Co-Vocalist of 80s pop sensation The Communards Sarah Jane Morris talks about her show ‘The Sisterhood’ to play at Cadogan Hall
Classic hit ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ is an instantly recognisable pop/synth track transporting all back to the 80s, an energetic, iconic number that instantly gets you moving from The Communards, spent weeks at the no. 1 spot on the UK charts – a testament to the song’s popularity which is still enjoyed to this day. With co-vocals by soul/jazz vocalist Sarah Jane Morris, the band’s unique sound would go on to define the pop sound of the day. Renowned for her tenor/baritone range, Sarah Jane has paved a varied path throughout her career since, fronting bands The Republic and The Happy End and passing on her musical knowledge to future generations. Her latest project The Sisterhood a live choral performance narrating the lives of 10 iconic females musician including Nina Simone and Kate Bush. Set to play at Cadogan Hall on 6th October, Sarah Jane tells us more about her inspirations for creating the show, working with renowned guitarist Tony Remy to produce the show and how her extensive career has shaped her as an artist.
Hi Sarah Jane, your show The Sisterhood – a collection of original songs written by yourself – narrating the lives of 10 iconic female vocalists including Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Kate Bush will play at Cadogan Hall on 6th October. How are you feeling ahead of the show? What inspired the show’s creation?
I am very excited because by the time we perform The Sisterhoodfor the first time on 6thOctober at Cadogan Hall it will be nearly three years since I conceived the idea in that second lockdown. I had only recently moved into a new house, which was a converted shop, in St Leonards on Sea. We don’t have a television, my husband and I, we read to each other. In our second lockdown we thought what can we do now? We started cold water swimming in the sea and met a very interesting group of people. We were swimming in eight degrees of water, it’s pretty crazy. I said to Mark that I’d noticed that it’s so often men mentioned in the musical history books and not women, and I’d really like to find out about the life stories of singer-songwriters that have been the backdrop to my career. I already loved their music. I wanted to find out what their life journeys had been. I ordered biographies and autobiographies on Amazon because you couldn’t go to shops. I made a big list of about 50 singers and then eventually reduced the list to 10, because I realised that if it was to be an album, you couldn’t really do more than 10. My choice was Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell Rickie Lee Jones, Annie Lennox, and Kate Bush. They are not everyone’s choice, but that they were mine
We read to each other the autobiographies and biographies and started making notes, and then we started writing their life stories together from what we had found out about them. I fell in love with their journeys, they were all remarkable, and at the end of lockdown when we were allowed to be three metres apart, my guitarist Tony Remy, who for many years played guitar with Annie Lennox, came down to stay. He had learned how to use logic recording during the first lockdown and brought his MIDI keyboard. I’d bought a decent microphone during the first covid lockdown. My brother’s a filmmaker, and he set up behind a chair, three metres apart. I started reading the lyrics I’d written to Tony. At the same time, we realised that what we should do, was to write each song in the genre of the artist that we’d written about. To give an example the Joni Mitchell song was about her life, but it sounded like it could have been written by Joni Mitchell. It immediately became a project that stretched us, to a degree that we’d never been stretched before.
We knew all of the musical references because we’d both been in so many bands over the years. We understood about South African township music and Latin music and folk music and rock music and pop music and funk and soul. It suddenly turned into a really interesting project. We wrote the songs very quickly.
Brexit had already affected my career which is mostly in Europe .Add to that the Covid pandemic where once again you couldn’t earn any money and you are in a tight spot!. I had to think outside the box about how I could make this album. What I did do, because I live dangerously, is I booked a studio in a nearby town for four days, a month later. I thought to myself that will make you find the money. I had to think about what it was I could give where people would pay me what I needed. I remembered that people were always asking me to teach them to sing. But I’ve never felt right about doing it because I’ve never learned to sing myself– I just sing.. I fell into music by accident. I’ve never had a music lesson in my life, How was I going to pass on what I knew? I went around to all of my neighbours asking if anyone had a spare room, and would they be prepared to loan it for a night for £50, if I provided jam, butter, croissants and coffee, I then knew how many rooms I was dealing with in Hastings, and St Leonards. I found a venue which belonged to a friend of mine. I asked my husband if he would cook all the food, and I then put up an ad on Facebook. I I was very reluctant to do this, imagining I would all fall down flat. But I put, “Would anybody like to come and sing with me, for a weekend, where I teach three part backing vocal harmonies to three of my songs, that they would then come a month later to sing at Ronnie Scott‘s with me and my band?”. It sold out in an hour!
