Coming home again leads to new album for folk singer/songwriter
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- John Morgan's "Sing," his latest folk release under the moniker Juna, came to him as an epiphany on an idyllic farm in Oregon. The journey he took to make it, the story behind it and the music itself are illuminating and uplifting.
Morgan went from living in a "hell house" of a practice space in Morgantown to a "Garden of Eden" in Oregon, then came home to Gauley Bridge to help care for his cancer-stricken father. He captures and channels the wide range of human emotions and the sublime life-affirming beauty of life with his music.
Spending his late teenage years as a "private but prolific" songwriter, it was only after finding his voice that Morgan began what would later end up as Juna.
"I'd be in my bedroom and didn't want anyone to hear me," Morgan said of his earliest efforts at singing. "It took me a long time just to be able to hit the notes I sing on these records and not have it sound like total garbage."
A multi-instrumentalist from a young age, Morgan said recording all the instruments that comprise Juna's richly arranged sonic landscape all by himself is the easy part.
"It's just easier for me to work by myself," he said. "It's a hole I fall into because it works. I can do the bass part, the mandolin or cello part or whatever, and make it all work."
A few years after graduating from West Virginia University in 2005, Morgan had Juna operating as a full band in Morgantown, but that fizzled out.
"There was kind of a new explosion of stuff in the absence of The Emergency and Librarians," Morgan said. "It started with [Librarians'] 'Present Passed.' Right at that point, there was a really good scene there, and Juna was a part of that.
"I was really burned out with Morgantown, though, and trying to get Juna to work. It felt like it was an uphill battle. I just broke down and said, 'OK, I need a big change.'"
So in summer 2011, after releasing Juna's sophomore record, "Hunt," Morgan grabbed a friend's acoustic guitar, hopped on a motorcycle and headed out west to "WWOOF."
"That stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms," Morgan said. "It's a loose collective, and you meet different farmers online and go out and work for them. It's a neat, cheap way to travel and learn about organic farming."
He left to pursue his green thumb, but he ended up finding the inspiration to continue Juna.
"I'd started writing ['Sing'] in Morgantown, and it just kind of developed as I went east to west," Morgan said. "It went from a seedling to a full-grown piece of work.
"Everything came together when I was in this place called Myrtle Glen, in Oregon. I had a moment of clarity where I decided what the record was going to be, what the songs were and what it was going to sound like. Then it was just a matter of me creating it."
While in Oregon enjoying what he called "the happiest time in my life," Morgan got a call from his father in Gauley Bridge. His dad was sick with cancer again.
"I knew it was bad this time," he said. He flew home and began caring for his father and, in May, after seven months in his son's care, Morgan's father passed away.
When Morgan released "Sing" in October, he dedicated it to his father.
While caring for his dad, Morgan set up a makeshift studio in the house and started recording. "Sing" is a symphonic, 10-song effort all written and recorded by Morgan, then shipped to Pittsburgh for mastering by David Klug.
"It just turned out artistically that it seemed to connect with my situation when I was laying down the tracks," he said.
Morgan said that while making the music is easy, exposure is still hard to come by.
"There hasn't been any of that," Morgan said when asked about any praise bestowed upon the new record. "The girl I'm seeing now, she's receptive to it, and she understands where I'm coming from, but no publication or fans have asked me about it -- the whole connection, the whole story.
"It's like, Bon Iver gets a story. He has a whole record ['For Emma, Forever Ago'] done, and he goes out into a hunting camp in the middle of the woods, and they used that to market the record, saying he recorded the thing in the middle of the woods.
"It's like, 'I actually lived these things I'm singing about, and they're actually attached to a story that is real,' and I don't get any exposure."
"Hunt" didn't get any press, either, he noted.
"Not a single blog reviewed it, and I sent out CDs and jumped through all the hoops," he said laughing, but with no small hint of frustration.
Morgan now is recording his friend, Dutch Underwood, in Gauley Bridge. He's still frustrated with taking his music out in public and said he'd rather play in someone's living room than most bars.
"I think Juna reaches people on a deeper level than a band that might reach 50 out of 100 people," he said. "It's a smaller market of people, but a deeper connection."
Reach Nick Harrah at firstname.lastname@example.org.