“I’d like it to be ageless. I like to think that there’s another element to my music where it’s not a 19 year old girl singing it.” Flo Morrissey stands just on the brink of her 20th birthday, yet her voice and her songwriting possess a timelessness; an otherworldly naivety coupled with the weight of an old soul. It’s a rare quality, one that calls to mind the work of Karen Dalton, Jackson C Frank or Joanna Newsom, and that marks her out as a distinct and remarkable talent.
Morrissey grew up just off the Portobello Road in London, the second-oldest of nine children. If it was an unusual upbringing it was nonetheless one that has given her both the grounding and the confidence to plough her own particular furrow. “None of us were rebellious,” she says. “And we’ve all been very rooted to home. I get on a lot better with older people, I’m close with my parents, and I would rather spend time with my family than go to a party.”
It was Morrissey’s father who introduced her to artists such as Devendra Banhart and Antony and the Johnsons, and her older brother who led her to Jeff and Tim Buckley. “And I always knew Bob Dylan,” she says “When I was maybe eight years old I did a talent show and sang Maggie’s Farm, in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots.” What she admires most in music — and hopes might be found in her own songs, is for there to be “something childlike in the best way possible, something almost vulnerable about the music, for there not to be a barrier.“
At 14 Morrissey began learning guitar. She still remembers the thrill when, only a couple of weeks into lessons, she played a song for her best friend “making it up as I went along,” she smiles. “I got really excited by the idea — I remember going back home and recording it on garage band.”
Soon she was replacing the recordings on her MySpace — youthful renditions of “Lord Bless You” and “Keep You” and My Fair Lady covers with her first original song. “I deleted all the other ones,” she says. “And I guess that was the start of it.”
Morrissey left school at 17, abandoning A Levels in Music and French to pursue her songwriting career. “It was a big decision,” she admits. “But I’d always been set on not going to university because I knew that music was what I wanted to do. And even though it’s scary to go out into the real world and do it, it seemed more right to me to just try.” Her parents, she insists, were entirely supportive. “They wouldn’t have been if I was just sitting in my room all day waiting for things to happen,” she says. “But because I’d been making music since I was 14 and putting it online, and the power of the internet had helped pave my way to meeting my manager and meeting my label, they supported the decision.”
When she was 15, Morrissey had written a song called “Show Me” — a stunning and arresting song that sounded world-worn and emboldened, showcasing the height and depth, the twist and turn of her exceptional voice. She played it to her brother and, encouraged by his response, she began saving up for a Super 8 camera to make the song a video she would post to Vimeo.
In a roundabout way it was this video that brought Morrissey to the attention of Aram Goldberg, manager of Devendra Banhart, and then on to Daniel Glass of Glassnote Records (home to Phoenix, Mumford & Sons and Daughter, among many) a label she chose because “Nearly everything I do now has to be centered around a sense of family and community and being around nice people.”
It is “Show Me” that forms the cornerstone of her debut album, a collection of songs written over the past 5 years of her life. “It’s a broad spectrum of that time — some older, a couple more recent,” she explains. “I don’t want to seem like a teenager, but it’s my teenage years.”
She has grown as a songwriter in that time, she says. The initial wonder and excitement of doing something new has given way to a different feeling: “You still get moments of inspiration,” she says, “but it becomes more of an exercise in doing something that I love.” The spontaneity has evolved into craft, developed its own elegance and rhythm. “It’s something that changes as you change, even day to day, and you have to go with it.”
She has a magpie-ish eye for inspiration, seizing on the visual stimulation of art exhibitions and photography, as well as a love of poetry, literature, first lines filched from Poirot books, and a deep and resonant love of France and the French language. “And of course underneath it all my family and my everyday experiences are at the forefront of what I write about,” she says. “And because I’m still young, and I haven’t experienced much at my age, I try to generate an emotion from something that I’ve seen, and sometimes I’ll exaggerate it, so that perhaps it sounds older, perhaps it sounds as if I’ve lived my whole life.”
Her most recent single, the glorious dream-song “Pages of Gold,” is a profoundly personal song, “A snapshot,” she says, “into teenage confusion. It’s where you feel you want something but you know that it’s wrong and you have to put the feelings aside and have faith that you’re doing the right thing by not giving in to the turmoil. It’s portrayed as a love song, but it could be turmoil in any sense. But often with a song I often don’t understand what they’re about at the time I’m writing them. It’s only afterwards that I get an understanding of them. And when I sing that now, I feel I’m singing from a very different standpoint to when I wrote it.”
Morrissey recorded the album with producer Noah Georgeson (Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Cate Le Bon), spending two and a half months in Los Angeles — a city she found both “lonely” and “amazing”, as she spent her days in and out of the studio “trying to walk to places in my clogs.”
The songs had been written so intimately, held so close to her heart, spurning all offers of co-writing “because I wanted it to be very personal and an honest thing” and so there was a degree of trepidation about showing them to someone in such a raw state.“
But Georgeson, she says, allowed her to “hear the songs in a new way” devising different arrangements, introducing guitar and harp and harmonium and piano. “I learned so much from Noah,” she says. “He taught me that there was a way of making a song come alive, but not over-blowing it,” she says. “He taught me that the backbone has to be there first, to have a faith in the song. It felt as if I was going through a special experience with someone, which is what I think an album and the recording of it should be.
Having played only a handful of live shows – including much-lauded performances at Green Man and Wilderness, this autumn Morrissey suddenly found herself on stage at the Casino de Paris, playing two songs to 2000 people as a sort of amuse bouche before headliner Damon Albarn.
“It’s funny because when I play sometimes I can’t even think and you have no control. And sometimes you’re thinking too much. But then,” she recalls, “it was somewhere in between.” She sang “Pages of Gold” and “L’Amour est Bleu” the French Eurovision entry from 1967. “And halfway through the first song I was suddenly pushed into by five big men behind the curtain, moving the equipment, and everyone was clapping. It felt very strange.”
She remembers, she says, how warm the audience was, “And seeing a girl smiling in the crowd. And I was trying to smile and think that this is just a song, just go for it.”