Photo by Jeff Davenport
On her latest EP, Between Skies, you can hear Denver-based artist Anna Morsett–aka The Still Tide–closer to the record-making process than ever. With the help of bandmate Joe Richmond, she set up a home studio and set about recording herself for the first time, alone with her thoughts and the songs she’d written over the year before.
The result is a batch of tracks that stretches further than her 2018 EP, Each, After. Morsett’s songwriting is still awash in warmth, but it’s also been rebuilt on Richmond’s drumming and drenched in new atmospheric textures, fusing her intricate guitar and bass work with great cloud masses of keyboards and horns.
Sometimes she gathers them all up under one cozy blanket, as on the long-distance love letter “On The Line,” glowing with bittersweet affection and shimmering omnichord. In other places, like the poignant closer “Acres,” there’s a vulnerable openness to the sound, with guitars fading in and out, sometimes mingling with trumpets. All along the way, Morsett grows her repertoire of heartfelt indie rock with a willingness to experiment.
Before the release, Morsett spoke to The All Scene Eye about recording Between Skies–a process fraught with, ups, downs, and happy accidents–and about her musical double life as a guitar tech for the likes of Kaki King and The Tallest Man on Earth.
You were working on this album through the winter about a year ago. How has this winter been by comparison?
Well, it’s funny; last winter was really hard. I kind of worked myself into a little hole [laughs] which was not a smart or wise choice. I spent most of January just working on that record, which was really intense and took a lot out of me. So, by comparison, this one is already so much brighter and better. I’m actually working on some new songs right now, and I’m trying to heed all the lessons I learned last year–like when things get hard, learning to step away and be like, “Alright, I’ll come back to that problem. I can’t figure that one out right now. I’ll be back.” So far, it’s so much better, and I think that alone is pretty big.
You get into some of that on the last track, “Acres.” How did you ultimately take notice of that, enough so that you could put it in a song?
I think it inevitably just got so bad [laughs] it was unavoidable. All those songs had started so much earlier, and then I’d spent this long season of touring and being away–they transformed so much in that winter space, and I wanted to make it really personal, or just make it truthful. I think I pressed myself more as an artist to make everything as honest as I can, even if it’s not comfortable. In that same space, that song kind of pulled itself out of me. I’d been given this really great space to make the record I wanted to make, and instead of enjoying the gift that that was, it was a really painful process, which was so unnecessary. That song was so much what I was living through, so in a weird way, it just appeared, and it was so real.
You mentioned this transformation of the other songs on the record. How did that come about?
We started working on those songs in summertime. I had these vague ideas for what I wanted from them, I spent a lot of time working on them sonically and structurally, and then I left them on tour. Jake [Miller] and I, my bandmate, we did a little duo tour in Europe, and it’s then that the songs started to take shape more lyrically, which was cool, to be writing within this backdrop of Europe and this tiny roller-skate of a car we were driving around in, but over the course of that fall, I didn’t have as much time to work on it, so things lyrically did really come together in the winter. Things that I had started in one place–like “Acres,” the lyrics were so different. I just was working with the sonority of some words.
There was a vague cloud shape of an idea, and then later–which was cool with some of the other songs too–it was all kind of revealed to me, like, “Oh, that’s what this song’s about. Let’s follow that path.” I’m trying to think of another good example of that on the record. “Amsterdam” definitely started with this idea and a theme that I had taken from a moment in my own life, and then expanded and got much more colored-in. A lot of these songs come from a personal place, but as you grow them or edit them, you can put some fiction around them for the benefit of their connection to other people. I think maybe they got more specific. They just were shapes, and then I was like, “Oh no, that’s what you are. You’re a couch,” or, “Oh my gosh, you’re a microphone.” [laughs] The shape of it becomes clearer.
This record goes a lot of different places, but overall it has a more energetic and drum-heavy sound than your last EP, Each, After. What led you in that direction?
I think that’s always been an interesting place, and I’m glad you brought up Each, After. A lot of the songs, for me, start in this really tender songwriter-song-baby space, but I love having this full band and I love the experience of having energy and music on stage that you can dance to. I love drums and bass lines and this engine room of a rhythm section, and I love moving that experience live, so one of the challenges of the project has been to marry what I find most touching and what is where my heart generally lives–these tender songs, that kind of authenticity and that honesty–with that ability to move and feel good.
