There’s a song on The Waterboys’ 1990 album Room to Roam that appears particularly apt in describing the career journey of inventive guitarist and singer-songwriter Elliott Morris.
In Islandman, Mike Scott cites England as his ‘spine, the backbone and the trunk’, Wales ‘two hands held apart’ and Scotland ‘my dreaming head’, and that seems to sum up the geographic and spiritual scope of Wiltshire-born, Welsh-raised, half-Scot Elliott’s own sense of belonging.
Elliott left Lincolnshire for South East London two years ago, but this talented 26-year-old doesn’t seem to hang around his Hither Green pad for long. Recently there was a Lochs, Lakes, Highlands and Islands tour north of the border, while he’s not long back from the Cambridge Folk Festival, and among other engagements still to come there’s the Looe Music Festival in Cornwall later this month.
What’s more, Elliott already has three Lake District dates booked this coming winter in Ambleside and a fair few others up and down the country in the pipeline, while I first caught him supporting Paul Carrack at Preston Guild Hall in late 2014 (with a review of that show here), on one of two tours with the former Ace, Mike + the Mechanics and Squeeze journeyman turned solo success.
Yes, I guess you could say Elliott gets around a bit. So how was his recent performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival?
“Amazing, really good, and this year totally for the craic – a bit of a family get-together, catching up with friends and seeing lots of incredible music. My friend Sam Kelly – who I met at an English Folk Dance and Song Society songwriting retreat in Aldeburgh, but played with two years earlier – was among those playing, and he’s making serious waves at the moment. I also know a lot of the guys from the Treacherous Orchestra, a few of them also involved with Duncan Chisholm, and that was phenomenal”.
Despite Caledonian links with the latter acts, I’m guessing his Cambridge appearance was somewhat removed from Elliott’s recent Scottish tour.
“The weather wasn’t too good, but it was an incredible experience. As we went up and across it was beautiful, and the time we had on Mull was the wettest I’ve ever seen it. And my Mum’s from Mull, so I’ve been over a few times. It’s pot luck – you can be up there and not see a drop of rain or you can be there and not see a mountain the entire time because of the rain. It’s the kind of place you can have three sorts of weather in a day.”
Despite being born in Swindon – and if that’s good enough for XTC, it’s good enough for me – and spending several years based in rural Lincolnshire, Elliott doesn’t fully identify himself as English, not least after a formative spell in Carmarthenshire. But he says he feels at home in Scotland.
“I’ve an aunt, uncle and Gran in Edinburgh. I go up a lot to play and have lots of friends on the Glasgow scene. It’s nice to be off-the-grid further afield too, with no distractions. My friend Christopher Bingham (aka ‘Bing’, the comedian, film and music producer) was on tour with me and the first thing he likes to do in the morning is check the internet to see what’s happening. That’s how he connects with his audience – totally different to my approach, which involves travelling and meeting people in the flesh! He found it quite difficult for the first few days, thinking he’d been forgotten, but got used to it. And perhaps it gave him a bit of clarity.”
Bing first saw Elliott perform when the former was studying at Lincoln University, the pair soon deciding to join forces. In fact, it was mentioned on a recent ‘vlog’ how it was about time his friend made a full-length album. And now it appears that’s happening, via a Pledge Music campaign.
“Before now I’ve only ever really done EPs – snap-shots rather than a heavy body of work – as it’s quite hard to get the time and money to do an album, hence this Pledge link.”
That seems to be the way forward these days – for long-established artists as much as emerging talents. Has it proved an exciting experience for Elliott?
“So far it’s been phenomenal. And the more people use that method the more it becomes an accepted route for an artist to make an album. It also shows how things are changing. Artists have their own social media imprints and connections, as opposed to labels paying for press pushes. Effectively, you’re drumming up interest in advance, so it works like a PR campaign when otherwise you’d probably be unable to afford that.
“If I was to release an album any other way it would only really be heard by the kind of diehard fans who have their finger on the pulse. But doing this for four months ahead of the album being made means people are already talking about it, getting information about it.”
Elliott’s fan-base has quickly grown, and understandably. Not only is he a great percussive guitar player with a fine voice, but there’s humour between songs when you see him live, including plenty of anecdotes about life on the road.
I’m guilty of missing several support acts over the years, but I’m glad the bar prices were steep enough at the Guild Hall the night past writewyattuk interviewee Paul Carrack visited to ensure I was in my seat early. Elliott was already holding court by then, coming over as a consummate performer and down to earth with it. No more than a handful of those present knew his work, but many were soon sold on his charm and playing.
