Just duet! Flo Morrissey on her new covers album with Matthew E White

The Irish English singer has teamed with American White for an album of covers ranging from Leonard Cohen to the hit theme from Grease

Matthew E White and Flo Morrissey: “We just wanted to do songs that meant something to us, that challenged us, and some that people just wouldn’t normally cover.”

Matthew E White and Flo Morrissey: “We just wanted to do songs that meant something to us, that challenged us, and some that people just wouldn’t normally cover.”

 

A duets album is a tried and tested staple of the music industry. The beasts arrive in varying shades of quality, but mostly they arrive from singers in the autumn of their years and perhaps languishing in the creative doldrums. They also often appear because a major label tells a veteran that it would be good to work with a younger, hipper and more commercially viable partner. Broader demographic equals bigger sales; younger partners equal greater credibility.

But what happens if you already have credibility and relative youth on your side? What if you aren’t signed to a major record label? What if you have your own independent label, and what if your record sales are slight but self-sustaining? Enter stage left American songwriter Matthew E White and British/Irish singer-songwriter Flo Morrissey.

White, based in Richmond, Virginia, is an astute songwriter, producer, arranger and founder of Spacebomb Records (host to, among others, White himself, Natalie Prass, Foxygen, and The Waterboys, who spent time at Spacebomb studios recently working on their forthcoming album).

Morrissey is a London-based singer-songwriter, the daughter of a Waterford man who left Ireland for the UK many years ago, and who subsequently left his job in financial publishing to become a Buddhist meditation teacher. She has no trace of an Irish accent, but, she says cheerfully in precise Notting Hill English rose tones, “I’ve got the freckles.”

Duets off the radar

Each have their own moderately successful solo careers, so the thought of a duets album wasn’t necessarily on their to-do lists. But the idea was sparked by a fortuitous meeting in November 2015 at a tribute concert for American songwriter Lee Hazelwood.

“Matthew and I had previously been in contact,” says Morrissey, “as we had both been written about in the same newspaper’s music review section. He got in touch saying that he liked what I was doing; the feeling was mutual, and so we kept in touch, talking about music, what we were up to. When the opportunity of singing together at the Hazelwood event came along, we decided to do perhaps an obvious duet – the Hazelwood /Nancy Sinatra song, Some Velvet Morning. And so the new album started from there.”

The album in question is Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, a soulful, sensual 10-song selection of covers that range from the unsurprising (Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning) to the very surprising (James Blake’s The Colour in Anything, Frank Ocean’s Thinking Bout You, Frankie Valli’s theme to Grease, as written by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb) to the never heard before (Little Wings’ Look at What the Light Did Now).

The song choices are eclectic, but the unifying threads include a maverick approach to song arrangement and the pair’s respective vocals – White’s quiet, soulful rasp and Morrissey’s blithe folksiness. It’s a collection that vibrates with atypical quirk and charm.

“We had a Spotify playlist of almost 700 songs,” says Morrissey, who admits that she didn’t listen to all of them. “The list included all of the classic duets that you can imagine, as well as many others. For the most part, they were songs we wanted to intuitively share with each other, and to see if they would work for us as a duet. I suppose the natural way of choosing the ones we did was whether they held some kind of personal appeal for us – songs that we had heard a long time ago, for instance.”

No formula

The pair Skyped for a few months on the selection process. The eventual 10 highlighted “our mutual music tastes, and our minds in general, but also that it wasn’t about sticking to one particular formula”.

Morrissey had never heard of some songs. “Little Wing’s Look at What the Light Did Now is one that Matthew knew of because he had previously toured with the band. The selection process was very natural – we didn’t ponder too much about whether the songs were too old, or anything like that. We just wanted to do songs that meant something to us, that challenged us, and some that people just wouldn’t normally cover.”

As for the Grease track, blame Natalie Prass, who suggested they cover it. “I would never have thought of singing that song, but it turned out to be a fun one to do. Aside from the film and whatever baggage some people might have around it – be it nostalgia, or whether they dislike the film – the song is quite powerful.”

The same can be said of Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, which despite being low-key and perhaps overly sincere, is nonetheless trustworthy and devoid of crass commercial strategies. Morrissey admits that a common perception of singers tackling covers is that it’s the easier option. “I’ve always been into the challenge of making songs your own, and both Matthew and myself liked engaging with that.”

What comes next? Collaborating on an original duets record or working on another batch of covers? The former seems more likely, considering Morrissey’s response. “We both think that would be very cool, and we’re both open to the possibilities of whatever might happen.”

- Gentlewoman, Ruby Man is out through Glassnote Records.

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