Featured interview – Laurie Morvan

Cover photo © Bob Hakins

imageBlues artists come from all directions in all directions in the modern world. And even if you’re born into a family rife with problems deep enough to sing about, your trip from home to the music can take mighty interesting turns along the way. Take the case of blues-rock guitarist Laurie Morvan for example.

Based out of Long Beach, Calif., since the early ‘80s, she’s a powerful vocalist and songwriter with high-octane, take-no-prisoners attitude. Standing 5-foot-10 and breathing fire through her Fender Stratocaster, she possesses a commanding stage presence, delivering original tunes delivered from a unique point of view and keeping audiences engaged with frequently humorous banter, too.

Give her a listen and you’ll be certain that place in the music world is where Laurie belongs. But her life could have been far different – and was for quite a while. Born in Jackson, Mich., she grew up in New Lenox, Joliet and Plainfield, Ill., only an hour or so from the heart of the blues on the South Side of Chicago but situated in the cornfields 50 miles or so – and light years — away.

“We moved from Jackson when I was about six months old…to Bittersweet Lane in New Lenox, Ill.,” she told Blues Blast in a recent interview. “How bluesy is that?”

The daughter of an alcoholic womanizer, Morvan’s birth father walked out of the home for good when Laurie was five years old. And life wasn’t easy for the ladies he left behind.

“After he left us, my mom and I spent years in various little, cheap upstairs apartments in non-descript, wrecked buildings in Joliet. I remember seeing the hardships that my mother was going through after the divorce,” she says. Despite her tender age, she had epiphany that I needed to always be able to take care of myself financially…that I had to acquire skills that would always put food on the table and a roof over my head.”

After her mom remarried, moved to neighboring Plainfield and the newlyweds built their dream home by hand. Life was far more upbeat, but the drive to succeed has propelled Morvan’s life ever since, noting: “My calling is to be a musician…I’m 100 per cent clear on that. That’s who I am.

“But I know I have other skills, and I’m gonna use everything I’ve got. And if I didn’t have my other skills, the last two years of COVID would’ve been unbearable!”

The new man in her life truly became “Dad” from the jump, and their new home was always full of music — everything but the blues. “Mom would put on WLS (the 50,000-watt rock radio giant out of the Windy City), and my dad listened to country, which – at the time – drove me crazy a little bit. But I did grow to appreciate the songwriting part of it.”

Like most Midwestern teens, Morvan was into all forms of rock, R&B and disco. And her new father was tolerant of everything except KISS, banning their music from the house. An honors student, Laurie played flute in a community-wide Catholic elementary school band because none of the parochial schools in the vicinity had music programs of their own.

“At the time,” she remembers, “I wanted to play drums. But my mom had this vision of a big, loud drum kit. Later on, she told me she had no idea that practice pads existed. She said: ‘How ‘bout the flute?’”

At the time, she wasn’t happy. Today, however, she’s glad she did because one of the benefits was that she learned how to read charts. When it came time for her to enroll in the public school, however, she kept playing flute in the concert band but became a percussionist in the marching ensemble.

“The very first piece of music I ever composed,” she says, “was for my high school percussion section when I was 17.” Composed of everything from bass, snare and cymbals and much more, it was a large unit and complicated chart that Morvan wrote out by hand. It proved to be such a successful effort that her band director adopted it as his regular drum cadence and continued to use it for years after she left.

Always an overachiever, Laurie started working at a Rustler Steak House at age 16 to saving money for college. She moved on to Gee Lumber – “there was no Walmart or Home Depot in our small town” — a year or so later. It was there that she met Brendan Ryan. Now a lifelong friend, he played a key role in Morvan’s eventual decision to become a musician.

“We were hanging out one day,” she remembers, “and he said: ‘Check out this acoustic guitar.’ I grabbed it, and he showed me how to make a chord. I strummed it, and it hit me like a lightning bolt: This is the best thing in the history of the world!”

imageHer love affair with the six-string has been unabated ever since.

Even so, however, Laurie grew up envisioning herself as an athlete, not a blues-rock guitarist. At the time, she says, like bands, there were no girls’ sports at Catholic grade schools, adding: “I knew I didn’t want to play with dolls – and I wasn’t trying to break any barriers or make a statement — but all I wanted to do was go out and play baseball and basketball, football and tag and all that. I was just a little kid sayin’: ‘Hey, that looks fun. I’m gonna do that.’”

She got finally her chance to compete during her freshman year at Plainfield High School. Title IX, a landmark ruling that barred sexual inequality in education, had recently gone into effect and — for the first time ever — girls were starting to field teams that competed against rival schools instead of being confined to intramural play.

