Earlier this year Philip Morgan Lewis released an EP entitled Karma Comedown, a six-track record that marked him as one of London’s rising stars and earned radio play on several stations near his home base and in the U.S., including the prominent Planet Rock. As Lewis returns to the studio in the next few weeks, the countdown begins to the release of his upcoming as yet untitled album, expected out later this year or in early 2014. A few days ago, Lewis emailed us answers to a few of the questions we sent him about his new album, the making of Karma Comedown and his dream of jamming onstage with a long-departed blues queen.
The biography on your website explains that you spent many of your early years in Ireland listening to the music of blues and jazz musicians. In what ways did that time influence your own sound and style?
I was very fortunate to grow up in a musical environment and for that I have to thank my dad and his mates; our house was always buzzing with music and amazing characters and musicians. I wanted to belong. I was always standing near the drummer when they played, pretending to be part of the band. Most of the music they played was blues or New Orleans Jazz standards and there were these incredible old records at home. I guess that sense of freedom still resonates in my music.
One summer in the late eighties, some of them were invited to the Newport Jazz Festival, and my dad and I tagged along. This was the trip of a lifetime for me; I even got to sing a song with them. The song was Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” classic.
It has been widely reported that you record most of your music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder from the 1970s. What is it about this technology that you enjoy so much?
As a producer, I use a blend of modern and vintage recording techniques. I spent a lot of time researching how some of my favorite records were produced and luckily I could research how it was done. That’s how I found out about the “corner loading” technique used on Robert Johnson’s sessions, and how the Beatles and George Martin pushed the limits on Sgt. Pepper and invented new ways to record and tweak the sound. I guess once you’re down that road you have to experiment with it, make some lucky mistakes and find out what works for you.
All the records I love had something in common: they were recorded on tape. It’s an all-digital world out there, and for me, my tape recorder is human – flawed, warm and in a way beautiful; plus, I can repair it myself. I like to press play and see all the gizmos come to life, the Vu meters doing their odd dance and the tape rolling! There’s the smell too… it’s like when you press a 12” vinyl and you peep through the magnifying glass to see the groove being carved on the plate. I find this sexy and, in a way, more tangible than watching a computer screen – although I use them too.
Three years passed between the release of Reborn and Karma Comedown. How did you spend your time in those years?
Well, life and love happened. I met this amazing woman and we had a baby girl – the song “Little A” is about her. From the day she was born I started writing songs again, and loads came. Starting a family was a key change in the way I saw the world. I started filling reels after reels with ideas and songs, I was in search of some sort unity! I was really lucky to have the full support of my lady and it enabled me to express myself freely.
I got a backing band together and started playing in London. I’d always wanted to play the legendary 100 Club on Oxford Street and when we did, it was a blast.
How has your songwriting process evolved since Reborn?
I wanted to get back to my blues and rock ’n roll musical roots and shake things up a bit. I was really inspired by the live gigs we did and needed new material. I started writing without giving any thought to production. All these new songs were written on an acoustic guitar, and I wanted them to stand out without the help of fancy arrangements.
I listened to a lot of music and tried to figure out ways to build these songs and tell a story…I was waiting to come up with the blend that makes this record and had to find the right balance so my voice, my main instrument, could sit right in the mix and have a live sound quality to it.
How did your collaboration with Pete Maher on Karma Comedown affect the production of the EP?
Pete is a really gifted guy and has been really helpful. I heard the work he did on Jack White’s “Love is Blindness” for The Great Gatsby soundtrack and loved it! It’s a great song by a visionary artist and Pete’s mastering was really cool. We started working on the title track “Karma Comedown” and something clicked – Pete really got into my music and was really supportive. We talked a lot as I was mixing the rest of the EP and he was a great help in terms of dynamics and space. No loudness war here!
What inspires you to write a song? Do you generally wait for a stroke of inspiration to hit you, or do you tend to work on your songs long-term?
Love and its many guises has always been the driving force behind my songwriting. The songs come to me and I never chase them. I read a lot, especially newspapers, watch movies, go to parties, listen to stories and take it all in.
The process usually starts by striking a chord on my guitar. Soon, the melody and words appear. Most of the time the song is there, like it’s been waiting for the right moment to appear. I write it down in my leather sketchbook, put it on tape and let it rest for a while. If I can remember it the next day it’s a song! Then I play it first to my little family to check out their reaction. It’s always a good sign if our baby girl starts dancing!
After you come up with the initial idea for a song, how much editing do you go through before you arrive at the final version?
