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Songwriter Rob Morsberger blends craft with content


Murdered civil rights workers, naturalist Charles Darwin, the blacklisting of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – these are not typical topics found in pop songs.

Then again, singer/songwriter/keyboardist Rob Morsberger is not your typical pop musician. For one thing, he’s classically trained. And when he’s not pursuing his solo career, the versatile Morsberger is working as a sideman (his credits include Crash Test Dummies, Marshall Crenshaw and Dan Zanes) or as a TV composer (most notably for PBS’ NOVA series).

On his recently released album, The Chronicle of a Literal Man, the New York-based Morsberger explores a variety of subjects in a, well, literate manner, but there’s plenty of melody to go along with the wordplay. Morsberger recently discussed his background, his approach to songwriting and more. As a classically trained pianist, how often do you find yourself speaking to other musicians in terms they don’t really understand?
Rob Morsberger: “That’s an interesting question. I would say at this point never. I’ve been immersed in different types of music making for so long. Maybe when I was straight out of music school, which was a quite a long time ago, I was pretty green and needed a lot of re-educating in terms of a lot of things, [including] how to appreciate how world-class a musician could be who doesn’t read music or how brilliant a three-chord song can be. … I had to unlearn some biases and prejudices from my classical education. But at this point, most of the people are incredible readers and amazingly proficient professionals, so it’s kind of a nonissue at this point.”

You were born in Oxford., Ohio, and grew up in Oxford, England?
Morsberger: “That’s right, and my sister was born in Oxford, England. We have an Oxford thing. My father [Philip Morsberger] is an artist, and all through the years I was growing up and beyond, he’s had some amazing teaching gigs. So his first teaching gig was at Miami University [in Oxford, Ohio] – that’s where I was born – and then ultimately he ended up running the art department at Oxford University.”

In keeping with the Oxford theme, I was wondering, how many pairs of Oxfords are in your shoe collection?
Morsberger: (Laughs) “Absolutely none. In fact, people who come and hear me play expect me to be barefoot onstage, and typically I am.”

In the title track to your new album, you rhyme “empire” with “quagmire.” When it comes to writing lyrics, do you follow any rules of thumb with regard to using an obvious rhyme or a near rhyme, or just word choice in general?
Morsberger: “As far as technical things like rhymes, I do try to keep to a pretty high standard. I try to find exact rhymes for the most part, but not always.

“About the specifics of [songwriting], I don’t really have rules, other than there has to be something interesting going in the lyric for me to want to continue with it. I want there to be some kind of compelling twist, or the subject matter really has to speak to me in some kind of personal way that’s important or interesting to me for me to want to continue working on it and finish it.”

Does that mean you’d never write a song where in the chorus there’d be a barrage of “yeah yeah yeahs” and typical things you’d find in pop music writing?
Morsberger: (Laughs) “No, it doesn’t mean that.”

Talk about the song “Jolly Old Farm” and its accompanying short film.
Morsberger: “That song tells the story about the murder of [Michael] Schwerner, [Andrew] Goodman and [James] Cheney, who were famously murdered in Mississippi in 1964, when they went down to register black voters. It was sort of a turning point in the civil rights movement and the history of this country. I was uniquely aware as a young boy of their story because my father was doing a lot of politically and socially oriented pictures at that time in his career. He did a whole series of images based on the well-known FBI missing poster with their three faces.

“So it was partly that I was always very aware of that story, and as I’ve grown older, my respect for my father has grown also [along with] my appreciation for his [art]. My first three records have his artwork on the cover; the booklet for this record has a reproduction of one of the drawings he made of [Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney].
“I asked my friend Dave Davidson, who lives near me, [to make a film for the song]. He’s a total rock ’n’ roll freak. He spent his youth going to Maxwell’s [in Hoboken, N.J.] all the time, he really loves pop music and he’s also very connected to black themes and civil rights stories, so he was the perfect person to ask to do it.
“I’m not in the film [which is now on my Web site]. It’s really about the story and my father’s pictures, which I would say is the primary element in the film.”

Tell me a funny or unusual story related to your sideman work.
Morsberger: “I had a funny e-mail exchange with Brad Roberts, who is the Crash Test Dummies singer. On the new record, he wrote all of the songs with my friend Stewart Lerman, who co-produced my latest record. This one song in particular called ‘Songbird’ just kills me. It sort of has this William Blake thing going; it’s basically a dark look at nature. To me, it’s such a thrill to hear those kinds of ideas being expressed in a great pop song that has a real emotion weight to it – the marriage of ideas and emotions, which is something that I try for as well.

“So I wrote to Brad to tell him how much I love this song and exactly what I liked about it … and he wrote me back this note appreciating my compliment and then [proceeded to] talk about a technical aspect of his songwriting that he was particularly proud of that had nothing to do with what I was enjoying about the song (laughs). It was like a parallel conversation.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Rob Morsberger on tour (schedule subject to change):

* May 14: Iron Horse – Northampton, Mass.
* May 15: City Winery – New York
* May 16: Jammin’ Java – Vienna, Va.
* May 22: Martyrs’ – Chicago
* May 24: Club Passim – Cambridge, Mass.