“I earned 12 varsity letters in four years in volleyball, basketball, softball and track,” Morvan says proudly — doing so at such a high level that she was honored with eventual induction in the school’s athletic hall of fame. “When I was a senior, my volleyball coach came to me and said: ‘There’s some colleges asking about you.’

“But I said: ‘Tell ‘em all ‘no’ because I’m going to go to the University of Illinois and be an electrical engineer and I have to study all the time — and that’s all I’ll have time to do!’”

True to her word, once in Champaign-Urbana, she hit the books, but eventual realized she did have the time because she was also spending three hours a day in the gym in pick-up games against the boys. During her sophomore year, she finally approached an assistant volleyball coach at a game one day, asked if she was looking for any more players, got a tryout and eventually earned a full athletic scholarship for her junior and senior years – a major accomplishment in and of itself considering that it was a major-conference, Big Ten program.

“They called me up that summer to tell me,” Laurie recalls. “I cried, and my mom cried. I’d been working since I was 16 and had saved up enough money for the first two years, but I had no idea how I was going to pay for that next year of school.”

Even so, Morvan insists, “I was more of rock star as an electrical engineering student.” And she isn’t kidding. Graduating with honors, she also took home both of her department’s most prestigious prizes — the A.R. “Buck” Knight Award and George Hu Award — for outstanding achievement in and out of the classroom.

Heavily recruited and flown all over the country for interviews because of a boom in the engineering field at the time, she landed a job at TRW Aerospace in Redondo Beach, Calif. But her love for the six-string continued to be a growing, burning passion.

She bought her first electric, a Peavey T-60, and then traded it almost in immediately for a white Les Paul Custom fitted with gold hardware and an ebony fretboard. Not long after, she joined her first band, a rock cover group that worked greater Los Angeles, as its singer and rhythm guitarist.

Three years into her day job, she says, “I went into my boss – who looked exactly like the Marlboro man – and said: ‘Bob, I’m quittin’ engineering to go play music,’ and he about fell out of his chair. I said: ‘I gotta go do it, man. I gotta go do it!’

“He understood it. He said: ‘I get it. It’s a calling.’”

Morvan says the Les Paul eventually went by the wayside to pay the rent while she was playing everything from dive bars to upscale casinos with a Top 40 cover band in California and Nevada. But she’d already picked up her first red Strat along the way – and a burning desire to play lead, schooling herself by exploring the work of dozens of rock guitarists and practicing four or five hours each day before her nighttime gigs.

Her passion for the blues began through her discovery of Stevie Ray Vaughan – something that happened during a visit home when her friend Brendan suggested she give him a listen. “His sister’s best friend was married to Chris Layton (Stevie’s drummer and co-founder of Double Trouble),” Laurie recalls. “He said to me: ‘You gotta check out this guy!’

“Hearing Stevie’s music just grabbed ahold of my heart. He was my bridge. His melodic sensibilities…it was just an easy crossroad for me. It made sense because of my rock-‘n’-roll history. He was a musical genius…the perfect storm of ‘giftedness’…winning the biological lottery, realizing his calling, pursuing it against all odds and putting in about one billion hours of practice, too. I felt that visceral connection.

“Not only was he a great guitar player, but he was also a very, very good singer. It’s like B.B. King, another musical genius. He always knew exactly what to play and exactly what to sing, and the emotion came through every note. It was always right – and just what you wanted to hear!

“I never saw him live, which is tragic, because he’d be comin’ through town and I’d have my own gigs. I’d be like: ‘Well, I’ll catch him next time…’ Well, there was no next time. Let that be a lesson.

image“Live music is ephemeral. You’ve got to go out there and see it to experience it. It doesn’t matter how many videos you watch of somebody or how many magazines you read. You’ve just gotta go out there and get punched in the gut by it. You’ve gotta feel it live!”

Despite the epiphany, Morvan’s transition to the blues took time. Stevie was like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, leading her down the rabbit hole, but she still had to find her own way.

“He opened a gateway and I started exploring everybody else,” she says. “It wasn’t like ‘BOOM!’ overnight. It took me a while to make that turn. It was: ‘Yeah, this rock-‘n’-roll/pop stuff is cool, but this blues stuff over here kinda keeps calling me.’

“I kept turning my attention more…and more…and more…that way until it became my sole focus. The deeper I got, the more it connected. Stevie was an immediate pipeline to Albert King. Then I was exploring B.B. and Freddie King.”

