The Path Less Traveled

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

Still, there was something decidedly strange about the kid from Arkansas. Maybe it was the wryness in his lyrics or the incongruous mix of cheap Casio keyboards and pedal steel guitar. Maybe it was Morphew's voice itself: yearning and theatrical, evoking the deep tones of the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt flirting with the high-lonesome croon of Hank Williams and Beck's hipster soul-shout. For whatever reason, Capitol passed on signing Morphew. Two longtime fans in A&R at Sony Records, though, saw potential in his newly polished sound.

After a long year of negotiations, Sony offered Morphew a "development deal." In exchange for half of his publishing royalties on his next four albums, the label would advance him enough money to live on for years to come. Under the terms of the deal, Sony wouldn't actually release any Jason Morphew CDs, but it would use its corporate muscle to help him get signed to another major label, and work to place his songs in films and commercials.

For someone who had spent most of his musical life recording disconsolate ballads on a four-track, it was the chance of a lifetime. The Sony contract also allowed him to start using the company's studios for free.

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"That's the most surreal part of the affiliation," Morphew says. "It's actually going there and walking by the woman who wrote "Man in the Mirror.' Or bumping into Eddie Vedder in the hall and saying, "Excuse me.'"

Morphew began writing as many as 25 tunes a month, recording them himself or with a band at the Sony space. Some of the material, like the Pagen-/Buchée-backed tune and the peppy rap-rock song "Bull in the China Shop of Love," were undoubtedly marketable. Most, though, were closer to the stuff off Transparent -- too personal or peculiar to command much attention from bland Top 40 artists.

A year passed, and the Morphew archives in Sony's New York office were overflowing with more than 200 songs. But the company still hadn't found anyone interested in signing him or covering his work. At Morphew's urging, Sony had sent CD-R's of his demos to the Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson, Faith Hill, and George Jones, all to no response.

Morphew was feeling socially frustrated as well. Going to parties and doing drugs with famous people, which had seemed so enjoyable when he first arrived, now seemed silly. Likewise, the Los Angeles hipster circles Morphew ran in seemed increasingly ridiculous. The 1970s had re-descended on the city, and every twentysomething musician worth his chops was growing out his hair and investing in a leather jacket with fringe.

"I call them the L.A. Historical Preservation Society kids," Morphew says, laughing. "People come out [to the area] fresh out of college wearing Patagonia polar fleeces, and in two months' time they look like Janis Joplin. I think it may be creative bankruptcy ultimately. And sort of cowardice."

Feeling like an outsider in a wax museum and at a loss how to escape the stagnation in his career, Morphew began looking north to the Bay Area.

"Moving to San Francisco was kind of a symbolic thing for me," he says. "I was getting away from this insane atmosphere. I was just going to have my acoustic guitar again and get back to basics and get back to having fun."

Morphew moved to the Sunset District this past January. The first order of business, he decided, was to sift through the hundreds of songs he'd written, pick a few he liked, and release them as a record.

The resulting album, Not for the Faint of Heart!, came out last month on Ba Da Bing! Taken together, the 20 acoustic songs paint a portrait of Morphew's California adventure. From the self-conscious parties ("Why Isn't Anybody Dancing?") to the preening and costumes ("Hippies of California"), Not for the Faint of Heart! highlights the sadness and banality that haunt L.A.'s walk of fame.

Morphew didn't put any of the would-be blockbusters on his new album. Those songs continue to accumulate in the Sony archives, waiting in limbo for a higher bidder to appear. In the meantime, Morphew's happy to live on Sony's money and produce the strange nuggets that lie close to his heart.

"I don't know where this is going to end up or how it's going to work out," he says. "But I just feel that it's right that that didn't work out for me, and that I backed off and that I'm doing weirder, more sparse things. I don't know ... all I can do is keep writing."

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