I Lost Something In The Hills :: A Conversation With Greta Morgan

I once saw Greta Morgan float in the middle of a set to rescue a bluebird that had gotten caught in a bag that was hanging from a power line. She brought her guitar with her and did not die. If you don’t believe me, I don’t blame you. Those who saw Greta perform that night would also add that the sun set with her, and when she landed back on stage, a thousand night orchids sprung from the amplifiers, releasing a smell that still lingers in our pockets. She sang beautifully and when the coyote and wolves sang along, the show ended and she disappeared.

When we learn something bad has happened to someone who has dedicated their life to performing, there is an extra weight that accompanies the sadness that strikes our hearts. Singer-songwriter Greta Morgan was diagnosed with Spasmodic Dysphonia last fall, a disorder that affects the voice, and ever since, she has not been able to sing the way she used to — sometimes not at all. For someone who makes a living writing songs and then singing those songs, the diagnosis was met with “the most tears I have ever cried.” She says she has spent her time since wandering and resting. Staying at apple orchards in Vermont and diving into a sea I have never heard of off the coast of Italy. “When a person is in search of their deepest truth, they find gifts that they can offer the world.” This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. In a weird way, I don’t think she knew she said it. Thank god for Zoom record.

She’s presently writing a book and recording an album of instrumentals. On my computer screen, she appears with a glow that reminds me that though the sun sets, it also rises. I shit you not. | n matsas

Aquarium Drunkard: Are you in Illinois?

Greta Morgan: Yeah, I just got back from Italy.

AD: You have a nice Italian tan.

Greta Morgan: I gotta tell ya, diving into the Tyrrhenian sea every morning for weeks is making Illinois feel so landlocked.

AD: I’ve heard Europeans say one of the biggest differences while traveling across the US is that the ocean is not close.

Greta Morgan: I sat next to a European girl on the plane who was really smart and confident, and it turns out she’s been backpacking for a year. She’s 18, and she asked me where I live. I told her I hadn’t had a permanent home in a while and didn’t know where I was going to live and then she asked where the last place I lived and I said “Los Angeles.” She kind of chuckled and I asked what her perception of Los Angeles was and she said, “Everyone there thinks they’re the best.” Which I thought was such a funny European perception.

AD: What’s your perception of LA?

Greta Morgan: My perception of every place is you get what you are aware of. So, it’s like, there are people in LA experiencing ego deaths and living in the Zen Center in Mt. Baldy and then there are the Kardashians. My friends who live in LA, like you, are just kind, smart, creative people. I do think cities have certain cultural values like, for example, in Italy for three weeks I did not see one person publicly working on a computer. Not in the cafes, nowhere, no public work. The only person I saw work was my travel buddy who works for the New York Times, so she was Zooming a couple times a day. I think Los Angeles really values artistry, performance, that sort of thing. Los Angeles definitely overvalues youth.

AD: I was in Chicago last week and the only pitch I heard was the pitching of the friendship tent. It was nice.

Greta Morgan: LA is more of where you live in pursuit of the, in capital letters, BIG DREAM. A friend of mine lived in New York City for a long time and when she left NYC she said, “New York is a drug and you don’t realize you’re addicted to it until you leave. You have to work so hard just to afford to live there.” I kind of feel the same way about LA. I’ve been hustling, professionally, since I was signed at 15, and the whole time I lived in LA it was like that too. It wasn’t until I lived in other places this past year that I was like, “Oh my god, I can live on a 150 acre apple orchard in Vermont for $650 a month.”

AD: A fond memory of mine is watching you play in 2013-2014 and the opening act really struggled to finish their songs due to stage fright, and when it was your turn to play you went up to the microphone and said, “That was a true experience, Ladies and Gentlemen,” and then went on to talk about how pure and honest the opening set was and I was so glad that that was shared.

Greta Morgan: I get chills thinking about that. He was so vulnerable, and then he was so amazing once he finally made it through the songs. It’s funny, I remember being moved by the rawness of his performance, yet my whole life since then has been trying to create a sheen of perfectionism around me. I’ve always appreciated the beauty of imperfection in other people and yet I used to look at myself and think, ‘I’m not perfect enough. I can’t perform until I’m perfect.’

