I started to listen to the original blues artists.”
No doubt in those pre-computer, pre-internet-YouTube-Wikipedia-illegal downloading days finding such rare music would have been a lot harder than it is today.
“It was,” he agrees, “but the thing is that you look at a song like Baby Please Don't Go…”
Morris sings the chorus of the Them version of the classic track, “but the original one's like…” then sings the older, bluesier arrangement to highlight the differences, “so we found all those originals and loved all that stuff. And if you actually look at the blues right, they're actually great pop writers - particularly people like John Lee Hooker, because they had fantastic choruses. The hook lines in their songs were amazing, so they were actually pop songs but done in their own style.”
This will be Morris’s fourth appearance at Blues at Bridgetown, and he loves the vibe of the largely volunteer-run iconic South-West WA weekend event.
“People go there to enjoy themselves, and they go to hear the music. They don't go for any other reason. They don't go to be seen and to be trendy or anything. They just go for the pure fact of seeing the music and hearing it.
“As often as I can I’ll get out and try a see a few other acts,” he continues, “I've been very pleasantly surprised sometimes. I've thought, ‘I'll go and see what this artist's like’, and my jaw has hit the ground and I've thought, ‘wow, how come this person isn't gigantic?’ You just don't know, so it's worth looking and seeing what other people do. I really love trying to catch up with people and see their styles and the way they approach it and all that sort of stuff. And you can see someone do something and they do it a different way to you and you think, ‘gee, that might work with my song so and so. I might look at that, yeah!’”
Russell Morris performs at Blues at Bridgetown on Saturday, November 11. Tickets via www.bluesatbridgetown.com.au.