Gurf Morlix: Love in the Time of COVID

Talking music and quarantine with Lucinda Williams’ onetime guitar guru

Gurf Morlix (Art: Ron Hart)

Gurf Morlix first gained recognition as Lucinda Williams’ guitar player, musical director and producer, but he said he’s been writing songs almost as long as he’s been playing guitar.

I was in bands from the time I was in junior high school,” he said. “I ended up producing records, ‘cause I had a good ear for it. I was writing songs all that time too, but it took most of my life to figure out how to write a song that would move someone. Decades.”

Morlix produced albums for Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mary Gauthier and Robert Earl Keen, among others, but didn’t put out his first solo album, Toad of Titicaca, until 2000, when he was 49. Since then, he’s released ten more, leading up to Kiss of the Diamondback, just out on his own Rootball label. Morlix usually tends toward darker subjects – the hardships of the working class, ecological disaster and dysfunctional relationships – so the love songs on Diamondback may come as a surprise. “I don’t question what shows up,” he said. “The songs are there, floatin’ in the sky, waitin’ for someone to reach up and pull ’em down. I’m often surprised by what arrives.”

Gurf Morlix Kiss of the Diamondback, Rootball 2020

The record was recorded at home, during the current lockdown, but the nine songs he cut have been in process for quite a while. “Some I worked on for years and years, until I think they work and are as good as I can make ’em. Only one of ’em was really dealing with the current situation, but a bunch of ’em certainly seem like they coulda been written in the last six months. Mysterious. I love that.” 

With the exception of drums by long time associate Rick Richards, Morlix plays all the music on Diamondback, from banjo to string section. The tunes are done in his usual eclectic style. “Geniuses” is a slow R&B ballad that describes a romantic encounter that’s not going anywhere. Morlix howls with desire, as the object of his affection pushes him out of the door. Reverb heavy guitar and a whispered vocal make “We Just Talked” the album’s most romantic track. It describes the tension of infatuation, with each lover waiting for the other one to move closer. Sustained notes from a Hammond B3 add to the late night feel. “Break Even” looks back on lost love, with a bluesy groove accented by percussive hand clapping. It leads up to a downbeat vocal hook: “If I ever break even, I’d hafta call that a win.”  

Morlix spoke to The Globe about the album and his creative process from his home in Austin, Texas.

 

The title, Kiss of the Diamondback, has an ominous tone, but the songs on the album are mostly uplifting. Why did you use a line from “Geniuses” as the album title?

An album’s gotta have a title. If you name it after one of the songs, it attaches extra importance to that song. Maybe too much. I’m always lookin’ for somethin’ comin’ in from somewhere else. Kiss Of The Diamondback had everything I was lookin’ for. Somethin’ to sum up the feel of the album and still have a Gurf-like feel.

 

The album was recorded in your home studio, with your long time drummer Rick Richards. Did you practice social distancing? 

I got Rick in to play on some songs back in January, right before the lockdown. We cut a bunch of songs. Some will be on the next album, which is already finished. I’ve been doing nothin’ but recording through this isolation period. I’m usually gone for most of the year, touring, and that is now taken away, so I tried to take advantage of my opportunity.

 

VIDEO: Gurf Morlix pays homage to his friend Blaze Foley at End of An Ear Records in Austin, TX

How long did it take to record? Do arrangements occur to you when writing, or do they come together in the recording process?

I can work at my own pace these days, of course. This is an advantage. I’ve been spending several hours a day, every day, since some time in January. I see no reason to stop recording, as long as I have songs ready. They will all come out at some point.

 

Can you describe your studio space?

It’s not so much of a studio as it is some recording equipment in my home. The drums stay set up, down at one end of the living room. A spare bedroom is the vocal room. Another is the amp room. Houses make for great recording possibilities, depending on the sound of each space. My living room happens to sound amazing.

 

What are the challenges of producing yourself?

It’s a matter of perspective. If I could afford a really great outside producer, I would jump at the chance, but I do love the sound of the albums I make. It sometimes takes a few minutes to change over from being the guitar player, or the bass or keyboards player, to being the producer. It can be done. It’s just the way it has to be. And the albums sound cool.

 

How are you coping with the lock down? You make most of your income from touring. Will you be able to sell enough albums to get by?

Hah! I’m not gonna tour until it’s safe for everyone and I think whenever this all settles out, it’s not gonna be the same as what it was. No way of knowing what it will be, but it’ll be different. There is no way I could make a living just from album sales. I’m extremely lucky to have some people out there who like what I do, but there aren’t tens of thousands of ’em. I will get by, somehow.

 

VIDEO: Gurf Morlix performs “Ooh Love” at home 

Where do you find inspiration?

You never know. A songwriter has to have his or her antennae up, all the time. The signals come floating in, from anywhere, at any time. It can be an overheard bit of conversation, or from a dream, or a phrase from a book. Or just a random thought that drops by. The important thing is to be open. Try to keep your filters down.

 

Do you have any producing jobs on the horizon? How do you keep from going stir crazy?

I’m always on the lookout for artists whose work blows me away. I’ve been lucky to have a good number of ’em knock on my door. There is more great music out there now than ever before. The problem is wading through it all to find the gems. I’m always looking.

 

You’re unusually open and willing to talk to your audience. You even include an email address on your website. Do people reach out to you? 

I am basically pretty shy, but I find that I love talking to people at my shows. I love talking to anyone who has something interesting to say. It’s a community, this human race. All we’ve got is each other. We need to stick together and we need to talk.

 

VIDEO: Gurf Morlix performs a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Roland, The Headless Thompson Gunner” pre-COVID 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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