Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist MORGAN BAIN sits down with AM’s Greg Phillips over some porridge for a morning chat about his influences, the current single ‘Why Don’t You Stay’, his gear and more.
It seems that everyone has an opinion on who Morgan Bain sounds like or is trying to emulate. Gotye, Hozier and even Prince are a few names music scribes have used in trying to convey what the talented singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist does. While writers rack their brains attempting to pigeon-hole him, Bain is just as intent on finding his own unique voice. Morgan will be the first to admit that legendary blues and soul artists such as Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder are well and truly embedded in his musical DNA but that’s not what he wants to sound like either. His latest single “Why Don’t You Stay’ offers the biggest hint of which road his musical journey might now be taking.
“It is probably the most comfortable I have been musically,” he says of the single. “The dark soul, moody, cinematic, trip-hop stuff. All the stuff like Stevie Wonder, nobody can top that. He was there at the best possible time for that to be done. Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, they are all people who cannot be recreated because they are utterly amazing. Ever since I started writing music and getting into soul, there are a lot of songs I have written in order to grow. Sometimes I will make myself write a country song or electronic song or pop song and just do that to make yourself grow a bit and find out what you want to do. The first album I brought out was roots, the second pop and the third soul/rock and now this, which is different to all of that … but this is the most comfortable I have been in a sound. I think the next record will be a mixture of all of those things that I love so much.”
Those initial roots and soul influences came from two main sources; his parents’ extensive, quality music collection, and his opera singing grandmother, who helped to shape Morgan’s voice and the way he sings. “She has the most beautiful voice, it’s haunting'” he says of his grandmother. “She would teach me a few things on keys and how to project and be heard. She has done it her whole life and is probably my biggest inspiration ever.”
As a very young teen, Bain was trying his luck in music competitions and became a regular at open mike nights. By 17, he was supporting Cold Chisel, a gig he remembers for all the wrong reasons. “I didn’t even think I was going to get to the gig,” he recalls. “I was in a taxi to get there because I was only 17 and the taxi driver was still drunk for the night before. I was thinking, are we even going to get there? That gig was probably one of the scariest points of my career because they introduced me in front of this huge crowd. I walked out in front of 12,000 people but when I picked up the guitar, I was fine because you are doing what you are supposed to be doing.”
Still in his early twenties, Morgan has accumulated the musical resume of a longstanding, seasoned artist. He has several recordings under his belt, toured nationally with Telstra’s Road to Discovery show, supported Missy Higgins, Icehouse, Xavier Rudd, Sarah Blasko, Ash Grunwald and of course Chisel. He also has a habit of picking up WAMi awards and earlier this year, won yet another WA music award, his third for Song of the Year. For Bain though, looking back or even forward is not something he spends a lot of time doing. He’s totally in the now and right now he’s enjoying working alongside his producer, Eskimo Joe’s Joel Quartermain in creating refreshing new sounds.
“Joel is a freak,” says Morgan of his producer mate. “He has so much production in his studio and in his head. You show him a verse, pre-chorus and chorus on a guitar and the whole song can change in an hour … made better … he has all these ideas. He has introduced me to writing parts. Now I write bass lines and drum grooves and piano and strings parts and then organ guitar parts, vocal lines and then write the words. That may have happened later in life but I think if I hadn’t met Joel I don’t think I would have thought about it. Joel and I work so well together because we have known each other for so long. When Joel first got in touch and said I’d like to make a record with you, I was like a little schoolgirl. It was like, do I call him now? When I did, he made me feel so comfortable, we work so well together.”
A great chunk of Morgan Bain’s appeal lies in how multi-skilled the guy is. Not only does he have a wonderful, expressive and soulful voice but he also plays a range of fretted instruments, keyboards, harmonica and ukulele. There may be others, who knows? Currently, his favourite instrument is the keyboard. He learned to play piano as an 8 year old then gave it away for a long period of time, only revisiting piano and organ a year and a half ago. Bain is particularly fond of working with his Hammond SK1 organ.
“I like it because it is an all-vintage organ with the Rhodes keys sound. With a lot of the sounds, you can actually hear where they have miked up an amp or miked up a Leslie,” he explains. “There’s a certain crackle every time the Leslie does its thing. I’m like, is my overdrive on? No, that’s just how they have miked it up. It’s amazing and you can make your own organ sounds, the splits are really good. Waterfall keys, not too heavy, not too light, real draw bars and cool effects. It’s like having a vintage Rhodes and organ without having to bring in a real Rhodes and organ. I love it, it’s awesome. I have played original Hammond organs a couple of times. I have played people’s Hammonds that I know but I picked up a Yamaha Electone, which is like a copy of a Hammond. That was in my back room but I just threw it out because I broke it. I ran it through a couple of amps, playing really loud in my room. I just heard this spppffffff! The thing caught on fire and it has … like a Leslie in it. I’m not really delicate with my stuff, if you look at my guitars, they have wear all the way down the neck. It’s not that I don’t care, they are just road guitars.”
