Smile Politely

Figuring things out with Morgan Orion

The anti-folk scene can be a bit disorienting to an outsider such as myself. This style of music probably had its closest brush with the mainstream on the Juno soundtrack, which featured Kimya Dawson and similar artists sharing simple songs with unadorned, lo-fi arrangements.

I’m not sure if all of anti-folk’s practitioners are as earnest as Morgan Orion, but I guess I hope that they are. Orion’s stories are filled with colorfully named characters like Dustin and the Furniture and Kiki and PeePee, and where a gentleman named Moritz goes by the stage name of MoreEats. His songs have a childish innocence on their surface that’s forever in danger of being betrayed by reality and adulthood. The video for the song “Let Me Inside When I Knock on Your Door” (scroll down for the embedded video) perfectly captures that vibe. Playfulness trumps irony, and that’s nowhere more true than in the title of a new collective that Orion is helping to start: The Litterbox Collective.

Orion is playing at a house show/potluck this evening (I won’t post the location, but I will link to the Facebook invite), and his next big local gig is Thursday, June 25 at the Canopy Club, where he’ll be appearing with My Dear Alan Andrews, Pawn, and Bob and Pricilla.

I met Morgan Orion a couple of weeks ago in the Japan House gardens, and we sat by a pond and talked about his brief, globe-trotting career as an itinerant purveyor of guitar (and shaky egg) -based entertainment. He started by sharing a remastered copy of his most recent album, Morgan Orion and the Constellations

Smile Politely: Can you tell me what the mastering process entails? I’m not very musically literate.

Morgan Orion: Mastering is wizardry. It usually doesn’t entail mixing. Someone else should be doing that during the album-making process. And then you send it to be mastered basically to make it louder, and maybe to clean it up a little bit. In the case of my album, it needs to be a little louder, and it definitely needed to be cleaned up a little bit, although it’s still pretty lo-fi. It’s still got some hiss, because it was recorded on a reel-to-reel tape, but I prefer it that way, as opposed to really doctored-up, fancy, sleek, you know?

SP: I like the artwork (cover at right).

MO: My uncle, David Reisman, did the artwork. He lives in New York City. The cover is from his comic book — he hasn’t gotten it published yet — but he’s got a new comic book called “Errored Objects.” And then the CD itself is an old drawing. I hope it works. So, mastering, basically, making it louder, and I… don’t… know… really. I don’t do it, so I don’t know.

SP: So, the Constellations. Who is that?

MO: It’s a rotating cast of characters. When this album was put out, it was two girls: Arianna Valocchi and Kathleen Heinricher. Then also Miranda McCarthy was playing percussion, and there was a harpist on one song, and a bass player on one song. It was just whoever I could get in the room with me to record, and now it’s just whoever I can get on stage with me. So this summer, it will be my friends Nicol Parkinson (Jack F.E.), Irina Jasnowski (Bunny Zewt Suit) and Moritz Shadler (MoreEats). Nicol is from England, Mo is from Liechtenstein, and Irina is from Dayton, Ohio. I just know Irina through Nic and Mo. We’re recording an album together before tour.

SP: That’s a pretty diverse group.

MO: Yeah, it is. We have a record label that we just started together called Tri-lingual Records, which is just a label that we’re putting out our stuff on, and any of our friends that want to be part of it. It’s just a collectively-run thing.

SP: Do you think that will be different from just releasing your own stuff?

MO: Kind of, yeah. I think the idea is that we’ll all kind of carry each other’s catalog around, as we tour. So they’ll have my stuff in England and Liechtenstein and Ohio, and I’ll have their stuff here. There’s a sampler for that. I could get you a sampler.

SP: Just the four of you, then?

MO: No, the sampler has a bunch of people. It’s called Trilingual and Friends. We’re all featured on it.

SP: Could you talk a little bit about the Litterbox Collective and who’s involved, how that got started, etc.?

MO: I’ve been booking local shows, in town, just smaller house and all-ages shows for two and a half, three years or something. There have been other people, my friends, who do it as well. My friends Lainey Waugh, Clara Hogue, and Jim Gordon — Peninsula — are part of it. There’s also his girlfriend Jeanie Austin, they have a house — I’m not sure if it’s good to mention houses these days…

SP: Yeah, we won’t mention where it is…

MO: We just basically book shows, we all book shows, and we felt it would be good to have an organization where we could help each other do that, and find places to do that. Amanda Skag is another one. So, we just help each other poster around town, and anyone can be part of it. So, if you want some help booking a show around town, I think we’re just trying to help foster a community. It’s a nice scene for that. We’re also talking about having classes, on screen printing for posters and things like that.

