Jenny Morris no longer sings or writes — but her life in song will be honoured by her peers at the Silver Scroll Awards.
Bing-bong. The doorbell chimes in the key of expensive.
A man enters the hotel suite with the harbour view. He proffers two plates. They are flat and white. Jenny Morris has been waiting for a flat white. Something has been terribly lost in translation.
The man comes back. He holds two coffee pods for the machine. No, says the publicist, explaining firmly she has phoned for a coffee from downstairs. It is her job to feed and water the talent, but there is another reason she's doing vocals. Morris can't.
"If I have to order room service, it's f***ed," says Morris. "Speaking on the phone is bad."
Morris, 61, has spasmodic dysphonia, a condition that starts with a croaky voice and progresses to broken and interrupted sentences. Entire words drop out. The soundtrack skips and dips. Sometimes, the condition only affects speech. In Morris' case, it has also affected her song.
"If I start talking about it, it gets bad. Sometimes just randomly it's worse and sometimes it's much better. Which is why it's such a conundrum to the medical fraternity. It's neurological, it's actual misfiring nerves and synapses."
Her tone is dry and wry: "It's a many splendored thing."
The woman who belted Tears for The Crocodiles; who sold 70,000-plus copies of her debut solo record, Body and Soul; who opened for Prince and Tears for Fears and toured for 18-months as a backing vocalist with INXS no longer sings or writes songs — but her life is devoted to songwriters.
In 2013, she became the first female chair-person of APRA-AMCOS, the acronym-heavy collective that advocates for Australasian composers, lyricists and music publishers. On October 4, at the Apra Silver Scroll awards, Morris will be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.
Study her greatest hits list and think: About time. A few days before she got on a plane from her home in Sydney to a hotel in Auckland, Canvas asked Morris to consider her life in song. We asked for music from her youth and tunes that meant home. To nominate a song for the lovers, the departed, the unravelling. Soundchecks, encores and something that meant "success". Songs, to steal from Stevie Wonder, in the key of life.
Okay, said Morris. And then she began with the deaths.
Me He Manurere was, according to a website devoted to the history of New Zealand folk music, first recorded by Ernest McKinlay at Whakarewarewa in the early 1930s. The singable English verses were produced with the assistance of guide Maggie Papakura, Sir Peter Buck and Wiremu H. Rangi.
"It's a Maori action song," says Morris. "It's one of the type of songs my family used to sing together. My father was brought up in the King Country in a little place that had mostly a Maori population and so he thought he was Maori. Consequently we have all taken on that as our culture because ... I don't know, but I don't think I'm the only Pakeha in New Zealand who feels like that.
"When I go around the world and I notice people, especially white people in their environments, I feel really lucky because I could feel bereft of any culture because we were basically immigrants and we don't really have our own culture. When people die, when people ... what do you do?
"That struck me most when my brother was killed in a car accident when he was 17. I was 13 and my memory is we didn't know what to do. We didn't know what the process was and so we basically swept it under the mat. I felt really sad about that. So when my dad died, in 2009, we weren't going to do that again. Even though it was in Australia, we had a strong Maori element to his funeral. We had him in my sister's living room with the casket lid off, in a cardboard coffin and we all just sat round and painted the coffin, the kids, all of us and we sang and we felt so much better about that funeral than we did about my brother's."
The first song Morris ever wrote, aged 12, was about the Vietnam War. The second, aged 13, was called Flickering and it was about her brother.
"It's just a musing about the loss. I think it really helped to fill that gap that I was talking about before. I didn't even know that what I was doing was writing songs. I was teaching myself guitar at the same time, I was just putting music to my poems. It was very organic, the way songwriting happened for me."
Her mum is Hazel and she loves opera. Her dad was Max and he loved Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson and Engelbert Humperdinck.
"He loved the voice." Every sibling sings. Her sister, Shanley Del, is an Aria award-winning country musician.
"There are no duds! They all live in Australia now. Her father has gone, and her mother has Alzheimer's.
"She doesn't really know who we are, but she loves a conversation. It's all going on in here [her head], although the words can't come out the way she wants. Some people lose themselves to that disease, and she hasn't. I say to her, 'You are extraordinary.'"
The extraordinary Hazel raised her children to eat homemade bread and grated carrot and raisin sandwiches. There were no Cornflakes or Rice Bubbles. She read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and sewed her children's clothes.
