Indie Rocker Andrew Morgan Is Reluctant Front Man

Even after releasing a critically acclaimed solo album and touring in England under his Manchester, England-based record label, MTS student Andrew Morgan says he misses being a side man.

"I love hiding behind the PA system, next to the drummer, telling inside jokes," he said recently. In past bands, Morgan had been able to do just that. He played guitar ("really poorly," he recalls) in his high school's jazz band, and played bass in a country group called The Buick Sixes during his early college years at the University of Kansas. "I liked being the least visible guy, but at the same time being a creative force in terms of acting as a sounding board for ideas and thinking about arrangements and production," he said.

But these days, Morgan is doing anything but hiding. His recent album, Misadventures in Radiology, has pushed this reluctant front man into the limelight ever since it was picked up by the reputable British indie label Broken Horse. "Last spring [2004], the head editor for Uncut Magazine marked it as a favorite upcoming release and wrote a gushing review," Morgan explained, "and it was like an explosion. All at once, everyone was getting in touch."

The album already had an auspicious history, having been recorded in the singer Elliott Smith's New Monkey studio in Los Angeles. Morgan was introduced to Smith through a mutual friend, and Smith generously opened his doors, and heart, to Morgan in the summer of 2002, when what was to be a two-day recording session turned into two months. "We hit it off right away, talking about music and life," Morgan remembered. "He treated me like I was his little brother. He was incredibly generous and kind." Morgan dedicated the album to Smith, who committed suicide in October 2003.

Following the British release in June, Morgan signed a deal with an Australian label based in Melbourne called Peeping Tom Records, and meanwhile, the album did well enough in the UK that his label gave it a continental release (throughout Europe) on September 15. Music critics from England to Australia to Germany have hailed Morgan's lush string arrangements and songcrafting (one review called it a "dark and searching string-laden labour of love"). Songs from the album have begun to get radio play on Australian and European stations, and the Australian label recently informed Morgan that his album is their best release ever. Morgan enlisted a publicist and he has been doing interviews with major music magazines and radio stations. Another UK tour is planned soon and tours in Australia, Europe, and the United States are being considered. In October, Morgan signed a deal with Sonic Boom Recordings for an American release.

Although cutting an album and having it be well received was something that Morgan says he'd always been "wishful for," his rapidly burgeoning music career just happened to hit smack in the middle of his first year at HDS, meaning Morgan found himself in the position of having to balance the demands of record companies with the requirements of classes. "The album had been finished during orientation in September, and I got signed during finals of the first semester," Morgan recalled. This made the spring semester especially tricky, he says, since his label wanted him to tour in advance of the album's release date. So during spring break, while other students were relaxing on a beach or taking the opportunity to catch up on rest and reading, Morgan did a whirlwind mini-tour in England that included several performances and press showcases in Manchester and London.

"I had three midterms in two days, and hopped on a plane to London as soon as my Islam midterm was over," he said. "As soon as I arrived, I was whisked off to my first press interview, and I did five shows in six days in Manchester and London." Not surprisingly, Morgan says, he got horribly sick along the way and had to sing with an aching throat. He admits it was all exciting and fun, especially getting to meet other musicians he had admired, like Badly Drawn Boy, but by the time the tour was done, he was literally "shaking from the stress." On the plane ride home, he had to frantically look over his notes for a major presentation on Nietzsche and Wagner he was due to give in a "German Arts and Letters" class the day after he arrived back at Harvard.

"I got through it," he said, "though I do think my academic work suffered occasionally throughout the year." In spite of what were decidedly extenuating circumstances, Morgan has never been one to make excuses or ask for extensions, and he took a full HDS courseload. So subdued and understated was he that close friends say they think most people at HDS didn't even know Morgan was balancing another life as an aspiring musician.

"I never wanted to be that guy who always talks about his band," Morgan said. "It's the most annoying thing in the world. My best friends knew, and they were really supportive, but I definitely wasn't about to walk around HDS with magazine clippings on my back."