AD: The other day a musician friend was talking about how no one fucks up on stage anymore. I feel like there was a time when bands, big bands, fucked up, and I think we’ve reached a point in society where everyone is so professional that even something like psychedelic mushrooms is being packaged like coffee. “Take a little bit of this and you’ll be more productive.”

Greta Morgan: Yeah. Things are getting way too clean and filtered. One of the huge lessons I learned with this vocal challenge is that there is no way to have perfection anymore. I just had two rounds of botox injections for my vocal cords, which is offering some relief, but it’s still not my old voice. I’ve been joking that I use botox “just on the inside.” I have the larynx of a twenty year old now. But I haven’t been able to reliably sing in my natural voice since March of 2020, and for most of the last 17 months, I’ve had little pitch control. So, just the idea of perfection does not exist anymore. 60-80% of my range disappeared so quickly that I left with about a 5-note singing range. I told that to my mentor, the brilliant songwriter Mary Gauthier, and she was like, “So what? I’ve built my entire career on 5 note songs.” So I’m beginning to warm up to this idea, this idea of writing a different kind of song, one where the words lead.

AD: Were you forced to retire your old songs?

Greta Morgan: As of today, I can’t sing most of the songs I’ve written. It took a really long time to surrender to the idea that I may not be able to sing my catalogue anymore because I did not want to let go. Music has been my whole life. My great love, my whole life, and I think I’ve finally reached a place where I…  Well, we’ve all spent the year alone. I would go 40 days without seeing another human. I just refer to God as “Mystery” because that’s the only thing that really makes sense to me. So, when I was alone all that time out in the Utah canyonlands, I was talking to Mystery and looking for clues and answers. And there was a moment, on my birthday, when I turned 33 in February, where I was like, ‘Okay. You’re taking my voice. Give me something else. Let’s make a fair trade. Teach me to sing on the page or teach me how to paint. Give me something else,’ and I think that’s when I let go and entered a second act.

AD: That was right around the time I learned that you were diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia. My initial reaction was a very deep sadness but then something inside of me said Greta will be ok. She’ll write a book, paint a picture, sing another song.

Greta Morgan: That makes me feel good, that that was your reaction. It took about 7 months to figure out what was really going on because I got mis-diagnosed with acid reflux. After months of worsening symptoms, I saw a general practitioner, a speech therapist, a neurologist, another general practitioner, another neurologist and they all said the same thing. When I got the first diagnosis for SD, I had never cried like that in my entire life. It felt like the kiss of death. A doctor said, “You know, some people can sing with this. Once you connect with the low part of your range, you’ll do Glen Campbell songs and when you can get to the high part, you’ll be able to do Dolly Parton,” and I was like, “my life does not work like that.”

AD: Why did you seek medical attention in Tennessee?

Greta Morgan: (Laughs) He was just trying to relate to me as a singer. It was so devastating. In the time since, the emotional reaction has really transformed. I really keep my eyebrow raised whenever a western doctor says any condition is lifelong because they’re not looking at a holistic picture. They’re looking at one tiny facet. They’re not looking at emotions, spiritual realms, a person’s desire to heal, they’re just looking at the physical body and what the physical body is telling us.

AD: I have a friend who has had similar experiences with western doctors. He had a problem and they put him on drugs and he ended up becoming an alcoholic because the booze numbed the numbness of the drugs. He finally got off them and feels much better.

Greta Morgan: Glad he’s doing better now. Interestingly, the band calls me “Old World Greta” because I only drink in Europe, but after I got my diagnosis, the doctor was like “a lot of people benefit from alcohol therapy,” and I was like, “you mean getting drunk?” to which he replied, “Just 2-4 4oz shots of vodka.” “You mean getting drunk?”

Basically anything that’s a muscle relaxer will relax the spasm, so after that, starting October 5th, I drank heavily, by my standards, for a whole month, trying to see if I could sing, and I just felt awful. This was not worth it, and when I went to see the Neurologist he was like, “so have you been doing alcohol therapy?” and I was like, “I can’t do it! I just can’t do it!”

AD: Spasmodic Dysphonia, can you shed a little more light on what it is?

