Stephanie Morgan is known as the voice and face of Stephaniesǐd. For some fifteen years, Morgan and her band played locally, toured, and released a series of albums. When the band folded in 2016, it wasn’t immediately clear what Morgan’s next musical move would be. But after quietly re-emerging in mid-2017 with a solo album, she put together two new groups: indie-pop band the Mercurists, and an improvisational alter ego, Pink Mercury. In celebration of her birthday, Morgan scheduled a March 3 show at the Mothlight in Asheville, fronting the Mercurists.
It could sometimes take a few listens to latch onto the memorable melodies within Stephaniesǐd’s sophsticated, instrumentally complex style. And while Chyrsalism isn’t exactly a musical u-turn, it’s more immediate than the music Morgan made previously. “It wasn’t an intentional thing,” she says. “But I do think that life has phases in which certain things become more important to you.”
The songs on Chrysalism began as Stephaniesǐd jam sessions, but by the time Morgan entered a Virginia studio with producer Matthew E. White and session musicians, the end was nearing for both Stephaniesǐd and Morgan’s marriage to band mate Chuck Lichtenberger. Morgan says she recorded the songs with the blessing of her ex-band mates. “I decided that I really liked the theme of universal songs, anthemic tunes that could bring people together,” she says.
With the benefit of hindsight, Morgan thinks that the Chrysalism songs were, in fact, advising her. “That’s almost always the case with the songs I write,” she says. “I write them, and I think I know what they mean at the time. But then much later, I’ll listen to them again and go, ‘So that’s what I was getting at!’ Our inner wisdom comes out, whether we want it to or not.”
Morgan released Chrysalism without fanfare. The album had a “soft” release, and wasn’t distributed to reviewers. (I did review the album.) There were only two live dates in support of it. “I didn’t go big and national,” Morgan says. “I didn’t do radio promotion; I didn’t do any of that stuff. It was like, ‘I just need to be where I’m at right now.’” The album’s title – describing a kind of amniotic tranquility – seems especially apt.
A sense of optimism pervades the songs on Chrysalism, even though Morgan’s personal circumstances at the time didn’t necessarily encourage that attitude. “I did not expect some of the things that happened in my life to happen the way they did,” she admits. But she realized – or perhaps just decided – that she had to forge ahead. “The best chance I’ve got at making the best possible stuff I can make,” she says, “is for me to just dive into exactly what I do.”
Over the last several months, Stephanie Morgan has re-embraced the larger world, and is finding her place in it. She assembled the Mercurists from among well-known Asheville players: the band features bassist Ryan Reardon (of Les Amis), former Jon Stickley Trio drummer Patrick Armitage, Toubab Krewe guitarist Drew Heller, and keyboardist Rich Brownstein, formerly of the Broadcast. (For the Mothlight show, Merrick Noyes from Third Nature subbed on keys.) Zack Cardon (Midnight Snack) and Brie Capone provide backup vocals, while Morgan sings and plays both guitar and keyboards.
Initially basing a repertoire around the Chrysalism material, the Mercursts satisfy Morgan’s pop leanings. “I love all kinds of music,” she says, “but I really dig a good pop song. And until now, I’ve never fully unleashed my unabashed love for straight-up pop music.”
But Morgan’s more experimental bent needs an outlet as well. For that, there’s Pink Mercury. In sharp contrast to the Mercurists’ carefully-constructed pop, Pink Mercury is completely improvisational. And there’s no set lineup. “I have a group of go-to people,” Morgan explains. “There’s a cadre of them, and they don’t all play on the same shows. It’s an expandable, collapsible group.”
The improvisational collective employs a guerilla approach, staging pop-up shows around Asheville in venues like 5 Walnut, Ben’s Tune Up, or even Static Age Records. “We can pop up anywhere, as long as there is good energy in the room,” Morgan says.
Pink Mercury is, by design, “extremely collaborative. We have this ethic that if anybody in the band likes an idea, they can just run with it.” And spontaneity is built-in: “We don’t rehearse,” Morgan says.
But even within the more conventional structure of a Mercurists show, Morgan embraces the unknown. The Mothlight event included her “Night of Bravery” exercise, in which pre-selected audience members get five minutes onstage to do…whatever. Providing something of a link with Morgan’s past, the exercise was sometimes a feature of Stephaniesǐd shows.
Because of the individual Mercurists’ busy schedules, for now Morgan is writing songs for a Chrysalism follow-up on her own. She describes the process: “I feel like I’m looking up at clouds and trying to find pictures in them. And then suddenly I find something, and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s an elephant!’”