Interview: Greta Morgan of Springtime Carnivore (@Songbyrd Music House, 10/20/16)

Greta Morgan by Julia Brokaw
Greta Morgan (Photo by Julia Brokaw)

Greta Morgan released her second album as Springtime Carnivore on Friday, Oct. 7 – and that same day she set upon a US tour with La Sera, hitting more than 20 cities.

The material for the new album, Midnight Room, sprang from a break-up but the songs didn’t take the shape of melancholy heartbreak. Instead, songs like “Face in the Moon” are full of jaunty reflections and wry observations on life and love that feel far more empowering than depressing.

Watch the official music video for “Face in the Moon” by Springtime Carnivore on YouTube:

Springtime Carnivore performs in DC at Songbyrd Music House on Thursday, Oct. 20. Parklife DC caught up with Greta to discuss her songwriting process, distilling a song to its essence, and her long history as a performer (at the tender age of 28, she already has more than 11 years of touring under her belt!).

Mickey McCarter: Thanks for making the time to talk to me today. You’ve got the new album [that just came out Friday], and you must be excited about that.

Greta Morgan: Yeah I am excited! It’s always kind of surreal. When you release something, you sort of just you give it away. It’s like the final step or completion…

MM: I wanted to ask you about it. I was I was listening to it a little bit, and reading about the background of how you came to write it. And I thought it was interesting that you were inspired to write it because of a difficult point in your life, a break up, but it doesn’t really strike me as a break-up album if you know what I mean.

GM: Yeah. I think that a lot of time when I channel emotions that are more or more painful, I don’t necessarily want the final result to sound painful or to feel painful. So you can take something that’s painful and translate it into something that’s really beautiful or really uplifting and just find the finer moments in it.

MM: I also read that in part of your lyrical process that you did this thing with index cards and you wrote down stuff and you were inspired by those phrases. It just it struck me a little bit—one of the reasons I bring it up is because I’m a great admirer of the late David Bowie. And he had his cut-up process.

GM: Oh yeah!

MM: You may be familiar with it then. It struck me! Was there any sort of similarity in that writing process for you? Did you think about it as well?

GM: It’s funny! I never thought about that in a long time but I went through a period maybe five years where I was reading about all of my favorite artists and their process. And I did read about that, and I remember thinking that that’s probably how he came up with—

[singing Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream”]
I’m an alligator/
I’m a mama papa coming for you.

—because there’s no ways someone would write “I’m an alligator/I’m a mama papa coming for you,” if there wasn’t some playful game behind it. It’s not an intuitive phrase.

I can we can call that the alligator method or something. The David Bowie method. But I am a huge fan of his.

MM: That’s great. Your impromptu cover of “Moonage Daydream” makes me think of the covers album that you just did with Katy Goodman, and I love that. That was actually the first time I had a recording of yours and heard you sing. And I discovered Springtime Carnivore because of that. And I when I got that I couldn’t stop listening to it. I listened to those 10 songs solid for a week

It’s fascinating. I recall you guys did some press where you said your approach to the songs captured the essence while taking them in a new direction, and I wonder if you had some thoughts on that as well.

Listen to Take It, It’s Yours by Greta Morgan and Katy Goodman on Soundcloud:

GM: Yeah I guess making that record with a really interesting exercise for me as a songwriter because we really boiled the songs down to their skeleton. On many of those, we did pretty drastic re-imagining of the arrangements and the chord progressions. In some of them, we changed melodies. For example, “I Want to Be Your Dog” [by The Stooges]. That’s basically a monotone melody.

[sings] “Now I wanna be your dog!” It’s one note. And we changed the melody so it became “Nooow I want to be your dooooog.” We turned it into a Beatlesque kind of melody and rebuilt the chord progression around it. So making that record was a really interesting exercise for me to see what the skeleton of a song is. What is the most absolute important part of the DNA that needs to be there in order to give it its identity. And I think that different people would have different opinions on that for every song.

But for me it is whatever the most whatever the most emotionally rich or visually evocative lyric was or whatever centerpiece lyric of a song was and then whatever is the most important melody or the most important hook was. We kept those parts and rebuilt everything around it. So it made me more aware in my own writing since how to tap into those really really concentrated moments in what you would call the DNA of a song.

And so it has made me more aware in my own writing of when a song has that and when it doesn’t. I can look at one of my own songs and say, OK I have a lyric or I have a visual here that is as good as that visual from “Sex Beat” [by The Gun Club] where it’s talking about the blue floodlights in the tropical bedroom, which I can see so clearly. Or I have a lyric that’s as poignant or as simple as “Ever fallen in love with someone who shouldn’t have fallen in love with.” In a way, it almost makes aware of what makes a song iconic.

I don’t know if I’m making sense but definitely doing that covers record just made me aware of how to see where the gem is when you’re in a diamond mine. That kind of idea. What is the absolute most important part? What is the lifeblood of a song?

MM: No, it makes perfect sense, and I’m wondering even though you’re a very young performer still, you started when you were much younger. I’m wondering about the evolution of your own songwriting process, although we talked about that a little bit right now.

GM: Of course, I started very young and there’s so much embarrassing stuff captured on the Internet! I’m glad you give me a chance to explain it.

