Katy Morley, a singer-songwriter and visual artist who records under the moniker Morly, grew up in the twin towns of Minneapolis and St Paul’s in Minnesota. She got her start in music as part of the 22-member Minnesota-based project Gayngs alongside the likes of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Phil Cook of Megafaun before releasing a string of solo singles and EPs, including 2015’s In Defense of My Muse and 2016’s Something More Holy. Now, after putting her career on hold to deal with a chronic illness and recently moving to London from L.A. to be with her partner, she returns with her debut full-length album, ‘Til I Start Speaking. Co-produced with her frequent collaborator Christopher Stracey, the record reflects on creative fulfillment, heartbreak, and newfound love while both distilling and refining her musical palette, anchoring in minimalist, textured arrangements and subdued yet emotive vocals. It’s an enchanting, rich collection of songs that are animated by Morly’s ability to colour in her elegant compositions with lived-in details (“At home/ Dinner cooking on the stove/ And Nina singing to my soul”) and subtle touches of poetry (“Moon in the trees/ Shows you so enthralled with me”). Most of all, she makes sure her voice comes through: confident, sensitive, always resonant.
We caught up with Morly for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, the journey to her debut album, the importance of silence, and more.
What are some of your earliest memories of music?
My mom said I was always a compulsive singer, as kids tend to be. But throughout my high school and college, I was just compulsively singing. I actually have a problem in meditation every once in a while, I just start compulsively singing [laughs].
I had an extraordinary saxophone teacher when I was 10, was when I started. He just made music come so alive and made me feel like music was absolutely my own. He taught me to improvise, and it was the most enthralling thing. I didn’t want to do anything else other than play music. I’d credit him for a lot.
How do you look back on yourself as a teenager?
I was very, very quiet. Very sensitive. And I think felt outside all the time, like I was an alien or something. I definitely felt like a misfit, and I found a lot of solace in music and in art.
You studied neuroscience in college before switching to painting as your major. Do you feel that you were drawn to neuroscience for similar reasons that you were attracted to art and music?
That’s very interesting, I’ve never thought about it that way. Υeah, I guess so, because what I found interesting about neuroscience was the exploration of consciousness, which is this next frontier that we don’t understand that all humans throughout time have been trying to understand – is it a soul, is it just an illusion, do animals have it? And so, with neuroscience, you could study it very scientifically, but then I think I found it almost too clinical. Whereas doing art and music, you could be a conduit of consciousness and feel like you’re in touch with it in a different way. I remember that was a very difficult decision, deciding which path to pursue, but I think ultimately I just felt like I got to experience it more directly making music and making art than I did necessarily in a lab.
When you first started writing songs, was there something that you felt like you wanted to be more in touch with or explore that you couldn’t otherwise?
This is so embarrassing for me, but it’s very true. I started listening to Bob Dylan in university, as a lot of people do, but it just so radically altered my mind and it made me feel like I had been born in the wrong place and I was living the wrong life. And I just knew that I should be doing that, but I didn’t think I could because I was already so far along this other path of studying neuroscience. And I didn’t know any musicians; musicians were completely foreign. So I think that experience radically made me want to live in that place.
What changed your mind or made you feel like it was a possibility?
I always wanted to actively pursue it, I was just very depressed because I didn’t think I could. I sang with this bang Gayngs; I was very very young and they were all much older and seasoned musicians. My first time recording ever was with Justin Vernon at his cabin studio in Wisconsin. And I didn’t really know who he was, I just knew that he was a really nice guy who made cool music, so I didn’t even understand that was a privilege. I just was overwhelmed to be recording music. So, meeting him and all the other people in Gayngs who had spent their lives making music and art and just did it – there was no mental hang-ups about it, they just wanted to do it and they’re good at it so they did it. That completely altered my perception.
I’ve shared this story so many times, but it did imprint on me. My first-ever show, Prince was there. I didn’t technically actually meet him, I just was like, running backstage by myself because I was so thrilled that I just performed live and I thought I did a great job, when normally I had horrible stage fright. And I was just so excited, and then, there’s this tight and narrow hallway behind the stage, and I literally ran into him. And I’m 6’1 and he was about, you know, 4’8, so it’s just this beaming tiny purple presence who just looked at me and smiled so big, and I just stepped aside and let him pass. [laughs] So many of my friends now have actually worked with Prince and made music with him that it feels like it’s not as cool, but still, like in my own personal mythos, it’s very impactful for me.
In your own musical journey, what inspired the shift from beat-driven music to a more acoustic, traditional kind of songwriting?
I think my world was shattered when I heard, like, Burial and Mount Kimbie, and I was just so inspired by these sounds that I wanted to explore them. But my initial inspiration was like, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin and Cat Stevens, so it’s just been trying to figure out how to marry those worlds. I also think, honestly, getting sick with Lyme disease just made me want to slow down. Making dance music just didn’t feel like the natural thing to do. A big one is going on tour and playing my songs live; I hate playing the computer, I don’t like things being automated, I want things to be organic. And so I think when I went back in the studio after touring, I wanted to bring more organic instruments into it.
When did you start working on your debut album? I know some of these songs date a few years back.
I’d say about 2017. I even put out ‘Sleeping in My Own Bed’ thinking I was gonna finish the album soon, and then a few weeks after I put that song out, I got diagnosed with Lyme disease. And I was just like, “I don’t care, I’m gonna go get better. I don’t care what release schedules are. So that’s why that one came out like three years ago.