Greta Morgan: Normally, your vocal cords close between each word and it’s regulated from your brain to your larynx. My problem is a dysregulation between the brain and the vocal cords, so the vocal cords slam shut all the time which cuts off the words and makes it hard to hold a singing pitch. A couple of professional singers have it. Shania Twain had the sister condition, muscle dysphonia, which is why she had a 15 year gap in her career. She had a surgery to reconnect different nerves…One of the Backstreet Boys has/had spasmodic dysphonia. He’s performing again, which is hopeful.

AD: I’ve read that SD can pass down genetically. Is there a history? Is this the dark branch on the family tree?

Greta Morgan: My mom has occasionally, on and off, had a vocal tremor. When I told her about this, she said, “Oh, you got it from me.” But again, I really believe the body wants to heal. My nervous system has a lot to do with it.  There were a couple of weeks in January where I was so calm and did near-total vocal resting for weeks. And I discovered I could sing for about two weeks after that. I thought I was healed but then I had a near-accident while driving and my whole body locked up and, after that, I could barely talk, my voice was so shot.  The effect of the nervous system on the voice is tremendous in my case.  The name of the game for me is calming my nervous system. I stopped drinking coffee, I stopped eating sugar, I sleep at least 8-9 hours a night. No screens at night…Basically, I treat myself like a baby.

AD: Were you inspired by any of the art in Italy?

Greta Morgan: I have never been so moved by visual art in my life. I was most moved by the Caravaggio paintings. Italy is just reopening and the galleries are at a 5% capacity, so we bought tickets in advance, and there were moments where I was alone in a room with 4 Caravaggio paintings and a Michaelangelo sculpture. You can’t explain the feeling. It makes me want to be a nighttime employee at one of these museums. There is something with those Caravaggio paintings. They’re almost half-black. When you look at the paint, it is like he’s painting with the shadow half of the human psyche. I went deep on Caravaggio. I listened to his biography and he’s the Tony Soprano of the art world. Had wild love affairs with men and women, was part of prostituion rings, castrated a pimp and murdered someone and went off into hiding. And all the while he’s having this business relationship with the Pope where he was supposed to paint these images from the bible that would be so realistic, they could bring people to a place of transcendent prayer. That was the whole goal of art then. It was a tool for prayer. Also, art used to be considered manual labor. Because you did it with your hands. Isn’t that funny?

AD: The sculptor was like a carpenter.

Greta Morgan: Yeah. I learned some interesting things. In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo would paint the faces of people he knew into certain scenes. Like, one priest he really hated was painted as a goblin figure. And by the end of the 4 years of painting, Michelangelo was so exhausted from living up there on the rafters that he painted his own face in as one of the ghosts.

AD: Have you ever done that? Taken someone and modeled a song as if they were a character?

Greta Morgan: Rather than modeling a song after a character, I try to imagine I am speaking with their voice.  So, in the song, “The Other Side of The Boundary,” the opening lyric is: I’m a love song, just a love song | Waitin’ for the dance floor to fill in | To be of use for something

And that is the voice of my mom, who is the most loving person in the world and, at the time, hadn’t been in a romantic relationship in ages. She was the love song and no one was dancing to it then.  As far as writing characters, I hadn’t truly written fiction til this year, but I have started building characters based on people I know and I think that is something I’ll do more of, now that there is space for it.  But in songs, I don’t know if I’ve written specific character songs, though most people who have made an impact on my psyche are in my songs somewhere.

AD: Do you usually sing from your perspective?

Greta Morgan: Yeah, although I think it was Picasso who said, “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” There is something about taking on a character that allows you to reveal something that is more true about you than you would normally do. My friend, who is a novelist, says, “The feelings are autobiographical. Not necessarily the circumstances.”

AD: Do you have anything, project-wise, in the works?

Greta Morgan: I’m writing an instrumental album. Desert lullabies that I started in Zion, Escalante and Moab. I was just listening to them and was like, “I should finish these.” I’m also writing a book that I’m on the second draft of.

AD: Congratulations.

Greta Morgan: Thank you. It’s so fun.

AD: I don’t think I could ever stop writing. I enjoy the process too much.

