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Sarah Jane In Harpers & Queen

Edited by Rupert Christiansen
Music
Russell Celyn Jones meets the singer who will neither compromise nor conform

The first time you hear Sarah Jane Morris sing, her voice sounds so deep as to be almost scandalous. She has a impressionist’s palate, scorching her way through jazz, soul and ‘black’ anthems. More than a great voice, she is several great voices.

Over the last three years she has featured on albums by the Communards, Republic and Jazz Renegades, and collaborated with a ‘classical’ composer, Steve Martland. She has sung with Placido Domingo in the Venice Opera House, and was voted by the Italians best female vocalists of 1989. Her first album on the Jive label sold 100,000 copies with no hits, no hype behind it. Getting to hear her sing these days should be easier, not harder. But jazz festivals in this country do not recognise her as a jazz artist and neglect to invite her. Her album is now deleted. And she was born the wrong colour for soul.

Sarah Jane Morris came to meet me last May in Soho, exposing her bare midriff to the cold wind, and still without a major recording contract. ‘I haven’t yet put together something the music industry can sell in England,’ she explained. ‘They have to categorise you here, into pop, soul, rock or jazz. I’m trying not to let that influence me. I want eventually to hand over material that I’ve written myself, which is so complete it gives them no room to change it.’

After leaving the Communards, Morris launched her first solo album last year. Despite some smoky, compelling compositions, much of the album feels underproduced. Some of the best tracks are the reinterpretations of She’s Leaving Home, in which she gives the parents’ viewpoint a stronger emphasis; and the  highlighting of a suicide theme in Alone Again Naturally. ‘That satisfied the actress in me,’ she said. Morris’s original plan was to become an actress, and she started singing after leaving drama school in 1979 as a way of getting her Equity card. She formed a cabaret duo with a black pianist and explored jazz for the first time: Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, also Brecht and Weill. ‘It took me five years in the end to get that card, which wasn’t as important as my discovery of singing.’

She still takes on acting jobs from time to time to support her meager income from singing. Living in Brixton in a housing association flat helps her keep her overheads as low as possible. ‘I would make a lot of people happy if I stuck as a jazz singer. I could easily get a recording deal. But it’s so hard to make a living just through jazz. Soul is part of my life as well as jazz. What I’m interested in is a fusion between the two.’ Mick Hucknell of Simply Red is an inspiration for Morris: a white soul singer admitting jazz influence who became an international star.

Besides Hucknell, Morris lists among her mentors Sarah Vaughan, Annie Lennox and Elvis Costello, who congratulated her after the release of her album by advising her not to listen to other people’s advice. ‘These people are their own islands.’ But it is Tom Waits’s career she most envies – turning in cameo film roles, scoring film music and working with a variety of real talents. ‘Waits sells enough albums to keep his record company happy while still maintaining his cult status. He’s also the best lyricist.’

Morris has always aligned herself to left-wing causes; she is to music what Juliet Stevenson, the actress she most admires, is to drama. ‘People may think I’m hard to work with because of my political commitments, but I haven’t any chip on my shoulder, I’m simply wiser than I used to be,’ she says. ‘I’m in my thirties now, which feels like an advantage; I’m starting to know who I am.’