How did your vision for the album evolve since then?
I think what I wanted to do didn’t change. I had this sonic palette, I wanted to use this feeling, I knew I wanted it to be this emotional journey. But as I was doing it, I was constantly listening to Nina Simone, and I think I needed more joy in my life. And so I think actually the music became much more joyful than I thought it was for such a dark period of time, because the music itself was my joy. I remember listening to it all the way through right after we’d finished it and just being shocked that it was so much lighter than I thought it would be. [laughs] I thought it was gonna be this heavy, dark thing, and I was very surprised at how much joy came through. Which, I don’t know, playlisters maybe disagree; I was in like the “Sad Indie Girl” playlist.
Can you talk more about the emotional journey that you wanted the album to portray?
I basically just wanted to reflect the emotional journey I had been going through. I wasn’t too analytical about it, because I find when I do that it’s just not very good. I think it has to come organically from the subconscious. And actually, when I started doing album art, and I listened to the whole album through, I realized that the entire album and how I’d ordered it was this subconscious exorcism of this person from my life who had affected me and I needed to be influenced by but that I also needed to get rid of. And I had no idea until I listened to the album that I had also been doing this, like, subconscious exorcism.
The cover artwork really is stunning, both that of the album and the series of singles that preceded it. What was the inspiration behind them? How did conceptualize the artwork for the album in general?
I knew I wanted it to be some sort of self-portrait, and I had this idea of relating it to this feeling of “‘til I start speaking” – of the idea of, if there’s something suffocating you, you can either gnaw through the hand that’s suffocating or you can realise it’s your own and just gently take it away, if that makes sense. But when I went to do the underpainting, just like a quick charcoal drawing to see the composition, it ended up being so much better than all of the paintings I did. I kept making ones, and nothing was better than just a really quick 30-second drawing I’d done. But I also do love oil paintings, so I wanted to flesh out the other artwork for the singles more.
You alluded to one of the central ideas on the album, which is where its title comes from as well. And I love the way you introduce your voice on the opening track; at first it’s almost inaudible, then kind of muffled, and then as you sing the refrain, there comes this clarity. Why did you want to introduce your voice in that way?
That is a great question. [laughs] I had written that mantra almost, the “I don’t know what I can say ‘til I start speaking,” and it felt like the thesis of the album lyrically. But it also wasn’t like a fully-fleshed song, and it felt like this is the intro. We buried it in all the sounds – we put sounds of skating people, which is like, I just grew up in Minnesota playing hockey for 22 years. I put my piano teacher who was this jazz piano player who just absolutely transformed how I play piano and think about music, and he’s kind of buried in there. I was just trying to plant little seeds of me in the album.
Why do you think you were so drawn to this mantra?
I think just because it has been my journey in music so far, of having to overcome so much self-doubt and having to overcome feeling like I shouldn’t be doing this, like my voice maybe isn’t worthwhile, good enough. So it just felt like this declarative thing. And that is what enabled all the other songs to come, if that makes sense. I know it’s very on the nose, but there’s something, I think, beautiful about just saying the thing.
In the context of the album, being silent doesn’t always have negative connotations. It’s not always associated with self-doubt, as you said; it can mean being attuned to your surroundings or your own self. Is that something that’s important in your life?
Silence has been very important to me in my life because I’ve always been a listener. I’ve always felt like that’s one of my superpowers, is listening and understanding. I need a lot of silence in my life. I like things quieter, slower. But I also think I can fall too much into that, and so the challenge for me is to make noise, in some ways. I also think the best songs – the default is silence, and then you only put what adds. Basically, minimalism. I think of Erik Satie and his music, and in some ways, silence is the undercurrent, and then he sprinkles in a few notes on top of the silence.
I feel like that tension between being silent and making noise relates to another conflict on the album: that of falling in love while trying to hold on to your independence. There’s this line on ‘Super Lunar’: “Don’t say you want me to swallow the sun/ Then leave me to suck in your shade.” Do you feel like working on these songs has brought you closer to your own individuality, or closer to achieving the dreams that you’re singing about?
Yeah, absolutely. It goes back to the time in college when I just had that moment of feeling like I was living the wrong life. It’s been this journey towards becoming the person that it feels like I should be, and I think writing new songs and recording them has absolutely made me feel more like myself, and releasing it into the world and is like showing that to the world. And being home now [Morley was in Minessota visiting family at the time of recording], for the first time in like a year and a half, I think it’s the most myself I’ve felt since I was a child. And I completely credit making the music for that feeling.
Could you talk more about that? How did being home make you feel more like yourself?
I think in some ways it just helps people understand you better. When I first started doing music, so many family, friends, or people I went to school with would say things like “That’s so unlike you.” I saw someone I went to high school with at a festival I was playing, and he just was drunk and he was like, “No one ever would have thought this, no one ever in a million years would expect this.” And I was just like, man, I see why I had a hard time, because it almost felt like you had to break out of this shell of expectation. But as soon as you feel okay with doing what you love, everyone else immediately accepts it. I feel like my worlds are kind of aligning – for a long time, I felt like this is family, old life; this is who I want to be as an artist. And I think they’re finally melding, which is entirely an internal shift. No one was doing anything. It’s all inside of me, but I’m finally feeling it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Morly’s ‘Til I Start Speaking is out now via Cascine.