The DJ and producer from Philadelphia will bring his Sister Gertrude Morgan show back to New Orleans Thursday.
Sister Gertrude Morgan’s music, like her painting, was an exercise in planning on the fly. From the looks and sounds of things, the New Orleans street preacher worked out what she’d paint or sing in one moment only milliseconds before she did it. In her paintings, every additional Bride of Christ was an of her faith in action, and on 1970's Let’s Make a Record, you can hear someone proselytizing on the fly. She’d find a word or phrase that she could sing/chant over a tambourine beat and let the significance of the chant sink in, let all of its spiritual meanings sink in and come to life until the next idea came to her.
That improvisational nature on first blush made King Britt’s 2005 album King Britt Presents: Sister Gertrude Morgan, seem unlikely. What could be done with her music that wouldn’t lose some of the fundamental rawness? It turns out, nothing. Britt didn’t try to make his take on Morgan’s music as improvised as hers. Instead, he fleshed it out with musicians adding emotional colors and tones that make sense, but that weren’t obvious on her recordings. Live, he and his band came closer to the spirit of Morgan’s recordings as they operated in an almost dub-like manner, playing with the tone, texture, and character of the music in real time, giving Morgan’s songs feelings that neither she nor Britt imagined when they made their records.
The Ace Hotel, Vinyl Me Please, Preservation Hall, Ropeadope Records and King Britt have collaborated to make both albums available together in one vinyl package. The limited edition double album is only available through Jazz Fest at the Ace Hotel; after that, it will also be available through Ropeadope and Preservation Hall. On Thursday night, Britt and a band will perform his take on Sister Gertrude Morgan’s music at Three Keys. I interviewed Britt about the album when he was scheduled to come to New Orleans and play music from in in September 2005, but that didn’t happen and the recording became a casualty to the post-Katrina floodwaters that got into my desk at the time at Gambit. Recently, I touched base via email with Britt again about the project.
What drew you to Sister Gertrude Morgan’s music in the first place?
I had not known of any of her music or art until Andy [Hurwitz] from Ropeadope Records contacted me with the idea of re-producing her album. I was blown away, and also embarrassed that I didn't know her music previously. The rawness and truth that came through in her voice and tone drew me right in.
How did you approach remixing it? Was there something felt was essential that you had to preserve? Something you wanted to amplify? Something you wanted people to hear in her music?
When I first was approached with the idea and then heard the source material, I quickly called one of my musical / production brothers, Tim Motzer, who co-produced the album. When we started on the record, we truly felt her spirit unlike any other project we have ever done, so we treated the compositions as if she was in the room with us physically. That truly made a difference in preserving the vibe of her and respecting the preservation of her legacy as well as the mysticism of New Orleans energy.
We also don't call it a remix but a “re-production” because the term remix has been so diluted. Some people just put a beat under something and call it a remix. We composed completely new music under sisters voice and tambourine which is production ....we are re producing these songs
What anxieties/concerns did you have going into the project? People in New Orleans often get possessive and protective of the city and its music, so I wonder if you had to navigate some of that shade in your mind as you approached remixing Sister Gertrude.
I never approach a project without true intention. When you have that, nothing else matters really. I didn't worry about anything, I let Sister guide us. This was a sacred project
What was the response to the album outside New Orleans?
Oh man—huge. It went on to penetrate pop culture in many ways. We scored 12 scenes in Miami Vice based on one of her songs. They included one of her songs and renamed an episode in first season of True Blood, and most recently a huge string of syncs due to it being sampled by David Dallas, a rapper from New Zealand.
Were you thinking about how the remix would translate to a live performance?
From all my previous work and albums in the live/DJ world, I always think of how it will go down live. This was not a hard one to visualize. Band and electronics. Easy.
I know you were scheduled to perform it in New Orleans in the fall of 2005, which was obviously canceled, and I’m only aware of it being performed live at Voodoo two or three years later. How did it feel to have a body of work that you’d envisioned playing live go largely unperformed or rarely performed?
We played two sold-out shows and had a lecture about her work in New Orleans at the Contemporary Arts Center [in 2011]. All Sister shows have been those of legend, especially at The Whitney in New York City.
We never thought that this would tour. We just knew we would be ready for those opportunities.