“Well, thanks, man! Thing is, as a support act I’m under no illusions. I’m there for one job only – to keep the audience’s attention and make sure everything runs to schedule. I have barely half an hour to get people on board.”
It helps that Elliott has a rather distinctive way of playing guitar – involving tapping, slapping, strumming and fretting. In fact, he describes his work as ‘slappy tappy guitary singy songy folky poppy rock’, and I’m not sure it’s worth trying to improve on that description.
“That began as a joke, but kind of stuck. I wouldn’t call the way I play a defining feature of what I do, but it’s certainly up there. I always ensure there’s a song there too!”
Other notable guitar innovators have taken similar paths, bringing major success, and Newton Faulkner – a writewyattuk interviewee six months ago – springs to mind in that category, Elliott dubbing him, ‘a great guy … really cool’.
While he’s not seen Newton’s success yet, this young troubadour has been getting regular opportunities to perfect his approach and get his name out there, his own gigs bolstered by supports with not just Paul Carrack but also Big Country, Eddi Reader, Frank Turner, Seth Lakeman, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick.
Praise for his work has come from far and wide too, BBC 6 Music presenter Tom Robinson dubbing him, ‘Extraordinary … ludicrously youthful and absurdly talented,’ while fellow revered live act turned broadcaster (and another past writewyattuk interviewee) Mike Harding said, ‘I suspect we’re going to be hearing quite a bit more of that lad in the weeks and months to come,’ and the rather distinctive BBC arts editor Will Gompertz raved, ‘Fantastic … really high quality stuff’.
Then there’s the matter of past live links with a certain Ed Sheeran.
“Yes. Ed and I used to gig-swap all the time. He’d head up to Lincoln one month, I’d go down to London the next. We shared the bill on loads of shows, the last after his first album came out, a Nando’s Festival in London. Only I was designated driver that day and am a veggie, so when I found out we got as much free beer and chicken as we wanted I was a little under-catered for! It was a fun gig though.”
But while Elliott’s won a lot of new fans along the way, on and off stage, punters have been known to apologise for listening in the first place.
“People come up after shows, and I know they mean it in the nicest of ways but it always comes across terribly and makes me laugh. They tell me, ‘I wouldn’t normally like what you do, but …’ and I think they mean both watching a support act and the type of music I play.
“I like to talk to an audience and give them reasons to come and chat after, telling them about myself. Fans of people like Paul Carrack know a fair bit about what he’s done for the past 30 years, whereas I’ve just walked on with a guitar. They’ve no idea who I am. But if I can make an impact and give them something to think about in the break …”
Elliott moved to South East London in late 2014, around the time I first saw him live.
“That was a wild, wild time. I started with Paul in early November at the London Palladium and moved to the capital a few days later, so it was the wrong way round. I was staying with my girlfriend’s dad in Camberley, Surrey, then had this defining moment. I was 25 but hadn’t lived at home for a long time – I was sofa-surfing, travel-lodging, all that.
“I had this show in Ipswich, starting the journey in Lincolnshire at my folks’ house, packing the car with all my belongings, driving down to the gig then on to London, my whole life in this vehicle!
“I thought it would phase me, moving to London, having lived in the countryside before, but I’m a mile and a bit from Blackheath and a 40-minute walk from Greenwich Park, so have all this greenery around. It doesn’t feel like I’m encased in concrete, the road I live on is quiet enough to be able to record demos there.”
And after the work with Paul Carrack, there’s a further Squeeze link there, with you not so far from the band’s heartland.
“Sure, and in this part of London there are lots of musicians and lots of studios, with the industry based here too.”
Elliott’s certainly played some amazing places in recent years, and I’m not talking so much about world-renowned venues as much as the off-the-beaten-track clubs and pubs, such as the Orkney Brewery.
He goes on to tell a great but very long story about why he has an affinity with that particular brewery, involving the shipment – via various hands – of a barrel of Dark Island Reserve ale from there to a friend’s shindig in Warwick, taking a somewhat circuitous route (not least including Carlisle, Newcastle and his folks’ pad in Lincolnshire).
Elliott adds, “Furthermore, the island is amazing – the history, the landscape. The same goes for the venue. They only recently started promoting it as such. But it was a sell-out, and that means the most when you travel so far from home and there are people to see you.”
Staying with the Scottish link, there was a Danny Kyle Award in 2013 from Glasgow’s Celtic Connections winter music festival. And of course it turns out that there’s a story there too.
“I signed up to play a slot and did this gig on a Tuesday while staying in Edinburgh with family for a few days. Then on the Friday we were in a bowling alley arcade when my phone rang and it was one of the organisers, who asked if I’d go back and play in the final.
