The Northern Soul of Morgan Rider
“I really love what I am doing musically these days, and it is totally unexpected and welcome to know that what I am doing is resonating with other people.”Morgan Rider
There are singing voices immemorial. They seem to translate land, sea, and sky through centuries of human experience into recognizable stories that transfix us even as we relate to them. Canadian songwriter Morgan Rider has such a voice. He could sing an order from a breakfast menu and possibly hold a room in thrall. Where others might cry you a river, he can sing you a valley.
You don’t attach an age to a voice like that, or ask too many technical questions. You listen and you feel. The songs of a fabulist get deeper into our marrow with the type of voice that Morgan possesses. Born in 1989, the old soul wisdom of his lyrics and vocal delivery belies his relative youth. There is a range that glides from baritone to high register with a touch of wistfulness in that occasional rasp, yet within the uncluttered beautiful arrangements, we hear messages of hope, of perseverance. Listening to his solo album, Folklore, one is struck not only by heartfelt lyric delivery but the use of compositional minimalism that results in maximum emotional impact.
Such songs as Old Sad Story, The Mountain, Upon The Shore, showcase Morgan’s voice within a judicious use of instrumentation that draws the listener in. A simple tambourine pattern, well located in the mix, followed by a kick drum to underpin the intimately recorded guitar and vocal creates an economical and deeply effective sound field. A standout track for me is The Thunder And The Serpent with its wonderful use of piano and violin to cast a repeat play spell.
As you will read, Morgan Rider is a diverse and interesting artist with an eclectic background and a forthright and eloquent way of expressing himself both lyrically and here in his answers, though I must admit I enjoyed the terse simplicity of his responses to the IAMUR “likes” and “dislikes” as follows: LIKES – “My family, the outdoors, my studio, writing, brewing mead, and of course, music!” DISLIKES – “Traffic… “
Before we get into the conversation with Morgan, here’s one of MY new likes, Morgan Rider’s ‘Northern Soul’;
“Northern Soul is my first solo single that I ever released as Morgan Rider. This is a good example of who I am and what I am all about creatively. As far as the process in creating this song, I really wanted to challenge myself in writing, recording, mixing and filming a music video for this song all within two weeks.”Morgan Rider
First off, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. You are making a name for yourself across the big chunk of real estate known as Canada, and beyond its shores. Performing over a thousand shows at an average of 150 per year will do that for you, as will the writing, recording, and releasing of albums at a prolific rate since 2017. What would you like our readers to know about you as an initial overview?
I am just a regular guy who grew up in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario, Canada. I was always interested in books and the arts and so I spent lots of time painting, drawing and writing short stories. My father is a mechanic and former race car driver, so I have a love of classic cars and motorsports as well. I was, however, always strongly drawn to music, as my mother is an operatic soprano and an adept pianist. A lot of my early musical memories consist of slamming my hands down onto the old upright piano we used to have.
I spent thirty years living in Durham Region, which is a rapidly growing area immediately east of Toronto. It was a great place to grow up, as I had a lot of family nearby in my younger years and it was also very opportune for the bands I joined or formed when I got a little older. When I was 11, I got my first bass guitar and joined my first band. I have since toured and played huge festivals here in the Americas as well as overseas. I have even gotten to share the stage and festival billings with a lot of my favourite bands.
I got really tired of the bustle that is synonymous with living near the big city, so I just recently moved with my wife and two children to a big, beautiful property overlooking the ocean here in Nova Scotia.
First band at 11 years old! You have already accomplished a great deal, especially with regards to live performance and your travels doing what you love to do. I read that you brought your wife and infant daughter on a solo tour across Canada in 2018. That must have been a wonderful experience and also a great way for you to be present during those very important early stages of your daughter’s life. Can you expand a bit on how that time played out for you and your loved ones?
Yeah! Well, I had brought my wife to Europe shortly before we got married so that she could see me perform at Wacken Open Air in Germany, but she had never once been on the road with me. I hardly blame her, because I couldn’t name many people who would be into living in a van with 5-6 guys for months on end with no guarantees of meals, showers or comfy places to sleep.
It was only a little while before my daughter was born that I began playing solo a lot more. This essentially made it possible to tour comfortably in a Toyota hatchback. My wife rarely got any time off of her old job, so she was suddenly on this year-long maternity leave and it didn’t take much thought before I suggested we go out east, then out west. We also really relished the idea of our first child breathing some fresh rocky mountain air as well as dipping her toes in both the Atlantic and Pacific in her first 6 months of life. So we did it.
It was amazing. I didn’t play every night, so it allowed us to stop and do things I always wanted to check out while on the road with my bands but never had time for. We camped, checked out amazing places like Lake Louise, Nairn Falls, the Sea-to-Sky highway, and Royal Tyrrell Museum. In all, we spent probably 8 or 9 weeks on the road, and every second of it was amazing. The trip also gave me the idea for the series of Deep Dark River albums.
