To be honest, I don’t really like using the word ‘icon’ when describing someone. I think the term is way overused but then, when it comes to Russell Morris… well, it fits. Indeed, he is a true icon of Australian rock, and one of this country’s most enduring and gifted singer/songwriters. From the psychedelic pop of his first major hit single, ‘The Real Thing’(written by Johnny Young and produced by Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum) in the late sixties, to the sweet, sweet sound of his own superb compositions like ‘Sweet Sweet Love’ and ‘Wings of an Eagle’ that showcased his perfect pitch and amazing vocals and now, back to his roots… Roots and Blues, to be exact, Russell Morris has kind of come full circle and he is a happy man right now. Currently touring the country with music from his latest album, ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, he tells me that the live shows are going really well. “Things are great,” he says. “We’ve also done a lot of festivals.” And this summer, Russell headlines The Lakeside Twilights, kicking off at Wendouree, Ballarat on 6th December. This is the third year of The Lakeside Twilights. A series of concerts held over the summer months on the shores of various lakes around regional Victoria and featuring a great cast of Aussie talent. As well as Russell Morris, the show’s line-up features Daryl Braithwaite, Mental as Anything and Pseudo Echo. “Never heard of ‘em!” jokes Russell. He says that he is really looking forward to the show. “I love Ballarat and Bendigo. I just love the tradition of the towns and the way they haven’t wrecked the original buildings. Driving into Ballarat, and also driving into Bendigo, is an immense pleasure. It really is. One of my ancestors grew up in Ballarat during the gold rush and so it sings to my DNA in a way. It will be beautiful. My partner comes from Ballarat. She’s a Ballarat girl so she’ll be hanging to get back there and see some of her friends.”
He is also thrilled to be nominated for an ARIA for the second year in a row; this time, for his latest album, ‘Van Diemen’s Land’. “Whether we win or not is in the lap of the gods,” he concedes. “But it’s lovely to be nominated.” Last year’s award came as a big but very welcome surprise to the singer and he is extremely grateful to all the people who voted for him. “I really owe them a big debt,” he says, humbly. And sales for ‘Van Diemen’s Land’are doing extremely well. “The second album is up around 30,000 now, which is fantastic.”
It had always been Russell’s plan to make a trilogy of albums about Australian history and that is exactly what he is doing. ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ is the second album in that trilogy and material for the third and final record is currently underway. “Then I won’t write any more Australian history songs,” he tells me. “I don’t know what I’ll do after that but I’m halfway through writing the third one now. The thing is I don’t know which songs will make it. There are five really strong ones that will definitely make it but the others, I’m not sure. I’ve got about eleven songs. I probably need to write another eight before I can hone it down to the best material available and take it from there.”
He plans to call the next album ‘Red Dirt’ and gives me a bit of an insight into what the album will be like. “Well, the first one was about the streets and gambling and gangsters and things like that. The second one was a bigger picture of Australia; how we got here and some of the major events like Eureka Stockade and all the people like Breaker Morant and the things that were ‘Big Picture Australia’ things. The third one will be the more ‘Primitive Australia’. It will be about the basics of Australia. The animals and things like that.”
Russell has always been interested in history and has a particular passion for Australian history. “Like all of us,” he says, “I love Australia so much and the things about it. When I started doing a Roots ‘n’ Blues album, the only way I could really do it was about Australia because that’s what my Roots ‘n’ Blues match; it’s what your Roots ‘n’ Blues match. I think we’ve hit a cord in people because when they’ve heard the blues in the past, it’s always been about Mississippi or New Orleans or things like that. I know some people have done a few Australian songs but not a whole concept. It’s a really big exercise of love for me because I really enjoy history and I love writing music so the two of them have blended beautifully together.” And it’s been a huge success for Russell so far and one, he says, that was totally unexpected. “Everyone had said to me ‘You’re doing a Blues album? Why would you do a Blues album? No one’s gonna buy The Blues! No one’s interested in Australian history.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m doing it for selfish reasons. I’m doing it for my own exercise.’” And, of course, he has proved the naysayers wrong although, as he points out, that was never his motivation. “I just set out to do something that I wanted to do.”
While Russell still plays his older songs and much loved hits at gigs, his focus these days is on his current material. As he says, “I’ve got to wear two hats. I’ve got to wear a hat as a creator and writer of new product but I’ve also got to wear that other hat as an entertainer. People are going to spend their money to come and see me and they want to hear some of the old things and I don’t want to disappoint them. I don’t want them to think that they’re being gypped of their hard earned dough so I really want to deliver on that front as well.” And he says that it’s a joy playing those songs when people really enjoy them. However, he does get a lot of requests for the newer material as well. “I had one guy come and yell out to me the other day ‘Play more songs off ‘Sharkmouth,’ when we started playing the old hits. It’s really interesting,” he muses.
The singer is pleased to see a younger fan base developing as well, thanks to the success of both albums. It is good to see a new generation of music fans growing up with Russell Morris but, this time, built around the Roots ‘n’ Blues.
“I’ve also seen that a couple of people have contacted me through the website and they’ve actually done Australian albums in a Blues sense which is great because I would like to see each of the Blues artists in Australia writing about here, not about events in America. If it’s not our blues, then it’s not our thing.”
It’s been a very busy year for Russell and 2015 looks set to continue that trend. “I think we’ll probably work right through until the end of March and then I‘m going to take ten days off as a holiday and I’ll come back and I’ll sit down and I’ll analyse all the songs that I’ve got and then I’ll work out whether I need any more. I probably won’t record until July and then have it all finished and probably release it maybe before Christmas or maybe early in the following year.”
I remind Russell about an interview I did with him, Darryl Cotton and Jim Keays a few years ago, over dinner, when he told me about his ideas for the first of his Blues albums and it’s wonderful to see it all come together and to be the success that it has become.
“Talking about that dinner we had together,” he reminisces, “it’s so sad that both Jim and Darryl are gone. Darryl was a wonderful guy and so was Jimmy. I would speak to Jim every single day. I’d ring up for my daily dose of him insulting me. He was just fabulous. We’d laugh about everything on the phone every day. I miss him very much and I also miss Darryl very much.”
I’m sure that they would both be very proud of their friend and musical partner right now and the success he is experiencing with both his latest albums.
“Jimmy was,” Russell assures me. “Darryl never saw it happen but Jimmy saw it. Jimmy was really over the moon about it all and he loved the fact that he had ‘Black Dog Blues’on the album but Jimmy liked the second album better than the first. He liked ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ because it’s probably a bit more electric. Jimmy loved things loud and electric.”
Russell is well aware that, despite his best efforts, success was never guaranteed. “There’s a line off the album which was about my father escaping from Sandakan,” he explains. “And it’s the line ‘The best laid plans of mice and men all go out the window,’ so you never know. You can make the best plan; you can have the best intention when doing things and think you’ve got it right but no one is interested when it comes to the music business, so you just don’t know. It really is serendipity. It’s like being an alchemist, throwing things in a beaker and you never know what you’re going to produce.”
by Sharyn Hamey
Copyright © Sharyn Hamey 2014. All rights reserved
For a list of tour dates, venues and to book tickets for Russell Morris, please click here
To find out more about Russell’s album ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, please click here