By the time he got to the end of what ended up being a crazy year, Morgan had decided to take the next academic year off to manage his music career. He has set ambitious goals for this year, which include not only publicizing and touring for his already-released album, but recording a new album of material (mostly written), and composing material for a new, third album. He is currently based in Chicago, the city he has come to consider home after living there post-college, and he says it was "absolutely the right decision. There's no way I could have fulfilled all my obligations with this album and been at Harvard." He fully intends to return to HDS next year to finish his MTS degree, saying, "I plan to come back really fresh."

Morgan's academic interests at HDS concern the philosophy of religion. He became interested in philosophy during his undergraduate days at the University of Kansas, and in that time spent a year studying in Oxford, England. After graduating from Kansas, he lived in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. While working a low-level job at the University of Chicago, he decided to apply to philosophy doctoral programs at Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and Oxford. Though he was rejected from the PhD programs, HDS professor David Lamberth liked Morgan's essay and recommended that he apply for an MTS degree instead. "I didn't even know about divinity school programs, so the following year I applied to Harvard and Chicago divinity schools," he recalls.

Although academia and pop music are radically different worlds, Morgan does not see his academic and artistic pursuits as separate enterprises. In fact, his vision for his next album (the one he plans to write this year) actually incorporates his love of philosophy—more specifically, Nietzsche. The songs will be "close meditations on Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals," he explains. He has even enlisted the help of Harvard professors from the German department, who have agreed to give him feedback and direction. Morgan is grateful for the assistance, and says that receiving the "mentoring and opportunities for dialogue" with his professors "is exactly why I came here to Harvard."

At first, he says, he planned to pull from the entire Nietzsche canon, but with the help of his professors, he realized he needed to focus on one work. "This isn't going to be a dissertation," he explained. "It's going to be an introduction, an attempt to try to integrate Nietzsche's critique of Christianity into pop-song structure."

Morgan acknowledges that pulling this off will involve a difficult feat of balancing form and content. "I don't want to dilute or misrepresent the content—I don't want to do a thin job," he said. At the same time, he knows he needs to translate Nietzsche's esoteric, text-based philosophy into pop lyrics that actually pop. He is encouraged in that regard by Nietzsche's example. "This is something that Nietzsche himself was totally aware of," he said. "He never sacrificed artistic flair in his own work, so much so that people argue whether his work was literature or philosophy."

As for a musical precedent, Morgan said: "My model is John Lennon's 'Imagine.' It's an offbeat, radical song that made it into the mainstream consciousness. It's actually shocking that song was such a hit."

As for those who might think drawing on Nietzsche could never lead to anything comparable to the hopeful vision of "Imagine," Morgan says those people misunderstand his favorite philosopher. "Many people think Nietzsche was a nihilist, but he was actually a great affirmer," He said. "His intention is most always a positive, affirming one." Morgan says he finds Nietzsche's critique and his affirmations especially relevant in our post–9/11 age.

One of the big advantages to achieving some success as a musician, Morgan says, is that he is able to access better resources for recording his next album. "My first album took so long to make," Morgan explained. "I spent three and a half years writing and arranging and another one and a half recording and mixing. Though my vision always stayed the same, I never even knew if it would get finished. It was like a movie that keeps going over budget!"

Morgan intends his next album to be completed in a more timely manner. "I've already been working like crazy arranging the new songs, and I hope to get it recorded, mixed, and mastered by the time I come back to HDS," he said. Meanwhile, Morgan has been playing occasionally in Chicago with a band, and they recently completed a four-week "residency" at the hip hangout Schuba's Tavern. "We have fun, but also take it seriously. Everybody wears suits. It's like a formal band practice."

Due in part to his tours and gigs, he has gotten much more comfortable at the front of the show. "I'm having way more fun!" he said. Yet Morgan, who started playing guitar when he was 12 years old and became "instantly obsessed with it," maintains an essential shyness and humility. He is quick to credit his sister and other musicians he has worked with for being better musicians than he is, and he continues to derive perhaps the most pleasure from the introverted processes of writing and arranging his songs.

"Now that the business part has kicked in, I find myself having to spend a lot of time on the phone doing interviews and arranging logistics, when I really want to be spending all my own time on arranging the new songs," Morgan said. "It's another balancing act."

No doubt, Morgan has reflected on what Nietzsche might have said about his current struggle between the demands of success as an indie musician and his desire to stay immersed in a creative space. And who knows, he might even turn those reflections into a song.