There’s usually very little to edit, bits and bobs here and there, and my partner’s sharp wit is always a great help. Writing is what I love the most. When the song is there, for the next few minutes I’m the happiest man in the world.
How does the work of other musicians affect you? Are there any artists in particular that have a heavy impact on you or your material?
There are a few. The first that comes to mind is the American blues artist Josh White. We had all his records at home and I listened to them a lot and tried to play along. The voicing of his guitar matching his incredible melodies were just awesome. I found out much later that he was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. Bob Dylan had a massive impact as well. I didn’t know his background or where he came from, but the songs where outstanding and I learned them all as a kid. There’s that sense of form and balance, even though I probably didn’t get their full meaning back then. To me, Janis Joplin is another outstanding vocalist – I broke my voice many a time as a kid trying to match her unique performances.
And then there is the king: Elvis. I listened to the Sun sessions over and over again. There’s something in these recordings that’s uncanny. Sam Phillip’s production, particularly with the vocals, is outstanding. Elvis is one of the greatest performers of all times, in my book.
The Beatles and George Martin: it’s that incredible way they wrote their songs. I never favored Lennon or McCartney; I thought they were just bloody brilliant and I learned a lot finding out how they produced their records.
In our review of Karma Comedown we pinpointed “Hell Hole Blues” as one of the EP’s true-blues songs. How did you create it? What were the sources of inspiration behind it?
The song came as we were driving on the motorway. I had nothing to record it on so I kept singing, “I’m in a hell hole kinda blues,” which was a bit odd considering that we were on our way for a nice summer break at the seaside. I wrote the lyrics on a biscuit wrapper and when we got there the song was done. The inspiration draws from Dante’s Inferno and Huis Clos by Jean Paul Sartre. It tells the story of a man who’s been cheated on, takes his own life and is sent to hell to be judged. He ends up striking a deal with the devil and is sent back to earth to leave a trail of broken hearts.
I wanted the song to sound as raw as possible: just two guitars, a slide guitar, drums, vocals, and that’s it. Most of the track was recorded in the booth with a set of massive speakers, playing loudly, to get that live feel and grit to it.
“Set You Free” contains elements of folk, country and even a hint of gospel mixed into the vocals, tempo and lyrics. How did you achieve such a smooth blend of sounds on this track?
“Set You Free” and “Karma Comedown” have a lot in common in that they share strong blues guitar and melodic themes. At first the songs caused real problems in terms of clarity and I struggled a bit to find the right blend.
Jon Harris and Ben Jones did a really great job on the rhythm section. I needed to find the right balance between my bluesy guitar and Rob Updegraff’s truly inspired lead parts and tremolo chords. We recorded a lot of versions, and in the last stage, Steve Honest did the slide guitar take that cemented it all. Vick E’s smooth and warm backing vocals infused that gospel tone and it was there. Shuta Shinoda and I spent a while at Tinroom Studios to get the right mix, and he did a really great job helping me find the right space for each instrument.
“Parlay Woods” in particular has been cited as a fan favorite off the EP. Can you tell me a bit about the story behind the song and its creation? Where is Parlay Woods?
It’s one of my favorite tracks on the EP – I’m fascinated by forests and the mysteries they hold. As for the title, it’s a figment of my imagination, symbolizing that grey area in a relationship when habits wear down passion. “Parlay Woods” is a pledge to shake things up and revive that flame again. Easier said than done, but I’m quite the optimist and I believe if you want something hard enough you can find ways to make it work. As for the production on that song, I used a lot of ambient noises. I stuck a microphone outside my window and recorded the sound of the park – you can hear a bird singing all through the track in the background. I would describe it as a loaded peaceful song.
If you had the opportunity to perform onstage alongside any of your influences dead or alive, who would you choose?
I would choose Janis Joplin and I would try to sing along to the sound of that incredible performer and her amazing band.
Do you have a favorite musical memory that comes to mind from your childhood or from recent days?
One of the strongest memories I have as a kid is from when I saw old footage of Elvis playing an open air gig, standing on a truck platform. He was dressed all in black and oozed danger and cool – all the girls were yelling. He was so fast and sharp; I just wanted to do that.
Of today’s artists it would have to be from this year’s Grammy Awards. Jack White’s performance was just out of this world; it brought back the true spirit and sexiness of blues and rock music. I don’t care if it was rehearsed or not, but it came out of the blue and brought down the house.
Interview by Meghan Roos