Fully Occupying Herself: Stephanie Morgan
By Peggy Ratusz
One of the most passionate and self-realizing female artists in our midst is a daring, captivating, thoughtful and driven woman named Stephanie Morgan. The success of her endeavors could lead one to believe that she’s charmed or touched by an angel or something. While elements of these notions come into play for this vibrant, upbeat siren, the reason we all admire her stems from her endless talent and profound tenacity.
Maybe it’s her humble beginnings that instill in her an amped up desire to fulfill her purpose. Her actions speak as loud as her voice; a voice that serves her convictions and beckons us to do the same with ours. A teacher, a student, a leader, a collaborator, a songwriter, a front woman, a producer, a performer, a dancer, an actor, wife, daughter and friend are all roles in which she excels.
Born in Des Moines Iowa, an only child, she spent the first few years of her life alongside a single mother who went jockeying around the Midwest and West to find her footing. They ended up in Abilene, Texas where Stephanie lived with her step family until high school graduation. One of her earliest childhood memories was when she regularly sequestered herself in her grandparents’ bedroom and would commence making up little songs and ditties.
Morgan’s fearlessness when creating musical art and delivering it to an audience is a marvel, indeed. Sans pretense and full to the brim with cyclical intent, as a listener you come away feeling renewed. Like so many gifted artisans, what emerges within her craft parallels life experiences. She talks about her process in this way, “Trusting my impulses perhaps comes from having to integrate into new cities when we would move. I have a sort of confidence to follow my gut and know it’s going to be okay … that experiments can work.”
So it stands to reason that her propensity to experiment, brainstorm and collaborate leads her. Serendipity working in conjunction with karma, I submit, continues to translate to discovery of and attraction to like-minded comrades. None has been more harmonious then the musical and loving coupling she shares with piano player, co-arranger,co-life conspirator and husband-partner, Chuck Lichtenberger. She explains that before Chuck willingly made himself available to her as a side man, the articulation of her imagination was a bit of a challenge. She explains that his intuition as well as his background in music theory bolstered her abilities within the framework of her creation process. “I bring a flowey changeable vibe to the process and he tempers that with great chord ideas, structure, discipline and a more organized vibe. If it weren’t for Chuck the skeleton of the whole thing might not have happened. He midwifes the projects. I have ideas, but they might not ever see the light of day without Chuck.”
The layers of harmonies and sometimes deep, intricate chord progressions, certainly the content of her messages, are put together in a way that feels like a present to us. We find within, on top and beneath the layers, a commonality in the struggles and beauty in our purpose, while we attain a retrospective of hers.
It’s been an amazing trip for this woman of substance. There are pinnacles like landing placement of one of her songs (Hey, Hey, Hey) on the incredibly successful Show Time Network series Nurse Jackie. Then there’s the All Songs Considered profile that NPR did on her Indie Pop Noir band, stephaniesid when they released their second of four CD releases, Grus Americanus. Robin Hilton wrote in part about that album: “A very mesmerizing mix of songs that can be hushed and calm one moment and then suddenly dark and explosive the next.” In 2008, the band played at the infamous Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. The Bonnaroo Beacon posted this about Stephanie’s vocals “Her voice is equal parts smoke, cabaret coquette, and ‘Bjork-like panache.’”
While the past and present supporting backing band members reads like a who’s who or Fortune 500 list of esteemed players: Michael Libramento (Grace Potter and the Nocturnals), Jacob Rodriguez and Justin Ray (Sax and Trumpet for Michael Buble), Vic Stafford (Toubab Krewe, Donna the Buffalo), the current infamous-in-their-own right core line-up is one that is tight and flexible both. Tim Haney has been drummer for the better part of four years and knows how to hit ‘em hard with his impeccable meter and feel. Jonathan Pearlman’s guitar skills fatten up the rhythms with sometimes bombastic solos he shares with Chuck on piano/keys (see WNC Woman June 2013 feature). Blurt Magazine says they are “a band that isn’t afraid to risk being innovative to put out something truly personal.”
There are many accolades that resonate with my take on everything Stephanie and band(s), and I wish I had more space to share them. Suffice to say, this unique and all original “contemplative” group “made up of jazz players who love pop hooks,” have too few shows these days. But I don’t say that as a negative. Their upcoming set at the 12th annual Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival (LAAFF) here in Asheville on Sunday, September 1st is one not to be missed.
“I find it curious what other people say or write about me. If you want to make a public connection you have to get involved in the other side of it as well. Being an artist is a two-sided coin. On one side what you do needs to come from the inside toward the out vs. the promotional aspect—looking at myself from the outside—which takes an entirely different lens, but is a little necessary if you want to do any promotion. If I get too caught up in praise for my stuff, or criticism, ultimately it might hinder my ability to create new stuff. Of course, it’s nice when people say good things.”
It isn’t that she’s put to rest the stephaniesid project, it’s that she’s letting it rest while she decidedly hones a side project and an acting education/career. Her other band, Crybaby, contains the same core group as stephaniesid. This one “takes a great song and brings it into the now, through creative arrangement and improvisation.” Crybaby revisits and explores interpretations of jazz tunes in The American Songbook. She credits her first jazz bandmate, Joe DiFeo, for providing her a launching pad, teaching her the basics and introducing her to modern and traditional female jazz singers. Check out live footage of Crybaby shot by videographer Michael Oppenheim with sound engineer J. Ferris here, which is hands down the most haunting rendition of “Chim Chiminey” from Mary Poppins!
Here you’ll see and hear a lively arrangement of “Was I.”
They perform in rotation at Tressa’s Jazz & Blues as well as the 11 on Grove Swing Dance Tuesday night events.
Acting has been lurking in the crevices of Stephanie’s being. She studied psychology and social work in college, and possesses a need to be studious. So when Screen Artist’s Co-Op opened here last year, she took a few introductory classes and found a community of supportive actors. She calls Jon Menick, the program’s developer who is a decorated screen actor and film industry professional, “an amazing mentor who has helped me deepen my entire creative process, including for music and performing.” Samples of her progress can be viewed on her profile at 800Casting.com which proves yet again, that her tenacity is paying off. Her range is wide and fierce, just like her music. The excitement she shared with me about opportunities and auditions inspires me to pursue stuff that’s been lurking in my crevices!
At first and before I started to get to know her, I thought Stephanie to be somewhat of an enigma, which turned out of course, to be my own misperception of her. She needs and wants to share ideas. Now I get the feeling that she holds very few secrets.
For more information about upcoming shows and to purchase her music visit these links or use the search term stephaniesid on amazon and itunes:
Peggy Ratusz is a songstress, writer and vocal coach. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.