Q&A with Roots-based artist Cary Morin - brings together the great musical traditions of America and beyond

"The music is hard! It requires continual practice and creativity."

Cary Morin: The Great Spirit of Music

Award-winning blues/roots singer-songwriter Cary Morin will release his new album, When I Rise, October 26 from Maple Street Music. Morin’s sixth release, When I Rise, follows close on the heels of an international tour that spanned the U.S. and Europe. The even-dozen tracks on the new album include 10 originals, plus Morin’s take on the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter song, “Dire Wolf,” and a beautiful version of Duane Allman’s classic, “Little Martha.” A Crow tribal member who was born in Billings, Montana, Morin spent the bulk of his youth in Great Falls, where he cut his teeth picking guitar standards at neighborhood get-togethers, before relocating to Northern Colorado. There, his musical career hit the ground running with The Atoll, a band he founded in 1989 that toured nationally, gaining a devoted following. Later, he achieved international acclaim with The Pura Fé Trio, for whom the single “Ole Midlife Crisis,” which Morin wrote and performed with Pura Fé, placed at number 17 on France’s iTunes blues chart. With The Atoll and The Pura Fé Trio, and as a solo artist, Morin has played celebrated venues across the globe, including Paris Jazz Festival, Winter Park Jazz Festival, Folk Alliance International, River People Festival, Shakori Hill Festival, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and most recently Rochefort En Accords festival in France and The Copenhagen Blues Festival.             Cary Morin - Photo by Chad Edwards

Morin’s stage credits also include Tribe at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix, and co-authorship of Turtle Island, a 50-member production that played two consecutive years to sold-out audiences in Northern Colorado. With the Red Willow Dancers, he was a guest of the internationally renowned Kodo Drummers, performing at their 1998 Spring Festival and additional dates in Japan. He has produced or performed on over 18 recordings, and has toured across the US, as well as Japan and Europe. Cary has won numerous awards for his work, particularly for his 2017 release, Cradle to the Grave. He is the recipient of the 2018 Independent Music Awards for Best Blues CD (Cradle to the Grave), a 2018 International Songwriting Competition Honorable Mention for Cradle to the Grave, a 2018 Native Arts and Cultures Fellowship, a 2017 First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership Fellowship, the 2017 Indigenous Music Awards for Best Blues CD (Cradle to the Grave), 2015 Indigenous Music Awards Nominee for Best Folk Album (Tiny Town), 2014 Indigenous Music Awards Nominee for Aboriginal Entertainer of the Year, 2013 & 2014 Colorado Blues Challenge Solo Championship, and a 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fort Collins Music Association (FoCoMA) and won the Colorado Fan Favorite Poll in the blues category for his second solo release, Streamline.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Mark Pucci / Mark Pucci Media 

What do you learn about yourself from the Roots music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

The music is hard! It requires continual practice and creativity. I have to force myself to play at home, but once I start it just keeps going. I’ll play songs that I feel I need to keep up on or songs that I feel need to change. During that process I stumble across things I have never played and then a new song starts to develop. There are other things in my life that have the same process, things I need to work on and try to make better.

Blues music isn’t about a struggle or sorrow to me. I struggle with things in my life, we all do, right? Blues music has always been a part of my life, although I didn’t always realize it. When I was a child learning to play music I started with piano. At that age, I didn’t realize that there were different genres. To me, it was just all music. The things that I chose to play on my own were songs that were all born out of blues music. They were often rock songs that were played by popular bands of the time, that were playing blues tunes. When I started playing guitar, I was drawn to blues music that was disguised as rock. I loved the music of New Orleans but didn’t even know where New Orleans was.

I grew up secluded from the sources of all sorts of great music. Montana in the 70’s was for me, a remote place.  It may not have been for some of my friends who traveled or had relatives in far off places, that wasn’t the case for me. We seldom left the state and when we did we would go to Canada or maybe a near by state. Of course there was no internet and very little TV, just pop radio. Lots of classic country music! The albums that I was introduced to were from friends, many of whom were influenced by the music of older siblings. I essentially grew up in a fish bowl, and my upbringing has always been reflected in my music. What I saw on “Hee Haw” and “Don Kershner’s Rock Concert,” is stuff I still consider to be cool. I listened to classical music and lots of bluegrass yet, I bought every George Benson album I could get my hands on. It wasn’t until I graduated from high school and moved to Colorado that I started to discover music from around the world. I explored bluegrass and jazz, reggae and world beat, rock and funk. Much of the music I was interested was and is, a “child’ of (or born of) the blues. Spiritual music has found it’s way into my life as well. I rejoice in blues music now because it’s a wonderful memory of my life’s journey.

