Gurf Morlix’s new album Gurf Morlix Finds the Present Tense imagines days wasted and regained and the balance between. CMT Edge spoke to the Austin-based songwriter and in-demand producer as he prepped for several unofficial appearances at the South by Southwest music conference.
“I’m playing a bunch of shows at South by Southwest,” Morlix says. “I’ve got a show at the G&S Lounge at the No South by Southwest bash, and I’m playing Jenni Finlay’s show on Wednesday [March 13] at Threadgill’s, and I’ll be at Strange Brew later that Wednesday. I’m adding shows all the time.”
CMT Edge: Are the songs on Gurf Morlix Finds the Present Tense all new?
Morlix: I’ve been writing these songs for a long time. Some of them I’ve been working on for five years. I talk to all the great songwriters I’ve produced records for, and that’s one thing I’ve learned about songwriting: It’s OK to spend that long on a song if that’s what it takes to make it as good as it can be. It’s been four years since my last record of new material.
Explain the album title.
Well, the title is Gurf Morlix Finds the Present Tense, and I do. I think there might be too many people in the world. It’s just insane wherever you go. Traffic is crazy. We’re running out of water, as you may know, in Texas. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in 50 or 100 years.
Tell the story behind writing “My Life’s Been Taken.”
I read a book about a person being in prison in Louisiana called In the Place of Justice. I started thinking about what it’d be like to be in jail and then about why some of these people are in jail. Sometimes it comes down to having to make split-second decision … and you better be right. And if you’re not right, the consequences can be huge. That’s kind of what happens to the guy in the song. He’s desperate, and he doesn’t make the right choice.
Where do you do your best writing?
I have a little cabin up in Canada where I spend the summers. I write almost all of my songs up there or at least get the basis for them. I might hone them when I get back here [to Austin]. As I said, I work on them for years sometimes.
Do you write lyrics or music first?
I have to have a title or line or something that makes me want to pursue it. I don’t write poetry and find music for it, and I don’t usually write music and find lyrics for it. It all comes at the same time, and there has to be some kind of spark for me.
Producing yourself and being objective must be tricky.
It’s a little bit tricky to be objective, but I can do it. Usually what it takes is just a few extra seconds to shift gears and put the other hat on and go from my playing hat to my listening hat. I’ve learned how to do it. I’d rather be producing somebody else’s record, but I can’t afford to hire someone else to do mine, so that’s how I do it.
Are you most proud of producing any album in particular?
You know, it’s usually the last one I did. I think they just keep getting better. I mean, I’ve worked with an amazing amount of songwriters [Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, Lucinda Williams], most of which I consider to be some of the best in the world. The list is kind of huge. The last one I produced was a record by a guy named Grant Peeples from Florida. I’m working on a record now for Noel McKay and Brennen Leigh. They’re a couple from Austin, and they’re really great writers and singers and players. We’re almost done with that, and as soon as that’s out, it’s gonna be my favorite record.
Brennen and Noel are great. What’s it like to work with them?
They’re so good at everything they do. They’re doing a record of duets, sort of like George Jones and Melba Montgomery, except modern day. It’s great songs and great singing and great playing. They’re great people. Every day, I wake up and go, “Man, I can’t wait to get in there and do my job.”
Tell the story behind “Empty Cup.”
I wrote that one with my friend Grant Peeples, who I mentioned. He’s outside Tallahassee, near Sopchoppy, Fla. He’s a really interesting character and a unique thinker and spirit. He had a part of a song, and he threw it over to me. I put that together from the bare bones he gave me. It’s on an album of his called Okra and Ecclesiastes. From the time I worked up my version of it, I knew it’d be the last song on the record. It felt right there. I had Eliza Gilkyson come in and sing harmony.
How different is your version than Grant’s?
Grant got the first version on the record I produced, so he got the good one. (laughs) I really like that version, but I couldn’t just do that on my record. That wouldn’t be right, so I kind of folkified it a little bit. I didn’t put drums on it and had to made it my own. I fingerpicked it and made it more intimate.
How does living in Austin impact you as a songwriter?
It impacts me completely. I think there’s something about the Texas songwriter thing. Some of it comes from the heat, some of it comes from the Mexican food and a lot of it comes from the community in Austin and the fact that it’s not a major music business market. I think that gets in the way of some Nashville stuff. Great records are made in Nashville, but I think the accent is a little less on the business here, and that’s a good thing.