“On the night it was nail-biting, up against another four acts, including fiddlers who’d been playing longer than they’d been walking. Then at the end we got on stage and they gave us all a special frame and a bottle of bubbly – so it turns out that everyone wins! I’ve since met someone else who won it another year, also not realising about the format, and my brother won it with his band a couple of years ago.”
Yes, it turns out that Elliott’s brother Bevan is also on the circuit, having just returned from a spell touring in America, but with most of his work with Newcastle-upon-Tyne alt-folk sextet Pons Aelius.
“I’m a very lucky boy having a double bass player in the family, and Bevan’s helped out behind the scenes with me. He’s the kind of guy who can put his hand to anything, not just double bass but drums and guitar, producing, and recording. He’s helped with previous EPs and will play on my album.”
As well as Elliott ‘on the stringed side’ and ‘a few friends on fiddles’, contributors on the LP also include esteemed singer-songwriter (and past writewyattuk interviewee) Lisbee Stainton, John Martyn’s fretless bass player Alan Thomson, and Paul Carrack’s son Jack on drums.
“Jack and I met on the tours with his Dad, after which we got talking and realised he was based nearby in East London. We had a couple of practises and gigs and it went really well.
“I first met Lisbee at the Hop Farm Festival, having seen each other’s names on festival bills. We talked of venues we’d played, heard each other’s set and agreed to get together. Our schedules take us off in different directions, so it was only recently that we put our heads together and started writing songs. I have one of her co-writes on my album and she’ll have one of mine for a future project. Also, she’s just moved to around a mile from me.
“So I moved here not knowing any musicians nearby but now find everyone’s gravitating towards me – which is wonderful!”
Incidentally, seeing as I mentioned Alan Thomson playing with John Martyn, Elliott has been known to tell a lovely story on stage involving the latter, revered folk artist, involving a gig in Wales. I won’t go into it here, but ask him next time he’s playing – you won’t be disappointed.
Anyway, as of this week Elliott was almost half-way towards his album pledge target, with seven weeks to spare of four months’ crowd-funding, and lots more dates to help further spread the word. And once he reaches his target, 10% of any extra money raised will go to men’s mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).
“I’ve a couple of friends that have families that have benefited through CALM. A great charity, very important.”
His Pledge Music campaign includes not only album downloads, signed CDs, vinyl and Bing’s DVD of the latest Scottish tour, but a number of other EM-related items. And the more off-the-wall extras include an hour’s Skype guitar tuition with Elliott, offers of personal home concerts – one taker already coming forward in Lincolnshire, Elliott insisting it’s no-one he knows – and a supply of Harris tweed guitar straps.
“On my Scottish tour, I had a joke on stage about how they’re probably overrun with Harris tweed guitar straps, but believe it or not a couple of people in Orkney were really interested. Someone’s since emailed, asking if he can have one in a similar tartan to mine.
“There is a Morris (Welsh) tartan, so when my cousin got married on Jura, my Dad, brother and I had our own tartan ties, along with all the Northumberland and Scottish kilts there. That’s a bit garish and yellow though, despite a pretty cool red dragon on it, so with my Elliott dark blue and green tartan I’m bending the rules a little!”
Finally, we got on to the subject of the Looe Music Festival, which runs from September 23rd to 25th, headlined by recent writewyattuk interviewee Wilko Johnson, Bryan Ferry and Fun Lovin’ Criminals, with Elliott playing on the Sunday (25th).
That took us on to him admitting – despite all his UK travels in recent years – he hadn’t realised until playing in Cornwall last year just how far the country went in that direction, not least after a rash decision when playing Truro to go and see Land’s End ‘while he was there’, having to then power back before another show over the Devon border in Plymouth. And that in turn took us on to another tale, this one involving revered Devonian folk artist Seth Lakeman, also on the bill at Looe.
“I played with him once and have met him a few times, including one Wednesday night at the Folk Awards, where we ended up in the slowest-moving lift – me, a couple of my friends, him, and Nancy Kerr. It was all a bit awkward and I found myself asking him if he’d had a good weekend.
“I suppose it was because he’s someone I find synonymous with weekend festivals. Clearly he hadn’t played that weekend though, so I ended up explaining how I’d assumed he had and he was just looking a bit bemused. However, he ended up telling me about all the chores he’d done around the house that previous weekend, in this bizarre drawn-out conversation.”
For details of Elliott Morris and his next dates, try his Facebook page. There’s also a Twitter link and his own website. And to find out and get involved with his Pledge Music album campaign, head here.
- With thanks to Vanessa Glynn (Vanessa Haines Photography) for use of her splendid photographs of Elliott. Her website is definitely worth checking out, and she can also be found via Instagram.