Another keyboard in Morgan’s back room which occasionally gets a run on stage is a Roland Juno D, which he uses to program bass synth sounds. “When I am doing solo shows or band shows and I have the double tiered keyboard thing, I will use the Juno D,” he says. “It was my first keyboard that I borrowed from a mate and he left to live in Sweden for a year. When he got back, it was like it’s yours now, you’ve been using it for so long. It’s so light and even though it’s just like a MIDI keyboard that’s not that expensive, you can program stuff in there and it sounds great. I have programmed some bass synth stuff, organ stuff, it’s been a really cool keyboard.”
Guitar-wise, Bain also has quite a collection of instruments, pedals and amps to add colour to his musical palette. “I have a cherry red Art & Lutherie parlour guitar, which I have put vintage Gretsch pickups in,” he tells me. “I have a Gretsch electric which I took the pickups out of and put them into the cherry red guitar. Then I put new Gretsch pickups in the Gretsch Electomatic. I bought a really old Russian guitar that was made in the late 50s early 60s in a backyard somewhere in Russia, which is probably the tastiest guitar I own. It doesn’t get played that much because it is so precious. It just hangs on my wall. I have two six string Matons, a 12 string Maton, a Yamaha six string. I have a lap guitar that I made. It was made out of an old nylon string guitar. I put a bridge on it and some big strings. My mate Scotty stained it a dark green colour for my birthday. I think that’s it. Oh, I have a uke! Pedals? I am pretty terrible with pedals. My manger is always like… your bank account man! My favourite at the moment is a fuzz, it’s like a Swollen Pickle. I use reverbs and delays and POG organ pedals, like octave pedals and four different overdrives just for tone. Plus I have delay and overdrive for my harmonica mike. I also used to do a lot of duo shows, so the pedals on my board are from all the duo and solo shows I used to do. I used to take up 10 or 15 channels on my own and do the whole bass, electric and two acoustic lines on the one guitar and then have stomp box and tambourine, bass drum, snare and harmonica through two different lines, clean and dirty and then two different vocals. So all that stuff is still there on my board. I have about 40 or 50 pedals at home but only use 15 on the board.”
Morgan has worked in many different performance modes from solo and duo to different configurations of bands. The current line-up is Bain on keys and guitar, a second keyboard player, bass and drums. It’s a set up he arrived at after witnessing his keyboard player/vocalist Teischa Jones play and realising she would be great for his band.
“I really needed another player, whatever that was I didn’t know at the time,” recalls Bain about forming his current band. “This girl, Teischa Jones sent me an email saying I really want to support you. So I had her come to a gig and heard her sing and play piano and half way through it, my face was melting! It was being melted by someone. She was absolutely insane. You close your eyes and listen and then look at her and it doesn’t make sense. This 17 year old skinny white chick and plays and sings like that. So I said to her it would be really cool to write a song together. So we wrote a song, an RnB kind of thing. After that we started playing together a bit, supporting and I said do you want to join the band? So now she is in the band but where my music was heading, with all the keys, she was very useful in that area because she is a great keys player and vocalist. Also the bass player plays double bass on a lot of the tunes with bow and that’s where a lot of the trip-hop stuff comes in. The drummer is going to get a drum machine soon, so we have have the trip-hop thing really down pat, with programmed beats. Everyone is really into it and it has been really easy to form that grouping.”
After playing some successful shows at Music Matters, Singapore last week, Bain will return to his hometown of Perth to play a few gigs in June. He’s also working on new tracks for another EP, which will probably feature around seven tracks this time. Ultimately, Morgan is just looking to continually improve and one day lay the perfect album upon us. “I just really love music and want to play great music with people and share stories, not worry about how much money or royalties you make,” he states. “I have never really cared about money, it’s always scared me. I mean, I like having it because you can do records and it flies me on planes but I don’t really get obsessed with it. I just want to become a really great musician in my eye. I really want to bring out that one record, the one album I was put on earth to make. However long it takes to get to that point, I probably won’t ever stop.”