Writer’s Room: Jon Evans, Grace Morrison Discuss Songwriting and What Makes Music Great

Grace Morrison and Jon Evans (multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer for Tori Amos, Paula Cole, and dozens more) recently sat down for a chat and American Songwriter was fortunate enough to be invited to record the encounter.

Grace released her critically-acclaimed album Daughter last year and has 6 singles planned for release in 2022, the first of which is called “Sober” which comes out on January 21st.

In stark contrast to the trend in country music that often sees a long list of songwriters contributing to a single track, Morrison is the sole writer to which all the songs on Daughter are attributed, save for the touching “Just Loving You,” which she co-wrote with Grammy-winner Lori McKenna. 

Country-tinged embellishments, courtesy of producer Jon Evans, provide a perfect balance to Morrison’s crystal clear vocals, with pedal steel courtesy of Austin City Limits Hall of Famer Lloyd Maines (father of Natalie Maines of The Chicks).

Check out what they shared with one another:

Grace Morrison: The best song that I’ve ever heard is “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Jon Evans: Wow. That’s super polarizing.

Grace Morrison: It’s cool, I’ve said that to you before…

Jon Evans: “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It was a hit, there’s no doubt about it. What makes it the best song you’ve ever heard? 

Grace Morrison: I’m putting it in a ballpark with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The thing that I like about those two songs is that nobody could predict where they go. They don’t have a traditional song form, but when you’re listening to it, it makes sense and it’s interesting.

Jon Evans: Yeah, sure. I would say that in the Pantheon of composition, I would side withBohemian Rhapsody because everything about it was completely original. There was nothing like it, it came out of left field. It’s through composed and in a lot of ways, it’s it lends itself much more to classical music than the typical singer/songwriter song, with your typical form. I would say that “Total Eclipse…” leans more in that direction. Not that it isn’t a great song.

Jon Evans: The other day I was listening to, for the first time in a long time, the song “Overjoyed” by Stevie Wonder. I think as far as the melodic content and where that song goes harmonically, it is impossibly difficult in a lot of ways, but he makes it sound so easy.

Jon Evans: His voice is arguably probably the best voice in recorded history. I would put it out there and feel pretty confident saying that. He can make an impossibly difficult melody feel like talking and just the easiest thing in the world. And he is just so joyful. His lyrics and the way he sings are so joyful that you can’t help but smile and be amazed. It really is a massive journey when you’ve listened to that song.

Grace Morrison: Maybe that’s what I like about “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Total Eclipse…” Is that they feel like a journey, but with places along the way that I can remember and hang onto. That was one of the reasons, when I went to college, I studied jazz and I had a hard time getting into it because I never felt like I could hang on a piece of a song. You know what I mean? That’s what I like about them. 

Jon Evans: The farther we go back in time, the more complex music gets. You get into the romantic period and classical music and then early 20th century classical modern music, it’s dense. When you listen to a symphony, all the movements and dense harmonies, the jazz of the 20th century distilled that down and took a lot of that complex stuff, but still was working off of some basic forms based out of the blues. And then we got rock and roll, which kind of dumbed it down further. I love rock and roll, but it did. It took a complex music and simplified it.

Jon Evans: We then moved into the seventies and eighties and had a lot of dance music that got even simpler and simpler. And then to where we are now, where a lot of modern music is, it might be a chord or three chords for three and a half minutes. It may or may not have a melody, not that it’s any less dynamic or interesting to people but it is simple. So when you talk about finding a song that’s complex that you can latch on to things, and also when you’re talking about not being able to find your way through in jazz, right away. It takes time.

Jon Evans: It takes immersion because you’re moving into a much more complicated harmonic and rhythmic type of music. So, there’s a lot more there to decipher. Also, if you don’t listen to a ton of it, it’s going to feel very foreign. Like why does this chord go here? Often there are real reasons why the next chord is coming and there are harmonic hinge pins on which things move in pretty regular directions for the most part. However, if it’s not something you’ve listened to a ton at first, it can seem very abstract. 

Grace Morrison: For me, I’m making music hoping that like the average person will listen to it.

Grace Morrison: The average person isn’t necessarily listening to that more complex music. So I try finding a way to take a song that’s relatively simple but telling a story that gets complicated lyrically, or that someone can relate to, and then not find the deeper meaning. Are you someone who, as a listener, is more interested in the lyrical journey of the song or are you more of a melody guy?

Jon Evans: It’s very song-dependent. It really is. Some songs can live on their own as a set of poetry with a mood around it. It could be a drone, and nothing else. Some songs, some stories are not terribly compelling and they need some music around them to turn them into something else.