How do you describe Cary Morin sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

My sound is a product of every musician I’ve had the pleasure to work with or listen to. I played in a dance band for years and as we traveled a lot in the Midwest. We would stop in CD shops and buy stuff that we had never heard or CDs that we heard a sound guy spinning on a set break. We would listen to this stuff on the road, and the collection grew and grew. At night when I got on stage, all that stuff that we listened to while we were traveling would start to come out of my guitar. I learned to play by ear as a child and it has just never stopped. I hear things and I can’t unhear them. When I got a job playing guitar for an acoustic blues trio (Pura Fe Trio) I started the same process of listening to music between shows. It was all new to me. Acoustic based blues. I was completely hooked! I was so hooked that I couldn’t stop playing. When we would get to the hotel, I would start playing. When I got home, I would play and play. Eventually, all of that playing stopped being a reflection of what I had been listening to and became me. I love being on stage and exploring. I love being in the moment. I’ll play things on stage that I can’t remember the next day and are gone forever. I love that about music and performance, sometimes you hear something that will never happen again. I strive for those moments.                   (Photo by Don Casper / Cary Morin on stage in Denver 2012)

"Human emotion is the root of the song and in the end, the result of the song. As an audience member, I want to be moved by a performance. I want a song to bring me to tears, or evoke some sort of emotion. I’ve seen performers in tears on stage and it has happened to me."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry and circuits?

Don’t give up. I have learned so much from other artists and just being active playing live shows and recording. I’ve tried to change with the industry and keep learning new things to help get music out and continue to make my live show better. Other things I didn’t do when I was younger is write and record as often as possible. I never used to practice at home, something I do often now. I thought I was playing so much that I didn’t need to, I was wrong. I never thought warming up before shows was important, now if I can play for 1 to 3 hours before a show I do, instead of warming up in front of a crowd.

What were the reasons that you started Grateful Dead and Duane Allman's researches and experiments?

This is something I do on all of my releases. I did a Dead cover on an early solo CD (Tennessee Jed) and it got a ton of attention at my live shows and on the CD. I feel it brings people to shows and introduces people to my music that wouldn’t otherwise have found me. I’ll keep exploring this idea. I also really like Garcia’s music.  I’ve listened to The Dead’s recordings since I was a kid. Little Martha was actually something I picked up from Leo Kottke, originally. I mixed it up a bit with Pierre Bensusan’s version of The Last Pint.

How do you describe "When I Rise" songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

“When I Rise” songs are a combination of my typical method with a few different songs. My usual writing method is pretty simple, I have an idea, write it down, put it to music and then spend some time fine tuning it. I did that on some of the songs on When I Rise, but the songs that shaped the CD came from listening to music, lots of music. I was inspired by the Lomax collection, particularly a compilation titled Negro Prison Songs From The Mississippi State Penitentiary. I believe I first heard this in Italy of all places but I am struck by its simplicity and the depth of the music. Eventually I put together preproduction recordings with these recordings in mind.

This CD was also influenced by a handful of songs that I had written with a band in mind and couldn’t hear them performed any other way. We enlisted the help of our friend Kim Stone (Spyro Gyra, The Rippingtons) to produce the band tracks and recorded those songs at a different studio. Having these few ‘band’ songs on the project changes the CD quite a bit but we had set out to record a CD that is unlike my previous 4 releases. I intentionally tried to create songs that are out of the norm of what I have been doing for the past couple of years. I think we accomplished that.

My method of making a CD is getting more and more involved. I have done preproduction recordings for projects with other artists in the past but have never much for my CDs until this one. I’m used to putting out solo acoustic performance CDs, not spending that much time thinking of how the songs would be executed. I used to go to the studio and record a song 10 or more times and pick what I thought was the best take. Now I try and do all that before I show up to the studio. This is probably something that everyone else does, right? Some of the songs I did enough home versions of one song to make a CD out of that one song. Now when I’m home I find myself recording songs all the time.

