The last time I raved about an unknown singer at a dinner party was back in 2005. I had just bought a CD from England and was telling anyone who'd listen how incredible the artist's lyrics and singing were. The import was Frank, and the singer was Amy Winehouse. No one knew who I was talking about in 2005. Of course, when her second album, Back to Black, hit in 2006, she became a household name and the rest is history, some of it good and some messy. Since then, I've been hammered for the name of another rave unknown. So here goes: My absolute favorite new singer whose name may not yet ring a bell is known simply as Morley [pictured].
David Amram introduced me to her last winter after she popped into the club where he was playing down in Greenwich Village. Morley had performed in the past with David and, with a little coaxing, agreed to join him on stage to sing a number. As soon as I heard her voice I was floored. After the set, we spoke. Morley told me she was off to Paris to record and wouldn't be back for months.
Morley's new album, Seen, her third, was recorded for French Universal. The CD will be released in the U.S. on Tuesday, but the album is already available as a download at iTunes and Amazon. It has been spinning in my CD player for hours at a time. As JazzWax readers know, I don't usually focus on contemporary pop artists and tend to steer clear of the market's many folk-based herbal warblers. But Morley is in a completely different league. Her voice is powerful but restrained, and her lyrics buck convention and cliche at every turn. Shy and modest to a fault, Morley also is highly reclusive. It took months and David Amram's nudging to get her to send me a copy of Seen. Until its U.S. release, Seen was available only at French iTunes.
Morley isn't a jazz singer, though she could easily do an amazing job on jazz standards. (That's her voice singing My Romance on the new Ralph Lauren ad for Romance fragrance here.) Morley has a cedary-warm voice with a lullaby timbre, and she writes all of her own words and music. If I were likening her to other artists, the closest examples would be Laura Nyro for lyrics and Carly Simon or Maria Muldaur for intonation, though Morley's voice is richer and earthier.
All of Morley's compositions on Seen have an earnest folksy feel with flecks of Country. But her lyrics are pure late 1960s. It's as if she's from that era and merely visiting 2008. On each track, Morley [pictured] gives it up with an earthy femininity and yearning that I haven't heard in years. Many of the songs on the album are paced like a heartbeat, and her emotional purity is extraordinary in an age when so many artists are cloaked in spin, attitude and faux hostility.
On Possible, for example, Morley sings of a dysfunctional mother's wish for her child's understanding:
If I hadn't made all those mistakes
I wouldn't love you any less
Only want to know you're mine
Wish you could see me at my best
On Crimes in the Garden, which has a light reggae beat, Morley sings of a love torn away:
Hear, hear how the sirens
Blare out your crimes in the garden
It burns where I stand
Just out of reach, it's out of my hands
Or consider No Evidence, a love story:
Here's a girl, like you and me
Born to live and to be free she said,
"Just before I close my eyes
For the last time
Everything done unto me
Will roll down into the sea
Salt will sting and purify
And away I will fly"
Silver was the color
winter was a snowball
mother of the windboys
livin' off the lovewell
I was livin' off the lovewell
The beauty of poetry-driven lyrics is they don't have to mean anything. The lyrics are powered by word textures and phrases crushed against other phrases. The delight exists when the sounds created roll around in your head and off your tongue.
I spoke with Morley Kamen yesterday afternoon:
"I’m from Jamaica, Queens. I used to write little poems when I was a kid. I didn’t have an opportunity to go to college. Times were lean. Instead, I studied dance on a scholarship at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and then started my own dance company. I had a voice teacher for five years. She was 91 and a mystic. [Pictured: Morley, back row, right, at Alvin Ailey]
"What I realized after studying voice is that poets sing. So I combined the two things I knew best. For example, Sade [pictured] is a great poet. Prince, too. That’s how I grew up. Listening to those guys. And Nina Simone. It’s all survival music. Truth telling. When you feel the truth resonating inside of you, you've survived. Seen is a real document of a time I was going through.
"On my new album, I wanted to add the pedal steel guitar because it’s so sad and so hopeful at the same time. Daniel Lanois, the steel guitarist, is one of my favorite artists. He’s just so inspiring. His album, Shine, is one of my favorites. Now I'm working on new material for my next album. I work hard at my singing every day. The blessing is in the work and the practice. God loves discipline. "
If you want to hear an amazing and unusual singer-songwriter whose voice both soothes and provokes, check out Morley's Seen. Sample Crimes in the Garden and others at iTunes. She's as mysterious as she is obvious. And that's what great songs and art are all about: Passion, truth and expression.
JazzWax video clip: Go here for a promo clip of Morley singing Call On Me and talking about her new album.