PREMIERE: St. Lorelei Ponders the Moon and the Matrix on Debut LP Beast

Photo Credit: Jonathan Traviesa

Jo Morris – bandleader, vocalist, and rhythm guitarist for New Orleans-based band St. Lorelei – likes to create worlds with her lyrics. “I tend to write material that’s based on more of an internal world, whether that’s about love or just imagining fictitious environments,” she says. “All I think about when I listen to music is searching for something that really tugs at me, and I like to try to find the same feeling when I write music.”

The band — also consisting of Marcus Bronson (bass, backing vocals), Philip Cooper (keyboards), Alec Vance (guitar), and Steve Walkup (drums and percussion) — will release its debut album Beast this Friday. It paints colorful pictures of a variety of subjects, from nature to famous film scenes.

Much of the album was inspired by listening to the late singer-songwriter Jason Molina; Morris attempted to capture his vivid scene-setting with her lyrics. One of the tracks — the dark, atmospheric, keyboard-driven “Farewell Transmission” — shares a title with a song by his band, Magnolia Electric Co., which features evocative lyrics like “Now we’ll all be brothers of the fossil fire of the sun/Now we will all be sisters of the fossil blood of the moon.” St. Lorelei’s version reads like a letter to the late artist: “I received your farewell transmission/Its echoes are etched across the sky.”

The rest of the album draws from a variety of influences: the dreamy, wistful “Wish” was inspired by The Ronettes, flipping a love song on its head by describing the end of a relationship. In “Night So Dark,” an emotive track reminiscent of The Cranberries, Morris asks with soaring high notes, “Can we make it through another night?”

She remembers writing “Night So Dark” in the winter, as she looked out the window into darkness. “I was just kind of picturing waiting for the light of the moon to break through, and it’s just kind of creating the feeling that I get by watching the moon rise… creating a scene of it in my mind almost like a music video.” She remembers the phrase “too dark to dream” popping into her mind as she looked up at the sky, inspiring the line, “These nights, too dark to dream/So we splay open our hearts and pin them into screens.”

Relationship dysfunction is another overriding theme on the album. In “FOOL,” Morris belts about being deceived by love against discordant jamming, and “Snake Song,” written by Townes Van Zandt, is a haunting and poetic ode to being difficult to love, reminiscent of an old folk song.

“Outside the Green,” a cheery closing track full of harmonies and catchy guitar riffs, has perhaps the quirkiest inspiration: the movie The Matrix. “In that period of time, I had been watching that movie a lot and was just thinking about what constitutes our bodies and what is the corporeal shell — what is stopping us from being one with the elements or even with other people in sharing this same spirit?” says Morris. “I started building it around the stories in The Matrix and Neo’s journey from figuring out when he was in the actual reality and in his perceived reality.”

In her typical songwriting process, Morris brings a melody to her bandmates and describes the feeling she wants to capture, and they craft the sound to fit the mood. “It’s so amazing to be able to play with a band, especially when you’ve played by yourself for so long,” she says. Enlisting the help of engineer Mark Bingham and his barn-like recording studio amid the swamps of Henderson, Louisiana, she used layered vocal harmonies to make the album to sound “sparkling and orchestral.”

Morris formerly sang in the Kentucky Sisters, a duo centered on vocal harmonies and ukulele, while also working on her own material, releasing the EP Ghost Queen in 2017 as a solo artist. Walkup was a fan of the Kentucky Sisters and came to a concert of theirs, and he and Morris began making music together. The band is named after the German folklore figure Lorelei, who jumped into the Rhine river after being betrayed by a lover and transformed into a siren who lured sailors to crash their ships.

During the pandemic, Morris has been using her loop pedal and building songs around vocal harmonies and guitar. She’s currently creating a series of songs lamenting antiquated activities, like using cable TV and VCRs and, nowadays, going to the grocery store without worrying about getting sick. Her goal is to “create a rich world around [everyday things] that you wouldn’t expect” — a skill she’s already clearly mastered on Beast.

