Previously known for his output with Red River Dialect, David John Morris‘s debut solo album, ‘Monastic Love Songs’, was released on Hinterground last week, and reflects on the artist’s time on a nine-month retreat at Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, overlooking the Gulf of St Lawrence. Here, he talks to David Weir about the interrogations into spirituality and intimacy that shaped the music.
David John Morris photographed by Kunga Yudron
“There are no seams / There are no in-betweens / For the one who awakes / From the wheel of dreams”
Eight years ago, standing atop Skellig Michael, David Morris had an experience that would profoundly alter the course of his life. Visiting Southwest Ireland with members of his criminally underrated folk-rock band Red River Dialect, Holly Jarvis, a friend of the group, suggested a trip to Great Skellig, seven miles off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula. A month out of season, they contacted various boat operators, pleading with little luck. Until one skipper was finally swayed. He instructed them that if weather conditions were right, he could potentially fit them in with another family that had inquired. They phoned back each morning at 6am. On the penultimate day of their trip, they set sail for the UNESCO world heritage site.
“Roughly from the seventh century onwards it was a hermitage for early Celtic Christian monks,” Morris explains, “It was still a bit mingled with pagan energy I would say at that time.” Despite his fear of heights something drove him up those six-hundred steps, scored into that rising splinter of slate and sandstone. He points out, “this is pre-Star Wars” — before Skellig became Ahch-To, home of the Jedi, and visitor numbers rocketed. Upon reaching the monastery, Morris was overwhelmed, “this sense of just the ruggedness of their lives and the total commitment — what was it that drove them to come out here to this life?”
He called his father, an Anglican priest, describing the strange fear that gripped him. Although they seldom communicated their emotions and Morris didn’t share his faith in a God, they bonded over a love of Christian mysticism. “I’ve dreamed of going there,” David echoes his dad’s words, “Now you’ve gone I feel like part of me has been there.” However, Morris still felt like a frightened child. Unknown to him at the time, bassist Coral Kindred-Boothby captured the moment in film, which made the cover of the band’s 2015 release Tender Gold & Gentle Blue. Featuring one of the dry stone clochán-style cells and Skellig Beag in the distance, Morris stands out in the sunlight, his eyes downcast, dwarfed by the High Cross. “I saw that photo and, I don’t know, it was always going to become an album” he tells me.
Haunted by the experience, on returning to London Morris became flu-stricken. “Something was awoken by the idea of retreat and going beyond into a different way of living, that’s more devoted to a centre of spirituality” he says. Sadly, thereafter, Morris’ father suddenly passed away. Of the release, Morris wrote, “every song on the record speaks of some kind of loss and of some kind of reconciliation, too. Not that losses can always be reconciled, just that these experiences can co-exist and speak to one another.” Tender Gold was also informed by a toxic break-up, which he hadn’t wished to make public at the time. Some reviewers unfortunately conflated those songs as, “this song’s about his dad that died,” Morris stresses, “It’s not! Would I talk about my dad like that?” Although he understands, “Grief is often just losing an idea of yourself, that is dependent on the existence of these people that matter in your life.”
Spurred on by Skellig, Morris spent a month’s retreat at Dechen Chöling in France and was close to his father in his final days. “Through waking up to this aspect of myself, luckily my connection with my dad improved,” he says, “we had some really beautiful times when I felt like I met him for who he was, and not all the ideas I had about him.” Tender Gold was not initially intended for release, but his bandmates rallied round, lending strings to its shimmering melancholia. The American Primitive/Celtic cross of instrumental ‘Sceillic’ memorialises this period. His vision altered, he cites Chögyam Trungpa’s Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala, the horizon line dissolving before him: “I have seen it in each and every one / A fear and a freedom, entwined and undone / They coil like a galaxy, they merge into one / Momentum and millennia / The Great Eastern Sun.”
Thaye Chosang looks out over the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Sheets of ice drift like shrinking puzzle pieces, thawing after Nova Scotia’s deep winter. Seven months into his retreat at Gampo Abbey — a monastery founded in 1983 by the same man who first sparked his interest in Tibetan Buddhism — Morris now answers to Thaye, meaning boundless. Morris’ routine has become as ingrained as the weatherworn path that began his pilgrimage. Rising around 5am (earlier if on-duty shovelling snow or preparing the shrines) the days are split between Zen meditation, chanting, house jobs and service periods, with occasional free time for walks or reading. As part of the kitchen crew, Morris cleans store cupboards, replenishes stock and prepares veg for the following day. “I chopped a prodigious amount of kale,” he laughs.
