By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
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.
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.
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.
"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."