Q&A: Allo Darlin’s Elizabeth Morris On Their Great New Album, Her Move To Italy, And The Story Behind “History Lessons” (Stereogum Premiere)
We Come From The Same Place, out next week, marks three straight excellent LPs by London indie-pop quartet Allo Darlin’, and with new single “History Lessons” they’re also now three-for-three on teaser tracks from the new album. The band’s Australian-born, Italy-based frontwoman Elizabeth Morris knows how to capture the imagination with a simple, universal turn of phrase, and her bandmates are excellent at conjuring jangly, propulsive guitar-pop to carry the sentiment home. “History Lessons” is another example of Allo Darlin’ pulling off just such a feat. Morris uses this generation’s ever-accelerating nostalgia craze as a jump-off point to explore the ways we as individuals build upon and move beyond our past. It’s a canny snapshot, both personal and universal, and Morris delivers her vocal with a wistful approachability that accentuates the song’s themes; it’s both an echo of bygone indie-pop and a personal twist distinctly her own. Morris discussed “History Lessons” and much more in a free-ranging and friendly Skype conversation last week. Below, read on for enlightening insight into Allo Darlin’s songwriting and the stories behind We Come From The Same Place, plus hear “History Lessons” for the first time.
STEREOGUM: So you’re based in Italy now?
ELIZABETH MORRIS: Yeah that’s right, I live here now. I live in Florence. I moved almost exactly a year ago. It’s great! But the rest of the guys are still in London.
STEREOGUM: What was the occasion for moving to Italy?
MORRIS: My husband got a job here. He’s doing his PhD and he got a PhD position at this university, not the university of Florence, but a place called the European University Institute. That was really lucky. He was offered the position and it was just like, “Let’s go!”
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. Has that complicated band logistics?
MORRIS: Yeah, obviously it does, but it’s also pretty doable. If we had been trying to do this in the first year or two or three of the band it would have been impossible. But now we tour in blocks and everyone’s so busy anyway, so it just means we have to be organized quite far in advance. But you know that’s good and it’s pretty helpful because obviously everyone in the band has full time jobs so it means we have to be pretty organized to make it work anyway. And the tickets between Italy and London by plane are really pretty cheap, cheaper than buying train tickets in the UK. That probably has to do more with how screwed up the UK’s privatized train system is than how great it is to fly Ryanair or easyJet or whatever. But it’s really doable, and for me, the difference in my quality of life and how much I’m enjoying life is so worth it. After living in London for so long, and coming to live in the south of Europe — just to have the sun and beautiful food and a different pace of life. It’s really great. I recommend it!
STEREOGUM: Has the new environment been a source of inspiration?
MORRIS: Yeah, definitely, although with this album most of the songs were actually written before. A lot of them had been recorded before I left. But three of the songs on the album I wrote here, so “Crickets In The Rain” and “Santa Maria Novela” and “Another Year” were all written here. And yeah, it’s super inspiring, not just for writing music but for writing in general and just doing things. They have a wonderful appreciation of the arts, not just painting or sculpture, but you know Dante is the king of Florence really. Pretty highbrow around Florence, I guess.
STEREOGUM: On the last album, on “Talulah,” you have that line about wondering if you’ve met all the people who are going to matter. I assume moving to a new country brought on a wave of new people who do matter?
MORRIS: Yeah, that’s so nice! And such a great observation. Before I wrote that song I hadn’t even met my husband, so in particular, him! It’s just really amazing. That’s nice because it’s something that for people who like that song, that idea is a nice thing to think about. You just really never know who you’re going to meet, and it’s such an exciting thing when you meet new exciting people. It’s amazing.
STEREOGUM: “We Come From The Same Place” is a song title on the new album and also the album title. What made you decide it should be the title track?
MORRIS: For one thing I think it’s a really nice title or phrase. And I think it’s quite interesting because I could be talking about a geographical place, but I’m talking about a feeling of belonging and community and closeness and comfort. That song was always the heart of the album for me and the other guys too. So yeah I think those are really the main reasons. I thought it sounded like a nice title in the end. Like with Europe for the last one, [“Europe”] really felt like the song that bound everything else together. And I think similarly with this record, this song is the one that binds all the others together.
STEREOGUM: There are a lot of songs where you seem to be painting a picture of a past scene in your life. Like “Kings and Queens,” it’s this wistful look at being young and maybe being young and in a band. And then “Romance and Adventure” seems like a less positive feeling. Neither one seems like you’re writing a character portrait; they seem very autobiographical.