Jon Evans: But what we were talking about earlier, just that idea of, what makes a song great or a perfect song if you even can use that, and I think it’s an impossible concept because of the fact that there are so many different ways to skin a cat, right?

Grace Morrison: Yeah. 

Jon Evans: So I think it’s more a question of what makes a particular song great? And going down that road, if you have a favorite song, what about that song makes that particular song so great? Because often it is the story. Having a great story to tell is really important, but sometimes you can have a not incredibly interesting story or lyrical content or development, but you can have incredible performance. That transcends the lyrical content or even the depth of the music. 

Grace Morrison: Wouldn’t you say, it all really just boils down to getting a listener, to feel a feeling? 

Jon Evans: Certainly.

Grace Morrison: Whether it be through the melody or the production or the lyric. 

Jon Evans: Yeah, absolutely but think of Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti.” There aren’t a lot of lyrics and it’s pretty straightforward, but his performance, his playing, the energy, the way he sings, it will go down in history as one of the great songs of all time. Does it have the lyrical depth of a Leonard Cohen song? Or, the singing of a Stevie Wonder song? No, but was there anything like it before? No. We hadn’t heard it and it came out of the blue.

Grace Morrison: I was never, somebody who thought about songwriting, I always just did it and it would always be when I felt like I had a song to write. For a long time, I would just write a song, no rhyme or reason, no story to it. Then I went to the songwriting workshop where the songwriter had said to everybody, you’ve got to wait for the creative window to open.

Grace Morrison: And I thought, oh yes, that’s me. I just wait until I feel the muse. But then I sat down to write with Lori McKenna that one time and she said, that’s malarkey when you’re a songwriter, you write a song. And I wonder if you have any thoughts about that, because you, as a producer, you can’t just wait for your creative window, you gotta work when it’s time to work.

Jon Evans: Always. I think there are some people that feel that they have to wait for the muses to arrive for sure. But they either have the opportunity to live their life that way, or they’re just not very productive. I feel like if you want to write songs, it’s much like anything. It takes a lot of practice and it takes a lot of trying. It’s better to just continually be writing things and then also letting go of the bad things, because you can learn by writing some bad piece of music. Not that saying that it’s bad, but just something that doesn’t stick with you or doesn’t resonate or doesn’t work. If you’re struggling with it, put it down and it’ll give you the opportunity to write something completely different. If you’re just sitting there waiting for some magic, to course through your fingers, you could be waiting a long time. 

Grace Morrison: It’s funny, when I was teaching little kids it would be so easy to get them to write a song because they weren’t editing. They would just say, “this is a Koala Bear, and her name is Sue”, and they didn’t care. As we get older, we start worrying about what other people will think and whether it’s good and whether it’s bad. Frankly, I wonder if the song writer who wrote “Tutti Frutti” put those words down and thought “that is genius,” or if they have to allow it to be what it is.

Jon Evans: I don’t know. It feels so inspired in the moment; “a womp, bam, boom” probably just came flying out of his mouth at that moment, or at one moment very close to when he recorded that. I don’t know the story behind it. I’m sure it’s well-documented but it’s certainly a moment of inspiration, but you don’t go from zero to fully formed songwriter, just because you have a great idea. It takes a ton of work. Even someone that waits for inspiration to hit them and then writes something is still probably been writing for years. They know how to play their instrument and understand how to put words together in a thoughtful way, or at least to express feelings they want to express at that time. Everything takes practice, whether that’s just journaling from the time you’re eight years old until you start actually putting songs and poems together, or whether that’s practicing your given instrument that you write on. Whatever that is, there has to be a ton of time put in, and waiting for it isn’t the way to do it. It’s much better to write things you don’t want to share with anyone. If you were a painter and you put a bad color on the canvas, you would know “wow, that looks terrible.” Now I know that these other colors go better together and I’ll paint right over that. Or just forget about it. That was a mistake, but you don’t know if you’re only giving yourself this one opportunity in a given amount of time to write a masterpiece, you’re probably going to disappoint yourself. 

Grace Morrison: It’s true that I think what people might be getting at with the waiting for the creative window thing is you can see a songwriter who just can write a song in 15 minutes and it comes out full-formed, and it can seem as though it just appeared, but really that’s all those years of writing and trying and failing. 

Jon Evans: Right, it’s being prepared. It’s if a carpenter comes to build a house and he doesn’t show up with a hammer and then figure out, “oh, now I need a saw and I’ll go home and get my saw” and then, “oh, geez. I forgot nails. I need nails.” They come knowing how to build the whole house and they come with all their tools.

