David Morris' latest record as Red River Dialect finds grace and liberation for merciless personal sorrow through primitive, spiritual coherency embedded within the album's ornate Celtic folk-rock.
The inspiration behind the new record, Broken Stay Open Sky, was rooted from time spent touring the UK with Joan Shelley. What was so impactful about your time with Joan Shelley on that tour? Was it watching her and her band perform each night or interactions off the stage during travel that stimulated you to write?
Well, being invited to be the tour support for someone whose songwriting you greatly esteem, it gives you a good feeling. Also, as I played solo on that tour, so I was in the luxurious position of just getting in the car and going on a ten day voyage all around the UK playing to the kind of people who come to Joan Shelley shows. I hadn’t been on an adventure for a while. It was a chance to shake the dust off and go on a journey of unexpected delights, something that doesn’t come up all that often for me. So it was a combination of all the aspects of the journey, including their relentless mockery of my search for vegan Cornish pasties at road stops. I also happen to think Nathan Salsburg, who plays with Joan, is one of the finest guitar players on the planet. Word is there is a new album coming from him sometime not too far away… On that tour he joined me for a couple of songs on most nights.
Spirituality guided much of your focus for the record. Have you always been a spiritual person or had you recently felt a penchant for bringing you to the studies? Was there a certain religion of focus or a more generalized concept of spirituality?
Your question teases out some interesting space, somewhere between a definite idea of religion and a generalized concept of spirituality. There’s the whole “spiritual but not religious” notion, and then there is the suspicion that many people hold towards a sort of supermarket, or “pick and mix” approach to spirituality. I have held those views at times, and also had a good go at the supermarket approach. Without wanting to bore everyone to tears, I have just finished five years of academic study of religions at a University in London, and one of the most exciting insights I was tuned onto was that the concept of religions in the plural is a very recent one. Prior to the reformation “religion”, or “religio,” just meant Christianity. For those interested, or aggravated, here is a great essay on that by a guy called Jonathan Z Smith, who died recently but, in the words of one of my teachers, looked a lot like Santa on LSD. So once we had the concept of “religion” as being a cultural/anthropological category it really changed how European colonialists encountered the wisdom traditions of the people they were thieving from.
Personally, I don’t hold "spiritual" to refer to things otherwordly, supernatural, or pure. I relate with the Tibetan Buddhist notion of sacred world, that if through meditation and study we develop our capacity to experience the present, as it is, without slathering our preconceptions all over the place, that a quality of sacredness starts to infuse our experience, and that compassion arises spontaneously, too. Not just in some holy, mood-music way, looking out over the ocean from a mystic mountain, but in situations that involve down to earth difficulty and confusion, like work, sex and money (which is also the title of a great book by a Tibetan meditation master).
To backtrack to the theory side of things above, the word “Buddhism” doesn’t exist before the 19th century, and was coined in Europe. It’s not that there weren’t a great many people committed or connecting to the teachings of the Buddha, but the “ism” changes things. In Japan they had no word for “religion” before the late 19th century, they only invented one, “shukyo,” in order to translate a trade agreement with the USA. Some people argue that this then changed the way Japanese people identified, as being of one religion or another, whereas in the past one might not seen such discontinuity or contradiction in attending both Shinto and Buddhist shrines (a distinction which is in itself not necessarily clear).
The first single from the new record, "Kukkuripa," shares the name with a character from Buddhist studies. Essentially, the story of Kukkuripa is one of realization and abstention of temptation. What part of the Kukkuripa message spoke to you during the writing of the record?
Well I personally hold a strong commitment towards non-human animals, so the fact that Kukkuripa took his commitment to a supposedly lesser non-human over some partying in a realm of bliss and low-karma indulgence means something to me. During the aforementioned tour with Joan Shelley and her band I found a book in a charity shop in York called ‘Marpa the Translator’ and it was in this book that I read about Kukkuripa. It also connected with a personal story told to me during that tour, about a dog that meant a lot to someone but who had passed. That song is two jokes told badly, one is my own and the other is a funny story by someone who was on that tour. The middle section, about Kukkuripa, is a declaration of friendship.
To record the new material, you expanded beyond the solo acoustic fabric and introduced multi-instrumentation and drums to arrive at a bigger and more electric sound. What prompted this expansion and was this bigger sound in mind while you were writing the songs?
Our sound is perhaps dilating, because our album before last, called awellupontheway also sounds big, and had drums. Yes, the bigger sound was in my mind, and we were very lucky to find our drummer Kiran. I can’t remember if I have told this story before, but we had been looking for a drummer for a while but not having much luck. I’m not really very plugged into any music scenes in London, and a couple of times I considered placing a classified ad somewhere: “drummer wanted, no money in it” etc. Then in summer 2016 we were due to have a sort of practice, but two of the bandmates were hungover after a birthday party, and had stayed at our friends house. I was waiting around for two hours in a park and got pretty mardy and called it off. But the other two, mentioning this to others where they had woken up, ended up playing some of our music to Kiran, who mentioned he was a drummer. They then sort of auditioned him on some pots and pans whilst they played bass and fiddle. They sent a text saying “we think we’ve found our drummer.” Here’s to hangovers.
Traditionally, folk music has had a link to the land and the culture of a particular place. How has your time in Cornwall impacted your songwriting? Are you influenced by nature for your songwriting or more by human emotion?
Having left Cornwall over 6 years ago, I think at this point there are two places: the one that appears in my dreams and nostalgia and the one I visit regularly. Sometimes the distance between them can be shocking, the real place changes and refuses to adhere to my more romantic delusions. But once I get over that, the raw power of the place always cuts through to a deep part of me, and I will always been thinking of returning. I think maybe that duality was there when I lived there too. I don’t think I can separate out those influences you mention, not enough to speak about them coherently. I think that sometimes I see landscapes which somehow connect me closer, or help me to understand, certain emotions, and there are emotions that have helped me to see and connect to my place in the landscape also. These moments where the inner and outer have some kind of relationship, not necessarily a sweet harmony, I aspire to represent or at least acknowledge these in my songwriting.