When David John Morris moved from his London home to Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia in October 2018, he knew he would have to put his guitar away for the next nine months. Life during his monastic retreat would consist of work, study and meditation with the Buddhist monks in residence. The precepts of the community would also require him to abstain from sex, drugs, alcohol and, more importantly for the prolific songwriter, from playing music. Stepping away from his instrument marked the unlikely start of a process that yielded some of the strongest work in the Red River Dialect singer’s career. His richly rendered solo debut, Monastic love songs, vibrates with the energy and intimacy of his time in Gampo, and it seems to light a way forward for Morris as a songwriter.
A 2018 profile from Red River Dialect characterized Morris as someone who consciously tried to dissociate his public personality as a musician from his professional and spiritual life as a Buddhist chaplain. Accepting not to play instruments on Gampo’s tracks with this characterization of Morris as a sort of demarcated self – the monk and the musician living in one body, but consciously separate. Yet during the last month of his residency, Morris requested a guitar and was granted permission to play it for an hour a day. The musician became one with the monk, and the chants that emanated from this newly unified being reflect this harmony.
Monastic love songs looks like a reset button for Morris, whose albums with Red River Dialect had increasingly emphasized the rock side of the folk-rock equation over the past decade. As one would expect from an album written during a monastic retreat, his solo debut is more meditative, his songs being built around voice, acoustic guitar, and negative space. Morris called Monastic love songs a spiritual suite to the dialect of the Red River Soft gold and soft blue, another cycle of musically unadorned songs. Where the palette of this album often suggested the desolation, the tranquility of Monastic love songs evokes inner peace. “Rhododendron” puts Morris’s quavering voice on a sparse but insistent guitar line as the sight of the title flower sends him into a reverie, an echo of Wordsworth with his daffodils. “I’ve taken, now I’m going to learn to give,” Morris sings, the vulnerability in his once sad voice, now recontextualized as an opening. It’s one of the many lyrics on the album that plays like a mantra.
With the exception of the devious surreal “Circus Wagon” and a new arrangement of the traditional ballad “Rosemary Lane”, every song on Monastic love songs is autobiographical. On “Purple Gold,” Morris remembers “listening to REM, one earpiece each” with his teenage first love, and on “Steadfast,” he finally finds brotherhood in a tough relationship when he stops trying. force. Elsewhere on the album, he sings his experiences at the monastery directly. “Skeleton Key” recounts his journey through the process of self-discovery that Buddhists call the Bardo of Becoming: “The old self is dead, the new self is not yet born. The luminous closing piece, “Inner Smile,” was originally written as a poem of thanks to Morris’s beloved tai chi teacher. Set to music, it becomes an object of pure beauty and lightness. The common thread of the album is love, love for oneself, for one’s fellows, for Buddhist practice.
Sessions for Monastic love songs took place at the Hotel2Tango studios in Montreal just days after Morris left Gampo. Thor Harris (Swans) and Thierry Amar (Godspeed You! Black Emperor) sat down on drums and bass, and their performances are quietly crucial to the album. They seem supernaturally comfortable staying in the pocket and letting Morris guide their playing, only swelling crescendo when the song’s emotions demand it. Morris can think of the album as a continuation of Soft gold and soft blue, but his collaborators, paradoxically, help give him the impression of being a real solo album.
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