Name: T. Hardy Morris
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: T. Hardy Morris's The Digital Age of Rome is out now on Normaltown.
Recommendations: Art : Butch Anthony // Museum of Wonder; Book : “Whereas” // Layli Long Soldier
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When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
One of the first songs I remember hearing was "Paradise" by John Prine. It was one of the few songs my dad knew on the guitar. Like a lot of families, John Prine’s songs were a constant in our house. It's great music for kids and grown-ups. My mom is a musician (fiddle) and was always singing and encouraging my brother and I to sing and use our voices. I was always pretty shy and uncomfortable about it outside of our home though. I remember chicken-ing out at a talent show in first grade. I was supposed to sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” but I bailed.
I started playing guitar around 13 and learned “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young and some Prine songs, of course. Then, like most kids of the 90’s, I heard Nirvana and got really into punk rock and bar chords and loud rock and roll. My neighbour and I made amps out of car speakers and bought $5 pawn shop guitars and pieces of drum sets and set it all up in an old construction trailer in his backyard. We would just wail on our stuff and make the loudest noises possible. We had no idea what we were doing. We had a boom box and collected tapes and listened to lots of metal ... Metallica, Pantera, Sepultura.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
When I was 15, my parents took me to a bluegrass festival that John Prine was playing and I begrudgingly went with my greasy hair and Chuck Taylors, fully prepared to be un-impressed by this lame, acoustic, roots-driven affair. Then Prine played and his set was fantastic, naturally, and he closed with “Lake Marie”... when he hit the line of … ”I saw it on the news, the t.v. news… in a black and white video. Do you know what blood looks like in a black and white video? Shadows! SHADOWS!”
I realized then that being “heavy” wasn’t just about volume and faux-attitude. It was about feeling and word-play; imagery and connecting and meaning it.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
It’s constantly changing. Honestly, having kids and becoming a dad is a completely different identity than I had when I was young and in touring bands. Back then, I wrote with others and the fast-paced, night-driven life fuelled the music I was making. Now it’s more writing in the quiet evening after my kids are asleep. And that feels right at this point.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Like a lot of creative-type / songwriters, I have always been a bit of a sponge. If I listen to a band or artist a lot or hang around certain folks I can start to emulate certain tricks or nuances ... a lot of musicians do. The trick now is to use those things but use them your own way and plug them into your wheel-house so it's not as recognizable. It becomes more of a nod.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I have never been much of a studio hound. I still just write on acoustic or electric guitar and record ideas on my phone. Before smartphones, I had a little hand held tape recorder, so essentially the same thing.
Once a song becomes something I want to complete & keep, it will just live in my head until I record it. I inevitably make some arrangement changes in the studio, but until then, it’s pretty much scrap recordings and / or in my head. When I was coming of age in music, studio time was expensive and buying actual studio gear was far too expensive and out of reach for me.
I know nowadays with software it can be done for nothing, but I kind of just keep writing the way I write and haven’t gotten into GarageBand or anything. I probably should but I would rather just play the guitar and make up melodies (laughs).
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
The main collaborative force in my solo career has been with the producer Adam Landry. He had a small studio in Nashville where I recorded my first solo stuff and we just hit it off. He is very musical and studio savvy, but in the old-school, analog realm, which is the only studio scenario that really intrigues me.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect and appreciation for digital software and the capabilities are incredible. I guess I am just more interested in recording to tape, the processes, the ways old analog gear can be pushed & exploited to create exciting sounds that aren’t quite there with digital. It’s getting close though.
Adam and I are always sending one another song ideas and voice memos from our phones. It keeps the interest going between albums and, as a solo songwriter who isn’t really “in a band," it’s very valuable to have someone you trust and who is brutally honest to bounce ideas off of at any time.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have kids so I wake up a lot earlier than I used to. But it's ok, I think I am kind of a morning person by nature actually.
It’s a long background story, but I actually practice residential architecture as my day-job. I have been designing custom homes, renovations and historic preservation for over 15 years. A former band-mate of mine went to architecture school and we both worked with the same architect after college in Atlanta, Ga. We still maintain the same three-man firm and keep a steady work-flow. He still makes music and is also a painter and fisherman and I still make records and tour. Like most artists, we have lots of interests ...
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I would have to say when my former band, Dead Confederate, opened for R.E.M at South by Southwest in 2008. We were young and so of course we played about ten more times that week around Austin and people just kept coming to our sets. We were about to release our first album and there was just a lot of buzz in the air. The album did pretty well and we were able to tour a lot on the back of that invitation to share the big stage with such a classic band.
They and their management have always been great to me and my bands. The perks of being Athens-based I guess. The ways that R.E.M. has given back to this little town is incredible. They put it on the map and are always encouraging & promoting ways for it to stay there.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think giving yourself time and taking in other art is a good way to inspire yourself. Don’t rush it, just explore other arts ... poetry, paintings, film, albums and let them come to you naturally. Look for the art wherever you are. A small town or a big city, the art is there and you just have to pay attention. I used to write a lot and probably too much, but now I take time off and enjoy more of other people’s art rather than forcing my own.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I can honestly say that rock and roll kept me out of a lot of trouble as a young kid. Having a guitar to crank up and drums to beat on kept me and my friends away from doing other dumb stuff ... I am sure of it. My friends who didn’t have a creative outlet fell into other things and had a tough time. My interest in music and art in general was huge in my youth.
There is a group called Camp Amped here in Athens that puts kids together in rock band formats as an after school program. Some of the best young indie bands in town have formed out of that camp over the years. It’s been really cool to see.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
In a way, I dealt with this a bit with my old band Dead Confederate. Some people didn’t understand the intent of the band name. We wanted to be the anti-southern rock, southern rock band. We were making Sonic Youth level noise and most of our songs were anti-Bush, anti-war songs. We were trying to bring southern rock into the indie-world by way of essentially destroying it sonically. We probably could have handled the name better and sometimes promoters tried to attach lazy, redneck imagery to the name, but we always called it out and made it known that wasn’t our vibe at all.
You do have to be very deliberate and careful. I wonder what people would say about Neil Young and Crazy Horse these days? He has used lots (and made lots of money off) of Native American imagery over the years, but he’s also set up camp and protested alongside native tribes, so, I don’t know.
I recently saw an art exhibit by an Alabama artist, Butch Anthony and I would call his work maybe, modern folk art. It’s great and very impressive visually, but I could also tell that he set a lot of intention in not appropriating other cultures into his work. No borrowing from traditionally African American folk art in the paintings and even though he uses lots of feathers and bones in his work, it isn’t styled in a Native American way. You’d have to see it, but it is well worth checking out and I thought it was extremely tasteful in that regard and just awesome work overall.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Speaking of loud bands ... I have terrible tinnitus from my years of loud clubs and touring. There is also a family history of tinnitus and hearing loss, so it’s a double-whammy.
I am pretty much just resigned and used to it now, but it does influence how I write these days. I am not as compelled to plug up my amp on the weekends like I used to and I listen to quieter music now.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My songs definitely wind up being a vehicle for expressing thoughts and views on certain topics. Especially on my new album The Digital Age of Rome. I’d say it’s the most pointed music I have made since our early Dead Confederate days.
A lot of my first solo work was very nostalgia-based and songs about coming of age. I was in a band and these were my back pocket songs that were just more personal and one’s I thought no one may ever hear.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think of songs as sonic poems; and poems are just the use of language in a way to say things that can’t be expressed in words, right? It's like a little basket of words that holds the feeling you can’t express otherwise. Songs can do the same thing.