A note about the Deep Dark River project; these recordings are extensions of the Morgan Rider “waters run deep” ethos. The same spell casting atmospherics that define his solo work are woven throughout the songs. Emotive cello echoes his guitar lines then veers into counter melodic support along with piano touches that deepen the listening experience. A prime example of this can be heard in ‘The Hunter’, where passionate vocal performance is enveloped with instrumental hypnotism. Readers can listen to a good selection of these songs via the link to Morgan’s website provided at the end of this article.
Evidently, you were steeped in music from a very young age. Who would you list as your predominant early influences? Obviously you excel in the Folk genre and I know you also have a history in heavier modes such as Metal. Would you care to expand upon this for our readers?
I would say, strongly, that my mother was the catalyst that pushed me into a life of music. I always heard her rehearsing her choral repertoire as well as playing my sister and I the piano. My father was always into classic rock and traditional metal, so I got my first taste of harder music, which was always on when I was really young. Those elements, as well as a bit of a rough home life steered me to getting into playing metal, which I would say is the primary genre I would associate with.
As far as my musical influences are concerned, there really isn’t an easy way to chart it… on any given day, I could be listening to Bob Marley or Mike Love, then later that day be listening to Exhorder, Emperor or BalSagoth, then I also listen to tons of classical music, big band stuff, 50s-60s crooner stuff, classic rock, punk, bluegrass or folk music like Shakey Graves, Shawn James or White Buffalo. This is really only the tip of the iceberg of my musical tastes
I applaud and can relate to your broad spectrum of musical tastes as well as your multi-instrumentalist abilities. Can you tell our readers what instruments you play and to what degree of awesomeness?
I would consider myself perfectly adequate as a vocalist, guitarist, lead guitarist, bassist, pianist, drummer, percussionist, and violinist!
Impressive self-sufficiency! How would you describe the spectrum of the music that you create?
I would describe my solo music as ‘haunting folk and soulful blues’ although there is a great degree of fluidity there, as I am constantly writing music that could be everything from dark folk to modern country, although the vast majority of it will likely never be heard by anyone besides me and my kids (those poor kids…).
I created the band component of my solo work so that it can be scalable from a duo (me and my cello player), up to a full 6 piece band, playing everything from folk, avant-garde rock to metal. I am also a member of several metal bands that I created. One of the most active ones is a symphonic death metal band called Vesperia, who is actually just finishing up a long-overdue record!
You have a lot of creative irons in the fire, indicative of a true creative spirit. The 6-piece band you refer to is Deep Dark River I assume, and that cello is an integral and gorgeous component of the overall sound. “Symphonic death metal” sounds like some next level heaviosity. Does your fan base accept such a broad range of output or do you find that some of them prefer a given genre?
You know, I knew getting into the solo folk and blues stuff that it would absolutely be polarizing to the fans I have made in the past through my heavier music projects. There are definitely two worlds that I enjoy bouncing back and forth between right now, but I was not expecting as much overlap as I have experienced so far. I am aware that one of the sides of my musical output can be and is off-putting to somebody who isn’t expecting to hear it, or rather, does not want to hear it. I think so far I have managed to keep the separation between my styles of music very distinct so that if someone were just discovering the delicate acoustic folk side of my creative personality they won’t suddenly stumble upon a swathe of heavy chainsaw guitars, blast beats, and guttural vocals, or vice versa.
The few fans I have made through my folk music who have learned about the heavier stuff I do always seem interested and excited to learn more about it, so it’s been interesting for me to have my feet in the various camps I have had them in.
One of our standard questions is an essential one; how would you describe your creative process when writing new music?
The most efficient process for me over the last couple of years is to just simply find a good place to sit with my guitar, a notebook, and my phone (for tuning, metronomes, and voice recording capabilities). After I’ve written the lyrics and arranged the music, then I will typically go into my studio and start creating pre-production tracks with scratch tracks, as well as some other instrumental elements. From there, I build the songs and sometimes play with their arrangements until I have finished songs that are ready to be mixed and mastered.
The exception for me and my solo music would be one of my Deep Dark River bands’ albums. On ‘The Wings Above the Mountains’, I had written only a small selection of the music before I started recording the album. This is the first album I have written where my primary instrument (besides my voice) was piano. I wrote most of the music in the studio, then sent the rough demos to my other bandmates who recorded cello, drums and mandolins, which I then edited, mixed and mastered.
I know from my visits to Nova Scotia that the music scene there is vibrant and eclectic. Did you find the transition from the greater Toronto region into your new location to be a smooth one, musically speaking?
I have loved the music scene out here since I first toured to Atlantic Canada with my band. Everyone was so friendly and supportive here, and the bands we became friends with were incredible. I haven’t fully explored what this area means to me as a solo musician yet, but from what I have seen so far, there seems to be far more opportunities for me musically here than the Toronto area held. Yes, I would say the transition has been very smooth so far.
Expanding upon the previous question about the differences between where you were in Ontario and where you are now in Nova Scotia, would you say that the rugged beauty of the landscapes and Atlantic ocean have played a large contributing role in what I perceive to be a deep connection to nature that is palpable in your music?
