The Path Less Traveled

Singer/songwriter Jason Morphew's road to San Francisco -- and success -- takes some odd turns

If the gospel backup singers on Jason Morphew's "The Living End" sound familiar, they should. Anna Pagen and Nancy Buchée sang on the Jeffersons theme song; they also toured with Lena Horne and Engelbert Humperdinck. But they don't sing much anymore, which is why Morphew felt so lucky to get them.

"They were really nice," the 28-year-old singer/songwriter remembers. "They would say, "Oh, this is gonna be the hit! I like this one! Everyone's gonna be singing this one!'"

How Morphew -- an indie troubadour with a handful of hard-to-find releases to his name -- came to hire pop culture celebrities to back his tunes is just one chapter in a very weird success story. Morphew's tale is one of talent and luck, lies and betrayal, and the frustrations that often lurk behind happy endings. It opens in New Haven, Conn., with a 20-year-old Arkansas transplant standing in the expensive shadow of the Ivory Tower.


With the Clogs and Holcombe Waller

Tuesday, July 24, at 9 p.m.

Tickets are $8


Sweetwater, 153 Throckmorton (at Miller), Mill Valley

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Before arriving at Yale University in the early '90s, Morphew had never been away from Arkansas for more than a month. Still, he was confident in his calling: He had come to Yale to be a poet. In fact, he'd left a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work closely with one of the country's great wordsmiths, Bill Clinton's inaugural poet, Miller Williams. He'd hoped to start over -- to leave behind the bands and bad grades that had filled his teenage years and begin something more serious, more noble.

"My head was as far up my ass as I could get it," says Morphew of his arrival at Yale. "I just felt that music that came from originally uneducated sources like blues or rock 'n' roll or country was to be taken less seriously than higher endeavors like poetry. I was a sucker for that [line of thinking] until I came face to face with the people who make a living making the distinction between high art and low art. And I realized what a load of shit it is."

When Morphew returned for his second semester, he brought back an acoustic guitar. "I channeled all that energy that I used to put into writing poems and sending them to Miller Williams into writing songs," he explains.

Morphew graduated in 1995 with an English degree, but continued to devote his energies to music, putting out his first CD, Transparent, in 1997. Released on the tiny New Jersey label Ba Da Bing!, the record was a mix of forlorn country ballads, maudlin pop, and synth-heavy numbers recorded on the cheap in studios and living rooms across the country. Lucky for Morphew, Transparent eventually ended up in the hands of a Capitol Records A&R rep.

Morphew was living in Brooklyn when he first started getting phone messages from the Capitol scout. "I'd gotten fan mail from this guy before," says Morphew, "and when he started calling me up, he was acting just like a fan. So I was really reluctant to call him back, because I thought he was a freak."

The rep persevered, though, and finally caught Morphew at home. He offered Morphew a demo deal -- industry parlance for a limited partnership where a musician records some songs on the label's tab. The musician gets a few thousand dollars, the label gets the recordings, and if the company flacks like what they hear, the musician gets a full-fledged contract.

"I kind of said, "Yeah,' but it didn't feel like he was legit until a little bit later. I should have trusted my instincts all along," Morphew says ruefully.

The songwriter signed a contract and bought a ticket to L.A. By the time he arrived in California, though, things had already started to unravel. For starters, the A&R guy wasn't employed at Capitol anymore.

"On my way out to L.A. to make the demo, he was fired," Morphew says. "But he didn't tell me."

The demo sessions continued as scheduled, but as soon as Morphew and his benefactor arrived at the studio -- a converted Burbank garage owned by the bass player from the metal band Ratt -- the two began arguing.

"He was a guy who just had no talent, no skills producing," says Morphew. "Basically, he brought nothing to the table as far as ideas. And he was a big negative drag standing in the way when I would have an idea. ... I just ended up having to send him home."

Battling with his producer for control wasn't exactly what Morphew had envisioned, but his excitement at getting to explore the possibilities of a real studio made up for the shouting matches.

"I was this folky guy with an acoustic guitar in his bedroom finally getting a chance to do all this weird shit he hears in his head," says Morphew of his time in the studio.

"All this weird shit" ended up being some of the catchiest, most developed work of his short career. Morphew completely reworked his sparse acoustic material to take advantage of all the studio's bells, whistles, and on-call musicians. Songs like "Badass With a Heart of Gold," which had dragged on Transparent, emerged as sterling country-pop classics, primed and ready for someone like Shania Twain to ride them up the charts. Morphew had gone into the studio an amateur and emerged an auteur.

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