"If I could waive my magic wand and get musicians around the world paid for digital downloads and online spins, that would be the thing. Some of my friends have millions of listeners and they make a fraction of a cent per spin. That makes it hard to pay the mortgage."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

My friendship with Pure Fé has taught me volumes of how to sing and tour. It was a pleasure to sit beside her for a couple of years and watch her perform. She encouraged me to write songs and I continue to benefit from her example. She has also been a great friend and I’m thankful for that. Getting to know David Bromberg and his family has been great. It’s always a thrill to meet a childhood hero. This is going to sound corny but I’m afraid it’s true: My wife Celeste has been my best teacher. She immediately became my manager, cleaned me up, helped me become a better performer, helped me make better recordings, AND we tour together. I couldn’t do what I do without her.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If I could waive my magic wand and get musicians around the world paid for digital downloads and online spins, that would be the thing. Some of my friends have millions of listeners and they make a fraction of a cent per spin. That makes it hard to pay the mortgage.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from your tours around the world (Europe, Japan, US)?

It’s always great to see someone at a show that knows me from my records and is seeing me live for the first time. This is happening more often in the US and in Europe and it makes me happy that we can connect through music. What made me laugh? I was playing a show in Sweden once and visited with the crowd after the show. One person smiled at me at told me ‘You are like a child’. I’m sure that comment sounds way better in that persons language but in English, it made me smile for a long time.

Do you consider the Roots music a specific music genres and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

This is something I have struggled with all my life. When I was a kid I didn’t understand that there are so many music genres. At that time, I heard a song, I liked it, it was enjoyable music. I still feel some of this today. As a child I enjoyed some rock songs that if I listen to them now, I know where they came from musically and would consider many of them blues songs, some country songs, some folk songs, and some of them a combination of all of the above. This has made it difficult for me to put out a release and keep it within the genre boundaries that have been placed upon me as a performer. I’m getting better at it but that can be attributed to the time I have spent recording at home. You should hear the stuff I’m recording at home now, it’s all over the map! As far as “roots” music goes, I think it is a moniker for all music that is based in or “rooted” in traditional forms of acoustic music. It’s a fairly broad “category,” for lack of a better word.

"Don’t give up. I have learned so much from other artists and just being active playing live shows and recording. I’ve tried to change with the industry and keep learning new things to help get music out and continue to make my live show better."

How has your Native American Heritage influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

When I was born in the 60s, my father was in the Air Force so we traveled a bit. As a young child I grew up on Air Force bases, and we were surrounded by families from all walks of life. My friends were Alaska Natives, Filipinos, folks from the South, people from all over. During those years I didn’t know about discrimination or hate, people were people. My Native heritage is unique and my family’s roots are in Montana. I grew up listening to stories from my parents and from my grandparents, listening to traditional music and language, but I while I spent childhood time on the Crow Reservation, I never lived there. My father grew up in a rough time, and I think he wanted something different for his family. When I was a teen he bought a house and we moved about 10 miles outside of the small town of Great Falls. I was suddenly a minority. That had a huge impact on my view of the world. In school I had no native friends and spent much spent of my time playing guitar or piano. The guitar became a big part of my life. I would literally fall asleep at night playing guitar. If I wasn’t playing one I was listening to one on a turntable.

My Crow heritage was always there with me, but became even more important when I had a family of my own. I started dancing in Powwows again and teaching my kids as much about their heritage as I could. It became a focus in my life. My early songwriting was focused on my heritage and it continues to influence me but isn’t always obvious in my lyrics. If anything, I’ve learned that heritage is extremely important. People need to have a story and homeland. However, in the context of the larger world, race/ethnicity should not be an inhibitor to one’s self worth or opportunity.  Haile Selassie said it best when he said that ‘the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes’.  My songs are influenced by my life experience including but not exclusively my native heritage.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I traveled for years with 4 piece dance band. We played festivals, colleges, and bars in the Midwest. Often times we would play shows with bands who were with the same agent as we were. It was always fun to see what other bands were doing on stage. I would pick up little things here and there as I learned how to be in front of an audience. Sometimes we would play last and sometimes we would play first, every show was a little different. We were described by one bar owner as “the best band you’ve never heard of.” That was a tough place to be! At times we would open shows in packed clubs and the sound guy wouldn’t pay attention until we started to play, and they realized we could actually play. We did some openers in the dark, as opening acts don’t always get respect! We were scheduled to play a college festival in Illinois sometime in the early 90s. That day it rained like crazy and the show got moved inside. Inside turned out to be the cafeteria, which turned out to be a McDonalds hamburger joint. Fortunately, the funny stuff for us happened off stage. We were four guys driving around the country in a van packed with gear. That much time sitting in a van with the same people for that long tends to change a guy.

