Guitar Player Laurie Morvan
Blues Revue Magazine
Powerful Women Play The Blues issue, Nov/Dec 2010
Laurie Morvan - Coming Full Circle
By Art Tipaldi
Fire It Up is not just the title of Laurie Morvan's most recent disc, it could also be the motto of her business plan. It's a plan that demonstrates a conscience decision on how to grow steadily in this precarious business. When she fired it up, she traveled to Memphis in 2008 for the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge and placed in the ten finalists among 100 band entries. That same year, her debut CD, Cures What Ails Ya, placed 2nd in the Foundation's Best Self-Produced CD competition.
With that exposure under her guitar strap, Morvan returned to LA and hatched a simple plan: chase down a smaller number of quality gigs instead of assembling a vast quantity of local shows every weekend. So she worked the phones to set up her band's first, extensive out-of-home-state tour.
"Because we went to the finals of the 2008 IBC and people were hearing us for the first time," says Morvan, "the doors were open for the first tour. Without an agent, it was just me, on the phone, sending out press kits, and calling. It was time consuming; I probably had 300 labor hours to make that happen. We were gone maybe two weeks and did 12 shows."
"I came up with this plan that instead of trying to figure out 52 weeks of the year, my epiphany was to focus on the summer, where the best gigs are. Instead of us doing as many gigs as we possibly could every night, all over the place, I wanted to put together a really good tour where we would do the best gigs, and then try to make great records in the so-called off-season."
That idea must have worked because, the next summer, 2009, Morvan added more shows and increased the time out to three weeks. Then in 2010, she released Fire It Up, which took First Place in the Blues Foundation's Award for the Best Self Produced CD, giving her another level of legitimacy and added publicity.
"This summer's tour grew to be our biggest tour ever. We traveled across the country for over five weeks, logged over 12,000 miles, played 27 shows, and even some major festivals. At one point, we played 12 days in a row."
Morvan feels that kind of opportunity happens when you are in charge of your own success in the profession. But Morvan knows she does not succeed alone. Her band, or family as she calls them, have been performing and recording together for the past 5 years.
Her long-time bassist Pat Morvan, drummer Kevin Murillo, keyboard player Tommy Salyers, and back-up vocalist Lisa Grubbs lead her musical team. Morvan, who comes to music from a high school and Division 1 college athletic background, readily identifies with the "band as team" concept.
"I never played an individual sport; I loved being on a team. That's why I always wanted to be in a band. I never wanted to be just a solo artist. What really resonates for me is to be on-stage with the same people who are my friends. Today, I'm blessed with a band where I can get song ideas and flesh out things like lyrics, melody, chord progression, the bridge, and then I can give it to the rhythm section and have the confidence they will come up with something. Ultimately, the lead vocal is in charge so that everything everyone plays has to make sense with the lead vocal."
More than just affirming team play, being a committed athlete as a child can pay huge dividends as an adult. The lessons that sport teaches, personal dedication, practicing fundamentals, and the will to excel, can all be crucial to one's success in other endeavors.
"First, being an athlete for me has this drive to excel. I played a Big Ten, Varsity sport on a scholarship that, when you get to that level, you have to play that sport 12 months a year. Because it's a commitment everyday, all year long, you really find out if you have that drive. You have to then have the tenacity to be able to critique yourself and your performance and then make minor changes in your physical approach.
"That's very similar to what I have to do as a guitar player. I have to critique my playing. If I feel that my playing isn't clean enough, I have to break it down and figure out what I'm going to do as a guitar player to make that sound cleaner. Then I have to be willing to put in the reps at practice to make that happen."
Morvan is a high wire guitarist who plays her brand of high-energy blues-rock with unbridled enthusiasm. Though she surrounds herself with a consistently supportive band, her stage performances shine the spotlight on Morvan as she transforms emotions into notes. From the moment Morvan put her fingers on a D chord, she knew the guitar was for her.
"When I was in high school, my best friend, Brendan, introduced me to the guitar. When I played his, it changed my world. I felt an immediate connection to it. That was definitely the first big turning point. Right from the beginning, I just got so much joy from it. I have this capacity to work at something for a really long time and not get tired or bored. So there's a joy for me in the mastery of it.
