Brite Winter 2015 Artist Spotlight: Morgan Mecaskey

By Rachel Hunt

Taking the plunge from being part of a folk-driven collaborative group to reinventing yourself as a solo musician can be an intimidating undertaking, but Morgan Mecaskey fits none of the singer-songwriter tropes that plague the genre. While the lyrics she pens are exhumed from personal experience and often are tinged with self-doubt, their delivery is confident and self-assured. In person Mecaskey seems completely in control of the future of her musical career, backed up by a talented band with members that she has known for years.

“I’ve never wanted to make music in a box,” Mecaskey says, the sun shining onto her face through the window of The Wine Stop on Lee Road, a draft beer in her hand. “It’s meant for a band. I’m not a singer-songwriter kind of girl.”

Lover Less Wild is comprised of intricately orchestrated tracks, arranged into four songs adding up to about 18 minutes in length. The material on the album surpasses any expectation that listeners may place on female singer-songwriters, the Norah Jones or Lisa Loeb types who have represented the phrase up to now. That’s why it’s difficult to categorize the music that Mecaskey creates, because she has successfully escaped that box.

Mecaskey composes all of the instrumental arrangements in her songs, overlapping saxophone, keyboards, vocal melodies, and drums into powerful serenades. “I have a somewhat unorthodox story, but it’s similar to many people. I took Suzuki piano from when I was four, so I know how to write,” she says. “I went [to Interlochen] as a jazz piano student. It was really intimidating. I had been studying classical piano for 15 years and I thought that was the only thing I could do.”

In high school, Mecaskey played in the band Tinamou with members of her current live line-up (Anthony Foti, Matt DeRubertis) until 2011. In 2012, she wrote the album Righteous Kind and released it under her own name. Folk inspired arrangements grace a few songs on December’s Lover Less Wild, yet her background in jazz is more pronounced on these new songs.

“I’ve actually started working on some other stuff and to be honest, I feel like I’m still trying to find my voice. Here is ‘me’ as the artist, very subjectively trying to be objective and talk about my own work,” she says introspectively. “You can still hear me in each of the songs, but it ranges from blues to this ethereal folk to indie rock. I like the humility and the song-based-ness of folk music; I like the prowess and musicianship of jazz and blues; I love the visceral angst of rock. I’m trying to unify all those in some way, shape or form.”

When chatting about the differences between her real self and her artistic creation, the line seems to be thin. Singer-songwriter may not be the way to describe what we’re hearing from Mecaskey as a composer, but it does describe the simple yet confessional lyrics that are available to us.

“This record was extremely personal, it was the most candidly honest. The ‘I’ in some songs could be the universal ‘I’, but I did experience these things personally. That’s not always the case. I’ve written from a man’s perspective before, I’ve written from an observational perspective, but this record was more personal content-wise,” Mecaskey admits.

The EP opens with “White Horse”, one of two standout singles that display Mecaskey’s penchant for genre twisting and soaring, mature vocals. “There will not be a shining image of me, coming in on a white horse, riding victorious,” she croons to guitars and drums orchestrated in a style similar to Muse or Radiohead (you can hear this again during the climax of “Lover Less Wild”). The music is in strong conflict with what is actually being said in the chorus. There is a galloping beat, driving guitar, and confident vocal delivery, but Mecaskey is telling us not to expect her to be the hero, even though she comes out sounding like one on these tracks.

For Brite Winter, Mecaskey requests that the audience come with ears open. “It’s thinking music, so that you can engage in the music on different levels,” she says. “You can engage with it on a groove-based level, you can engage with it on an intellectual level, you can both meet up in the middle. It won’t all sound the same. There’ll be a dynamic contour to the show.”

Attendees can also expect to catch Morgan Mecaskey inside. Even though the Cleveland-native loves outdoor hikes in the winter and participated in an ancient Norwegian tradition called “The Polar Plunge” this year with her husband and friends where they jumped into Lake Erie in January, her guitar is a bit more fragile. “I have bought so many instruments over the years, I say this like I’m so old,” she laughs, barely in her mid-twenties. “This guitar, my most recent acquisition, is a 1962 or 64, Guild M-20. It’s the same model that Nick Drake used.”

Mecaskey is good at understanding the in’s and out’s of writing a great song: “The songs that I’ll return to, the songs that I love […] they’re real, they’re honest, and they get me in my gut. If the song gets me in my gut in a way that can tap into my head but never makes its way down to my heart, I’m more liable to forget it.”