Going There With Sarah Morrison

Sarah Morrison’s forthcoming album, Attachment Figure, is a connecting point for so many diverging pathways that it almost feels impossible. Gentle sonic landscapes are a rolling, ephemeral playground for Morrison’s lyrics, which cut straight to bone. Each moment is beautifully crafted and left in the sun until ready, until imbued with just the right glow. Morrison explores heady themes, but her words are strung together like pearls, the perfect vehicle for her captivating voice.

In the new video for “Knowing Thyselves,” directed by Maxine Beck, a narrative unfolds that feels familiar, but ends up in a deeper corner. A Lynchian love story plays out through a faded, hazy palette where each movement is understated and deliberate as Morrison investigates her doomed affair between herself and the personification of her own urges and cravings. At its core is a soft and restrained spectacle that builds on the lasting impression Attachment Figure leaves. It is one of my favorite albums of the year.

Attachment Figure will be released on October 13 by Ramp Local. Pre-order HERE.

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Going back, what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

Well, my first musical memories involve clunking around on instruments at my house or my friends’ houses. I remember in kindergarten trying to play a melody from that animated film “The Snowman” on a little keyboard. I have always been prone to getting songs stuck in my head and having to figure them out or else go crazy. I was mostly into radio pop music until my aunt gave me Fiona Apple’s Tidal on CD. I was ten, I think. I’m so serious when I say that that album changed my life. Fiona Forever! 

Did you always want to be a musician or play music?

Somehow throughout my life, I’ve always found a way to play music, and it’s one of the surefire things that will make me feel fulfilled in some way. It always does exactly what it needs to do for me, whether it’s celebrating, mourning, passing time, or distracting myself. I don’t feel like I’m the most socially-comfortable person, and playing music helps bridge some gap I’ve always felt between myself and the rest of the world. It puts the feelings somewhere else so I can function better, or at least that’s how it seems. Honestly, I should probably look into adding a new way of processing my feelings into my life. Maybe that’ll be next year’s project.

What pushed you to start writing your own songs? Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

Oh god. I remember writing songs from a very early age. I think I was just obsessed with all music and thought, well this is what people do when they have feelings, right? My first songs were about crushes, obviously, and I started writing when I was eight or so. It’s nice to think about how I wrote without thinking about what a songwriter was supposed to be. Children are so much more connected to their desires, and they’re so good at pursuing them. I’m very fortunate that I was able to keep up my childhood interests rather than having to give them up. 

Okay, let’s talk about the new record because I can’t stop listening to it. First, I’m curious what the story behind the title, Attachment Figure, is?

When I was about halfway through writing the songs on this album I read an article about an orphan crisis in Romania in the 1980s where a massive number of children “failed to thrive” due to lack of sufficient touch, stimulation, and nutrition. The article meets up with a man who as a child deteriorated so much he was sent to a home hospital for “Irrecoverable Children.” The article cited research that claimed that children who lacked an “attachment figure” would have lifelong physical and psychological issues. I cannot relate to what it’s like to be an orphan or to be deprived of touch in childhood, but the fact that events that occur in development can permanently damage a person was something that I was already writing about, events in my life and the lives of my friends and people in my community. This article put a clinical name to my inclination that we’re all kind of messed up forever, confirming my fear. I feel angry and hopeless all the time about these kinds of things. It’s hard to swallow all the ways people are manipulated when they’re in vulnerable states, and how those traumatic events can make it hard to trust reality. We’re designed to love and trust people and institutions, yet the chain of relentless challenges that is set off by a mishandling of a vulnerable being is truly haunting. The album is all about that. 

How did your interest in psychological/horror films influence the sound and feel of the record?

I like all kinds of horror, from yucky B-horror gore to deep dives into psychological trauma. These films have different effects on me, but I feel like everyone who turns to horror is doing it to process something. There’s a fine line between camp and real horrific art, and I think that line is where I find myself a lot of the time. I’m always halfway laughing at my dread and halfway debilitated by it. I’m always excited to see something that reflects how I process life, and for better or for worse I really relate to the horror genre. Songwriting is where that examination of dreadful feelings takes place, so in that way, I think my music finds kinship with horror. Sonically, this album uses some of the dark synth sounds that happen to be featured on some of my favorite movie soundtracks. I always love doing my best Angelo Badalamenti. 

How does your exploration around questions about identity and personal growth influence Attachment Figure? I’m really taken with how personal and vulnerable it feels, but how relatable the subject matter throughout the album is, and how that is a real point of connection.

Thank you for saying that. This album is about some sad things happening in the world, but it’s just as much about how my doom-obsessed behaviors created tension in what I believe was my truest experience of romantic love. A lot of this album is me being caught off-guard by a partner’s recognition of my dread. I’d been in a lot of relationships where I could fly under the radar, or worse, where my self-destructive behaviors were encouraged and exalted (it’s hot to be sad, I guess) but suddenly there was someone who truly saw me, supported me, and reflected back to me a possibility of being my best self. It totally threw off my sense of identity. We’re all pretty malleable, but best case scenario, letting someone become your “attachment” person can change you fundamentally for the better. However, that experience can be pretty destabilizing.

What are some of the specific virtual worlds that are depicted in the album? How do these spaces create a false sense of control?

It’s so funny that these virtual worlds are designed to make us feel like we’re the captains of our lives yet are doing nothing but dissolving our self-control. The worlds depicted in the album are mostly social media spaces. As someone who has struggled with self image/disordered eating (like every single person ever) the meal-prep/workout corner of social media is especially seductive since those videos make being healthy and sexy so appealing, and easy! And it’s also easier than ever to make your images look a certain way with filters, which can definitely mess with how you perceive yourself. I was also thinking about video games a lot, and though I don’t really play, it’s a nostalgic reference to the dreamy PlayStation worlds my brother and I would get sucked into as kids. Those spaces are an invitation to pretend to be someone else, and to me, social media feels a lot like a video game, too. 

Photo by Chris Cameron

The phrase ‘authentic love’ in the description of the album is one I keep coming back to. What is authentic love to you? And how did that become one of the guide posts for this record? 

Oh boy, what a question. Well, to the best of my knowledge, authentic love is a love where someone isn’t trying to get something from you. Its main reason is not to promote ego. It’s intelligent and caring. I think there are types of serious relationships where the attention one or both parties receive is the main reason that it exists. I don’t know if that can be love, but from what I can tell it’s not.

What are the challenges of writing songs about complex emotions?

Well, I’m still pretty young, and I’m chronically full of doubt, so it’s hard to imagine myself right about a lot of topics. I’m sure I will have experiences that will change my mind about things I am positive about now. Complex emotions are difficult to nail down, but that’s also the beauty of making music and art. There isn’t a need for an answer to an emotional problem. There are only artistic ways of processing those feelings. There are better and worse artistic outputs, but there can’t be a wrong answer.

What surprised you most about making this album?

I was surprised by how much collaborating with other musicians can open up a song. Before working on this album, I was pretty shy and protective of my music, but I needed help to make the songs sound how I wanted. Having such musical geniuses bring their sound to my songs was totally humbling. I kept thinking, jeeeez that was way better than my idea! So, I’m excited to collaborate more on the next albums. I’m lucky to have had access to a network of some of the best and kindest musicians around, and the songs are better than I could have ever imagined. 

What are you most proud of about the album?

I am happy that some of my musical experiments worked out. The architecture of the songs was more adventurous than my older music. I’m just really proud that it all came together, more grateful than anything

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.