Follow St. Lorelei on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Gone, But Not Forever: A Jason Molina Tribute

If a voice could be like a landscape, Jason Molina’s mirrored perfectly the Ohio in which I’d grown up – fertile though a bit bleak; not so dramatic but constant and comforting, even if somewhat mournful; tired cornstalks waving beneath gentle Appalachian foothills, meeting gritty, unglamorous industry; a landscape that presents itself casually as if to say here this is, it’s pretty much nothing but you can have it.

The fact that Molina, like myself, was from Ohio made me feel an instant kinship to the music he made, whether it had the folksy qualities of his earliest releases, the gospel overtones of Didn’t It Rain or the blues-infused urgency of Magnolia Electric Co. recordings – it all felt like sides of the same coin and it gave everything a sad, romantic twinge.  I loved that he referenced things and places I knew, that we even had friends in common (though we never met).  I can’t tell you how many hours I spent alone in a car with that voice and that same landscape spooling outside my window during trips across state to visit my parents in Cleveland while I was going to school in Columbus, or how I’d mouth the words “you can’t get here fast enough” in the throes of a long-distance Kent-Columbus relationship, with “The Lioness” on repeat.

The day I found out that Jason Molina died would have been my friend Robert’s 33rd birthday.  Robert, like Molina, had succumbed to drug addiction, alone, suddenly, and far too young.  When Robert died, I turned to Molina for comfort because we had both loved those songs.  I even posted lyrics from lyrics from “Goodnight Lover” on his facebook wall after his passing: “How will I live without you / Without your customs… How selfish for time to conclude / what would be the day / for leaving to work its charm on you”.  And when I thought of Molina dying alone in a hotel room with a single number in his phone (as reported by his friend Henry Owings on Chunklet) I again combed lyrics for comfort, and finding relevant verses was pretty much the only easy thing about the whole situation.  Every other song concerns itself with death and ghosts and depression and passage from one part of life into the next.

Later that day I was discussing Molina’s death with another friend of mine who has also struggled with depression and had found particular resonance in that aspect of the music.  He had this hypothesis that Molina’s biggest fans were all depressed to some degree, and that was why we gravitated toward it so.  It feels like a thing that could be absolutely true, but it’s also a truth I didn’t want to subscribe to wholly; I’d have to lump myself into that category.  To say Molina’s work meant a lot to me is an understatement – it feels more like the fiber of my being: roots of a family tree, blood running through my veins, equal parts biography and biology.  And yes, it has supported me through some difficult times.  But in the end I always looked to his lyrics for bits of beauty and promise.  The darkness was there but there were glimmers of light – the moon, the stars, headlights on an otherwise lonesome highway.  As often as Molina sang about endings, he sang about being thrashed by hope.  It never came off as hokey because it was bathed in this harsh brand of realism, a harshness that gave every note poignancy.  It wasn’t just in the words themselves but how he sang them.  It reverberated in every strum of his guitar.

And he wasn’t as morose as all of this makes him out to be.  He was warm and funny and extremely hardworking.  Below is a recording my roommate made at a Columbus show in 2004.  He had this to say about the performance:

The set is fun, varied, relaxed, and seems to be a transitional time for Molina as he had just switched monikers from Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Company. He cracks jokes, plays Ozzy riffs between songs, apologizes to Scout Niblett for forgetting to ask her on stage during “Riding with a Ghost”, and ends the set with two covers eventually flooding the stage with people for a rendition of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

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By all accounts, the last few years of Molina’s life were a struggle.  He didn’t stop making music as he was shuttled around from rehab to hospital and back again, but lack of insurance and the tolls of addiction finally brought that struggle to an end.  Molina was relentlessly creative and contributed more in his short life than most ever will, and we’re lucky to have the stunning body of work he left us.  I was going to end this piece with some of Molina’s own words as they really do make the most fitting epitaph, but there was really too much to choose from.  Instead, I urge those unfamiliar with his work to explore the catalogue and find meaning within the work as it applies to living the fullest life possible, whatever beauty and pain that entails.

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