Jon Evans: When you say, “Hey, I want this to be a three-bedroom house with two bathrooms here and here,” and they just go “there’s your house,” they know you come prepared. I’m saying that has to do with all the journal writing and practicing and playing with other people and trying things out and writing terrible songs that you’d never want to hear again.

Grace Morrison: I would say my percentage of good songs to bad is maybe 5% of the things I write, I think are good. 

Jon Evans: You write a lot of good songs, so you must write a lot of terrible songs. I have a writing partner and we do a lot of instrumental music for different radio shows and are often behind the eight ball trying to meet deadlines. We have found that the best answer is to just do something. Especially if you have a partner in there that can inspire them to add on to it, that it can make it more than the sum of its parts. Rather than belaboring a phrase and trying to make it perfect, we just go off that initial idea, add to it, and then it’s the other person’s turn to start. That can work really well. So working with a songwriting partner, as long as you’re feeling open to that person’s ideas and there is a certain amount of trust in the room, that can be a fantastic thing because someone that has a whole set of tools might be similar to yours, but just slightly different so that they bring something else. Say, “oh normally I go here for the bridge” and they might say, “oh, what if we went over here” and that opens up a whole new realm and it makes me feel differently about the lyrics I might put there.

Jon Evans: That can be a really great way to just get you out of your same old ways of life. 

Grace Morrison: I’ve only, co-written twice, once with my husband and once with Lori McKenna, but I feel in working with you in a lot of ways, sounds like what you’re talking about with a writing partner, like working with a producer who can find a new way that your song might want to move that you hadn’t thought of. Although, you really need good bones, right? Would you say that any amount of production can fix a shitty song? 

Jon Evans: Yeah. Sure. Certainly. But then that gets back to whether it’s a good song or a good performance. I don’t know that you’re necessarily gonna make a great song out of terrible, boring lyrics.

Jon Evans: If it’s a song about waiting in your dentist’s office and reading a magazine and having no thoughts, it’s probably not going to be terribly exciting. Not that you couldn’t do something interesting with that, but just saying that there could be a very boring set of lyrics with no chords in there.

Jon Evans: In the modern context of songwriting, you could put bunch of production elements and sounds and glitz and beats and all kinds of things in there that could make it fun to listen to. Would it make it a great song? Probably not. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be entertaining for three and a half minutes.

Jon Evans: So there’s a big gray area in there like, what are you doing? Are you making a great song? Are you just making a short bit of entertainment? And a great song takes more than just the entertainment factor. It should be able to stand on its own. It should be able to be sung by itself with a melody and some compelling lyrics.

Grace Morrison: I guess that’s what it boils down to, right? A great song can get someone to feel something with just a vocal and an instrument. 

Jon Evans: Sure. Or not even an instrument, when it comes down to it, you shouldn’t necessarily need that instrument either. 

Grace Morrison: One of the other things I wanted to mention, because it’s probably going to come up in interviews where I talk about you, is when you’re working with somebody, as a songwriter, it can be hard to let your guard down. My husband was easiest for my first co-write because I wasn’t really worried about the judgment, I was able to just let whatever came out, come out. When I went to sit down with Lori McKenna, it wa s a little more daunting because she is an acclaimed song writer. The thing that I thought was great about her, and I’ve had the same thought about you, is that you’ve worked with so many people. You have worked with the greats, but you have a way of making your artists that you’re producing feel comfortable and be okay with letting some bad things out and some good things out.

Jon Evans: Sure. I think that’s a really important part. If you’re working with a producer or another songwriter, you have to be in a place where there’s trust in both directions.

Jon Evans: As a singer, you have to be able to feel like you can say the lyrics, even if you think they’re ridiculous, because you might get to the point where the producer says, “oh these are all great. Change this phrase or a couple of words,” then all of a sudden it’s really good.

Jon Evans: You have to be able to work with people that are honest but aren’t judging at all about what you’re bringing to the table. Because without that, there’s too much fear involved to make great music. 

Grace Morrison: Is that something you’ve noticed from working with some of the huge names that you’ve worked with versus some of us who aren’t so much? Is there a palpable difference? Maybe even just lack of fear?

Jon Evans: No, I think when someone gets to a certain point there’s a certain amount of self-confidence that they have. So they’re not so worried about how they’re going to perform because they know that they’re good at what they do, but you’d be surprised that everyone on some level has insecurities and are worried about their performances and being great the first time. Every everybody is.

