Evelyn Ida Morris’s piano forte
The piano is an instrument of reverie. It is capable of great volume, its sound reaching the furthest rows of an auditorium. Yet finding the quietest notes is one of its subtle challenges: to push down a key confidently, so it will sound, but softly, so it won’t jar. Anyone who’s played a piano will understand that although the clearest sound is to be had from a slight distance, the warmest, most intimate tones are yours alone, as you sit before the instrument and coax the music into being.
Evelyn Ida Morris started playing piano at the age of three. The child improvised from the start, creating chord patterns and melodies, missing out on theory, dreaming at the keyboard. “It really was about validating myself. Feeling that I could gain validation from the world. Piano was always that, in my childhood.”
On their new album, the first under their own name, the musician, producer and composer makes a study of the piano – a work of contemporary classical, flecked here and there with pop, references to Debussy and Ravel and even Robert Wyatt. Three decades of practice and devotion to the instrument whirls the notes, with power and with tender care, into expressions of a lifetime’s questioning. There are 12 tracks on the album and each one is Morris, singing or speaking or speechless, touching the instrument they have loved and from which they are returned love.
I meet Morris in a rented artists’ studio they share with two jewellery designers in Brunswick, surrounded by the excitedly coloured canvases Morris has been painting. Gently, they explain the evolution of their relationship with the social paradigms of music.
Their career has been a sequence of reactions and searchings. First, to get away from the insecurity of young womanhood. Later, to get away from the maleness of music. Evelyn is non-binary and uses “they” pronouns: they do not identify as a man or a woman. In high school, bullied and anxious, they started playing drums – hardcore punk stuff. “I thought piano was uncool. And I did think it was very femme,” they explain. “Drums really made gender a focus for me.” In the outer suburbs of Melbourne, “there was body-shaming stuff, because I didn’t have bosoms and didn’t develop very quickly. So drums was a way of defending that space. When I was playing drums in really heavy bands I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m like a really heavy dude,’ you know?” Morris runs a hand through salt-and-pepper quiff and grimaces wryly. “Needing to feel tough, and needing to fit in with some version of masculinity which I found through playing the drums.”
At 17, they snuck under-age into a bar and, chatting with the bartender about drumming, were told that they wouldn’t get far because of the physiological limits of being female. “And I was like, ‘Fuck. What?’ ” This was in the years following Melbourne’s famous Rock ’n’ Roll High School for female artists, of Kim Gordon and Kim Deal and Riot grrrl, decades since Karen Carpenter, Sheila E., Moe Tucker and other women drummers. Morris spent “the next 20 years playing aggressively, to piss off that stereotype”. Some things change, some don’t. “It still happens to me now, though now it’s because of different haircuts I’ve had, or dressing a little more a-gender, but you’ll get these conversations like, ‘First I thought you were a boy, then you were a girl, and now, it’s just amazing that you’re a girl drummer.’ You just have to ignore it.”
These early experiences of sexism in music have shaped Morris’s career. If piano was “femme”, its feminine presence remained a constant murmur, even as the drumming got louder. Then their mother got sick. It was cancer. She had never been totally sure about the music Morris was making. “And I thought, I’ll make something she likes.” So in 2007 Morris began what would become their best-known work, Pikelet. Initially a solo project featuring loop pedals, an accordion and a floor tom drum, Pikelet received a huge critical response and tossed Morris into a new corner of underground music.
“I remember thinking clearly, ‘This is girly.’ I just really enjoyed doing it, because I could play around with that idea.” Pikelet’s sound dissolves and beeps, radiates and circles: a swirl of xylophones, acoustic guitars, percussion and electronic jangles beneath Morris’s attractively naive vocals. The project toured and supported Goldfrapp, Beirut, Sufjan Stevens and others, later came to include several male musicians, made four albums, toured with more luminaries. There were acclamations from community radio and a nomination for the Australian Music Prize. But they felt increasing distance from band members; Morris was more and more self-conscious and troubled by the way gender was manifested even in underground music culture.
“There’s something in the way that cis white men in music’s feelings exist: that they can do whatever the fuck they want, and they can do it with confidence and abandonment of other people’s feelings.” As a person assigned female, Morris found it a distasteful, hypocritical culture. “It’s chaos. You get thrown around, your body gets utilised and thrown around. There doesn’t feel like a great deal of depth of understanding.” Feminism was seen as something quaint and superfluous, even as it seemed that white, male music was powerful, charismatic and visionary while female-generated music was indulged as a charming extra, “pointless and trivial and stupid”. Morris sensed that the need for gender activism was matched by the force of toxic masculinity in hipster culture. “If you’re resisting something or presenting an alternative narrative, you are being vulnerable, without even trying to be. And you can’t be vulnerable if the void that you’re speaking to is cynical and joking around.” On Pikelet songs such as “Mess Works Better”, from 2016’s Tronc, their vocals became stronger even as their internal confidence wobbled.