MORRIS: Yeah, and you’re absolutely right. The only song on the album that is written from someone else’s perspective is “Half Heart Necklace,” which is a funny song that I wrote from the point of view of this teenage runaway from my hometown. So yeah, the songs are autobiographical, but everyone I know who writes music, they are writing from their own perspective, even though they might be making up some characters and invent scenarios. But you always recognize traces of real events and reality in these songs. And that’s part of the fun of writing songs is the imaginary and the real get all mixed up. Hopefully there’s a truth, probably in the chorus, that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or imagined event, it’s what is behind the song, the truth, the message you’re trying to get across, and it’s hopefully something people can relate to. I’m always weary to say that the songs are completely autobiographical because it wouldn’t be true, but I think they are pretty confessional compared with other peoples songs. Sometimes it’s pretty embarrassing if I’m in Top Shop and I hear one of my songs, and I think, “God, this is really embarrassing to hear these kinds of events or things that happened to me.” Yeah it’s very strange.
STEREOGUM: You spoke about the inherent truth in a song. I think there are definitely lyrics you write that they are very kind of universal. In “Kings and Queens” you have the line, “I wanted to impress you and I think you knew.” That’s definitely something everyone can relate to. I’m impressed by the way 10 simple words or less can string together this universal sentiment. That’s what really struck me about “Romance and Adventure,” how everything climaxes at “I’m just tired of being strong.” That’s a really relatable sentiment.
MORRIS: That’s really nice, thank you. It’s such a strange thing writing songs. Everyone I know who does it has their own way. I was just reading an interview with Jeff Tweedy, and he was talking about the unconscious song writing. He has this method, like David Byrne talks about it in his book How Music Works, and what they do is they write the melodies first. And the lyrics are always subservient to melody, and hopefully you can get them to match and the lyric will be heightened by the melody or the emotion. So he does this sort of mumbling, like just makes up nonsense lyrics. Eventually at the very end he’ll translate those and listen really hard to those and try to figure out what it is he’s trying to say. Which to me seems like the most absurd way of writing a song, but I know it’s really common to do it this way. I don’t really know Jeff Tweedy or Wilco that well, but I think they are really good, and I think people really relate to them. It’s just funny the way it works, because for me I always have to have an intention or to know where I’m going or what I’m writing a song about. That’s the hardest part, but then after that writing the lyrics is really easy, but the hardest thing is figuring out what the song is about, what you’re trying to say.
STEREOGUM: That’s interesting because those two song writers in particular, Tweedy and Byrne, they’re kind of inscrutable sometimes. You get more of a feeling than a specific meaning from some of their songs. It doesn’t surprise me that you’re saying the lyrics kind of drive the songwriting for you.
MORRIS: Yeah, they do. And I guess everybody is just different and it’s really funny and interesting to read about how other people do it. I’m definitely not one of those people who subscribes to the notion that you need inspiration and you need to wander around and you’re just walking and the suddenly inspiration strikes. Because that can happen, but I think you’re not going to write terribly that many songs if you’re doing that. I’m more of the “I’m going to force myself to sit down and get up at 8 and write something.” Luckily with this album, it was really so easy. The emotional frame of mind I was in at the beginning of last year just meant that I could write lots and lots of songs really fast. So almost all of the album was written in a period of weeks, which for me is really fast. And most of my friends who are songwriters write like four albums a year. But that’s just my way, and I’m really comfortable with that. It was nice and exciting, but it was so easy, and I definitely feel like I was in a different frame of mind than I normally am.
STEREOGUM: Do you accredit that to getting married? What changed your frame of mind?
MORRIS: Well, I had been in a long relationship, and that had ended, and then I was also falling in love with someone else who became my husband. So everything was very full-on. It was a crazy year. And also turning 30 around that time, feeling like the world was suddenly full of possibilities — it was a really good frame of mind to write songs in.
STEREOGUM: You recorded this album mostly live with minimal overdubs, correct?
MORRIS: I think that’s an important part about the record too is the fact that we just wanted to have really, really good songs and play them really well in a really good sounding room with good sound engineers that we love and try and get it in one take or it’s not completely that. It’s not a live album, but that’s what we were aiming for anyway, the sound of the four of us in a room together, playing all together. I think in that way, it’s quite different from Europe, very different in the recording process. So hopefully that comes across in the album too that it feels more the sound of four guys playing together in one room.
STEREOGUM: What was the rationale for wanting to do it that way? If that wasn’t the approach on Europe, what spurred the change?
MORRIS: Europe is sort of a classic second album in that way that we thought we had to pull out all the stops and make it a really big sounding record and try and do the best that we could with all the overdubs and making it sound as pro, in a nice way — sort of not glitzy and shiny but just sounding really well-thought-out and well-orchestrated. Whereas with this one, it was a reaction to that, saying, “OK, that was a good experience, but we want to try and capture something.” Because we played so much after Europe and we really felt like we came such a long way as a live band, and also we’d been hanging out an awful lot with the Wave Pictures, and their whole approach is very much, “Let’s just play everything live, and that’s the take.” Which is very inspiring and very different from how we worked previously, although with the songs where I’m playing solo they’re always just live takes because there’s no other way to really do it. I’d say that was an influence, but also we were listening to a lot of these Memphis bands from the ’60s and all that kind of great ’60s-sounding stuff where you can really hear the scrapes of chairs on the floor and stuff like that, and you know it just sounds so good, so nice. And we wanted that because in some ways it feels more honest I suppose.