"Man, we were healthy," says Morris. (Later, she will shun a chocolate brownie and pick the ham out of a croissant — "I can't eat pig. They're such sentient beings, so intelligent, it just breaks my heart").
Born in Tokoroa, raised in Hamilton and en route to a career as a home economics teacher, Morris was always going to join a band. "I'm not shy — and it was very familiar territory."
The first, How's Your Father, played mostly covers. "Red House by Jimi Hendrix ... I remember I took my boyfriend at the time to our first gig and he said to me afterwards, 'God, your eyes look so weird when you look into those lights'."
She moved to Wellington and joined the Wide Mouthed Frogs, which led to The Crocodiles, which led to Australia. She didn't intend to stay, but EMI offered her a record contract.
"The Crocodiles were going to stop off, do a few gigs and go to Amsterdam where our song was doing well ... "
New Zealand had only had colour television for five years when the video for Tears was released. Morris wears shocking pink pants and a turquoise top. Her hair is early-80s short and she holds her body unnaturally still.
"That was me not knowing what the f*** I was doing."
But also: "You don't have to dance around on stage to be interesting. The essence of a good performer, and all the performers I love, is that they abandon themselves to the music. To the song, to whatever moment they're in. And I think that's why a good song is important. Because if you're singing about lollipops, you can't do that."
The songs that mean success? She has to be Loved (a co-write with Andrew Farriss) made it to number five in Australia and number three in New Zealand. Break in the Weather (co-written with her musician brother Tam) reached number three across the Tasman and number five here. There's You I Know, written by Neil Finn and the Sly and Robbie collaborations on the third solo studio album, Honeychild. Little Little is from her second album, Shiver. It was never released as a single. But the song about her then-unborn son, Hugh, is still her most requested. Sample lyric: "My blood is your blood / I'll feel you till the day I die / Dear little little / Sweet little little."
Says Morris: "I don't even know what success is. It's a many and varied thing, I think. But Little Little has generated more comments from punters than any of my other songs ... I feel really satiated as a songwriter, because it had that effect on men and women and children. They all respond passionately to it.
"To me, that's great success, because I know how great it is to be taken to a particular emotional place every time you hear a particular song, and it makes you want to play it over and over."
Morris toured with Prince when Hugh was still a toddler. The musician had heard Saved Me (another Farriss co-write) in a club and invited Morris to open his European shows.
"We had all these directives, a list of do's and don'ts, as we did when we met Charles and Di. Like, 'don't look him directly in the eye'."
This story has done the rounds since his death, but it's a good one: Prince never speaks to his opening act but sometimes, he plays with Hugh in the catering tent. On Morris' birthday, his manager shows up at her dressing room door with a bunch of flowers and a request — could Prince please play on Saved Me?
"I'm going to say 'no'!?" Morris laughs incredulously. "But he didn't do it that night and I'd sort of forgotten about it. Then one night we were in Berlin and I just heard this guitar and I looked to the side of the stage. And he'd plugged in and he was playing along with us. It was just so awesome. I had a really amazing band, especially the rhythm section, and he was just right in the groove with them. And we were all just so stoked."
Normal transmission resumes. The tour finishes. Morris can say she has played with Prince — but she never spoke to him.
Those shows — and opening for the likes of Sir Paul McCartney — were an opportunity to learn about monstrously big audiences. Morris describes her own on-stage presence as "Brer Rabbit in the briar patch" — supremely comfortable; a self-described show-off.
"I'm really lucky because I do have that confidence, and that's not a given. Sometimes you're born with it, sometimes it's a crafted thing. But really, what you're doing when you're up there, is appealing to people's emotions. If you've been up there for an hour, two hours, and people haven't been touched emotionally, then there's something wrong. It's really important that the audience knows you're meant to be up there."
And the more success you have, "the better it is if you can keep your own essence". She's raided her archives for this interview, and points now to a photograph from 1989. Le Bercy stadium, Paris, is clearly packed. But beyond what the camera can catch is a crowd-count of 60,000.
"Imagine looking out into that? And that wasn't my audience, that was Prince's, but I remember once in Christchurch at one of my own outdoor gigs and there were 25,000 people and just thinking, 'Shit, they're all here for me.' For one moment — and it doesn't happen often — I remember feeling a bit of pressure. I can imagine if that happens over and over, you can kind of get a bit destabilised by it."