I think about all the times that I’ve been in a hard place personally, or in a dark time. We’ve all had those moments, those kind of blue days, and I feel like often I reach for the music that will make me feel better. I’ll put on some Whitney Houston or something and be like, “Alright, shake it off. You’re okay!” I wanted to peer into that space of music that felt good but that also was tethered to this heartfelt, more intricate guitar playing. I don’t know that that’s actually revealed on this record, now that I think about it. [laughs]
The guitar parts are definitely very layered. There are moments where I hear them blend really seamlessly into what might be a keyboard part, but even that’s hard to tell sometimes. How did you develop those sounds and textures?
I think all the songs I had written either on bass or guitar and then brought to the band. We started working them through that way, but after we’d recorded drums in the summer, you know, I went away for tour, came back, and then recorded–like, there are guitar parts, Joe did some key parts and percussion, and I did a lot of the other stuff. There’s an omnichord on there, a ton of guitars, and I did all the bass.
In a weird way, the layering just came from this wild love of experimenting with all these tools that I had in the studio we’d put in my house. We had this mellotron, and a keyboard, and–this is probably part of that digging myself into a dark little hole. I kind of went wild with all these ideas and sounds, and in a way, you can get into so much trouble for yourself because suddenly you’re layering too much stuff, and the song itself gets buried. [laughs] So I stripped a bunch of it back, but I think that’s where that began to happen.
I loved the idea of these weird things that would happen accidentally that would remain and be so unique to that moment or that song that we probably wouldn’t even be able to recreate again. I think that’s where that all started, and maybe even in the same breath of how those lyrics got specific; kind of like making a big cloud mess of key parts and guitar ideas, and then slowly, it becomes the thing it is, and you’re like, “Oh, you’re this thing. We don’t need this anymore,” or “We can put this in instead,” and find the joy in it in the exploration.
Do you know any examples off the top of your head of those unintended things you couldn’t replicate?
There’s some weird omnichord stuff in “On The Line,” and that was actually kind of a struggle because this omnichord that we recorded a bunch of stuff with is super broken. It was given to me by a friend because they were like, “It doesn’t really work, but if you want it,” and I was like, “Cool, this is great!” So, the tuning–some of it just didn’t work right, and there were warbles. It just would fall out of tune because the batteries were dying, so there’s a weird digital sheen on some omnichord parts that we actually had to scrub out. The way that sounds in that track specifically is so weird, and I’m sure we can’t do it again.
A key part in “Change of Address” was me messing around with pedals I borrowed from friends to make this weird delay thing happen. Now it’s more melodic, and you can hear it as a part and be able to replicate it, but the way it became the part was kind of on accident, so that’s in there. The delay timing isn’t super direct or on, but it’s really cool, and I liked it too much, so we kept it.
There were some other digital artifacts from weird vocal parts that I did some panning effects on, and actually, one of them–
Yeah, did you hear any of that?
I was actually wondering. With “On The Line,” there are some little vocal fragments–it’s tough to figure out what they are or where they’re coming from.
That’s definitely what that was, and that was really just so much experimenting. I wanted that song, in that moment, to feel like you’re suddenly in the sea, and everything is swirling around–just, like, weird confusion, which was kind of to illustrate this long distance relationship I was working through. That was kind of a happy accident too, of messing around with pro tools plugins that I was unfamiliar with, and I was like, “Oh, that was cool. I really like that.”
Maybe it’s like your connection is breaking up. You’re hearing a little bit of voice you can’t quite–
Exactly! Oh my god. [laughs]
That was the illustration for me.
That’s genius. You got it.
Had you ever made a record in your house like that?
No, and I think that was one of the biggest challenges and rewards of the whole thing–having wanted that experience for years and just not having the equipment or the time. The more you get into Pro Tools, the more you’re like, “Wow, this is really exciting, and I can do these things, but now I understand that there’s so much that I really need someone else to do.” I’d done a lot of private demos and really basic tracking and stuff like that, but this was the first time that I’d had that gear, so that was really cool, to just have a literal studio. I could record so much on my own, and that was really rewarding, but never like that before. We’d done it at various home studios, but always with someone who was like an actual engineer [laughs] who knew the equipment much better than I did.
This time, what was really cool, it was all Joe Richmond’s gear, so he came in and taught me how to use it. Then I would send him audio, or he would come in and check the audio that I had recorded because I was like, “I’m working really hard on this stuff–is this even usable? Is this working?” He would come in and be like, “Oh, this is great,” you know, check it in all the ways a real engineer would know, and then I just carried on through winter, for better or worse, in the darkness of my apartment. [laughs] Twisting knobs into the night and playing with that omnichord. It was good, but I definitely learned a lesson of when you need to step away and breathe some outside air.