After his temporary ordination last November, he dons robes and muted colours, experiencing only slight schedule changes. Saturdays are open days, where some rules are relaxed, but Sundays remain silent throughout the day; a time of more serious contemplation. Morris reminisces on Sojong, where every full moon and new moon monastics renew their vows, “We’d get up much earlier in the morning and wouldn’t have breakfast for a few hours. You’d be doing chants that go back literally 2500 years. We’d circumambulate the whole grounds of the Abbey, carrying ritual objects. There’s a trumpet that gets blown and a conch shell. And sometimes it was minus 25 degrees.”
For the final weeks of the retreat, after not having touched an instrument for months, Morris is granted an hour a day with an acoustic, lovingly baptised ‘Malibu Barbie’: “I didn’t know if I would write songs again, but soon they began to trickle and flow. And by June I had an album.” Before he arrived, ‘Hot Hands Thaye’ (as nicknamed by his Tai Chi teacher, Hollis, referring to neither his guitar chops or chef’s asbestos hands) had only recently finished the sessions for Red River Dialect’s fifth record, 2019’s Abundance Welcoming Ghosts. The title came to him whilst at Gampo Abbey. Sensing an ominous presence in the winds around the monastery, he was reminded of a quote by Machig Labdron: “In other traditions demons are expelled externally. But in my tradition demons are accepted with compassion.” Morris hoped to do the same, welcoming the unwelcome, as the wooden barn that acted as their shrine room squalled around them.
“Being in one place geographically and having to be quite still as a practice, it was almost like ghosts from the past caught up with me because there was less busying around in the universe” Morris says, adding “There was often a powerful howling gale coming over the mountains and out to the Gulf. This energised atmosphere of snow, waves, rain.” Whether it’s the whispering beehive huts of Skellig, the ocean roar of ‘Gull Rock’ or the vanishing, ‘thin place’ of ‘Snowdon’ summit, spectral and natural forces corrode away at Morris’ experiences, until all that’s left is raw song. When discussing Tender Gold Morris wrote, “All the songs are close to bodies, either human, astral, or of water and rock” and his solo debut, Monastic Love Songs, proves no different.
Single ‘New Safe’ explores the strain between suffocating beliefs and boundlessness. Morris speaks of clenched stomachs, locked safes and a “craving, clinging, poisoned love”, as footage of New Brunswick, Mi’kma’ki and Quebec idles by, in a procession of greens, aquamarines and burnished browns. Approaching from a place of loving-kindness, Morris sings, “I feel my belly pulse and sing / I hold the child quivering / And suddenly there is no safe here / Just a boundless ocean, bright and clear.” And as the carpeting snow along the Cape Breton coast is reduced to meltwater, gradually that tension eases. “There was a feeling of emerging out of the winter. Knowing that I was approaching a time to leave, there’s a kind of spring-like feeling in there,” Morris says, noting, “When I was in the midst of the deep retreat, there were times when I felt it was too much. I was being squeezed by the discipline. If I’d had the guitar at that time, I might have written quite different songs.”
Morris perfected Monastic Love Songs in two cabins – Cliffhanger & Milarepa – and ‘Inner Smile’ was the first to take form. “Originally a poem; it felt new, less formulaic,” he describes its inception: “There was a day where I was able to take a Bodhisattva vow. You basically pledge to stay in the wheel of rebirth, until all human beings can achieve liberation. There’s this sense of being willing to not just make a dash for bliss or escape into another realm, but to remain woke with confusion, your own and others.” He explains how it’s a tribute to Hollis too: “My Tai Chi teacher wouldn’t even let you call her a ‘teacher’. She’d say, ‘So you’re my teacher.’ She was so humble it was kind of infuriating. I wrote that to overwhelm her with gratitude.” A late friend of Morris’ had visited the monastery previously and when asked to sum up his time in one word, chose ‘playful’ much to David’s surprise. Evoking Nick Drake’s ‘One Of These Things First’, that sense of vitality and metaphysical head-scratching shines here.
“The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I did fall in love when I was there… Just I fell in love celibately; I did not break the rules” he informs me. Morris quotes Rinpoche: “The monks and nuns should have to deal with being horny” elaborating, “It’s like you’re not going there to avoid it but rather work with the energy. In a way that isn’t about being ruled by desire and nor is it about suppressing it. It’s about encountering it, sitting with it and getting to know it.” He goes on to express the freedom and sense of anonymity he felt at the monastery:
“Celibacy was really freeing because when you talk about self-aggression, I experienced a lot of shame around my body growing up and it stays with me. Being overweight, particularly as a teenager and the bullying that comes with that, that sense of low confidence. I can remember no school uniform days and my family didn’t really have much money, so we wore jumble sale clothes.” Candidly, he continues, “All this stuff around image, having to shave my head, my face, the robes, there was a sense you’re giving up some expressions of individuality. There’s a conscientiousness around everyone’s boundaries as well. I found myself able to express love in a way that was sort of freer because people weren’t so concerned that you had an agenda.” He puts in quickly, “Having said all this, I gave up my robes and I was back on dating apps pretty quickly! But at the time it was cathartic to be able to explore emotional intimacy in that way.”