Jon Evans: The thing I’ve learned is that the people I’ve known that I think are the best at what they do have the least amount of ego. They’re the people that make you feel the most comfortable so that you can all make the best music. That’s something I’ve always been surprised at; a lot of the people that I’ve met, who I’ve looked up to as musicians, have been incredibly generous people just as far as their musicality and their encouragement. I think that’s how we all get better. 

Grace Morrison: It it’s similar to the idea of what makes a great song. It’s just something that makes somebody feel something. A great song doesn’t necessarily have ego. It’s just about real, raw human emotion and making someone feel something. I would imagine that’s hard to do, to connect with people, if you’ve got this huge ego.

Jon Evans: Yeah sometimes that can be completely necessary if you are on the front of the stage, the lights on you, you’ve to have that and you’ve got to be that person to connect with thousands of people. But, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used in other ways to say, to completely embody another subject in your song and using that ego to become another person can be a very important part of that persona.

Grace Morrison: Also just knowing how to relate to another human on that level. I had another thought about your experience with huge audiences and the way they react to different songs. Can you think about like electric moments that audiences have had relating to songs?

Jon Evans: Yeah. I can remember when I first started playing and touring with Tori Amos and that was the time we were playing really big places. W e played Madison Square Garden and stuff like that. She had such an impact on especially women and her songs were so raw and emotional. I can remember, for years, looking out at the first 10 to 12 rows, maybe as far as the lights would let me see, and everyone would be in tears. People would be having these massive catharsis just with each other in their relationship to the music.

Jon Evans: I think that was really powerful in a different way than some bands when everybody’s singing along the words or they’re dancing around at the same time. That can be very powerful also in a way, but I remember those times and feeling it was very powerful witness mass therapy sessions. 

Grace Morrison: That’s what music is, right? It’s interesting that you can have the “chicken fried, cold beer” sing-along type song but then having something like “Silent All These Years,” which is great in a different way, but the common denominator being just that you’re making people feel a thing.

Jon Evans: You’re making them feel it intentionally, for sure. 

Grace Morrison: That’s so cool. It’s such a cool thing as a songwriter, one of the coolest powers, like it almost feels like a super power when you’ve written this song with your feelings and your experience in mind and you present it to an audience and you’re able to make them feel that.

Jon Evans: I think in a lot of ways, whether it’s your experience or someone else’s experience that you’re singing about, that the goal is to make them feel that way and also write lyrics in a way that can be personal for you, but also can be personal for someone else.

Jon Evans: As humans we’ve been writing about love and loss for thousands of years, as long as we’ve been able to write things down on the sides of cave walls or on early paper. We’ve been basically writing about the same concepts for a long time now, so obviously we’re not tired of them. Everybody’s situation is just slightly different that the complexities are infinite, so finding that way to have lyrics that are personal and work for everyone is the goal. If you can do that, then you’re onto something.

Grace Morrison: Just thinking about that, kind of in closing, is like”Piano Man.” I hear that song and I can smell the smokey bar. 

Jon Evans: There’s a great live recording of that song where he’s just in a small bar and people are asking him questions. It sounds like he’s playing an electric piano or something, but it’s just him by himself and someone asked him like “what’s ‘Piano Man,’ about” and he said “it’s exactly what the song is about. There’s a guy in the bar and he’s in the Navy and all those people were in the bar and I just wrote a song about them,” but he also taps into, the hopes and dreams of those people in a way that we can all relate to.

Jon Evans: We don’t have to be that specific. We don’t have to be “Davy in the Navy” too understand a ll the intricacies of those stories. Anybody that’s ever played in a bar with a tip jar knows what it’s like for someone that’s had a couple too many to come up and, stick a $10 bill in your jar and say, “man, you’re so good what are you doing here? You should be famous,” and that’s in there. That frustration of seeing himself as the guy in the piano bar and just doing those kinds of gigs, we’ve all been there. We’ve all done that. We know what that feels like. And someone who hasn’t, someone who’s been on the other side of it doesn’t know what that feels like, but you can listen to that song and pull that frustration out of the lyrics and the performance.

Jon Evans: All the people around that piano share their ups and downs and it’s a great song

Grace Morrison: So maybe I stand corrected, maybe “Piano Man” trumps “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Jon Evans: They’re all great songs. It is a ballsy move calling “Total Eclipse of the Heart” one of the greats, but I can appreciate as much.

Grace Morrison: Thank you, John. 

Jon Evans: Yes! Thank You! That was fun.

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