Boston Globe, May 11, 2012
NEW YORK — There are lots of birds in the lyrics of Morley, the singer-songwriter who’s found an original place for herself at the intersection of the jazz, folk, funk, and world-music scenes here, and who flits between these worlds with the grace and ease of the winged creatures that her songs often describe.
The brand-new “Undivided” — her fourth album, and the first she’s made entirely independently, financing and producing it herself, with a lavish roster of top-flight New York musicians participating — has birds passing overhead early and often.
On the first track, “On My Way,” a love song both contemplative and swelling with energy, “silver birds fly into the sun/ while one man grabs a paintbrush, the other grabs a gun.” “To Begin Again,” a meditation on death and renewal, addresses a “little bird on high/ you are wise.”
Much of Morley’s lyrical imagery is naturalistic; her themes are confessional and concerned for humanity; her energy is personal, earnest. Over breakfast at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village, she reminds one of the folk singers of the 1960s who once thrived on Bleecker Street and in Washington Square Park, just blocks away.
Morley, who plays Johnny D’s on Friday night, makes no apology for wanting to heal the soul and change the world.
“When something great happens, there’s some kind of vibration effect, a ripple of joy,” she says. “When something painful happens, it affects us. I think we’re responsible for ourselves, each other, the earth. . . . I feel very clear about that interconnection.”
But Morley’s head isn’t just in the clouds; her path has been equally marked by urban grit. Blond with limpid blue eyes, she grew up in multi-ethnic Jamaica, Queens; in her voice is a bit of the local accent, and a native New Yorker’s husky nonchalance.
She attended the Alvin Ailey dance company school in Manhattan, while teaching yoga and meditation to ex-convicts, and dance at a community center in Spanish Harlem.
And she bloomed as a singer — after training in choreography and dabbling in poetry — while living with a musician boyfriend and the characters who came through their place on the Bowery. The apartment had once been home to Deborah Harry, and before that, Iggy Pop.
“I got my education in music then, big time,” she says. Once, her boyfriend and pals including Chris Dowd, from the band Fishbone, exposed her to a fundamental opus of funk and black rock, by Funkadelic. “I lay down on the carpet and listened to ‘Maggot Brain’ and my whole world changed!”
Encouraged by her friends, Morley found she had both true vocal talent and an extraordinary milieu of supporters. Her debut, “Sun Machine,” featured among others Jeff Buckley, Joan Wasser (of Joan as Police Woman), N’dea Davenport (from the Brand New Heavies) and venerable percussionist Babatunde Olatunji.
Two more albums followed, in 2004 and 2009. Along the way, Morley choreographed a project for the great jazz drummer Max Roach, through whom she met Olatunji, Ossie Davis, and Cassandra Wilson; and worked extensively with Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. At one point, she played before Nelson Mandela; at another, the Dalai Lama.
In some ways, it’s been a charmed life. But despite critical comparisons to the likes of Annie Lennox or Joan Armatrading, Morley’s been mostly a mainstay on the New York scene. A pair of record label deals petered out. And there followed a death in her family: She keeps the specifics private, but shares that it affected her deeply.
The loss, in fact, animates “Undivided” and particularly its title song.
“I was writing the song to help heal myself through this grief,” she says. “These songs are medicine songs for myself. I wasn’t writing them for an album.”
Even so, the album that resulted — with personnel including Wasser, bassist William Parker, drummer Hamid Drake, cellist Dave Eggar, singer-guitarist Raúl Midón, elder statesmen David Amram and Gil Goldstein, and more — is the most polished and stirring she’s made.
Its influences, audible and otherwise, include the Gnawa musicians of Morocco; the youth from conflict zones like Palestine and Northern Ireland with whom Morley holds workshops through the program Face to Face/Faith to Faith; and even the spirit of Harriet Tubman, invoked on a gorgeous tune titled “Kingdom of Forgiveness.”
Some day, Morley says, she’ll make a goofy album.
“That’s the next level, goofiness,” she says. “And I’m such a goofball! It’s easy to be all heavy and deep.”
But she’s not yet at that point in the journey.
“I just think everybody has medicine in their life, to help them to be, at this moment,” she says. “We are all walking with medicine, and what works for us, we find a way to share it with somebody else as well. And that’s what happened with these songs. It’s a necessary expression.”