Jerid Reed Morris of El Campo.
Regardless of a person’s profession or lot in life, regardless of their disposition or the details of their deeds (done or undone), regardless of how wide their circle swings or how far down their passions root — for everyone, always and everywhere, cancer is a special kind of unfair. It is a personal meteor, a god’s sudden arrow, an opening carved into the soul’s tightest nerve.
A diagnosis produces a cataclysm of emotional reaction and rational preparation, rearranging the very circuitry of any life — the stable and the scattered and every station between. Every person and every cancer is, of course, unique. But, as in other cases where our profane, day to day world rubs up against the sacred realm of actual death, it’s easy to understand that a person might feel paralyzed, constricted, confined, and deflated upon hearing that they have any variation of the disease that has claimed so many multitudes.
For all the bucket-listers, living in the eternal moment like a grain of sand sits, throbbing with vertigo, briefly yet joyfully in the top half of the hourglass, there are also those who succumb to hopelessness and despair.
Jerid Reed Morris, the singer-songwriter at the helm of Austin-San Antonio band El Campo, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma (with bone marrow involvement) back in September 2017, made an album during and after his 8-month-long ordeal (he finished chemotherapy in February 2018 and was declared in remission in April 2018).
El Campo, our readers may know, doesn’t gig too frequently. The Morris-led four-piece did, however, release one of the best local albums of 2015
with its debut Remember
— a shimmering, moody, harmony-laden, and lyrically lush alt-country gem.
But, when I got on the phone with Morris earlier this week, after our respective families had gone to bed, it was to talk about the new stuff and the impossible place from which it was created.
The new album, which features 11 songs and is entitled Goldun Stair, Meet You There
, will hit streaming platforms on February 7 (to coincide with the day of
Artwork for "Goldun Stair, Meet You There"
the release show at Lonesome Rose
) and will be out on vinyl on February 21.
It is, as one might well imagine, an emotionally taut album, deeply personal for Morris, who wrote it over the course of his battle with Hodgkin's. Compared to earlier El Campo efforts the record is less produced and features less harmony and instrumental adornment (though it is still to be filed in the romantic/cerebral alt-country category for sure). There's an appropriate threadbare, stripped down feeling that matches the vulnerability its writer was experiencing. But, it is beautiful (sonically and lyrically) in a rather excruciating kind of way.
At the start of our interview, I made it clear that Morris was under no obligation to discuss his ordeal in detail — but, he had no intention of shying away from the truth of the matter.
He explained: “There’s an internal conflict for me, where it seems awkward, based on how I was raised, to talk about it. But, as I’m writing these Instagram posts
telling the story of how I wrote the album... it reminds me of the way people testify in church... speaking to their own struggles in faith and in life... and I just have to overcome this sort of Irish reluctance to talk about myself because the experience I had was so moving... for lack of a better word.”
Compounding the weight of his diagnosis is the fact that Morris' father passed away when he was only five years old from the very same kind of cancer. Thus, Morris, and his children by extension, associate the name of the disease with absence, unfinished business, with the reason his dad and their grandfather (respectively) wasn't around.
“For that term to be applied to my life was really really difficult for my kids and, of course, crazy for me,” Morris said.
“As soon as the diagnosis happened it... it sort of puts you on this schedule of appointments and tests and treatments," he continued.
“There’s was this feeling that I was just going down a list and I was either going to survive or not survive. But, the other thing is that you never know how it’s really going... because you feel like shit all the time from the chemo.”
As he braved the beginnings of his battle, Morris found some odd solace in his lack of say in things.
“You have all these processes happening in your body that will determine if you’re gonna get better or worse and potentially live or die,” he said, "and whatever it is is already happening, you just wait for the results. That’s a difficult feeling, but it also made me feel better because I knew that whatever was gonna happen was out of my control.”
“The only part I could control was my attitude about it,” he added.