At the same time as circulating in a female-positioned feminist crisis, Morris was experiencing depressive periods centring on anxiety about gender performance, their own non-binary identity and the abrasion from rubbing against expectations. Most young women feel freakish and unsure in some ways, but as Morris entered their 30s they knew something else was there. “It’s so difficult to explain why it’s different when you experience it as a non-binary narrative. There are certain things that you can’t change about your body, that feel wrong. You think everyone’s looking at them. I used to feel so small, when I was around womanly women.” Morris patiently explains dysphoria: it’s not insecurity about how your body fits imposed evaluation, for example that a woman’s body is judged overweight or unsexy, but about the body itself. “Dysphoria is this unnameable force that takes over your mind and divorces you from your body and says, ‘You don’t even belong here. This is wrong.’ ”
On Tronc, Morris sings: I don’t know what’s right, I don’t know what’s real, I don’t know who to love, I don’t know how to feel… An emerging non-binary consciousness, moving apprehensively into the space between male and female, collided with uncertainty over leadership of their band project and dismay when a book chronicling underground music seemed to erase women from the scene. Morris criticised this sexist evaporation, and so began Listen, an advocacy organisation for non-male musicians that gave Morris a steady place from which to confront all the wrongness. At least it did at the start. The restorative tonic of feminist defiance became complicated by gender politics and the evolving contentions in feminism about intersectionality, including trans narratives. “The irony of running feminist organisations is that you become about everyone else, even more. It is particularly complex,” Morris says. “Because it’s finding its feet on the internet amongst a million intense arguments that keep you up until five in the morning. Trans narratives have to be at the forefront of gender politics. Because trans people are the ones copping the most nonsense to do with gender.”
As for Pikelet, Morris felt more and more unsatisfied. “Am I trying to make myself happy? Other people happy? Am I trying to say something about my own emotions or…? I got confused about the purpose. Eventually I was thinking, ‘What is this even for anymore? I’ve lost track.’ ”
Throughout their musical career, Morris had continued playing piano. “I kept it just for me, and I kept it improvisational. The relationship with that instrument for me is so immediate, and so tapped into some area that I find difficult to explain in words.” Its consolations were private, fierce, prized. But through reflection and improvisation, which Morris has always adored and sometimes performs publicly, songs evolved. “That’s when the piano pieces started to emerge. I didn’t need anyone else while I was playing piano.” In the composition process, Morris messes about expertly on the piano, as on a sweltering day visiting a friend’s house. “Then something will rise to the surface that works and then I’ll see if there are other bits that can tack on, and just see where it goes. It’s really natural and usually when I sit down to work I’ll write two or three pieces in a sitting.” That instrumental piece, “Darwin Heat”, the first song on Morris’s new album, expresses how Morris’s uncategorisable body felt in the melting humidity; other pieces, too, with vocals or without, are a pure projection of a body and spirit shivering its way through crisis to realisation.
All the politics, the agony about objectification and determinism and being unacceptable, being policed, being defiant, representing a cause, being alone – in the notes loud and soft on Evelyn Ida Morris, and the silences between, the musician expresses their grief and resolve. It’s an aching album, an elegant and lovely one, full of all the vulnerability Morris has felt forbidden to feel. “So this album’s been sitting in the can for four years, because I felt afraid to put it out for ages. It felt too much like mine. It felt wrong to put it out until I was more comfortable with it myself. Those pieces on the album: they’re the first ones I wrote that I felt really sure about.”
The lyrics evolve from Morris’s journal. On the only recent addition to the album, “The Body Appears”, the warm, crooning vocals – When the body appears, but is unseen, where do I live then? – come from this self-talk. It’s a maternal presence, Morris suggests – then corrects themself. “Parental, maybe. Ungendered!” They laugh. About this particular track, they say: “I needed to include on the album a character who indicates more of how I feel now. Which is that it’s okay that you don’t know for sure what’s going on with gender.” Just move your left arm, move your right one too / don’t have it mean anything to anybody but you. And the piano chords hammer delicately, taking their time, moving more and more towards resolution, splintering into arpeggios of lightness.
As the music has grown, their professional expertise expressing true assurance, so Morris’s non-binary identity has become a more ample, magical place. “Once I got past that dark feeling around it, I started to look at what was underneath that, and it was total fascination. Now I’m like, ‘Cool.’ Now I get to explore certain feelings that I don’t know how to talk about, and that’s really fun.”
It’s terrifying, they say, to try to put the internal into words; but a chord speaks several voices at once, and that can suffice.
“Non-binary is very strange,” they say, “because it’s about preserving that internal space, and feeling proud of it, and finding ways to communicate it. I can define two very distinct places when I’m talking about my non-binary: one is how I feel inside, and I can share that with one or two people in the world, and this is the space that I access through playing those piano songs. And that is immediately changed as soon as anybody looks at it.” They pause for a thought. “The other space is how I am in the world, to other people. How I present – whether I’m presenting feminine or masculine or a-gender – it doesn’t change the fact that that gaze is there, and will gender me in some way no matter what I do. No matter how I dress, no matter how I speak or say ‘they’ or ‘I’m non-binary’, I will be perceived in a way that doesn’t feel like the right way. But,” they emphasise, “I want it to be in view. Non-binary is so invisible; you have to find ways to put it in the foreground of social and cultural narratives. It’s weird being non-binary, because you’re trying to define something that’s not willing to be defined a lot of the time. So it’s about learning to be sane amongst total uncertainty about everything that makes you who you are.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Piano forte". Subscribe here.