In Conversation: Morcheeba’s Ross Godfrey – Life Lessons in Music

We work really hard, we try and make it better.  We lose ourselves,  we give up, we go mad and then you find the gold at the end of the rainbow. Just when you think everything’s lost, and you’ve lost your own mind, that’s when you know you’ve then come to the end of the road.

Ross Godfrey of Morcheeba.

I DON’T think I’ve ever met a more honest, generous and inspiring artist.

It’s one thing to admire an artist as an audience member, and another as a musician myself to have the opportunity to ask the questions you would ask any musician you’ve grown up listening to directly, years later. Speaking to Ross Godfrey ahead of Morcheeba’s latest album, Blackest Blue, was a real eye-opener: our conversation literally will, in my humble opinion, allow for a deeply insightful esoteric look into the studio, the process of making an album during the pandemic, allowing for the reader to quite comfortably travel into the mind of Godfrey’s creative world with longtime collaborator Skye Edwards. As if that weren’t enough, young musicians will find this conversation intriguing as Godfrey tell its like it is vis-a-vis ‘making’ it in this ever-changing industry.

Lara (Backseat Mafia): Ross! How are you? It’s so lovely to meet you! 

Ross: Hello!

Lara: First off, I absolutely loved your album. and I need to tell you that I myself saw you perform live when I lived in Athens, my hometown.

Ross: Ah, what, at the top of the hill? 

Lara : Lycabetus, yes!

Ross: Oh I absolutely love that venue! I’d love to go back there. We have great memories after having played there three times. It’s really magical. I love Greece and I’m a huge fan! I’m sad not to go there this year. We might go to Crete if were lucky this year! When I was little we used to go to the island of Simi. 

Lara: Wow, I’m impressed – not many people know Simi! One of my favourite islands, not so well known.

Ross: I’ve been going since I was a young boy and have been for over 20 years. My mother introduced us to the island, and we have a lot of friends there. I’m waiting till my own children are big enough to go there. It’s not so a child-friendly –  they’re 6 and 4 – maybe after one more year we can take them with us. Not an easy place to get to, so therefore Crete is first!

Lara: I really hope you make it – I’d love to send you a list of child-friendly islands. 

Ross: (laughs) Yes please! 

Lara: Of course. So, to start off, instead of asking the expected question, how did lockdown affect you – I’m more curious about another perspective. I’d read that you started writing the album in March 2020 when lockdown became official. How did this affect your writing process? As a follow up question: Skye has said whilst making this album that “Back in the day we didn’t think about the A&R guy, the single, the ‘we need to hear the chorus in 30 seconds’. You’d have seven, eight-minute songs. So we went for it.” I love that ! Would this mean that as a duo you could truly compose to your heart’s content?

Ross: Yes. So, we had started already with some riffs and things we had, one of them being the track “Oh Oh Yeah”, which was very long. It was so slow and the rhythm was so good. It was like having a baby and cutting its arms and legs off, so we were like, ‘No, let’s keep it really long and enjoy the jam, with the big guitar solo as an intro’. It goes against all these rules that you cant have a long intro, you need to come in straight with the chorus, etc, because everyone has ADHD now. They need immediate gratification. We said ‘No, let’s ignore that. Let’s make the record we want to make. I wanted to make it psychedelic, a journey; an exotic trip to the bottom of your heart. Skye and I both had strange times recently with our family and personal lives, and the pandemic made us realise how cluttered our lives were before. We were always on the road or hanging around airports, rushing to get on a tour bus, visiting as many as five countries a week. We’d never settle long enough to really feel how we felt in our hearts. As bad as it was, the pandemic was a great time for us to get back in touch with ourselves and spend time with our families. We could have chosen to stay home and drink wine at home all day long, but we both decided to be healthy. running, doing all sorts of exercise. We’ve been really healthy except for the odd bit of marijuana. It felt like a time in which we wanted to refresh ourselves, as we were always really exhausted and running on adrenaline. It put us back in touch with feelings we hadn’t had for a long time. We started writing the album, giving us a lot of time to express ourselves properly and get everything right. We’ve got so many great songs on the album: for instance, “Killed Our Love” is inspired by Skye’s relationship with her daughter, which has been difficult over the last few years. I really enjoyed writing it. And we had a few songs that came together quite early, giving us a centre of gravity for the record and everything started to orbit around those songs: “Oh Oh Yeah” and “Killed Our Love”. We started writing other songs from our recent experiences and it just became a really deep record, much stronger than anything I think we’ve made in a long time.