"Brendan taught me chords to all the Beatles' songs. But I can say that as soon as I learned three chords, I wrote a song. I think that being a songwriter was in me waiting to come out from the beginning. The songwriter in me was probably saying, 'Come on already.' All through college, with only so much time going to school, it was an avid hobby."
There are many roads to the blues. In past generations, it might have been a one-string guitar on a cabin's wall or it might have been watching a guitarist on a street corner having coins thrown at him as others danced. Morvan's road to the musical life is as valid an entree to the blues as any. Growing up in Joliet and Plainfield, IL Morvan was the three-sport athlete, accumulating 12 varsity letters. From there, Morvan attended the University of Illinois earning a degree in electrical engineering. But the guitar and her song notebook were never far away.
Degree in hand, Morvan relocated to Los Angeles in 1983 to work in the aerospace industry by day and play guitar at night. She first joined a rock 'n' roll cover band as guitarist and vocalist, then quit her day job to front a Top 40 band.
At some point, she discovered the blues guitar of Stevie Ray Vaughan and her guitar world turned upside down. That led her to Etta James, Luther Allison, Big Mama Thornton, and everyone else who inspired Vaughan. She recorded her first album in 1997 and her second in 2004, with Morvan writing 18 of the 21 songs. Her 2007 and 2009 releases that were honored by the Blues Foundation contain 22 Morvan originals, no covers.
"Though I love playing the guitar, for me, it is secondary to the song writing. If I were to give advice to young musicians, it would be to really focus on the songwriting. The songs are the most important thing we do. The greatest guitar solo will only go so far, but people will connect with the words. I believe we musicians have a sacred calling to heal the world, but you've got to have the songs.
"I remember as a kid that songs were my best friend. I would come home from school and listen to that song if I had a hard day at school. When I get e-mails today from people talking about what one of my songs means to them or how it's helped them get through some hard time in their life, that's a song coming full circle for me. It's a beautiful, emotional connection to the humanity around me. I think that is an important healing element in the world."
Morvan cites two special tunes that have generated many fan responses. "I've discovered that the more vulnerable I allow myself to be as a songwriter, the more people connect. I got the most beautiful, handwritten letter from a man in Ohio about 'One Little Thing.' This man hand wrote a letter, not e-mail, about how he listened to that song over and over when his father died. He said that song got him through his storm. That resonates so strongly to me because I had songs that helped me work through whatever I was dealing with when I was young. Another song, 'Family Line', I wrote for me, not to be played in public. That was me dealing with the pain of not having children. It was too personal to reveal. I knew that women would identify with that, but the biggest surprise is the men who are dealing with the same issue who have come to me or written saying they also identify. There was one man who played this song for his family as a way to open the door to a discussion of his pain."
"For me, the whole joy in performing is that synergistic experience that happens when you connect with the audience sharing this musical experience. I'm gonna pour my heart out for you because I can feel you entering into that emotional space. That's as nurturing to me as it is to the audience."
And then there's the gender/role model discussion Morvan sees and addresses. "First of all, I think the music business is hard for everybody. I always say that we females have a different set of hurdles. Maybe sometimes we have a few more."
"Recently, there was a festival interested in us, but it told me that 'We've already booked our woman.' What bothers me so much about that is that women are seen as a genre instead of a talent. That is the frustration that women face. I know that those kinds of things exist, and I have to find a way to kick the door down. You don't complain or whine, but you also don't pretend it's not there."
"What's the access of a role model for a little girl who wants to play guitar? You almost have to be a rebel to be a guitar-playing girl. It's access. As more and more women play, you'll see more young girls picking up the guitar. I've had women come up to me with their daughters and say, 'We love that you're up there kickin' ass! My daughter is 12 and learning to play guitar.' Now the daughter has this role model of a girl up there kickin' ass on the guitar."
Someday in the near future, Blues Revue will be writing a feature on a young woman guitar player and she will say, "When I listened to Laurie Morvan, I wanted to play the guitar."