Purveyor of: A post-rock soundtrack that embodies your inner dialogue during this pandemic; exploring the ethereal transformation of the loving self into a digital avatar and wondering what that means.
File Next to: Apparat, Michael Peter Olsen, Broken Social Scene
Video Premiere: “Strangers VIII” – premiering today on Wavelength!
It was a crappy day, to be frank. I was having a day overloaded with screens, existing in the same room, and feeling empty interacting with peers and family as digital avatars. You cannot touch an avatar and an avatar cannot touch you. These moments of social existence translated into a realm of binary… it makes me wonder at times if we are more digital than physical now, a computed consciousness.
So I went for a walk. Masked up, bundled up head to toe to avoid the physical sensation of being cold, headphones on and Morgan Doctor’s Strangers set to play. This was a moment in what feels like eons where I felt spiritually and emotionally connected to the physical consciousness of humans. And then I laughed to myself — I keep saying that art is important and necessary and finally felt why art is so necessary during these times: because it connects us.
Morgan Doctor’s Strangers was released in October of 2020, exploring what “anonymous intimacy” looks like. Not only an album, Strangers is an installation. Anyone with a wifi connection and some sort of device has the ability to send a love letter to a complete stranger and receive a love letter in return. Which makes me wonder: when was the last time you sat down to write a love letter? I highly recommend this activity. To anonymously send love and receive love in return, albeit digital, feels really good.
Welcome to Wavelength’s video premiere of “Strangers VIII.”
Wavelength’s Emma Bortolon-Vettor had a chance to ask Morgan about her creative process behind Strangers.
What is the story of “Strangers VIII”?
This song originated during my residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. It was a winter residency… I think the songs that came out of that time hold the raw intensity of winter with its stillness. I have always been interested in creating a tapestry out of ostinato drum patterns in different time signatures happening concurrently. I spend so much time as a session player performing straightforward music in 4/4, so it’s always exciting to work with different time signatures.
This is one of the tracks that I sent to Julia Kent, an amazing cellist based out of NYC. I actually made a cold call to her after falling in love with a few of her tracks on Spotify. It’s so incredible when those connections happen, we make the effort, and they come true. James Bunton (my co-producer) suggested having some sort of spoken word at the end of the song. I wanted to have something personal and intimate, yet distant. I made a recording with my best friend, Karen Graves, who lives in PEI. We were doing what’s called a “dyad,” an enlightenment intensive technique of repeating a question to each other.
Where and how was the video shot?
I have been sheltering in place in L.A. during this pandemic. One of the few things to do during a pandemic in a big city is to take walks, especially if you have a dog. I started filming some of the places I have been walking in and around Echo Park (my dog Cymbal makes a cameo). There was also a night I went for a drive through downtown and just got lost, I filmed all the tunnels. The end is some archival footage I found in a deep dive into royalty-free footage in obscure libraries online. I love taking old footage and recontextualizing it into a new form.
Whose perspective is behind the lens?
It’s the perspective of a woman venturing through LA with her dog during a pandemic. 🙂
How did you conceive the textural and harmonic movement of this piece?
I worked with a producer besides myself for the first time on this album. His name is James Bunton, and his feedback was priceless. After my residency at Banff, I had a massive creative block and couldn’t finish most of the songs, so I called on James. He really helped me to clarify the vision of each song, and my intention driving each shift of landscape, harmony and mood.
I would love to know the decisions made behind the percussive textures in the song. I’m hearing this transformation from digital to acoustic, back to digital. Could you tell me about it?
This song was originally called “The Box.” My vision for it was of a music box opening and playing, and an imaginary world flowing out into real life.
What was your compositional approach to the album? Did you have the instrumentation in mind from the start or did this progress depending on whom you collaborated with?
The approach was similar to my other albums, where drums and rhythm are a big part of my writing process. When I was at Banff, there were some fantastic players like Yong Clark, who is an uber-talented flutist and Karen French, a great cellist. I invited them to come into my hut and play along with some of the tracks I was working on. Their work greatly influenced the direction of the songs. Also, James has a whole array of devices he uses (samplers and analog synths). I found that having different sounds to work with and expanding my palate in that way really helps with breaking through creative blocks.
How has your creative and collaborative process changed during the pandemic?
It is funny, because over the years I’ve always swapped tracks with people. My solo work has always been virtual, because I create by writing and producing at the same time. I am not an artist that writes a song and then goes into a studio to record it. So the pandemic hasn’t changed my process much at all.
Could you tell me more about the love letter exchange and how long it will be made available to the world?
Strangers started as an ambitious, three-part project to explore the idea of “anonymous intimacy” and the fragile boundary between intimacy and estrangement: A travelling, participatory art installation, with a printed book, and an online love letter exchange – all these elements were to be brought together by the sounds of my album.
Then COVID struck, rendering most of this impossible. Thus, the only element left as an option was the online, interactive exchange at morgandoctor.com/strangers, where participants are invited to submit a missive to one another, but anonymously. The note they write can be an open letter to humanity, or a confession about love, or the verbalization of one’s heart’s desire. Once they submit their message, they will receive one in return from a random participant. Everything is designed to be anonymous so as to create a sense of intimacy among strangers.
During this time of disconnectedness, what are moments of intimacy that you have shared with a stranger and what did it look like? Was it in the digital or physical realm?
I feel like this year of staying close to home has brought about many opportunities to get to know the neighbourhood and the neighbours. My partner and I are often walking our dogs, and on one occasion we got to talking with a couple down the street about the film Coming Clean, about the opioid crisis, which I scored. He told us a very personal story of how his mother has been an opioid addict for 30 years. We were touched he confided that in us, and it brought us closer.
What have you learned from this creative project/incarnation?
The silver lining of this extraordinary year of limitations has been the galvanization of artists and audiences around the globe online. I really didn’t know what to do at first with my record release looming and all of us in lockdown. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to bring my audience together in a surprisingly fulfilling and intimate way. No longer limited by geography, friends and family could join with the fans. Some of my favorite collaborators made music videos, read some of the love letters, and dancers created and performed choreography inspired by some of the tracks. I got to tell stories and do a Q&A with people in three different countries. I don’t think any of that would have happened if it wasn’t 2020. It is ironic given the theme of Strangers that we are all living in our private bubbles and yet more connected than ever before.
Morgan Doctor’s Strangers was released on Aporia Records in October 2020. You can purchase/stream the album here: https://www.aporia-records.com/morgandoctor/
Watch Morgan’s contribution to the Wavelength Holiday Special, which premiered in December 2020, at the 13:50 mark here: