Now Wave presents Morgan Harper-Jones
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Raised by her grandparents in Rochdale, Morgan Harper-Jones has always been an old soul. On car trips, she and her grandma would listen to Diana Ross and The Supremes, Otis Redding, Patsy Cline and old Motown classics on repeat, and since she listened to the radio all day long working on her record stall, Harper-Jones’ grandma knew every word. “Her stall was called ‘Save Records’ because my Grandad had been a goalkeeper for Rochdale FC,” she recalls. “I wanted to know all the songs on the radio too, and in the mornings I’d go downstairs and put MTV on and watch it for hours, dancing to all the songs.”
At home in front of the telly, her favourite comedies were Norman Wisdom films, and the 70s sitcom George & Mildred. And the artist’s iPod Nano was loaded up with Joni Mitchell – “I’d listen to ‘Blue’ every single day,” she smiles. “Nobody else knew this stuff, but I wasn’t bothered or aware of how odd I was,” Harper-Jones says. In her free time, the musician likes to act like “I’m retired,” she laughs, and favours boogying to ABBA over late ones in clubs. “At uni I felt like I should be going out partying and clubbing and all this stuff, but I find it quite isolating,” she says.“I’m in no way a rock star: I like getting up early, being in nature, and doing wholesome things. I just love music. Wouldn’t it just be a dream to live by the beach somewhere, write a load of songs, and then do a tour once a year before coming back to the place by the beach to bake cakes?”
As a kid, Harper-Jones loved performing and writing melodramatic lyrics to belt out atop her keyboard’s demo settings, but it never occurred to her that she might become a musician one day. A good portion of her family were entertainers, playing in cover bands and performing at weddings, and songwriting was an integral part of their everyday life. “It’s just normal to me,” she explains, “everyone in my family wrote them. When I was born, my grandad wrote me a song, and we’ve all got our own song in the family.” Harper-Jones wrote songs too, and eventually decided to throw herself into studying music full time at BIMM in Manchester. She still lives on the outskirts of the city now, and her bedroom-meets-studio looks out onto the green park where she volunteers as a gardener. Though still obsessed with Joni Mitchell, her contemporary influences include Aldous Harding, Andy Shauf, Okay Kaya, Big Thief’s Adriene Lenker, and St Vincent.
Harper-Jones has toured since she was seventeen; fed up with waiting tables and working behind bars, she and her best mate formed a musical duo as teenagers and began playing covers gigs. Playing pub gigs later on funded her university studies, and a pivotal moment arrived when the musician tagged along with an ex-partner on a mini-tour of Germany – ”an excuse to go on a holiday really” – and ended up filling in as tour support. She vividly remembers the effect that an early incantation of her song ‘Breathe’ had on the room. It felt like a superpower to have bottled a feeling of my own that I could share and evoke in others in a cathartic way for them,” she says.
At the beginning of last year, Harper-Jones released ‘Breathe’ as her debut single – a quietly humming beauty of a song that reluctantly steps back to find space from an all-encompassing relationship, and recalls the candour of both Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman. The likes of Clash and The Line of Best Fit began spotlighting her music (with the latter calling her “striking and self-assured”) and an accomplished debut EP followed with ‘Breathe’ as its title track. Then, after playing her first ever live solo show, the pandemic hit. “Everything got shut down, so I kind of started from scratch again,” she explains. “I’m glad about that, and I think I really benefited from a year of space to really think about what I wanted to write about.”
And the result of this year of reflection, Harper-Jones’ forthcoming EP ‘While You Lay Sound Asleep’ builds upon these foundations. Produced by Luke Smith (Foals, Depeche Mode) and recorded with members of new wave jazz group Ezra Collective, it pairs the artist’s knack for emotional rawness with experimental flourishes of strings, and darker explorations still. Co-written with Adele collaborator Eg White, ‘Want Me’ details the ways in which we change ourselves; “the idea of being a jigsaw piece,” she adds, “and trying to push yourself into this hole. But you don’t need to abandon yourself to be chosen by somebody, and if you do… they’re not your person.” For ‘Never Had You’, Harper-Jones decamped to Keaton Henson’s house, where they wrote together just before lockdown. “I used to do a lot of things that would keep me safe, but I didn’t really feel like I was living or feeling to a capacity that is enjoyable,” she says, expanding on the song. “I wrote that song as a sly dig at somebody I met who I thought was emotionally unavailable,” she laughs, “and then six months later I was like, oh no, it’s about me!
The title, she adds, refers to exploring the various ways in which the musician has woken up to certain aspects of their life. “I love psychology a lot, and understanding humans,” she says. “I would start writing a song about something people do that I find interesting, and afterwards I’d be like, fucking hell, that’s me, and I need to change something.” The release’s closer ‘Lonely’ cuts particularly close; drawing on the vintage soul sounds of her childhood and skewing them with twinkling, futuristic autotuned choruses. ““Maybe I’m scared of being lonely, I’ll let anybody hold me,” she sings, recounting the lyrics. “Urgh, so gross! I just want to shake myself – or give myself a hug. You don’t need to seek out company that doesn’t want to get to know you and is just there to use you.”
Filled with starkly honest lyrics that tap into obsession, infatuation, and the unhealthy behaviours that come with the territory, it’s the Manchester musician’s most exposed writing yet. “I don’t will myself to cry when I write, but with particular lines I get emotional, and I keep them – and those are always the lines that get other people. It’s magic, and so connecting when I hear myself in the music of others,” she says. “It’s like someone’s sat next to you saying it’s ok to feel that way as a human. I hope that my music can be that for someone else too”
And these are the lines that Harper-Jones hopes that ‘While You Lay Sound Asleep’ might wake her listeners up, too – or at least, help us to feel less alone in those flawed moments we all stumble into.