It wasn't until about a month into everything, the night before his first PET Scan that would tell him how the treatment was working (or not), that Morris turned to songwriting.
“I think I sat down to document this thing and I really didn’t know how that was gonna go or what it was gonna be about," he said. "In a lot of ways it is about, like a lot of other El Campo songs, my family that I have been estranged from since I was 17 or 18... trying to understand myself based on the things I do know and remember about those people.”
In that first solitary writing session, "Goldun Stair," in many ways the emotive and conceptual core of the album, was born.
“Once I decided to write about it and say what I was feeling and what I was afraid of, it all just happened," Morris said. "I was writing all of the songs simultaneously, which is a prolific output and not at all typical for me.”
What will strike any close listener, above and beyond the breathtaking courage (on one hand) and easygoing sonic artistry (on the other hand) that is everywhere evident, is the emotional nuance, unflinching earnestness, and observational detail in the songs' lyrics.
Apart from the aforementioned "Goldun Stair," the lyrics on standout tracks "Red on Yellow, Kill a Fellow," "The Prettier of Two Sisters," "In Indian Blankets," and "In Absolute Superlative," all do a masterful job of blending memories and genuinely heartrending pleas to be understood and/or forgiven with stark details of Morris' treatment and his feelings about it.
The effect is that of a lucid, immediate, and raw fever dream, a cautious and openhearted dance with the light of the beyond, and a reckoning all at once. The narrative here is presented in fragments, operating with the same logic as memory, colored by emotion and unburdened by the concept of linear time. It's hard to imagine anyone with a pulse not being moved by this album.
Reflecting on the now-completed album, which was written in total uncertainty as an intensely personal form of both communication and coping, Morris had this to say:
“It ended up being about people that I love. I mean, it’s about being sick, and about feeling bad, and about being scared... but it’s also about... you know you start to feel magnanimous when you’re vulnerable... so a lot of it was... about how I felt about everyone, including myself.”
On the album, drawing a meandering yet meaningful line between past and present things, events, people, and selves, Morris contemplates his wayward family and his childhood indoctrination in a fundamentalist brand of Christianity (it was "like a cult"), his homeschooling (that, almost accidentally, included his discovery of American Literature, which felt more "important to what [his] life would be than the Bible"), his family, his partner and his children, and his condition. He imagines himself and his own death from multiple perspectives, trying to grasp at both the absurd vastness of a life and the precious meaning that life takes on in the face of, and especially after, death.
Trying to put words to how he felt during this whole process, the album writing included, Morris said that “It [wasn't] really a question of mortality, but more so that I didn’t want to have to abandon my kids like my dad had to abandon us.”
“That was the driving impetus: all these people of my life... there was an urgency to say something to all of them and I definitely had that in the forefront of my mind the whole time I was writing,” he explained. "It was really, for me, the fear that the meaning of my life would be lost on the people I love. It’s not a fear of going away, but a fear of no one really paying attention or knowing what you meant, what your life meant, in particular to the people you care about.”
Morris and his bandmates, who are also his "very best friends," cut the album quickly after he received news that his cancer was in remission. He didn't want to take any chances at leaving it unfinished if his health should take any unexpected turns. But, so far so good on that front. He's back to his normal weight and a full head of hair.
He told me that he's excited to perform the songs on Goldun Stair, Meet You There
and that he is proud of how it turned out. But, with the refreshing air of a man who has confronted himself and decided to put his considerable talents to work in creating something meaningful, who has seen the worst and discovered the best in the process, he's not too worried anymore about exactly how his music will be received.
"I am just trying to inhabit something that is as much my own as it can be," he said.
"At the end of the day we all want to say 'hey, I was here.'"
And, in this album, Morris has found a thoughtful, nuanced, and truly impactful way of saying that and so much more.
El Campo Album Release feat. The Rich Hands
Free, Thurs., Feb. 7, 9pm, Lonesome Rose, 2114 N. St. Mary's St., (210) 455-0233, thelonesomerose.com.
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