Kyle Morton can trace his life as a songwriter back to a bug bite. Morton was bitten by a tick as a child, contracting a case of Lyme disease that went undiagnosed for years, even as it wreaked havoc on his body.
"It obliterated any sense of these monumental truths that I had as a kid: that I would grow up, that I would be strong and tall. That's something, on a personal level, I've been trying to come to terms with, this regret, or this feeling of loss, over a person I never became," Morton says. "So that's the only thing I find worthwhile to write about, because not only is it important to me, I think it's a feeling a lot of people can relate to — a sense of wanting to be something and not being able to achieve it."
Perhaps that's why, as an musician, Morton has overachieved in a way. Since the mid-2000s he has led the musical collective Typhoon, whose dozen or so members play rock and orchestral instruments and favor precise, complicated arrangements. Morton spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about the group's latest album, White Lighter. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The press material for the Portland, Oregon musical collective, Typhoon, says there are a dozen core members, but at times it's swollen to 17, who sing, play upright bass, toy piano, real-sized piano, even a crumpled plastic bag for texture. They've all known each other since high school or before and either live together or within walking distance of each other. And the group's come together now to produce a new CD called "White Lighter."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMS OF CANNIBALISM")
TYPHOON: (Singing) (unintelligible) I am not a criminal. But I (unintelligible) a guilty heart. In the modern sense, the one pretends to love the trilogy...
SIMON: The band's lead singer and songwriter is Kyle Morton. He joins us now from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. Thanks so much for being with us.
KYLE MORTON: Thank for having me, Scott.
SIMON: That song we were just listening to, "Dreams of Cannibalism," that's not exactly raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, is it?
MORTON: No, but that's a good name for a song too.
SIMON: Been done.
MORTON: Rose drops on kittens.
SIMON: Does your musical career kind of grow out of a bug bite?
MORTON: Yeah. That's an interesting way of putting it. I was bitten by tick when I was young, and I contracted Lyme Disease and doctors didn't really know what to make of it, so I went undiagnosed for a long time. And to make a long story short, it kind of wreaked havoc on my body and my immune system and my health for the next several years, up to now. So, yeah, that's given me a lot of fodder for writing and a lot to think about and a lot to sort of unpack as I get older and develop.
SIMON: When you say given you a lot of fodder, help us explore that phrase a little bit.
MORTON: Sure. I found that getting sick, it obliterated any sense of these kind of monumental, like, truths that I had a kid, like, that I would grow up and that I would be strong and tall. And that's something, I mean, just on a personal level, I've been trying to come to terms with. Still, sort of this regret or this feeling of loss over a person I never became. And so that's, I mean, that's the only thing I find worthwhile to write about, because not only is it important to me, I think it's a feeling a lot of people can relate to, a sense of wanting to be something and not being able to achieve it.
SIMON: How's your health now, can I ask?
MORTON: It is stable. And that's good. That gives me - that affords me to be able to feel sort of consistency in my life that's not always there.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: Alas, we have talked our ways into the song "Possible Deaths."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSSIBLE DEATHS")
TYPHOON: (Singing) Every star is a possible death. You gave him (unintelligible) to call him Kansas, call him (unintelligible) but then, (unintelligible) like an (unintelligible) vultures circling my head...
MORTON: The way I generally write, or the only way I write, is I have these ideas for the whole thing and then I have, like, these very small, unfleshed-out ideas of the individual songs. So, I basically had, like, the macro structure, the overarching structure, and then I had to kind of go in and write all the words and make them into individual songs. And then everyone had a hand in the arrangement. It was kind of hard to map out how that happened but, you know, we have days where me and the horns would sit down and do all the horn arrangements or they would do, like, string loops and other experimental stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG FATHERS")
TYPHOON: (Singing) I was born in September, and I (unintelligible) to sing, I can't remember. I replaced it with (unintelligible).
SIMON: Boy, there's a whole lot going on there on the cut "Young Fathers."
MORTON: Yeah. That song's all over the place. I really like it. That was, like, one of the most difficult songs to both write and record. But in the end, it was, I think, I don't have a favorite but it's one of my favorites.
MORTON: Mostly because for a minute there I didn't think it was going to work out at all, and it was never a track I was willing to cut from the record. So, from there, it seemed to affect the rest of the record for me. So, we got that one right. It's my favorite, of sorts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG FATHERS")
TYPHOON: (Singing) I just called to tell you, I just called to say, learned all your mistakes, and built a generation.
SIMON: How much of your material do you think comes from your personal view of life?
MORTON: I would have to say all of it. I used to write songs from character perspective, but anymore, I can't really escape my personal views on life. So, in a way, I think that make me kind of not a great fiction writer but it helps me to be a better thinker, which is more important to me.
SIMON: Let's play another clip from a cut if we could. This is the cut "Hunger and Thirst."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNGER AND THIRST")
TYPHOON: (Singing) Been (unintelligible) a song that will come to me as I'm asleep. 'Cause I can't lie, (unintelligible) I can't lie. I'm in the dark and it has occurred to me that I see my whole life starting over...
MORTON: Particularly, that song's about kind of writing the last couple of records and what I will do when I finally write something that is satisfactory.
SIMON: Well, but I like to hear that you see a future, 'cause, I mean, you've written that when you started working on "White Lighter" the thought occurred to you that this might be the last thing to do.
MORTON: Yeah, it did occur to me. But false alarm, and I'm here. And I feel optimistic. And not to give the wrong idea. There's no real despair involved. It was more like sometimes it's easier to make sense of one's life in the shadow of death. And, obviously, I think that whole record's kind of about that, so.
SIMON: But, of course, the good news is that you come out of the other end of the tunnel.
MORTON: Yeah, and I feel fine.
SIMON: Kyle Morton of Typhoon speaking with us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Their new CD, "White Lighter." Awfully nice talking to you. Glad you're doing so well.
MORTON: Great to talk to you, Scott. Thanks so much for having us - for having me - it's just me. The (unintelligible)...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
TYPHOON: (Singing) I will never leave you broken hearted, I'll never be alone and make you feel...
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.