Lara: Wow, that’s really revealing in a good way. I’m really grateful for you answering so candidly. It’s true – lockdown could have gone in another direction. For most musicians such as yourself that were used to performing non-stop; it seems to me that a rebalancing occurred. Skye and yourself went from being a band on tour, never visiting the same country twice in over two years, running on adrenaline, to what I feel was a ‘realignment’ as a band. Like a cleansing, almost; it brought out pure music, although psychedelic in sound. It sounds to me like the most honest work you’ve delivered thus far.  

Ross: That’s right. Also, what it did was it reintroduced the balance between the live and recorded music, pretty much because of the collapse of the record industry when the internet took over. Most bands were just on the road, they would release a record quickly and then just tour to make money. It became very unbalanced. The pandemic has made streaming numbers go up – it’s made it viable to record our music and sell it as artists (streaming numbers went up,, although royalties don’t pay well enough, it gave us a rebalancing of our career. So we concentrated more on making records. It made us get in touch with our fans in a different way than playing concerts. Again, it made us hit the reset button again.  

Lara: Absolutely. About that actually, you sound so positive about the way the industry has shifted. Referring to what you mentioned to how the way the internet has famously taken over. For instance, most artists don’t receive just royalties, whereas you’re clocked in on the fact that it introduces you to a wider audience, which you need as performing musicians. How do you think though that has affected your experience connecting with the audience as a live performance – whats your intuition when you get back out there, from the studio to the road? 

Ross : Yeah. It’s definitely going to be weird the first few times. We’re going to be initially playing just the UK for a start, so sort of familiar territory. But, I feel like once we do reconnect with the audience we’re going to have such a good time, its going to be like a real party! Everybody deserves a good time – we can have a real knees up, as they say in England.  

Lara: (laughs) They say the same in Canada (laughs) – and yes to the party! I do hope you eventually make it to Europe. Shifting gears a bit regarding your music: when you get back out there, there’s been quite a bit of a rise of people looking to artists as yourselves, legends in their own right. Regarding the younger generation, who largely look up to you, having clocked on musically to the internet streaming services such as TikTok – what advice would you give them? With so much talent out there would you advise them to connect through the internet and live performances or stick to the old regime? 

Ross: Some things haven’t changed. You still have to make good songs work hard – make a good record – none of it is luck. It might look easy, but it’s a hard business to be in. The internet gives you tools to find your audience. You can get round the world immediately. There is still no investment in promotion unless you have a record company or and someone backing you. Most musicians starting out don’t have that, or they don’t have rich parents or something like that paying for you. It’s a bit of an uphill struggle, it feels like there’s a few rungs on the ladder missing. So, you can release music, you can do things, but you can’t get to a big audience or go on tour unless certain things have already happened. It’s a bit of a Catch-22; it’s really hard to get through that middle section. We were really lucky because we started before the internet took over and we had old-fashioned record companies promoting us. My advice is that you just have to look for other ways to find an audience. It’s always reinventing itself. You constantly have to be riding that wave on the front, and you can’t wait for things to happen for you.  

Lara: That’s such sound advice. And its true. As you said yourself, your music evolves and changes. I love all the songs on the record, each song for different reasons. They speak to me in a familiar way, closer than any record you’ve put out. From that alone your process has changed for the better, which is grand. A quote you said which I’m dying to ask you about, speaking about the writing process: “Albums are only finished when I’ve gone completely insane”. Care to elaborate if that’s true? 