After a while, when she started tracing Eric Clapton’s blues roots, her list grew exponentially.

“I was opening an unbelievable musical pallet,” she says, “and when you do that, you find things that are unbelievably tasty. I think acoustic blues is wonderful and beautiful, but it wasn’t as interesting to me as the more power-driven blues of Albert, Freddie and Albert Collins.

“Frankly, there’s not enough hours in the day to get good at all of it. The blues is such a huge pallet. And there’s also a lot of misconception of how easy it is. The structure is streamlined or kinda simple. But to do it well, there’s a lot of nuance that has to happen. That takes maturity and musical sensibility.”

As someone whose original songs are frequently deeply nuanced and almost always arranged in a specific manner, Morvan says she’s run into difficulties with musicians who’ve failed to do their homework in advance of an audition because they believe the blues to be nothing more than “good-time music.”

Laurie took years to find her blues footing, something that began slowly by working Jimi Hendrix and Clapton tunes into sets that also included plenty of Joan Jett, Heart, Scandal and other rockers. The scales started tipping more as Stevie, Freddie, B.B. and others started finding a place in her act alongside her own tunes, which were becoming more and more bluesy, too. The transition finally took hold for good in the early 2000s.

Through it all, she insists, she’s never been someone who’s tried to cop other artists’ styles note-for-note, adding: “Sounding like someone else has never been one of my goals. But studying what they do and understanding the music is.

“It’s important to acknowledge and respect the past while having it coexist in the music you feel in your own heart. My solos have to tell their own story. I’m not going to just go and flail. Some people can do it, and it’s great. But I sorta need a direction and know how I want the solo to move the song forward musically.”

Morvan always dreamed of a recording career but quickly came to realize that – as an independent artist – it’s an extremely costly proposition. Knowing that she’d almost certainly have to fund everything herself, she decided to go back to school in the late ‘80s, earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics and began teaching classes at Cypress College in Orange County, a side job that she’s maintained for the past 30 years.

Her debut came in 1997 while fronting the band Backroad Shack with the all-original CD, Out of the Woods. “That album was the beginning,” she says, “less blues and more rock. But you can hear the blues influence in the opener, ‘Shoulda Known Better.’

“That’s when I’m just starting to turn the ship.”

Her transition was finally complete seven years later when her unit, now billed as the Laurie Morvan Band, released the aptly titled CD, Find My Way Home. Its 2007 follow-up, Cure What Ails Ya, which emulated the sound of live performance, helped the group achieve what’s jokingly referred to in the industry as “overnight” success.

“I was finally starting to find my voice in the blues-rock world,” Laurie says, “and my songwriting, singing and playing are gaining a nice focus.”

Propelled by positive reviews and the tune, “Kickin’ Down Doors,” Morvan was interviewed in Guitar Player magazine, received airplay on Dan Aykroyd’s House of Blues Radio Hour and more. After winning local competition for the International Blues Challenge, the band made it to the finals in Memphis the following January and their CD was a finalist for best self-produced album, too.

“That’s the year that Trampled Under Foot won,” Laurie points out wistfully, “and you’re not gonna beat Trampled Under Foot. You’re not gonna beat Danielle Schnebelen. What a great voice! Kudos to her…she’s another one who won the biological lottery!”

imageMaking it to the finals and networking during the event proved to be a major door-opener though. Serving as her own agent, Morvan got on the phone and was soon booking tours that ventured as far as the Midwest. Then her follow-up, Fire It Up!, which was co-produced with Steve Savage (Elvin Bishop/Robert Cray), her next album, took top honors in the 2010 IBCs and her next one, Breathe So Deep, lead to national and international tours.

“It was nice to have validation that I’m on the right track and doing something right,” she admits, “’cause the business is so-o-o hard and can tear at your confidence and tear at your will. When things like that happen, it is a little boost…it really does help.”

Unfortunately, despite the building momentum, Laurie’s career came to a sudden halt in 2014 when she broke her right wrist in a fall at home – an injury so severe that it required two surgeries to repair. But things were upbeat again in 2017 when she joined forces with Grammy-winning producer Tony Braunagel to record Gravity. Laid down at guitarist Johnny Lee Schell’s Ultratone Studios in L.A., it featured three of the organ master Mike Finnigan and other members of the Taj Mahal and Phantom Blues Band and keyboard giants Jim Pugh and Barry Goldberg, too.

“I’ve tried to grow with each CD, and I feel like that one’s the culmination of all the hard work we’ve put in before,” Morvan says, “and I’m not a person who can go in and do an album in one week. I admire people who can do that, but for me, it’s different.