She met Andy Warhol once with her friend and former flatmate Michael Hutchence. "Quiet. He was very quiet. He just took a polaroid of Michael and didn't say anything really." Afterwards? "We were like, 'What a crazy guy!'"
Morris did backing vocals on INXS album The Swing and toured worldwide with the band in 1985. "They were all my mates and we had the same management. It was really fun for me. I did the tour while I was getting my own stuff together."
In 1997, Hutchence was found dead in a Sydney hotel room. A coroner reported the cause as suicide.
"We were very close and I ... it hurts, thinking about it. And what happened with his life and the reasons those things happened, and it really hurts me that people don't know who he was really," says Morris.
"They think they have this idea of who he was, but you know, he was a very well-read, funny, warm, loyal person and the group of friends we had when we were flatting together, which included one of my best friends, his girlfriend Michele [Bennett], through all of what happened, that core group remained his touchstone."
A song for Michael?
"Oklahoma," Morris responds, entirely unexpectedly. "It was an in joke. We would
sing, 'Ooooooooklahoma where the mmmm mmmmmm.' It was funny to us because we never knew what the rest of the lyrics were and it reminds me now that there was a time when we were all so light-hearted that we could be that silly, that inane. Quite often when Michael and Michele and I were together over the years, we would spontaneously sing it."
Morris is working her way down the Canvas list. Big Audio Dynamite is the band to listen to on a roadtrip; You Are My Sunshine is a song for doing the dishes. A song of protest?
"Saltwater, by Julian Lennon. I wish I had 70 million Instagram followers like Katy Perry ... I would bang on and on and on about the importance of climate change. There is nothing more important and we have to keep on pushing for more and more change. What value does ruling the global economy have if there is no water and we've wiped out the bees?!"
And there is a song for the lovers. A few, actually, but her favourite is the Paul Kelly co-write, I've Had You. She confirms it is about a particular person, but she won't say who. "It sort of sums up that depth of feeling that you acknowledge forever."
Her here-and-now forever? That's photographer, Paul Clarke, captured way back when in the opening shot of the You're Gonna Get Hurt video. He was seconded for fun by a director who knew he dabbled in drums. Some eight months later, Morris and Clarke were married; two years later, they had their first child.
"I got both my children with IUDs! If it wants to happen it will happen. My husband was 27 when we had Hugh. We got married when he was 25. I can't believe that now. I can't believe I did that to him. I was 30, I didn't even think about it ... we've been together for 32 years now, so we're doing something right."
Two small moments from a musician's life: Months into an 18-month-tour, Morris wakes up in the middle of the night somewhere in America and is standing over a suitcase she has, apparently, just sleep-packed. Another time, she is seven months pregnant, mid-song, watching the front-row fans and their jaws have just dropped, and she looks down and, "Ooooh, my zip has just broken..."
She has Australian citizenship but New Zealand continues to be a touchstone, "a kind of spirit animal — I am so proud of the decisions we make, the way we step up, the way we punch above our weight".
The Hall of Fame induction is "kind of embarrassing" but she likes that it is making other people happy. "Do this job because you love this job. Do it because it's about the music and that gives you longevity, credibility and individuality and then you will be inspirational to yourself, which is where it all starts."
Morris calls herself "lucky" to have had a career that was, literally, built on word of mouth — this band knew that band, et cetera.
"I was always just as happy singing and playing in my room to myself as I was up on the stage. It all started with the music, way back when I was little. I really enjoyed the bells and whistles, but that's not why I did it. That was just the icing, I guess.
"I'm in the moment ... you should always be in the moment, because the thought of the unknown can be confronting, but when you're actually in it, it's not the unknown any more."
In 2015, when Morris went public with her voice condition, she told the ABC, "I sound like a 50-year-old crone who's been smoking three packs a day for 30 years, and not in a good way."
She had been seeing a speech pathologist to work on the "glottal fry" or croakiness for about a year, when the spasmodic dysphonia (sometimes called laryngeal dystonia) diagnosis was made.
"Between 2010 and 2014, I battled and battled and one day after a gig I thought, 'That was just so unenjoyable. I did not love that. I did not love being on stage. In fact, I hate that.' That's when I made the decision that I would do my last gig at Taronga Park Zoo twilight series. I got my brother and sister to do backing vocals, my favourite band, a lovely audience. It was a beautiful backdrop with the Sydney in the background. It was kind of the perfect way to bow out."
Morris will be inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame at the APRA Silver Scroll Awards on October 4.