The Reverb Interview: Matt Morris - Reverb

The Reverb Interview: Matt Morris

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Matt Morris (above) and his band performed on “Late Night with David Letterman” on Friday. Reverb file photo by Nathan Rist.

Denver songwriter Matt Morris cut his first solo record the way any young artist might. He made an album with his friends. Only his friends are people like Justin Timberlake.

Morris, like Timberlake a former Mouseketeer, recorded most of his new CD in Austin, Texas, with his new buddy, musician/producer Charlie Sexton. He wrote many of the lyrics with his partner, Sean, whom he married in California when same-sex marriage there was still legal. And he built an entire song around a track written by his friend and bandmate, Dave Preston.

Morris, 30, worked intensely with Timberlake, one of his oldest friends and the executive producer of his breakthrough record, “When Everything Breaks Open.”

In a way, this is the record Morris was destined to make. He just had to wait until the time was right — and the relationships fell into place.

Co-writing much of Christina Aguilera’s “Stripped” helped, as did the song he wrote with Timberlake, “(Another Song) All Over Again,” for the megastar’s sophomore smash, “FutureSex/LoveSounds.”

But the tipping point came several years ago in a Manhattan hookah bar.

“Justin had just done (‘Saturday Night Live’) for the first time, and we were catching up in New York,” Morris said. “We’ve written songs together, and he’d let me open for him in a couple cities. I remember playing ‘Eternity’ with an acoustic guitar in Cleveland to a crowd of a couple thousand of his screaming fans.

“But it was that night in New York when he said, ‘I think I’m gonna start a record label, and I think you should be on there. I want to help you get your music out to the world.’

“I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I don’t know that he knew what it meant. And while it’s been a four- or five-year process since then, we’re here right now, and it’s exciting.”

Also exciting (indeed, Morris couldn’t stop tweeting and making YouTube videos about the news last week) is this: Morris and his band will celebrate Tuesday’s release of “When Everything Breaks Open” (on Timberlake’s Tennman Records) with a performance on “Late Night with David Letterman” on Friday (Jan. 8). Then they’ll play “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Jan. 19. And more high-profile gigs are in the works.

If you haven’t yet heard Morris’ name or his music, you aren’t alone. Though Morris lives in central Denver, he has played only a handful of shows around town — including a couple of well-received sets at last summer’s UMS, The Denver Post’s Underground Music Showcase.

In 2009, he assembled a Denver- based band, and that group will be spreading the gospel of “When Everything Breaks Open” in the coming months.

Morris first found the spotlight as a cast member of “The Mickey Mouse Club” from 1991 to 1995. He was all over the TV and teen mags, and he put out a group record on Disney that corresponded with a national tour. The group, MMC, never reached Jonas Brothers proportions, but it was a big deal. (The YouTube videos are all the evidence you need to see to know that Morris was quite the teen heartthrob.)

But something was missing: Denver.

“I missed my home and I missed my friends,” said Morris, who came back to Colorado to attend Kennedy High School. “I missed my neighborhood, and I wanted to go to high school. And when I got there, my first observation was ‘Wow, these school days are so long.’ Our on-set tutoring was three to four hours a day. But then I met some great people and was in ‘South Pacific’ and ‘The King and I.’ I loved it.”

Colorado is still home for Morris, who lives here with his partner of five years. Morris has such a huge family that he jokingly estimates he’s related to one-thirty-second of the entire city of Denver.

“It’s a beautiful place to live,” Morris said. “Manhattan’s wild and crazy, but I’m not a wild and crazy dude. There’s so much to see and do and experience there, but I miss the sky of Colorado when I’m away from it. And I miss the silence of my neighborhood when I’m gone.

“You go and see other places, and you realize there is a reason people come to Colorado from all over the world.”

Morris’ music doesn’t neatly fit into a single category. He obviously has a passion for soul music, and that comes through in songs such as the sunny, dub-influenced “Love.” “Don’t You Dare” comes off like a bold-and- funky shout-out to George Michael’s back catalog. Indie rockers will appreciate the thoughtful chamber pop of “The Un-American,” while fans of chill-out artists Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat will like the laid-back easy listening of “Money.”

“Now that it’s hitting shelves soon, I hear people talking about me singing like Freddie Mercury on some songs, and like Elton John and Stevie Wonder on others,” Morris said. “It’s weird. I don’t own any Jack Johnson records, so I don’t know what his stuff sounds like. But maybe there are a couple songs on this record that die-hard Jack Johnson fans will love, and there will also be a couple songs on this record that Queens of the Stone Age fans will appreciate. And I know that fans of the first few Iron & Wine records will like at least a few.”

The CD was recorded with producer/musician Sexton, who plays regularly with Bob Dylan and has produced everyone from Lucinda Williams to Los Super Seven. Morris said working with Sexton and Timberlake, who plays and sings on many tracks, helped create a unique entity.

“Charlie has a lot of experience in small rock and blues bars, and he brings that grit and earthiness — and a corresponding gentility — to his creative work,” Morris said. “Justin, because of who he is, brings the energy that makes you wanna dance, and he instills that into whatever he’s working on — even a record that’s not a dance record.”

“Eternity” is perhaps the greatest achievement. The song is a slinky, elegant epic — not unlike Rufus Wainwright’s great, sweeping works. It’s also an expressive, dramatic showcase for Morris’ greatest asset — and it’s not his famous friends.

It’s his voice.

Morris is able to cover tremendous ground in a single song, working a laconic falsetto alongside a pointed baritone and proving that his voice is his most powerful instrument.

Fittingly, “Eternity” is the oldest song on the new record — and it’s one of the few penned in Colorado.

“I wrote ‘Eternity’ when I was living with my dad on his ranch in Chromo, a small town south of Pagosa Springs,” Morris said. “That was the period of my life when I was most removed from pop culture. Amazingly, at the time, pop culture was dominated by these people I knew — Britney and Christina and *NSYNC, and it was a bit much to have that in my face all the time.

“It was nice to be completely removed from it. It enabled me to keep my relationships with everybody, and we could be the people that we were and not the images that had been projected everywhere.”

Morris says his connection to Timberlake is something he holds close to his heart.

“Justin Timberlake, not my friend but the artist, means different things to different people,” Morris said. “Some people think ‘ex-boy band.’ Some people think ‘musical innovator.’ Some people don’t pay much attention. There’s a wide variety of opinions of him as an artist, and so when people ask me about him, they don’t come from the same place.

“He’s one of the few people I’ve known since this really important time in my life when I was working in Orlando, which was a formative point in my life. And so he knows me in a way that most people don’t.

“We get each other musically.”

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Ricardo Baca is the founder and co-editor of Reverb and an award-winning critic and journalist at The Denver Post. He is also the executive director of the Underground Music Showcase, Colorado’s premier indie music festival. Follow his whimsies at Twitter, his live music habit at Gigbot and his iTunes addictions at Last.fm.