Greta Morgan: Writing for me feels the way music did when I first started writing songs.  I remember when I started to play music I thought, I’ll just do this forever and ever no matter what, and then I’ll go to school and become a psychotherapist or a musicologist or whatever, but I’ll always have music for me. I actually wanted to be a writer when I was in high school. It’s been interesting to split them up. I used to write songs that had the words and music together, and now I’m doing just the music and then writing words separately, down on a page.

AD: I don’t know why I don’t want to put this in your head, but I wonder what it would be like to read some of your pages while listening to the instrumental album.

Greta Morgan: That is a good idea. I remember once, you told me you listened to Collectors in a cornfield and there is no greater compliment than somebody telling you that your music has passed the purity test in a natural environment. I feel like there is nothing better than that.

AD: Yes…What’s a perfect day like for you?

Greta Morgan: If I’m near a body of water, or a natural place, waking up and having a morning beverage and writing and being outside, swimming in the ocean, going for a hike or walk. My rule is I use my best energy on the most important things because I know I lose energy as the day goes on. So I usually write and read until I can’t write or read anymore and then I go on some kind of hiking or walking adventure, and listen…I’ve been listening to two books on tape a week. Eating a healthy, delicious meal. I’m on this crazy brain diet.

It’s a diet for brain health. I just realized what I explained was a COVID day. I’m still living in lockdown. I don’t go to public spaces. I still wear a mask inside, and only hang out outside, and I don’t hang out in groups. So I’m basically still in lockdown. My perfect day is reading and writing, going for a walk, and talking to someone I love.

AD: Your mom?

Greta Morgan: Yes. There was a period of time where my voice was really bad and she was the only person I would talk to. We would video chat and I would type and then she would talk back. I’m closer with my family than ever. I think one of the big things about healing is that you look at the point of damage and you think, ‘this is the problem, I need to heal it,’ but actually there are all these other factors going on around it.  And perhaps, if you can heal those other surrounding things, your problem will heal.  For example, one of my issues was perfectionism. I was overtraining my voice before this instance happened, which had to contribute to the switch flipping. I think healing from perfectionism and unmatching from all these cultural standards of what a woman should be, or what an artist should be, that is healing. Same thing with the relationships in my life… Learning to lean on people and learning to need people and being vulnerable enough to say “I need help. I need support. I need to go to therapy.” That’s the kind of stuff I couldn’t really do before. Anyway, you asked if I’ve been talking to my mom and I feel like I’m on a tangent but yes, I’ve been talking with my whole family and feel closer to them than ever.

AD: Are you finding some meaning in the vocal disorder? Do you have regrets about the way things have played out?

Greta Morgan: James Hillman, who is the father of archetypal psychology, has a theory he calls the acorn theory. He basically believes each soul is born with a blueprint of the tree it is supposed to become and every challenge in your life is meant to ripen you, even if it’s painful and brutal. There’s another phrase, “When the ego weeps, the soul rejoices.” When you lose something that forces your ego to become deconstructed in some way, that’s when the soul has an opportunity to learn or grow. I think it’s a Sufi saying, or there’s an actual author, but that quote has been on my mind lately.

AD: Reminds me of the wandering we are both attracted to.

Greta Morgan: Oh yeah. Our society has no context for rites of passage between stages of life. American culture is basically: drink milk, go to college and get a job, work more and more, grow your wealth, marry, more economic growth, and then you die. There are no markings of chapters of life. Like, Aboriginal Australians have the tradition of a year-long walkabout to mark the passage into adulthood, but American culture has none of that connective tissue that can help people go from one stage to another. I think the wandering stage is very important and I believe it’s discouraged. I am fully committed to the wandering stage until I’m ready to not be wandering. When a person is in search of their deepest truth, they find gifts that they can offer the world.

AD: I think if someone wants to go to college, I believe everyone would benefit from making it normal to start at 25.

Greta Morgan: Did you go to college?

AD: No, I am not allowed there.

Greta Morgan: I didn’t either. Tell me if you relate to this. Because I always felt like I was supposed to go to college, I still feel like college kids are older than me. Whenever I walk onto a college campus I’m always like, “whats going on? Aren’t you supposed to be grown ups?”