Ross: So, I was talking about my favourite writer, Cormac McCarthy (who wrote No Country For Old Men). He was asked, being very old in age with not much time left, if he were to write, would it be a long, epic book or short stories. He said: “I’d prefer to do an epic thing, because if something doesn’t really drive you to complete madness or suicide then it’s not really worth doing“. When we make records it’s pretty much like that. We work really hard, we try and make it better. We lose ourselves, we give up, we go mad and then you find the gold at the end of the rainbow. Just when you think everything’s lost, and you’ve lost your own mind, that’s when you know you’ve then come to the end of the road.  

Lara: Is that what the track “Edge Of The World” means to you? 

Ross Maybe, yeah. It’s a strange record, that. I had the music going, when I got in touch with Duke Garwood (known for his work with Mark Lanegan, amongst others) who is one of my favourite artists and sings with Skye on that track. He makes really cool psychedelic blues records out in the Mojave desert. He lived in England, as it turns out, not too far from me, so I reached out and he accepted to be part of the record. He plays this clay pipe from Morocco-called a rhaita. The master musicians of duduk play it. It’s got a really weird, nasally psychedelic sound. I told him that he just had to play that on the record. He’s got a solo with the rhaita, which is great! Everybody who listened to it has no idea what it is; they think it’s a synthesiser or something and I said, ‘No, it’s a real instrument!’. I always wanted to have that on the record. We were lucky with him. And also we were lucky with Brad Barr (of The Slip and The Barr Brothers), one of my favourite singer-songwriters. I saw them live and got in touch with him and he also agreed to come on the record. He picked this beautiful slow piano ballad, “Say It’s Over”. He sang on it with Skye, I added a little slide guitar and that was finished. So that was a great song to be involved with. We were lucky to get the collaborators we did.  

Lara: That’s so great! I actually very happily recognized the instrumen , we have a similar instrument in Lebanon. I don’t think you guys went out of your comfort zone, which is a good thing. All that music and psychedelic soundscape that you’re projecting in the album kind of of was always there; it just needed the right setting to come out, hence the pandemic, as you say yourself. In terms of extending your audience and reconnecting in a familiar way, one which has become a trend is in delivering online performance workshops. I find this intriguing, and I wonder if you would ever consider offering this kind of workshop online, sharing your process with the world, so to speak? 

Ross: So truthfully, this never crossed my mind. What I have done is always invited young musicians, sound engineers, etc, to the studio to see how we do things. I’ve always tried my best to include folks in our process, to shift from the somewhat esoteric and mysterious process that is making records.

Lara: That’s lovely. Ross, what would be the first country you would visit outside of the UK? 

Ross: Well, we are meant to be performing in Spain, and Barcelona is one of my favourite cities in the world, so hopefully there! Or Greece, as soon as we can! We like going to places we’ve never been to before. This tour will probably last two to three years. For instance, we played Central America, which was mind-blowing; Mexico. One place we’ve never been to is Japan, which I’ve always wanted to go to.  

Lara: Well, just to add to that if you ever get a chance, I think you would absolutely love Lebanon (my home country).  

Ross: Oh, definitely! Grace Jones played there and we have the same manager; we’ve always talked about it and I hear it’s stunning .

Lara: Yes, you’d love the hospitality! 

Ross: Well, I love the food so we’re halfway there! 

Lara: (laughs) Ross, it was such an incredible delight speaking to you. I hope to see you perform soon!

Ross: See you out on the road, hopefully! 

Like I said, music is meant to be heard and performed live. Ross Godfrey has very insightfully reminded us of this, and I for one look forward to revisiting the magic you can experience only in person between performer and audience. It will be a massive party, indeed!

Morcheeba’s Blackest Blue is out on May 14th via Fly Agaric Records, in partnership with Kartel Music Group.

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