A natural storyteller who has made a living as a magazine contributor and filmmaker for the last decade, Dunedin’’s Bill Morris well knows how to look beyond the picture in front of him to see the scene beyond – the hinterland if you will. Having grown up on a south Canterbury farm he also has a natural affinity for the land and the wider environment, reflected in the title and contents of his two album releases, 2012’’s ‘’Mud’’ and the recently-released ‘‘Hinterland’’. Matt Herrett talked to him about the latter album’’s unlikely combination of Americana and Aotearoa.
Not long after we talk, South Island songwriter Bill Morris was to perform the title track from his latest album, ‘Hinterland’, at the NZ Country Music Awards in Gore. The song was a finalist for APRA’s Best Country Music Song award, along with offerings from Kaylee Bell, Jared Porter and Tami Neilson. Morris seems delighted, if a little perplexed by the recognition.
“It’s so great to be held up among those guys. I have no expectations, but I just can’t wait for the show!”
Musically, ‘Hinterland’ –– the album –– evokes the sweeping Americana landscapes of producer John Egenes‘ native southwestern States. Beautifully picked banjo, mandolin, lap steel and tremolo guitar are the order of the day. It marks a significant move away from his previous release ‘Mud’, a much rougher, almost folk-punk affair.
“Well, ‘Mud‘ was pulled together in less than ideal circumstances. I was green. I didn’t know the first thing about recording when I did it,” he says. “Looking back, there’s a lot that I’d change now, and I wasn’t really happy with my vocals on that record, but I’m still proud of what I achieved with it, and I had to start somewhere.”
“For ‘Hinterland’ I leaned heavily on John for his musical input –– he’s a talented guy. I toured across the States with him whilst filming Donna Dean for a documentary. The influence of that part of the world took a real hold on me. This is my second album. I’m more confident now. I already knew the musicians that I wanted to work with. There were a huge backlog of songs that I wanted to record, so it was really just a case of finding the ones to which I thought John might be able to relate.”
Despite the strong Americana sound, ‘Hinterland’ remains distinctly Antipodean in its subject matter. Morris was raised on a farm in the upper Rakaia valley, in Canterbury‘s high country, so there’’s little to be surprised about there, but, interestingly, it’s the songwriting traditions of Australia that pique his interest.
“Guys like Paul Kelly and Kev Carmodie –– even Nick Cave –– they come from a very strong storytelling background. There’s a strong folklore there, and it’’s very connected to the land, to the environment. I’m hugely interested in the natural world, so I can relate to that.”
Dunedin-based Morris spends much of his time operating in a journalistic capacity. He’s worked for the last 10 years as a filmmaker, but also as a sometime writer for several magazines, including NZ Geographic.
A natural storyteller, he approaches his songwriting with the observational eye of someone who spends a lot of working time as a fly on the wall. His songs draw your attention to what others might overlook as insignificant details. He takes the time to be descriptive, to set the scene. The first verse of Dusty Corners focuses entirely on the supposedly mundane moment when a woman finds a lost earring behind the couch, developing expertly into a classic story of wasted time and regret.
“I’m interested in the essential DNA that makes up a good story. I love the broad palette of techniques you can use and I want to perfect those techniques. I’m interested in so many of the storytelling methods –– photography, filmmaking, writing – but songwriting is really where it’s at for me. When you make a film, you’re constantly having to conform to others’ expectations. With songwriting there’s a freedom to call it as you see it.
Morris’s songwriting-as-a-craft approach seems to be paying real dividends. He’s garnering glowing reviews overseas. No Depression called him a natural, comparing his skills to those of the likes of John Prine and Al Stewart, even Tom Waits. Regardless of any interest he’s receiving Stateside, he’s in no rush to move away from NZ, having resided in Dunedin for years he relishes the options that the city provides.
“I have so many interests and diversions and I can address them all right here. I can finish writing an article for NZ Geographic on whale evolution, after working with guys at the university, and two minutes up the road I can be heading into the studio to work on my album. It’’s a great little enclave of science and creativity.
“I have a circle of talented friends and musicians that I can call upon here and I’m already searching for the next sound I want to put down on record. I’m interested in distilling a pure NZ sound. For now, I just want to release this record and take it around the country, play some house concerts, make some friends and keep connecting with people.”