With where I am living now, I can say with one hundred percent certainty that the beauty I am surrounded by will absolutely compound the inspiration I glean from any natural setting. The last place I lived was on the very edges of the city area in the suburbs. There was way too much noise, light and pollution, so I often found myself going up north away from the bustle to collect my thoughts in order to get into the ‘proper’ headspace. Here, I only need to look out the window or step out my front door or go for a hike behind my house to immerse myself in the same way. These influences, I believe, will only aid my creativity in ways I would not have enjoyed in the past for having to seek them out as fervently as I had to.
You clearly do not lack motivation or artistic drive. What are the forces of impetus compelling your need to create?
It is kind of funny to try and pinpoint a particular reason why I create. My motivations are constantly changing as I grow older and learn more about myself and the world. When I was younger, it was absolutely an escape from what I would consider a bit of a troubled upbringing.
My resources were nonexistent, save for the paper and pencils that amounted to a few binders’ worth of lyrics, poems and short stories I had written and forgotten about. Nowadays, I have so many more wells to pull from when it comes to creating. It can be something as simple as the weather striking a particular chord with me if I am on a hike, or an idea popping into my head as I drive myself to a gig.
I have just seen and experienced so much in my 32 years… Everything between life, death, happiness, sorrow, seeing beautiful landscapes on the other side of the earth, walking in amongst ancient ruins, standing in front of tens of thousands playing music I wrote in my bedroom, climbing mountains, swimming in the ocean, watching my children be born, meeting and performing alongside some of my favourite musicians, wandering, discovering and learning about anything that catches my interest.
Although I go through ‘dry’ spells, just like anyone else who creates, each time I get over that creative recovery, my output is always much greater than it was before. I have never had what would be called or considered a regular “job”, much to the dismay of some family members who tend to worry too much!
On the topic of motivation and creative drive, you mentioned “writing” when responding to your “likes” and I read in one news article that you are working on a book series in the Fantasy genre. Care to expand upon that for our readers?
I am! I have been a massive fan of fantasy and science fiction since I was able to read. I am a particularly big fan of Tolkien. I used to write all sorts of short fantasy, sci-fi, and horror stories when I was younger, but every attempt was always very lighthearted and lacking purpose – sort of like when you pick up a guitar without any intention of writing or improving on it. “Noodling”. I had always wanted to get a little more into it, so around five years ago I started taking down notes on character arcs, world events, histories, mythologies, forms of fantasy religions, as well as drawing maps of a fantasy world, ships, swords, and creatures.
It was only over the last couple of years that I began to put a lot of these ideas into long-form by plotting out chapters and full stories involving all of the elements I’d been working on for years. The pandemic and me being forced away from performing live has only given me time to work on this more. In the last 18 months, I have already written a 120,000-word novel that is now in its first editing phase, as well as the beginning of a massive trilogy that takes place in the same world. I think collectively since mid-2020, I have written a few hundred thousand words worth of work.
Other than that, I have no timeline for putting any literary work out. I want to take my time with it and make it the best I can possibly make it. Maybe this decade will see a book or two released. Who knows…
Very cool and all the best with that ongoing project, which reminds me of something… “I am always working on or abandoning something new.” That quote from you is evidence of your ongoing progression within the pursuit of quintessential self-expression through the arts. Are there any new projects in the works that you would like to mention?
At the moment, I am wrapping up a small body of some fuller solo music that I am calling the Last Light of Day EP. It’s basically a handful of music I wrote over the course of the pandemic after the release of my first solo album, Folklore. I also have a number of covers that I plan on recording and releasing over the next half year or so before I record and release another solo album.
With the many performances you have given in various venues and locations, has there ever been a show where you looked around and felt blown away that you were on that particular stage?
There have honestly been so many incredible places I have played, but there were a few that stood out to me, for sure. The biggest one for me was playing Wacken Open Air in both 2013 and 2015. When I was younger, Wacken was the first big festival I had ever heard of, and it seemed like this incredibly distant and impossible thing to attend, let alone play. To be part of something like that not once, but twice was incredibly exciting and humbling.
Your zest for musical exploration and self-expression is abundantly evident and admirable. Looking at the big picture, if you could put into words what your “mission statement” is, what would those words say?
I think of all I have learned in my musical journey, I would say the most important thing to me would be to remain honest with myself and confident in whatever path I decide I should take. If I am true to myself, then I can only be true with the people I surround myself with, to the music I make and the things that become attracted to me, and what I do in the process.
It is challenging enough to make a living from music under ideal conditions, let alone with the extra burden of this horrendous pandemic. With that in mind, is there anything else you would like to add?
The pandemic has been very rough on a lot of people, and not the least of all us musicians. As things get opening back up, a lot of us will be either extremely well-rehearsed or extremely rusty. For those of us on the latter end of that statement, please be kind, please be open minded, and please be supportive! I love what I do, and I hope that you love it too!
Amen to that, brother.
Morgan Rider’s website can be found here and his latest release ‘Folklore’ is available on all the usual streaming platforms.