AD: What’s your favorite, solo Beatles record?

Greta Morgan: Oh my god. Um, hm…It’s between All Things Must Pass and Mind Games.

AD: Wow. Mind Games?

Greta Morgan: Oh my god, wait…RAM!

AD: What about Plastic Ono Band?

Greta Morgan: I do love Plastic Ono Band. This is a hard question. I would say the two that I’ve listened to the most are Mind Games and RAM. Plastic Ono Band is the drums, bass, and guitar record?

AD: Yeah. Not only is it my favorite solo Beatles record but one of my favorite records of all time. I have never heard someone answer this question with Mind Games before.

Greta Morgan: It’s definitely not the strongest songwriting, but there is something about the landscape of that record.

AD: Is that the cover where Lennon is standing in a field and Yoko is a mountain behind him?

Greta Morgan: Yeah. I do think All things Must Pass and Plastic Ono Band have the best songs, the most beautiful songs. I remember watching Beatles Anthology in high school and George said, “It was great. We made all the money right away and then figured out that it wasn’t important.” They realized it doesn’t satisfy you and were able to reach for something higher. I feel like every great musician, across the spectrum, has expressed something about that. It has to be about more, trying to reach God through song, whatever God is. The Beatles also then didn’t have to tour. You know who my Mom also brings up that never toured–Enya. My mom said, “Enya did not tour, you don’t need to tour,” and I’m like, “Enya sold millions of CDs, mom.”

AD: In 1987. When a musician could still make a buck via record sales. What do you think about artists who are constantly updating the public about what they’re doing?

Greta Morgan: I just read a book of interviews with Leonard Cohen and he said, “I’ll reappear every few years and let you know what I’m working on.” There is something beautiful about mystery. I think mystery is very attractive. But my sense, and this is from observing several friends’ successful careers, is that they perceive musical success to be a scarce resource, so if your star is ascending, and you take a break from riding that wave, you will never be able to hop back on. That’s my sense, but then again, Vampire Weekend took a 6 year break before I joined and then won a Grammy. So it’s not always the case, but working-class musicians, my level of musicians, will not take a break by choice.

AD: There can be beauty in transparency. Have you read Nick Cave’s The Red Hand Files?

Greta Morgan: Oh yeah. I love those.

AD: He turned answering questions into an art.

Greta Morgan: For him, by the time you finish what he wrote, the question almost doesn’t need to be there. It becomes a prompt. Vampire Weekend has been in some surreal situations with our idols, playing the same stage as Bob Dylan or The Cure or whatever, but there was only one moment where we were all starstruck at the same time. We were sitting in catering at Glastonbury and Nick Cave and Susie Cave walked in and we all went silent. He had such a presence. It was interesting. Out of all the crazy, absurd artists we’ve rubbed elbows, Nick Cave was the one that brought us all to silence.

AD: I had a friend tell me a catering story where he realized Brian Wilson was standing across from him.

Greta Morgan: I once saw him at Pitchfork, 6 or 7 years ago. There was something so surreal about seeing those youthful sentiments being performed by him at his current age. Those songs truly epitomize youth and young love.

AD: Didn’t you cover “Don’t talk (Put your head on my shoulder)” ?

Greta Morgan: Yeah. I learned all the Beach Boys’ songs. My piano teacher, Elmo, was in The Beach Boys during the 80’s. He taught me all the piano parts, which are very hard to sound out because they’re so dense. So yeah, I’ve learned all of my favorite Beach Boys songs.

AD: In the late 60s, they had a piano sound that sounded like they were playing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It sounds like jelly. Is that a de-tuned piano?

Greta Morgan: I’m not sure what ‘sounds like jelly is,’ but it sounds like a hit song.

AD: Didn’t the Flaming Lips already write that song?

Greta Morgan: Yeah, “Vaseline.” I feel like Nikki Minaj could sing a song called “Sounds Like Jelly.”

AD: This is the only question I wrote down and it is the last one. Are you ready?

Greta closes her eyes.

AD: Heaven or Las Vegas?

Greta Morgan: Are they not the same thing?

AD: Thank you for your time, Greta.

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