Can you tell me about the song “Memorized Lines”? Based on what I’ve read about it already, it seems like another place where you learned something about yourself.
That’s very true. I was just thinking about that again, where I think most of the songs on the record, the “you” that I’m singing to–all these things, I’m like, “You can do this,” and “You should do this”–I can see myself in that person I’m talking to, which was kind of a cool and bittersweet reveal moment, because some of the things are not necessarily positive. [laughs] But also, we’re all so much the same, and any kind of negative feeling I felt for whoever I was singing to, I was like, “Oh, no, I’ve been that person too.” At so many turns, we all become the things we like least in the world as much as the things we love the most.
I started writing “Memorized Lines” based on a party that I went to years and years ago, where I felt alone watching a lot of–I call it posturing, but it was kind of just social behavior that I felt very excluded from. Later, I saw that echoed within one person and developed a song around that, but then I was like, “I’ve been that way also,” so I think that one, too, became clearer.
Also, there’s hope in that song; being able to see through someone and having that be a negative thing, but also a positive thing. There’s a negative sweep of, “I see who you are, and I see that you’re faking, and this is bullshit, and I don’t like this person,” but at the same time, “I see you, and I see that you’re not this thing that you present.” By the end of the song, I’m hoping that the positive message is, “I’m sure that what is there, you’ll see it and you’ll become the thing that you are instead of what you think people want from you, or however you’re presenting.”
What role has songwriting and performance played for you in thinking about presentation to the world, or on the flip side, posturing?
Oh, that’s such a good point. I thought about that a lot when we were titling the EP, but there’s so much to what we talked about where these songs originate as this personal thing, trying to be very authentic, but the nature of being in music, there’s so much outward facing that you do, and you have to present in a certain way. I’m actually super introverted. Not “super,” I guess, but I am an introvert, and for all of the outward-facing energy I have, I have to restore that by being alone.
If I’m performing, I’m very energetic and trying to connect with that audience, and much more extroverted-appearing. There’s this warring world of performance and presentation that way, but then I just would go home, sit in my room for hours and hours, and be so happy. That’s where I nourish my inner being, but I don’t think anyone would guess that [laughs] if you just meet me this one way.
The style of writing, where these songs originate and what you were saying about the drums–the difference of them being a little more upbeat on some level is kind of its own mirror of exactly that. I love where they start and where they live in my heart, but I like how they feel on stage and out in the world differently as this more energized thing.
The video for “Keep It” has this very candid, behind-the-scenes feel that I think is cool when you think about the dichotomy you’re talking about. How did that concept come together?
Our friends had developed that idea, and originally, that storyline was supposed to be a little more explicit; I think it’s supposed to be more clear that I’m not super comfortable in this shoot situation. [laughs] I’m glad at least part of it was picked up on in this candid thing, but it was supposed to play on that idea of being put in all these situations, and–it’s not quite what everyone else was seeing, but there was all this interaction with the director, and me not quite getting it–not knowing how to be in this shoot–and then at the end, it’s like, “Oh, just put a guitar in her hands and she knows what to do.” You know, whatever. That’s funny to think about now. We kind of had to laugh about it.
I’m trying to think about how that started. There were so many emails and everyone on the phone call at once being like, “What about this idea? What about this?” But I think it did come down to exposing me as this goofier character because a lot of the press shots that were coming out looked really severe. It’s so funny; people do respond to that, and the record itself is weighted, but it was nice to show I wasn’t taking anything too seriously–that ability to play and not be so severe in this presentation of the record.
The video for “On The Line” is an isolated setting–it’s just you and your guitar and the song. It’s interesting to compare the different environments you’re in for these songs.
Yeah, and that song too is about the long-distance relationship I was in–am in, but at the time was long-distance–so that really was trying to talk about that moment of waiting by the phone and having so much of your feelings and life be so isolated in that, where you’re reading letters that they sent, or writing letters, or just thinking about them and writing this song. That was very closely pinned to where that song started and where it grew to be, so that’s cool. It’s fun to think about these things making more sense later. [laughs] It’s all very thought-out, but at the time, you’re pinned to timing and budget, trying to make the best of your ideas within the constraints. It’s cool to see that it all does work out in the end.
Where did the phrase “between skies” come from, and how did that become the title of the EP?
That actually came very literally. It made more sense of itself, but the idea actually came from, I have these maps in the room that the studio was in, and there’s one the monitor was under, and it’s the heavens. It’s two different spheres, the northern sky and the southern sky, of the constellations, and I literally sat right between the skies–between the northern and the southern sky, united by Orion’s Belt, which is the only thing you can see in both skies.