But yeah I started my first band when I was 15 with my good friends in Chicago, and we played in my mom’s basement, and we would get hopped up on root beer and mozzarella sticks and whatever other teenage snacks my mom would donate to our cause. And we just started making music for fun for ourselves. And we started playing it at Knights of Columbus Halls and VFW Halls.

And eventually we were offered a few shows playing at the Metro in Chicago, which to me was basically my teenage dream completed. I had seen all of my favorite bands at the Metro growing up. So when we were invited to play there, I was just like, all right, well, I could die happy now. That’s really all I need. That’s what I need out of my music career was playing a show at the Metro.

But it turned out that that was just the beginning and because of that show and because of that album, which we had recorded in our friend’s basement, we became signed to Fueled by Ramen, which then became part of Atlantic Records so all of a sudden we are on a major label. And we’re opening arena tours when I’m 17 years old. I’m taking time off from Catholic school to go play and open for 10,000 people at the Tacoma Dome near Seattle. It was like wild, wild Hannah Montana stuff.

And then after that, we were a band for three records, which took about four or five years. And at that point, we were successfully headlining clubs and touring in a bus, and we were so young! And just exhausted. Exhausted is an understatement. We were psychically and emotionally pulverized.

We were exhausted from being on the road. We played 10 or 11 months straight. We were fighting about all of the kinds of things that young bands fight about.

We were so competitive about who was writing which song. It was typical “That Thing You Do” young band drama. And so we went on hiatus in 2008. And we called it an indefinite hiatus because we all anticipated that we probably would play again someday but we just needed a break.

During that during that time, I moved back to Chicago, which is where I’m from. I had lived in L.A. for a year. So I moved back, and I started a band called Gold Motel.

The guitar player in our band recorded our record, and the beauty of that was that he basically taught me how to record and engineer. He taught me the basic skills that I needed to be able to demo my own music, and that was just the greatest gift someone could have given to me. At that point, I started writing and recording stuff to be in films. I started writing and recording new demos all the time. I just felt so empowered that I had this new skillset to be able to capture my own music.

And so right that was right after Gold Motel, which we did for two records. And that [Gold Motel] was sort of a flop. If you were looking at my career in terms of conventional success it was definitely a commercial flop. But it was a huge learning experience, and so much fun.

And then from there when I had the new skills and I knew how to record, I started demo’ing and recording what then became the first Springtime Carnivore Record. I had originally thought that those were just demos, and I would go into a quote real studio, and it would become a quote real project one day.

But I wound up getting signed on those demos! I put them out online anonymously with no association with any of the other projects that I had done. And I was signed to Autumn Tone, which the Aquarium Drunkard blog’s label. I’ve been with them for both of these records, and I just I just love them. I love working with them. They teamed up with Anti and Epitaph, so we have the support of a bigger label, which is great.

So I made the first Springtime Carnivore record, and then I put out Take It, It’s Yours with Katy, and now the second Springtime Carnivore record, and that’s where we are.

Stream or buy Midnight Room by Springtime Carnivore on Bandcamp:

MM: It’s fascinating! You have grown up basically as a musician, as a touring music act. It’s got to give you some unusual perspective, I would think, on life.

GM: You know, it’s really interesting. It’s been a really interesting type of education because I have just seen so much of the world and so much of our country and met and talked to so many people.

I feel really lucky for the experiences that I’ve had. I also feel at home everywhere. OK, here we are in Atlanta! This is my other backyard—I know where to go. There’s this sense of being able to navigate the country like it’s simply little neighborhoods.

And they’re also a funny sense of feeling chapters of time divided differently. I almost picture the seasons of my life as being, oh there was a season where the Hush Sound toured on that record, and oh there was a season where I was in Chicago doing Gold Motel. And now there’s Springtime Carnivore season, where I toured for a year on that record. And so it’s interesting to look back at the chapters in time, particularly living in L.A., which I describe as really living in dreamtime because it’s always sunny.

It’s interesting to look back at these different chapters of life that are you know based on careers and tours and such.

MM: That is interesting! Say, I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times, but Springtime Carnivore—where does the name come from?

GM: I was doing a free write at my mom’s house in Illinois. Our house backs up to a forest preserve, so there’s always deer and foxes walking through the yard. And as I was doing this free association writing, a coyote walked by, and I just wrote down “When the springtime carnivores come out of the woods.”

Usually when I do these free association writings, I’ll look at them the next day and underline whatever phrases I think are interesting. And for some reason that struck me as a title—that has to the title of something.

I also love that William Carlos Williams poem, The Widow’s Lament in Springtime.

There’s something about the words almost being an oxymoron where springtime is newness, rebirth, sweetness, and gentleness and fragile things growing into stronger things. And then carnivore is a word that is destructive, muddy, and primal. So I thought that there was an interesting dynamic in the words.

Greta is touring on the new Springtime Carnivore album, and she opens for her friends La Sera in DC on Thursday, Oct. 20 at Songbyrd Music House. Tickets are available online!

La Sera
w/ Springtime Carnivore, Lilac Daze
Songbyrd Music House
Thursday, Oct. 20
Doors @7:30pm
$12-$14
All ages

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