Aussie Belle and the Black Diamond Express:
Allo Darlin’s Elizabeth Morris Channels Her Inner Tallulah? Gosh!
It’s the Monday before South by Southwest, and Elizabeth Morris is seemingly the only musician in the northern hemisphere not in transit to that nearly mandatory indie rock cattle call. “I literally just walked in the door from All Tomorrow’s Parties,” she gasps from her London apartment, before gushing about sets she caught by festival curator Jeff Mangum, several of his Elephant 6 cronies, and the Magnetic Fields (“Stephin was in a grumpy mood last night – the good kind of grumpy”). OK, it seems Morris’ band Allo Darlin’ chose to work their UK homebase rather than toil through numerous showcases in the Texas sun. But after a few more exchanges it becomes apparent that Allo Darlin’ didn’t actually play ATP. “Naw, I just went along as a punter, with some friends,” she laughs.
It’s a spirit that’s consistent with Allo Darlin’s fan-first ethos, yet somewhat surprising given the accomplished tone of the quartet’s new sophomore outing, Europe. “We did South by Southwest a couple of years ago,” Morris explains, “but since every single band comes to Texas then it makes it really hard to book a tour around that time. We knew we’d be coming to the states a month later anyway (when Europe is released), so we decided to sit this one out.”
I’ve been hearing about Allo Darlin’s substantial charms for some time now, but the band’s debut album never really clicked with me. Any reservations melted away, however, immediately upon hearing Europe – a sublime piece of shimmering melodic pop that fits snugly between Camera Obscura and Lloyd Cole. “Wow, it’s funny you should mention those, because I don’t really know Lloyd Cole at all,” Morris reacts to those reference points. “The first time I heard of him was when Camera Obscura put out that song, ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken.’ I think the Camera Obscura comparison is certainly valid – I’ve loved them for years. I think we’re probably a quite different proposition live, though, because they always sound very perfect and we jump around and rock out a bit more.”
It’s rare for a band to sound more alive after applying an additional layer of production gloss, but Allo Darlin’ punches that ticket effortlessly. In fact, its quantum leap between records one and two is reminiscent of a similar breakthrough by Camera Obscura, to extend the analogy. “The first one was made really quickly,” Morris says of her band’s self-titled debut. “We hadn’t even been a band for long, only a couple of months. Sean from Fortuna Pop (Allo Darlin’s UK label) said ‘Make an album as quickly as possible, and I’ll release it’ and we said ‘OK!’ A lot of those songs I literally wrote the night before recording; The band hadn’t even heard them until we got into the studio.”
“Our ambitions for the debut were quite modest,” she continues. “There’s a weekly club here called ‘How Does It Feel To Be Loved?,’ a soul/indie night, and my goal was to get a couple of our songs played there. Then we found we had an audience, which was really exciting but not at all anticipated.
“So with the second record we were very aware that we had already done the slapdash one, and we had a chance to do things as well as we possibly could. So that meant writing and rewriting songs, working out arrangements over time. It’s a very considered process – not as much fun as the first one, which was the sound of four people playing in a room just having a good time.”
While the added polish suits Allo Darlin’ nicely, some of Europe’s finest moments come on the pace-changers like the subdued and stripped down “Some People Say,” and especially “Tallulah,” recorded solo in a single take with only Morris’ enchanting voice and a simple ukulele riff as she recounts a road trip with said Go-Betweens album in the car’s tape player. It’s a critical lyrical detail, because like the Go-Betweens Morris is originally from Australia. She moved to London in 2005, “to seek my musical fame and fortune – very much following whatever the Go-Betweens did. The Go-Betweens – and maybe the Saints – are the only real indie music tradition we have in Australia. It’s more an AC/DC heavy rock culture, whereas the Go-Betweens have this rather effeminate, anti-macho frontman. Robert Forster’s the only one like that I can think of. He’s inspired so many bands.
“I could have made it any Go-Betweens album,” she explains of her song’s title. “But I also liked that at the time I wrote it I was playing in a band called Tender Trap.” Here’s where her inner pop geek really comes out. Morris shared vocals in Tender Trap with UK DIY pop fixture Amelia Fletcher, best known for the bands Heavenly and Talulah Gosh. “It’s fun trying to confuse people, unless they catch the line about surfing magazines (another Go-Betweens title).” Morris has since amicably split from Tender Trap, whose fourth album is due this summer, once juggling both bands’ schedules became more than she could navigate.
Morris started out in London playing solo with a ukulele or guitar, already using the Allo Darlin’ moniker. Oddly, credit Bruce Springsteen with an assist for expanding this one-woman endeavor into a full-blooded quartet. A local label was assembling a indie pop-flavored Springsteen tribute album, and Morris approached guitarist Paul Rains, who she knew from scenemates Hexicon (and who “was going through quite a Springsteen phase”) to collaborate on a cover of “Atlantic City.” “Mike (Collins) came in and did some percussion on that too. We got on really well, and I discovered how much more fun it was to play in a band – plus I never thought I was that good at the solo thing.” Bassist Bill Botting, who coincidentally also hails from Australia, eventually rounded out the foursome.
Despite their jangly sound, unassuming demeanor and sensitive lyrics, don’t count Allo Darlin’ among those who embrace the “twee” label. “I think very few bands are happy to describe themselves as twee,” Morris politely objects. “In the UK it’s a bit of a pejorative. We always talk about DIY pop, or noisy punk bands as well, it’s the doing it yourself, more the attitude than the type of music that brings people together.”
A bit of back and forth on kindred spirits abruptly lands on Sheffield trio Standard Fare – “They’re probably the band we’ve played with the most,” Morris enthuses. “Emma (Kupa) and I have a fantasy band of our own called Stevie Nicks that I really hope we make something of someday. Our idea is that all its songs should be less than two minutes long, short and sweet with no middle eights.”
Given some lucky breaks in exposure I could also envision Europe appealing to Cranberries fans, a notion that Morris finds somewhat disarming. “I used to love them when I was a kid,” she allows. “I think our songs are quite different, but people often connect to the voice and what it reminds them of. I’d first think of the Sundays, who I also really loved” – a comparison that’s clearest in the pastoral lilt of “The Letter,” although Harriet Wheeler never namedropped the Silver Jews.
Of course in Morris’ case we’re talking about a different accent, but until I read her bio I assumed she was Scottish. Mission accomplished. “I can never really tell an accent in singing,” she confesses. “I think you can hear mine more on this album – I was very conscious when I first moved to the UK of not sounding like Neighbours (the long-running TV soap opera that’s wildly popular in England and that introduced Kylie Minogue and Natalie Imbruglia to the world). I was 22 when I moved, and I made an effort not to go up at the end of my sentences like most Australians do. But as I get older and more comfortable I think I’m letting it slip back in.”
Sometimes comfort can be the enemy of quality art. Not in this case.