SP: Where did the name come from?

MO: Jim thought it was a really funny name. He was biking when he thought it up. He thought it would be really funny to have our slogan be, ‘We are the shit.’ I was kind of opposed at first, but then it kind of grew on me. So, I feel like it has another meaning, just a diverse assortment of people. It’s doesn’t necessarily refer to catboxes. I think we’re just trying to be modest.

SP: So, did you grow up here?

MO: I did. I actually grew up in the house that I’m living in right now.

SP: Are you currently a student, or a full-time musician, or what would you call it right now?

MO: Yeah, I guess that’s what I would call it [a full-time musician]. I’m working on that right now.

SP: So, how long have you been a touring act?

MO: I’ve been touring since March of 2008, so not that long. I’ve been touring a lot since then. My first tour was to the east coast, and to the south, and it was about a month with this band, Kiki and Peepee. And that was a a good experience, definitely. Then I went on tour, a smaller thing, I just went over to Oregon and Washington and played a couple shows. Then I guess the next tour was Europe. I was there for like, two months, but I wasn’t playing the whole time. There were a lot of shows, though. Then, just recently, I did a Midwest tour and the South.

SP: What all instruments do you play?

MO: I play guitar; that’s my main instrument, I would say. I sing, and I fiddle around with ukulele sometimes. My first album was just me, and my dad, Carl, played piano on one song. I played guitar, shaky egg – the extent of my percussive abilities is if I can do it with one hand – that’s usually what I do. I’m playing instruments with my friends since we’re rotating songs when we tour together, so I’ll play ukulele and play percussion. I like playing percussion because it’s fun, and maybe some bass stuff. Even guitar, I’m not amazing, but it’s fun.

SP: How long have you been playing?

MO: I’ve been playing since August of 2007. Two years … yeah.

SP: So, at what point did you decide that you were going to go out on tour and play guitar? It sounds like that happened pretty quickly if you just started in August of 2007…

MO: Oh, wait, I didn’t start playing in August 2007. That was when I released my first album. I started playing in August of 2006. I’ve been playing for a little bit longer than that. I played for about a year, and then I recorded an album. Up to that point, it just didn’t come until then. And then, I started fiddling around with getting a band together and start doing music with other people and I liked that. So, then I recorded another album, and I went on tour. I just found other people who would also want to go on tour. I found people who had a car.

SP: Generally, I think a car is helpful for touring.

MO: A guy I know who did a bike tour — Dustin and the Furniture is his stage name — he would just borrow guitars from whoever he was playing with, because most people play guitars. You get to play a lot of different guitars that way.

SP: So, you just caravan with other people on these tours?

MO: Yeah, usually other people are involved. I think it’s a good thing. You get other people to pay for gas, and it’s fun to have people to play with, if they’re into that. Which, this summer, it’s basically my band. And then, I’ll be part of their band, too. I leave July 5.

SP: Who do you consider to be some of your musical influences?

MO: Jeffrey Lewis, a lot of people in the anti-folk scene. I still really like the Moldy Peaches, I like them; I like Adam Green, Kimya Dawson, the stuff that they did. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, he’s really cool. Now he doesn’t have the band the Modern Lovers, so it’s just Jonathan Richman. I was in Europe when he played at the Highdive. He’s a very genuine person, as well. His songs are very honest, and in past reviews that I’ve read of him, some people feel that he’s a novelty act, and he doesn’t really appreciate that. I listen to the Wave Pictures. They’re a band from England, they’re really great. You know, doo wop and old soul music is really great, I’ve been listening to that a lot lately. Sam Cooke. That’s just a recent discovery, really just how great he is. I listen to a lot of folk music too.

SP: How would you describe your style? Do you feel you fit into the anti-folk scene?

MO: Yeah, I think so. I think those are some of the performers that I identify with the most these days. I also relate to this girl, Rachel Ries in Chicago. I feel like her music is really amazing. She sings country stuff. It’s really, really good. Though I’ve never played with her. I’d like to sometime.

SP: Is this a tremendously profitable venture for you?

MO: No (laughs). I’m working on it. Maybe it can be self-sustaining, at least. I think that’s kind of what I’m going for. I haven’t gotten there yet. I come up with new ideas each tour, how to make it better. I think you have to live kind of frugally, but I think I can make it work.

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