THE NORTH COUNTRY PRIMER NO 10: JAN MÖRGENSON, METZ, FRANCE
Originally published at North Country Primitive in March 2016
So far we’ve mainly featured guitarists from the USA, with a smattering of British players for variety. This has long been something we needed to remedy, so this time round, in the run up to the release of his forthcoming album on Specific Records, Jass, Raag & Blooz, we have an interview with French guitarist Jan Mörgenson.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the musical journey that took you to a place where you concluded that playing an acoustic guitar on your own was a good idea… I’m from Metz, France (pronounced mess), 35 and my beard is kinda ginger. I started playing the guitar at 23, and from the beginning I was attracted by the acoustic. It has a more natural - as opposed to synthetic- flavor to me. I was listening to a lot of folk music by this time. I got this great compilation from Arthur Magazine, curated by Devendra Banhart and featuring Josephine Foster, Ben Chasny, Matt Valentine, Meg Baird and so on. And there was this Jack Rose piece, White Mule. I didn’t notice how much it hit me at first, but I’d come back to it more and more. Then I heard of Fahey, Basho, Kottke and others. And then I was into it! I think this music just suits me. I don’t know if it’s relevant or if I have any credit or legitimacy - there are so many great pickers out there - but this is what I have to do. It makes me feel good. I guess I like the simplicity of the formula. You know: one man, one guitar. And yet the possibilities are quite infinite. And it forces you to use dynamics and subtlety - to put some shades in your playing. I think that’s why this music is relevant: it offers a rich and wide palette of emotions and it leaves some space for the listener, compared to what is mostly offered in mainstream music and the supposed laziness of the audience. Well, that sounds pretentious but I like to explore feelings and thoughts. We have brains and guts, let’s use them. What have you been up to recently? I’m going to release my first full LP with Specific Recordings. That’s been quite a long process. I recorded the tracks last July and now it’ll finally come out. Seems to be like pregnancy, physiological issues asides. I’m also playing in a band, Thee Verduns. Garage Folk/Country/Blues. I play the lapsteel and we also have a new record coming out. They were a duo for ten years or so and now we’ve been a four-piece for a year and a half. I love them. What have been your key influences, musical or otherwise? Are there other current guitarists you feel a particular affinity towards? I started quite late with playing music. No one in my family was into it. Just a grandfather who died before my birth. He played mandolin and fiddle, and sang in German big folk bands and choirs. My tastes must come from there I suppose. I was a Nirvana fan when I was 15. Then as I said, Americana stuff, from Woody Guthrie to Johnny Cash. Bluegrass is also great. Country, folk, blues. Also Latin and Eastern folk music. Jack Rose was the best. The new record is somehow dedicated to his memory. He had the touch and drive, the sound and composition genius. He made me listen to New Orleans music from the 20s and 30s. More recently I had the opportunity to share some gigs with Seabuckthorn. Very talented and a lovely person. Another French guitarist based in Brussels that you should check out is L'Oeilliere. Amazing weird stuff. What is the balance of composition and improvisation in your music? I don’t improvise that much - I’m not really good at it. I’m afraid to sound bad. But the more I play with other people, the more I learn to let go. For instance, one of the songs on my new record, which is the longest piece, ten minutes or so, is partially improvised. I needed a piece to complete the LP and had nothing when I came to record. So I worked on something for a day or two and did several takes. I had parts, chords, clusters and patterns, but the structure was improvised. My music is pretty much written. But sometimes when playing live, I do change some of the structure of the songs, intentionally or not.What are you listening to right now, old or new? Any recommendations you’d like to share with us? I do pretty much enjoy drone music. It has an ecstatic and ritual quality. Music should always be a ritual. Check out Father Murphy. They’re from Italy. Oh, and I’m a big fan of Ennio Morricone. Have you seen the latest Tarantino movie? The soundtrack is huge! I also like to discover new things on the radio. Mainstream or independent stuff. Otherwise I listen to a lot of live music, bands on tour playing in town. Last week for instance, there was a show almost every night! We also have a very active scene in Metz. Here are some friends and local bands I recommend to you: Gouffre, Avale, Doc Geo, Le Seul Element, Raw Death, Le Singe Blanc, Scorpion Violente. The guitar nerd bit: what instruments do you play and what do you like about them? Is there one particular instrument you’d save first in the face of a natural disaster (once you’d saved your nearest and dearest, of course!) I own 7 guitars… There are cheap ones I use for spare or to plug in my amp. But solo I mostly play unplugged guitars: a Lakewood dreadnought, with lots of basses and a Goldtone Weissenborn copy, with nice mediums and a hint of natural crunch and saturation. I also have an old Gibson B-25 from the late 60s. I don’t play it often anymore, but I used it on the LP. Amazing dynamics and harmonics. That’s what you’d expect from a 50 years old instrument, I guess. That’s the one I would probably save: I have a kind of affection for it. With the band I play another Goldtone, an Oahu Tonemaster copy. Electric. A friend lent me a worn original one from the 50s to record. The copy doesn’t have as much personality, but it’s brand new and I’m still discovering it. Banjos: yes or no? Favorite plucked-thing that isn’t a guitar? I owned a cheap banjo. I recorded once with it. I collected folk instruments for a time. Dulcimer, ukes, charango, whatever stringed. I even refurbished a cheap balalaika I found on eBay. Never really played those. Nicolas, the lead singer in Thee Verduns does play the banjo very well, I like it. It’s not really plucked, but I do love the cello. Can’t play it, but the spectrum and voicing sound just perfect to my ears. What are you working on at the moment and what’s store for you next? Well, I’m working on the LP release. I’m gonna share the stage with Daniel Bachman in Metz on May 4th and then have a little tour of France. It also seems we have quite a lot of gigs to come with the band - that should be nice. After that, I don’t really know. Maybe some new collaboration. I also have a bunch of unfinished guitar pieces to work on.
You can check out all of Jan's releases over at Bandcamp.