SHE GOT TO BE LOVED
Jenny Morris no longer sings or writes — but her life in song is about to be honoured by her peers. Kim Knight reports.
Jenny Morris no longer sings or writes but her life in song is about to be honoured by her peers. Kim Knight reports.
Bing-bong. The doorbell chimes in the key of expensive.
A man enters the hotel suite with the harbour view. He proffers two plates. They are flat and white. Jenny Morris has been waiting for a flat white. Something has been terribly lost in translation.
The man comes back. He holds two coffee pods for the machine. No, says the publicist, explaining firmly she has phoned for a coffee from downstairs. It is her job to feed and water the talent, but there is another reason she’s doing vocals. Morris can’t.
“If I have to order room service, it’s f***ed,” says Morris. “Speaking on the phone is bad.”
Morris, 61, has spasmodic dysphonia, a condition that starts with a croaky voice and progresses to broken and interrupted sentences. Entire words drop out. The soundtrack skips and dips. Sometimes, the condition only affects speech. In Morris’ case, it has also affected her song.
“If I start talking about it, it gets bad. Sometimes just randomly it’s worse and sometimes it’s much better. Which is why it’s such a conundrum to the medical fraternity. It’s neurological, it’s actual misfiring nerves and synapses.”
Her tone is dry and wry: “It’s a many splendored thing.”
The woman who belted Tears for The Crocodiles; who sold 70,000-plus copies of her debut solo record, Body and Soul; who opened for Prince and Tears for Fears and toured for 18-months as a backing vocalist with INXS no longer sings or writes songs — but her life is devoted to songwriters.
In 2013, she became the first female chairperson of APRA-AMCOS, the acronym-heavy collective that advocates for Australasian composers, lyricists and music publishers. Next month, at the Apra Silver Scroll awards, Morris will be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.
Study her greatest hits list and think: About time. A few days before she got on a plane from her home in Sydney to a hotel in Auckland,
Canvas asked Morris to consider her life in song. We asked for music from her youth and tunes that meant home. To nominate a song for the lovers, the departed, the unravelling. Soundchecks, encores and something that meant “success”. Songs, to steal from Stevie Wonder, in the key of life.
Okay, said Morris. And then she began with the deaths.
ME HE Manurere was, according to a website devoted to the history of New Zealand folk music, first recorded by Ernest McKinlay at Whakarewarewa in the early 1930s. The singable English verses were produced with the assistance of guide Maggie Papakura, Sir Peter Buck and Wiremu H. Rangi.
“It’s a Maori action song,” says Morris. “It’s one of the type of songs my family used to sing together. My father was brought up in the King Country in a little place that had mostly a Maori population and so he thought he was Maori. Consequently we have all taken on that as our culture because ... I don’t know, but I don’t think I’m the only Pakeha in New Zealand who feels like that.
“When I go around the world and I notice people, especially white people in their environments, I feel really lucky because I could feel bereft of any culture because we were basically immigrants and we don’t really have our own culture. When people die, when people ... what do you do?
“That struck me most when my brother was killed in a car accident when he was 17. I was 13 and my memory is we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what the process was and so we
Jenny Morris today and, above right, performing at Le Bercy stadium in Paris, 1989.
Morris with Julian Lennon.