Evelyn Ida Morris Review: On hope and reclamation

A lot of things go through your head during a live show. Sometimes I’ll be daydreaming, other times I’ll be rehearsing scenarios in my head, or thinking about things I wish I’d said or done differently. Music has always served as a form of escapism for me, but it’s also the stimulus that makes me think the most, and makes me feel not only the weight of my life, but the weight of the world.

When I watched Evelyn Ida Morris play recently at the Melbourne Recital Centre, I had as close to a mindful experience as I’ve had in a long time. My racing thoughts were put on pause as I became lost in Morris’ weaving, highly emotional compositions. Through my involvement in the Melbourne music scene I’ve come to look towards Morris as a something of a hero, an inspiration contrasted against the many people who make me feel both jaded and insignificant in the industry. Not only is Morris a gifted musician, but they’ve also served as a powerful voice for marginalised people who are far too often unrepresented and under-appreciated. Through advocacy and musical composition, Morris implores their audience to listen, and it was at the launch of their new album, eponymously titled Evelyn Ida Morris, that they held a captive audience who did just that.

With the show coinciding with the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, it’s not a strange sight to see a guerilla jazz ensemble outside, greeting show comers who hurriedly ran inside to escape the bitter chill that has now settled in Melbourne. The Melbourne Recital Centre is a space that possess a refined air, and it’s within a smaller offshoot of the venue’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, The Saloon, that we convene. The crowd, largely consisting of regular faces you see at the front of venues boasting sticky carpet, have dressed up for the occasion. When the performance concludes most stay behind to speak with Morris: there’s a real sense that you’re among friends and family, rather than a room full of strangers.  

The show feels special, and it’s clear from the outset just how much the evening means to Morris. Not only is the album the first release under their own name, but also the first through Milk! Records, the label run by two of Australian music’s most important figures, Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher. It feels like Morris’ career has been building up to this evening, and it’s all the more a momentous occasion given the struggle they’ve been through to have their identity, along with their place in the musical world, affirmed.

Spatially, the chairs have been placed in a round formation, giving viewers the ability to see the performance from multiple angles: there’s a sense that you’re as much part of the performance as the musicians. Listening to the album beforehand, which consists mostly of instrumental pieces, was an exercise in visualising the shapes and flourishes of the keys that stir a range emotions to the surface—an experience intensified when you can literally gaze at the songwriter’s fluid movements and their mesmerising dexterity. For a moment I felt at peace, and an unshakable sense of contentment. 

Often a self-titled release implies that within the recordings there is a deep personal exploration, and this is certainly the case with Morris’ record. Those familiar with their work might know them better as the experimental electronic pop project Pikelet. But now, on their latest album, Morris lays themselves fully bare as they relay their experiences of being non-binary. You can vividly hear the pain, relief and intensity of the journey, which is accentuated by the emotional and physical release at play.

In an interview for The Saturday Paper, Morris told Kate Holden that being non-binary, and making music that stems from this experience, is an act of defining something that’s not willing to be defined most of the time. Morris creates a dialogue through their music often without using words at all, instead pouring their emotions into performance and music. It’s this alone that makes their work powerful and defiant, yet also quietly aching and at times unsure.

In contrast to many shows, house music is absent prior to the performance and the room resonates with the quiet murmurs of the crowd. We’re first treated to a set from Waterfall Person (the moniker of Annabelle Kingston), who’s easily the most joyous live performer to witness in Melbourne. Kingston possess ample charm, with the half an hour set including favourites ‘Coffee’ and ‘Everyday It’s The Same Waterfall’.

Part musical performance and part choreographed dance, Kingston enlists a willing crowd member, who just so happens to be her sister Alanna, to dance alongside her compositions. At one point they collide, but both Kingstons manage to keep their composure. Kingston also seamlessly weaves a technical difficulty into the set by joking that she’s now a noise artist, reacting to the glitches and jarring noises emanating from her keyboard, before enlisting in Morris’ assistance: Kingston is proof that you don’t need to take yourself seriously to be an engaging performer.

After a short intermission Morris takes to the stage solo, firstly acknowledging the land that they’re performing on is the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. Given the emphasis of one’s sense of place across the album, it feels not only appropriate but absolutely necessary, and rather than just reading an acknowledgment of country verbatim, Morris elaborates poignantly on the importance of the land in terms of existence.

Morris’ nerves can be felt, but as the set progressed their confidence grew, along with their ease of relaying the album’s thematics. Morris explains how ‘Stop Driving’ was initially a reflection of a bike accident they had a few years ago, but with lyrics like “The streets are yours”, there’s a bigger conversation around Morris reclaiming space as a non-binary person, and how they now feel as though they can be themselves on the street. There’s a big pause before the audience’s applause, with a palpable shift in the air as the crowd processed not only the song, but the emotions conjured.

Later Morris is joined by Biddy Connor on viola for ‘Wrack It’, with the two instruments working together in perfect tandem. Connor is eventually followed by Aviva Endean on clarinet and bass clarinet and Nat Grant on percussion (all three musicians have been long time collaborators with Morris). The four voices unite in harmony to bring ‘Forecast’ to its rousing opening, the beauty of the moment not lost on the audience who watch with increasing awe.

‘Limited Resources’ has Morris repeating the line “Go on take what you want” with equal parts resignation and defiance: the juxtaposition is symbolic of the differing states of reality that enter our heads. The cymbal throughout this song sounds almost like impending rain, like the electricity that can be felt before a storm. It’s a reminder of how remarkable it is that music can embody so much, and how much can be read into a composition based on subject experience.

As the show progresses, Morris explains how the track ‘The Body Appears’ looks at friendships that are “so big you don’t feel like you can get as close as you want to”. Here their voice falters, a clear display of the vulnerability that these songs possess. The process of songwriting and performance is clearly one of catharsis for Morris, but this doesn’t make the act of doing either any less terrifying, and rather than going through the motions, Morris seems to be reliving both the pain and beauty that inspired these songs.

The set is closed with ‘What To Give’ which once again brings the voices of the four performers together, with Connor’s saw work alongside Grant’s vibraphone truly spine-tingling. All eyes are eventually cast upon Endean who raises the clarinet to deliver a haunting crackling sound that creates an atmosphere of unease. The spell lifts as the band walk off stage, but the inevitable demand for an encore soon fills the space.

Morris returns to the piano to perform the Pikelet track ‘Dear Unimaginables’, a song revealed to be written for fellow non-binary people. “I’ll try not to cry but it’s a really nice audience,” they say, before launching into the song. It’s during this moment that the emotional apex of the evening is reached, with Morris’ pleas for the intrusive, negative thoughts that enter the mind of those grappling with their gender to “always be wrong”. It’s a moment that leaves many in the audience reduced to tears, and, as Morris’ voice soars, the feelings of hope and reclamation are at their strongest.

Ultimately, any live review you read, no matter how descriptive, is a second hand reproduction of events. Capturing the essence of this performance has proven more difficult than I thought, but it’s no easy feat to sum up something that will linger in my mind for some time to come. It’s this quality, and the significance behind their music, that makes me implore you to see Morris should you get the chance. They possess the remarkable ability to make you emphasise and understand what it’s like to be a non-binary person, and it’s through their art that you may come to make important self discoveries of your own.

Evelyn Ida Morris | Waterfall Person | Melbourne Recital Centre | Saturday 2 June
Morris’ self-titled album was released by Milk! Records in April 2018

Holly Pereira is a Melbourne-based music writer. She has been featured in publications such as Swampland, Beat Magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald. 

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