STEREOGUM: It was cool to hear you and Paul duet on “Bright Eyes.”
MORRIS: It’s good, isn’t it? His voice is so awesome. I love the way he sings so much.
STEREOGUM: Do you imagine that you’ll do more duets going forward?
MORRIS: That’d be nice, I’d love it! I’d love it if Paul sang more, and that was really my intention with that. Because I think Paul has such a beautiful voice, but he’s quite shy about it, so he wouldn’t naturally be taking center stage and singing. So I sort of forced him into it, and I’m really happy because people really like that when we play it live. Paul always gets the biggest cheer of the whole night when he takes the microphone and sings in his great sweet voice and plays his awesome guitar solo. He’s really, really fun.
STEREOGUM: Is there any kind of Conor-Oberst-related backstory to that song?
MORRIS: No there isn’t actually. I’m sorry to say. I like Conor Oberst, but it’s really nothing to do with him at all. Probably more to do more with the Art Garfunkel song “Bright Eyes.”
STEREOGUM: Taking it further back, I see. For a second as I was listening to the album I thought there was not going to be another solo ukulele ballad this time, and then I made it to “Another Year” at the end, which starts out that way at least. Do you think that will continue to kind of be a tradition in Allo Darlin’ albums from here on out?
MORRIS: Oh gosh, I have no idea! I have no idea what the next Allo Darlin’ will be like, or when it would be because at the moment we’re all just focused on this one and the shows we’re playing for it, but I don’t know. It’s a very natural thing. It’s always been quite a part of it I suppose, so if I’m imagining another Allo Darlin’ album, I would say yeah, there could be a ukulele ballad on it. But less and less I play the uke, and I play guitar a lot more at shows. Even some of the songs on the album that are played on the ukulele when we play them live, like “History Lessons” I play on guitar rather than ukulele. Mainly because it’s really hard to make it stay in tune and make it sound nice in a bigger venue. In the end, I just can’t stand it when it sounds out of tune, and I’m sure the audience can’t either. It’s easier to play on guitar and keep it on tune.
STEREOGUM: I’m glad you mentioned “History Lessons” because we’re premiering that song along with the interview. Could you tell me a little bit about the origins of that song?
MORRIS: The origins of the song are very much the idea in the third verse where I sing about the places closed and places come and places go. There was an article I read in The Guardian about a venue in London that had closed, and it was lamenting the fact that this venue was closing and that so many of these old pubs where all these great bands, I supposed in particular in London a lot of these Britpop venues, that were closing. It was sort of written in a way that was suggesting that it was a really bad thing and it was really sad and that we were losing part of our history. I sort of took a response to that, but it’s just we love to dwell on things that close and things that are passing, and everything that is new is just rubbish and everything that is old is just great. The article didn’t mention at all the fact that there are these new venues opening up in London all the time and I’m sure in other parts of the UK too. It was kind of the same thing with record shops. Although it is really sad that record shops close all the time, I know a couple record shops that have opened up in London, and they don’t get the interest in the newspaper. I’m sure you can probably relate that this idea of things that are closing all the time and how sad it is, and it is sad, but that’s OK. And to dwell on it just means that we’re not living in the present in the best way we can, or this kind of addiction to nostalgia in a way. And I know that I’m really guilty of that too. Especially on “Talulah” I’m always singing about how things were in the past, and it just becomes really suffocating. Also, I don’t mean to sound like I’m slagging anybody off, but just this obsession with old bands reforming and playing festivals and getting paid millions and millions, or maybe hundreds of thousands, for this band that hasn’t played for 25 years or 20 years — and it is always getting shorter the time period that passes since the band has played. And I’m a little cynical about that, you know? I think that some bands probably just break up just so they can wait the minimum five years before they can do the massive reform, which I’m sure is what Oasis is doing for example. So they can then do like 20 nights sold out at Wembley Stadium in 2016 or whenever it’ll be. So yeah, that kind of sentiment just started to get really tired for me, and it’s like, “Oh god, do I really want to see that band when there’s so much great stuff happening now and so much vibrancy?” Yeah, you know, that was kind of a long explanation, but that is kind of feeding into the idea. It’s a romantic song, it’s a love song. It’s about how relationships are really hard to get over, you know, old photographs and things from past relationships, places where you used to go with someone else. And now you’re trying to see that place in a new way. So it’s really trying to confront all of those things. I tried to put it all in one song, and I don’t know if I succeeded — it might have been a bit ambitious.