Because we were coming out of lockdown, people hadn’t been together for such a long time. It turned out to be the most uplifting experience! Some of these people had never sung before, some had. Everybody went away feeling uplifted, because we were able to combine voices and experience, and they were going to come and sing on stage. Not many people can know that at some point in their life, they would get up on the Ronnie Scott’s stage and sing. It provided the money for that first four days in the studio that I booked. Somebody ad given me a sewing machine during lockdown, I made cushion covers and tablecloths and things like that and anything that I didn’t have the competence to make – a friend of mine, Wendy May (who is a fantastic DJ, who used to run the ‘Locomotion’ at the Town and Country Club), would do anything I couldn’t do. I sold all of those things on Facebook Marketplace and eBay and this paid for some of the musicians.
I did bartering with Guy Chambers ,who is a co-writer with Robbie Williams and an amazing musician.. I did sessions in return for studio time. I did song writing weekends in my home when people came to stay with us. My husband did fine art weekends where people came to stay. Mark did drawings of every one of the singers which we framed and sold. All of this last year has been about raising the money to complete the project. I set up a ‘Go Fund Me’ where people could pre order the CD, and it raised the money to allow Tony, Rod and I to go to South Africa to record and film the Soweto Gospel Choir, on the Miriam Makeba track. I finished the album back at home where the whole project started, because I ran out of money. I’m now working all the Summer to pay for the press campaign and the radio plugger and I’m launching it at the Cadogan Hall on the 6th October. But it’s a wonderful feeling because every part of this project has been made with goodwill and good karma. It’s the passing of the torch from one generation to another. It starts off with Bessie and it finishes with me. Kate Bush passes it to me, in my head and I pass it on. It’s women empowering women with the help of wonderful men.
I’m seeing this as a big affair. It’s a multimedia, show. I’ve got actresses and singers that I am filming that are part of the show. I want people that come to see the show, to go away feeling not only uplifted, but that they know so much more about these singers lives, and how important they’ve been in our musical and political history. And so it is actually happening. It’s a big venue, 950 seater. I’ve been and checked it out, because one of my brothers (I’ve got six brothers) is in the ‘Gay Man’s Chorus’, and they performed there during ‘Pride’. It’s the most fantastic venue. Even up in the gallery is great, you don’t miss anything. I’ve got a 10-piece band and everything is to a very high standard. I am presuming my audience to be emotionally intelligent and I just know that they will love the journey we will take them on, because it’s built from respect.
Your music career spans over four decades, with you fronting some of the UK’s well known bands in the 80s – The Republic, Happy End and The Communards. Renowned for your distinctive tenor/baritone range, how have these experiences shaped you as an artist?
To start with, those things I’ve written about have shaped my journey – their journey has allowed me to be the singer-songwriter that I am. During the 80s and 90s, which is when my career was developing, it was a very male dominated profession. And you know, it’s been tough for us all to find our voice and that’s another reason why I want to applaud these women because it was male territory. For anybody to think outside the box and dare stand up for themselves, that was a very dangerous thing to do and I was one of those people that did that too and I think probably got myself a reputation of being a difficult artist, which I wasn’t, I was just saying, “No, I don’t believe in that!”or “No, I won’t do that. I won’t walk over anybody.” I became interested in a very different musical journey. I didn’t want huge fame. I realised it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted. I wanted to write and sing until I couldn’t anymore, and I wanted to write the human story. I’m very interested in Human Rights, I’m interested in what makes the world tick. I’m interested in people’s stories, and I tried to find a way of writing those stories. Putting a little bit of my own story in sometimes. I’ve become the writer of the human story. All of those experiences have helped me get to where I am now, as a strong 64 year old singer, doing the best music I can make.
What have you learned/taken away from creating The Sisterhood?
I’ve learned that it’s wonderful to share. I’ve definitely done this during The Sisterhood, and that is to enjoy every single moment of it. Every single moment of the journey, be present, and be thankful. You know, I don’t have a lot of money. I do everything on a wing and a prayer. But I don’t expect anything. I just love what it is that I do. And as long as I can get away with it, I will. I try to be inclusive. I try to bring other people in. The idea in my head was the passing of the torch. I like to feel that I share that which I know with the younger generation. if somebody bothers to ask me, I will share what I know. I come from the world of sharing and I believe that more people should be doing that. We’re taught not to in the record industry. You’re taught to be in competition with each other, but there’s room for us all. We are all different and we all should be helping each other.
What can audiences expect from the show?
They can expect an uplifting, magical, musical and political journey and when they come out they will come out singing. And I would imagine there’ll be different points in the evening where they will both laugh and cry.
What would you like for audiences to take away from the show?
I would love for them to take away the knowledge that strong women have gone before and they can do it, and it’s not just a message for women. It’s a message to inspire people to be different, to go with what it is that they love, their passion. To learn people’s backstories before they dare to judge.
Interview by Lucy Basaba.
The Sisterhood will show on Friday 6th October at the Cadogan Hall. To find out more about the production, visit here…