By Elmer Ploetz
When you listen to a Gurf Morlix record, sometimes the first response is to ask, “Gurf, are you OK?”
That’s because Morlix, the Austin music legend who also happens to be a Hamburg, N.Y., native, tends to write a bit darkly. And that is particularly true on his new CD, “Kiss of the Diamondback.”
We set up a time recently to talk about the album for a podcast and for this story. He said people’s concerns don’t surprise him anymore. He has become known for his bleak songs which usually include some dark humor amid the existential despair.
This time out the humor is a little harder to find, bringing me to inquire about his well-being.
“I think that happens on every record,” he said. “And, of course, I am (OK). I’m a happy guy. But this was done during the pandemic. And the songs were written before the pandemic. … But this is a thing that happens to me and to other songwriters.
“You just kind of write something, and then all of a sudden you realize that it’s something else. Somebody listened to the album … they thought it was like half love songs and half pandemic songs. And then I went back and listen to it. ‘Oh, man, I think you’re right.’”
For Morlix, the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented him from doing his usual tours. It has prevented him from taking his cherished annual summer trip to his camp in the wilds of Ontario’s Georgian Bay. It has even limited his movement around his home in the Austin, Texas.
But the silver lining is that it has also been an opportunity to work.
In addition to his new CD (available from his website, http://www.gurfmorlix.com), he already has one more in the can, plus three more songs recorded for the one after that.
“I just figured I would take advantage of this time at home,” he said. “You know, I’m usually not at home that much during the year and I thought, ‘Well, if I have the songs, I might as well record them, and so I’m still recording and writing. I’m just taking advantage of the time. It’s a good time to create.”
It’s made possible by the fact Morlix has his own home studio, where he’s recorded the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mary Gauthier, Slaid Cleaves, Tom Russell and the Hot Club of Cowtown – Americana royalty all. (If you’re somehow unfamiliar with Gurf, he’s also known for his 11-year stint as band leader and producer for Lucinda Williams from the 1980s into the early ‘90s.)
“I’m so lucky to have that here and to be able to work,” he said. “You know, what if you were ensconced with someone who you didn’t really enjoy their company, and you couldn’t do anything other than, I don’t know, read or watch Bonanza all day?
“I’m pretty lucky to be able to work and it also helps that I started recording in January. I finished this album, ‘Kiss of the Diamondback,’ and then I had more songs and more time. I thought, ‘well, I’ll just keep going.’
“I’m getting ahead of myself here, but all the fences are down. There are no rules anymore because of this pandemic. And there’s no reason I couldn’t put out an album and then put another one out six months later. You used to have this rule about every two years or so (releasing an album). But the rules are all suspended.”
“Kiss of the Diamondback” continues a trend for Morlix, whose music has become ever more spare, with an open clarity that gives a sense of wide open space. The songs frequently have deliberate, almost march-like percussion pulling the listener inexorably along.
“I’ve been putting out records for 20 years now, and I think over the years I’ve gotten sparser and sparser,” he said. “And that’s kind of a conscious effort, just eliminating the stuff that’s not necessary for the song or for the piece of art, hopefully. So I’m carving that back.
“Also, this one was done mostly done me by myself in my home studio during the the ‘black plague,’ so it has a sort of a solitary feel to it, for sure, stripping it down. I agree that it has a pandemic sound to it.”
Lyrically, it’s got some world-weary songs like “Geniuses,” the song that contains the line that gives the album its title. “She said, ‘I only sleep with geniuses.’ I took a half step back,” he sings at the start of a song that ends with the narrator seemingly hurtling down toward a New York City sidewalk.
“Well, it could be a dream, could be anyone, you know?” he said. “We songwriters, we imagine things.”
It’s followed by “Perfect,” a love song that celebrates the beauty of our imperfections.
“I really liked that song, and it’s so naked that I had to be really careful at writing it because it’s just out there by itself,” Morlix said. “Gene Elders put this amazing string section on it, and I’m just blown away every time I hear that, but still the song stands naked and I took extra care in the lyrics just to make sure it was as good and strong as it could possibly be.”
The album closer, “Is There Anyone Out There,” meanwhile, is a pandemic song, echoing the emotions millions are feeling as they’re separated by Covid-19. It calls on the names of locales around the Georgian Bay area that Morlix would usually be visiting this summer.
“I’m really partial to the last song, ‘Is There Anyone Out There?’ That is probably the most pandemic of all the songs,” he said. “It’s just about absolute loneliness, you know? So I like that. I really like them all.”
If you want to hear it or any of the nine songs on the album, you’ll have to order it from Gurf’s website. He hasn’t put this one on Spotify or any of the other streaming media yet. He doesn’t expect to be touring for awhile, until the pandemic is truly under control with a vaccine or the spread really stopped.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time and if I tighten the belt, I’m not going to lose my home. I’m not going to run out of money for groceries. I’ll be OK,” he said. “I worry more about some of these 30-year-olds that are paying rent in an expensive city and live month to month. Their gigs are gone and I don’t know what they’re doing.”
For Morlix, you can count on what he’ll be doing. He said he has never been able to write songs on the road. He usually would write most of his songs during his summer trip to Georgian Bay. But this summer he’s doing it in Austin.
“Since I was in high school, I’m up ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning every night. And I realized a while back that almost all of my songs, pretty much all my songs, have been written between midnight and 3 a.m.,” he said. “And so this is this is my time, this is when my filters go down, and I hopefully get my better ideas and my brain is just more open to stuff.”
And that means even more music to look forward to … and maybe a few more inquiries as to his general welfare.