“I record all the basic tracks – and, if things go well, some of my solos – in my home studio in a week or so. But then I take my time listening to everything while I drinking my coffee and wearing my fuzzy slippers (laughs). I have my guitar there, too, and try to play things I hadn’t played before…different things, different settings, new melodies and all of that.

“I don’t have the pressure of ‘oh, my god! It’s $100 an hour in the studio.’”

Sadly, by the time Gravity was finally ready, Morvan notes, COVID-19 was beginning to make inroads around the globe. “I know a lot of artists made new records during COVID, and I had intended to,” she adds, quickly getting emotional. “But my mom (now deceased) had a stroke…and that just leveled me. Honestly, I didn’t really care if I played another show. I didn’t have any music in me for a while.

“Now, I’m ready.

“Through it all, I’ve still been writing, of course. I have a lot of joys in my life, but writing songs is so satisfying to me that it’s hard to describe how good it makes me feel.”

The majority of her originals deliver upbeat messages drawn from her own life experience – something, she says, that pays off occasionally when someone in the audience approaches after a show, details his or her own troubles and relates how a certain one of her songs helped them to ease their suffering and make sense of it all.

“Woo! That raises the hairs on my arm!” Morvan admits. “I think we musicians have a sacred calling to get out there and spread love and healing – and you do that through every emotion in a song…joy, sadness, grief, anger…all that stuff. I feel truly blessed that I can do that and that people out there want to hear what I can do. I feel so lucky…(tearing up)…it’s a miracle!

“I still feel like Gravity is my ‘new’ record,” she says. “Hopefully, our tours can happen this year and we can promote it…fingers crossed…and I hope nobody else gets COVID or dies from it either.”

Laurie and her band are chopping at the bit to get back on the road. And they’re truly a “family” in more ways than through song.

imagePat Morvan, her ex-husband, has been playing bass with her since she landed in California. His wife, Susan, handles merchandise and does most of the driving. Laurie’s wife of 21 years, Lisa, shares vocals, and keyboard player Tommy Salyers has been with them for years. The only newcomer is drummer Robert Gates who’s just come aboard as a replacement for Lonnie Jones who recently decided to leave the road and go back to continue his education.

“We’re the Fleetwood Mac of the blues,” Laurie jokes, an azure version of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie whose romantic ups-and-downs are imbued in rock-‘n’-roll history. “But – for us — that’s been a lo-o-ong time ago.

“It was really hard when those changes happened. But Pat and I, we have the relationship now that we were always supposed to have, which is…we’re friends. That’s what we were always supposed to be. We tried to be a married couple, and that just wasn’t the right time.

“When you get a divorce, you feel like your whole world crashes in. But for us, we continued to be respectful and nice to each other through all of that, which is why we can be friends. We never did ‘oh, you’re this terrible person ‘cause you did this…’

“Our personalities are such that we’re self-reflective – and we both just realized we were in a place we weren’t supposed to be. The fact that we both went on to find the true loves in our lives is a testament to that.

“The music held us together and allowed us to be friends. I can’t imagine my life without Pat and Susan.”

The second half of 2022 should be a big year for Laurie and her entourage if all goes as planned.

“It took a while to ramp things up because of COVID,” she says. “But after playing up and down California in June, we’re doing our first real Canadian tour into British Columbia and Alberta in July, playing the Calgary Blues Festival. We only played a few other Canadian festival dates in the past. Then we drop down and play the Billings Blues Festival in Montana, more dates in the Upper Midwest before touring the Midwest, where we’re headlining the Joliet Blues Festival, where I grew up! It’s so exciting!

“Then we return to California for a month before our first Southern tour, including the Bogalusa Blues Festival in Louisiana and then, two weeks later, the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Ark., with other stops in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi – and, hopefully, in Texas on the way back.

“It’s a routine we hope to repeat every six months so that they become part of our regular routine. I want to bring my music exactly everywhere! It’s unbelievable how our expenses have exploded in the past ten years and even more lately. But we’re blessed to have played in places enough times where fans have become friends and family, too.

“I call ‘em ‘blues angels,’” she says, “and it’s a tall order to have six up six people like us invading your house. But without that network that eases the burden a little, I don’t know what we’d do. We’re truly blessed.

“For anyone out there reading this, just know that the band you’re seeing today has gone through a gauntlet to be there for you. So, please, be nice to ‘em!”

Check out Laurie’s music — and where you’ll find them – by visiting her website: www.lauriemorvan.com

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