As a solo act I’ve been very fortunate to play great venues in the US and Europe. As the number of musicians in my show has dropped to one, I have had to work a little more on stage. I try to dress a little better, move around a bit more, and be more than just a guy playing a guitar in front of a mic stand. I’ve spent years learning how to make a show as good as I can make it. Playing with bands is relaxing compared to a festival show alone! The traveling is what you do to make the whole thing work, and as it turns out, that’s where the songs come from. As I travel now either in the US or abroad, the time spent sitting in a van or a plane focused on writing music is much greater than the time spent on stage. Those hours produce the next CD or at least, much of it. I did play a strip club with the band once, something I doubt I’ll ever have to do again.

"Spiritual music has found it’s way into my life as well. I rejoice in blues music now because it’s a wonderful memory of my life’s journey." (Photo: Cary Morin on stage, The Armony, CO 2014)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What do I miss? Not much! During the 80s bands found it hard to resist the advances in technology. There were suddenly all kinds of cool effects and keyboard sounds that dominated recordings and shows. Tape machines were put in a closet and computers became the studio. Going back to live recording was a big step for me. The first time I made an album that wasn’t multi tracked, was a huge step in the right direction. The records that I loved as a child were albums that were not recorded in a studio, but recorded live. That’s how we do it now, and I wouldn’t do it any other way. What I sit down and record in the studio, is what I do on stage. I think it’s beautiful what new musicians do with the technological tools they have grown up with, though that isn’t currently my style. Maybe a guy standing on stage with a wooden instrument is going to be something you see less of in the future, but if it makes being that guy more unique, I’m all for it! I have a guitar, a DI and sometimes an amp on stage with me now. Life is real when it’s simple.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with the other great musical traditions of America and beyond?

Human emotion is the root of the song and in the end, the result of the song. As an audience member, I want to be moved by a performance. I want a song to bring me to tears, or evoke some sort of emotion. I’ve seen performers in tears on stage and it has happened to me. There were some songs that I just couldn’t do anymore because I would get too emotional. In most cultures there are songs for every occasion. From rock to gospel the element that hooks the listener is the songwriter opening the listener up to their world, or the performer playing that beautiful line that comes from deep within. I started listening to blues early in my life but I didn’t feel it until I went to the southern US. I had the opportunity to share the stage with performers who grew up with blues music. That’s when it all started to make sense to me. I will continue to travel and continue to discover what makes people happy or sad, or what creates that moment that is only there for a fraction of time yet lives forever in memory.

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

As we are starting to see these days, dissent is a crucial part of a healthy democracy. We saw it happen with civil rights in America and we saw it happen in Tiananmen Square. I have always hoped that a listener might hear something in a song (either mine or anybody’s) that will encourage them to investigate. As a musician, I’ve learned things about the human condition from learning songs. Reading the work of songwriters has had a huge effect on me and I’m sure on others. My love for Bob Dylan's work inspired me to explore his songs more carefully. I am inspired by the protests in Standing Rock and it amazes me what we are capable of as individuals. If one song could start a revolution it would have to be a song from the likes of Woody Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix, and Muddy Waters.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and has this helped you become a better artist? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Stage fright was a big one for me. I didn’t feel it as much with bands but I sure did as a solo artist. My wife helped me with it. She encouraged me to face it and not let it control me. On her advice, I started to stand on stage instead of sitting. Standing changed everything for me, now I feel I have it beat. I don’t know where it came from but as a performer from the age of 13 or so, I have struggled with stage fright off and on my entire life.
As strange as it sounds, I didn’t used to practice at home at all. I would sit and learn songs but I never really sat and played. I did a little on the road with an acoustic guitar in the hotel room, but not near enough. When I started to think of acoustic guitar as my next thing, I started playing at home a lot. I should have been doing this for the last 20 years but I played on stage quite a bit and thought that was fine. A manager once told me the people that don’t make it in this business are the people who give up. I try to practice more and keep going!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

If I could go anywhere I’d like to go back and be with my ancestors, in a time before there were roads, and power lines, and fences. I like to try and imagine what It must have looked like. When we tour, I can’t help but look at the countryside and wonder what it must have looked like all those years ago.

Cary Morin - Official website

Photo by Dominique Rimbault 2014

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