Close Encounters with T.E. Morris

Photo by Ami Barwell

When I first saw T.E. Morris live, I was at a venue called Beatpol in Dresden, Germany. I was expecting Her Name is Calla, his band, as the opening act, and when an unassuming man with only an acoustic guitar for company walked on stage, I was surprised. And I’ll be honest, I also set myself up for disappointment—I had already put myself in a full-band mindset, and wasn’t looking for an acoustic, singer/songwriter act. And with a mostly German audience, an English-language singer/songwriter can be a tough sell when the lyrics are so important to the music. With no backup band, it’s really just a guitar, a pretty-sounding melody, and some words, hopefully understood though a language barrier.

Then the act began, and my doubts were thrown in my face. I was immediately captivated, as was the entire German audience. The words were not lost in translation—the passion with which T.E. Morris performed, the way he sang, was something universal, something that translates to every language, every culture. I felt like I was privy to an intimate conversation, like he was fearlessly telling me everything about himself with nothing held back, good or bad. There was not a single note of pretense. He shared his life with the audience, his private sufferings, his most intimate thoughts. His first full solo album, We Were Animals, the first full-length release on the musician’s label, Olynka Records, does the same, and does not disappoint.

Throughout We Were Animals Morris’ guitar waxes and wanes between slow, soft picking and a sudden burst of chords, his vocals just as variant. “A Resurrection,” the album’s short opener, is a stone thrown into a pond with its powerfully layered vocals and quickly escalating guitar melody. The song breaks the album’s surface as it moves forward in ripples, slowly expanding to leave the listener with a life, laid bare for all to hear.

The album’s musical variance is also well characterized in “Golden Hawk Too Far Away.” The track begins slow and soft with vocals and picking, gradually growing in intensity until the chords and chorus begin, then fades back to its soft beginnings. While the steady build-up is expected, leaving listeners waiting for a chorus, what is unexpected is the switch back to softness. Morris’ sudden, stark changes from loud to soft are a common occurrence on We Were Animals. Despite many such changes, the album is never jarring, mainly because the intensity is maintained throughout—loud or soft, picking or strumming, Morris remains captivating in his intensity, something not entirely expected in an acoustic album.

One of the most striking songs on the album is “Widow,” a song impossible to write about without explicating some of its lyrics. The beautifully written lines are a frank appeal, starting with the question, “Will I see you again? / How many sleepless days and nights? / Give me a figure / Something to hold on to.” The sense of loss is perfectly conveyed in asking for a “figure,” an abstract number with no physical form, as if it could be some sort of recompense for the loss of human contact, of love. His intensity comes to a head toward the end of the song as he repeats the phrase, “What if I can’t let go?” echoing his own unanswerable question.

The frankness of his lyrics is also at times shocking, for example in “Killing Time,” when Morris openly states, “I’m begging you to sleep / so that I can watch you dream / of times when I was a better father for you.” He goes even further, later stating, “It’s only when you’re here / Does my smile become sincere / Everything else is just killing time.” It’s lyrics like these, and the emotion with which he delivers them, that make even non-English speaking audiences go completely silent, caught in the personal struggles of the man on stage.

As We Were Animals begins, T.E. Morris is a stranger. At the end of one listen-though, you know him well. In an industry that can so often be filled with pretense, the honesty of T.E. Morris is more then refreshing—it’s clear that he writes for himself, without concern as to how he will be perceived by an audience or by a label. The end product is a work of private passion, the type of album you want to thank the artist for, something not for the faint of heart. The tone of the album is perfectly encompassed in Morris’ own lyrics, once again, from “Widow.” “I’m not asking for forgiveness / That ship sailed long ago.” We Were Animals is confessional, an open statement of private struggles and private sins; it does not hope for redemption or for help—it simply asks to be heard.

–Morgan Rotondi


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