Winston-Salem singer/songwriter tells stories that resonate in the political moment
*Editor’s note: The date of Cashavelly Morrison’s show appears in print as March 25, the actual date of her show is March 24. The article has been updated online to reflect the correct date.
Cashavelly Morrison has led three separate artistic lives. She started out as a dancer, studied ballet from the time she was a child, spent years at the North Carolina School of the Arts and moved on to several regional ballet companies in Texas and Virginia. Morrison, 36, also earned an advanced degree in creative writing, drawing on her childhood in West Virginia to craft historical fiction set in coal-mining towns in the 1920s. Her main creative focus these days is as a singer/songwriter, but she draws on insights from both dance and fiction-writing to inform her music-making. Taking the idea of a deep, bodily connection to the music from dance while using elements of history, character and narrative that are central to creative writing, Morrison’s songs are built on visceral stories.
Morrison and her collaborator (and husband), the guitarist Ryan Macleod, along with their four-piece band, play a March 24 show at Winston-Salem’s Muddy Creek Music Hall, at which they’ll debut a batch of new material. The songs will be featured on a forthcoming album that Morrison and Macleod are in the process of finishing up and preparing to shop around to labels.
“This show is kind of a sneak peek of the album,” Morrison said. “Most of the songs I don’t really think have been heard by anybody.”
These songs are different from the material that Morrison released on her haunting Americana-tinged 2015 album The Kingdom Belongs To A Child. “It’s louder, it’s more bold,” said Morrison of the difference between the forthcoming record and her debut.
Morrison and Macleod, who live in Winston-Salem, had their second child early last year, which caused the two to press pause on the album as they shifted focus to nurture an infant.
The bulk of the new songs were written before the 2016 presidential election, but Morrison said the material is strangely topical, with songs that touch on themes of gun violence, sexual harassment and human rights.
“Our first album was a lot of sadness,” Morrison said. “Now I feel like there’s this productive anger.”
Throughout her music-making endeavors, Morrison has often been driven by different kinds of what you’d have to call trauma. She first started writing songs while recovering from a painful spine injury, a dance injury that essentially drove her to rethink her ballet career.
“I kind of flailed around for a while,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to do with myself. That’s when I started writing songs.”
She moved to New York City for a few years in the summer of 2001. Morrison found a supportive network of fellow young artists from the UNCSA also trying to make careers in the city. She bounced musical ideas off of them.
Morrison says her first efforts as a songwriter were “not worth hearing.” But her training as a dancer may have given her the stamina to persevere and struggle to master a technique or a form, to get inside music from a non-theoretical angle.
“When I was a dancer, I studied classical pieces backwards and forwards — I memorized them,” Morrison said. “We would dance to a piece by Mozart and Bach, and we would count it and we would embody it. That was my musical training.”
The idea of ownership of one’s body — and of all-around personal autonomy — is something that comes up in different ways in Morrison’s songs. “Long-Haired Mare,” off her first record, is a song that tells of rape and murder, but with surprising twists and familial ties. Another song is about having a miscarriage. The songs are slow and death-haunted, with a connection to that morbid strain of old-time music and murder ballads. Morrison’s singing is delicate, radiating both ache and strength.
As a songwriter, Morrison said she often becomes obsessed with songs she admires, playing them constantly, internalizing the structure, details and peculiar melodic shifts. Then, when she’s ready to write, Morrison intuitively transmutes all of that into something that’s wholly her own. Often reworking her material relentlessly, so that there are dramatically different versions of some of her songs. She’s drawn deep inspiration from the songs of writers as diverse as Gillian Welch, Lefty Frizzell and Martha Wainwright. If there’s a through-line there, it might be the importance of story and character.
Despite the weight of many of the songs on Morrison ’s first record, she sees a type of triumph in the stories they tell.
“I don’t think it’s an album of victimhood,” she said. “I feel like it’s an album of escaping victimhood.”
Simply avoiding being hurt, taken advantage of or being disenfranchised might not be enough, given the political movements swelling since the 2016 election. Taking action, forcing change, speaking out, and standing up to abuses of power — these are more in line with the political mindset of the moment.
“This album is really calling out people who oppress and subjugate other people, and feed themselves off the backs of the masses,” Morrison said. “People might think of it as political, I don’t know, but it’s more than that to me.”
It’s a cliche, perhaps, but the personal is political, and how we behave as individuals, to one another, has repercussions in the world. But beyond that, Morrison’s songs are about morality. She has questions to ask people about prevalent religious hypocrisy: “Do you really believe in human rights or do you not?” What’s the relationship between claiming to emulate Jesus and at the same time working to break up families and cause suffering for others?
And if you don’t appreciate being interrogated by a singer or having your own values held up to scrutiny by artists, well, tough.
These days, as mellow as her music might sometimes sound, Morrison isn’t solely trying to make people feel at ease.
“I am not going to let myself be this people-pleaser anymore.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.