I was like, “Oh, that’s crazy, it’s so cool, and this is where the record was made,” but also, I was in this long-distance relationship and traveling a lot, literally bouncing between different skylines and different hemispheres, and that was where a lot of the record came together. There was a lot of that movement between skies, but the idea did come from literally being sat underneath this map [laughs] of the constellations. It’s actually from a National Geographic from 1970 that my grandparents had given me when I was a kid.
I also have a couple questions about what you do as a guitar tech. How did you get into that line of work?
It’s such a fluke–I didn’t even know that existed, like, over a decade ago. I was living in New York, playing in a different band, just having all these issues with my guitar, and I took it to a shop. I was the last appointment of the day, and this really amazing man named Richie Baxt–I was like, “I don’t know what’s going on with this,” and he immediately was like, “This is what’s wrong.” I was blown away, and then was like, “How did I not know this? I’ve been playing guitar forever, and I didn’t know these stupid things.”
I mean, this was, like, 12 years ago [laughs] but I was really curious about it. The nerd side of me was like, “I really want to know stuff,” and also, “This is really important. I can’t believe that nobody knows this,” because I had asked around. It was just stupid stuff at that point–things that now I’m sure more people know about–but I asked if I could be an apprentice. He was like, “Oh, sure, great,” so I apprenticed at Richie’s Guitar Shop in New York on the Lower East Side for a few years.
At the same time, I was working at a record label, and the management team and one of our artists–we’d become friends, and I was working for her within that label world and also working on these guitars. At some point, she needed a tech and a helper out on the road and asked if I wanted to go on tour. I was like, “Absolutely, that’s all I ever want to do,” so I really just got thrown into the fire. That was Kaki King, and she’s this crazy virtuosic, amazing guitarist, and all of her songs are different tunings. It was not just like, “Oh, here, I’ll tune your guitar to standard and hand it to you once.”
We worked together for the next–maybe five years or so? It was really intricate tunings and lots of changes, so that got me up to speed as a guitar tech. I started learning from there, but stayed working at the shop and then was just on the road. I’ve been a guitar tech for about a decade now. That kind of grew and worked with other artists, but that’s how that all started, which is kind of funny. It was such an accident, and now I’m in a world where I’m [laughs] obviously way better than I was a decade ago.
How does it compare, touring as somebody’s guitar tech versus touring as a performer? Especially being the introvert that you are.
In some ways, it’s really nice as the introvert. On the last tour, we had 14 guitars, and there’s a lot of maintenance that goes on during the day, so you get into a venue, and I would just spend so much time working on my own that that would kind of satisfy that need.
And then you’re just running through the shadows during the show. I would come out and hand off a guitar, and with him–this was for Tallest Man [on Earth]–it was like every song was a new change, so I was on stage a lot, but I wasn’t performing, so I didn’t have to be that thing. In a weird way, it’s so much less performative, but there’s different energies; those are really long days. You get in at noon and then you’re done at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.
As a performer, you have this explosive hour of performance, and that’s it’s own fun and kind of taxing thing. Then you’re socially on all night either selling merch or talking to people, so in that way, it’s as exhausting, but on a different level. It’s all fun and pleasurable, but I do feel depleted for different reasons after both of those tours–depleted socially by the end of a performance tour, and then by the end of a tech tour, I’m just lacking sleep and want to go home. [laughs] What’s hardest about the tech tours is you don’t get to play a lot of music.
What’s next for you after this EP?
Pretty much working on these new songs and getting another recording project underway, which is exciting, but also a little daunting. We’re trying to do some cool stuff, which I’ll go into later. Also, reorganizing the band around this new sound because there’s a lot of moving parts on the record. So, rebuilding the band, getting ready to release it, and then hoping to tour on it, and after recording this next thing, to build it and take it out of the nest. Put the ships out to sea, I guess. [laughs] We’re doing some dates with Nathaniel Rateliff, so I think that’s the next big thing on the horizon after the release.
What are you doing differently now that you know how the last project turned out for you?
[laughs] I think just taking my time with the songs. I’ve been working on all these demos, but because I’m not going to record it in the same way, there’s some relief knowing I can do the process at home in a more joyful, experimental place and then bring it to a group of people, and we’ll kind of hack it out together, which I think will be really cool. We’re hoping to do more live tracking, so I have the songs more rounded out part-wise, and I think that’ll take away a lot of that pain. It was really fun, but I just got a little too far into the rabbit hole to see the light, so this time, I’m taking my time, and organizing myself, and then exploring as a group, which I think will be really good and less rabbit-holey.