Monastic Love Songs also delves into the darker side of desire. In 2018 allegations of misconduct and sexual abuse were made against Shambhala teachers, including Chögyam Trungpa’s son, leader Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. The allegorical ‘Circus Wagon’ concerns the history of patriarchal violence directly. Morris describes how easily people can come to idealise their spiritual teachers and communities: “I think maybe there’s more of a tendency to be blind to these sorts of things because there’s the idea that within a spiritual community, ethics is meant to be a real part of it – it’s not Hollywood, it’s not Rock & Roll – yet it’s perhaps more dangerous, because the expectation is these influences of power wouldn’t be there.” He admits, “People come to these places, especially if it’s not a tradition they grew up with, because they’re suffering. They’re looking for some way of relating to their lives.”
The community divided, he remains a part of his London circle (who aren’t personally involved) but emphasises the need for accountability and change. “There are people who just say these are simply allegations and that’s quite difficult to deal with when there are such a number of them. Then there’s this question as well of, at what point does staying make me complicit. How does that feel to people who have survived abuse, manipulating experiences, which have really impacted on their lives?” He sighs, stating, “It’s real, it’s not like we wanted everything to be hidden again.” He shares another story of a famous practitioner that was rumoured to have physically assaulted students, both male and female. However, he does recall one anecdote that brought him comfort: A student had fallen hopelessly in love with Shunryu Suzuki, a monk who popularised Zen Buddhism in America. After she professed her feelings, Suzuki replied “Because I am the teacher it’s my job to have enough discipline for both of us.”
Nowadays an Interfaith Adviser at the University of Westminster, Morris still acknowledges that he’s as confused as anyone regarding some of these matters. Though his inward inquiry did bring about a few unexpected realisations. “’Steadfast‘ is about someone who I had a very challenging relationship with.” He expands on this, “When people asked me what I learnt, I realised you can definitely love someone without really liking them. You can find them difficult, annoying, stronger words than that, but when you’re living there and you can’t escape, you just have to acknowledge their humanity. They’re coming from what they know, their history, what matters to them. It becomes harder to make them into an enemy.” After accepting this, an unlikely friendship blossomed. ‘Steadfast’ (which a friend joked sounded like a tender, less-catchy version of a pop-punk classic) finds the pair stepping into a waterfall together:“It’s all true, we did. We ended up pissing ourselves laughing.”
“We were Steadfast and Boundless, which I think is interesting because there’s a tension, but they’re both qualities that are important right?” Morris elaborates, “So you end up working with dualism. Hope and fear. The songs are attempts to relate what I feel I’ve understood, hopefully from a position of humility and an acknowledgement that this is not the authentic dharma, but something that speaks about the way in which the authentic dharma has allowed me to find a deeper relationship with this life.” He builds on this, “I think a lot of the Buddhist practice is allowing us to unpick or maintain the idea that we’re ‘very real’ – our personalities are real and we exist, that we’re separate somehow from everything else. And the practice is a kind of means to travel that boundary that we see between others and us in order that we can ultimately find great joy in letting go. But these constraints are the only security we’ve known, perhaps for many lifetimes. So, we gradually do this.”
“Doesn’t sound like a selling point does it: ‘Come and be uncertain about who you are!’” Morris chuckles, “but I think relating to the paradoxical, I think if you’re going to have an attitude of curiosity, you’re going to encounter things that do not reaffirm your version of reality.” For his closing thoughts, he doubles-back slightly, “Chögyam Trungpa very powerfully put this forward, that spirituality can be bent and become an armour for the ego. He said, ‘It’s much easier to pretend to be holy than to be real’. We can tell everyone we’re involved in this spiritual journey but it can also be a way of trying to sell ourselves. You know, I’ve stuck an image of me on an album cover…” He laughs again, concluding, “to me this has been so meaningful and I’m incredibly grateful. There is a sense of wanting to send gratitude and hopefully those songs are an expression of that.”
David Weir is a freelance music writer, specialising in folk music and ecomusicology. Follow him on Twitter here.