Unsurprisingly, Steven Patrick Morrissey has a bone to pick.
It’s been nearly two and half years since the influential baritone crooner’s last album, “Years of Refusal” (Decca/Universal), and between then and now, the former Smiths frontman has hit a handful of obstacles. He’s written his tenth solo album that “flutters wildly against the bars,” premiering three songs — “Action Is My Middle Name,” “The Kid’s a Looker” and “People Are The Same Everywhere” — on BBC Radio last month. But as Morrissey recently revealed, no label will release the material to his international legions of devotees, who have been hanging on his Oscar Wilde-like lyrical vignettes for nearly 30 years now. He continues to tour, as he currently is though early August, in his native U.K. and around Europe (“I’d need to inherit a shipping fortune to get myself to South America,” the sardonic singer says). He’s written an autobiography, which he says will not be published until December 2012. And in the WTF news of the week, fans learned that Moz was attacked by a dog in Malmo, Sweden, sustaining injuries to his right index finger.
But, in his distinctly outspoken way, 52-year-old Morrissey is still kicking it. He speaks with Billboard about the “stifled” music world, how his deal with Universal fell apart, and feeling the love from Lady Gaga. And as only Morrissey could, he challenges Madonna to be a bit more like the legendary Edith Piaf. As he declared in his over-the-top 1989 single, “The Last of the Famous International Playboys,” “Oh I can’t help quoting you / ‘Cause everything that you said rings true.” Amen.
Billboard: You recently played Glastonbury and Hop Farm [U.K. music fest], and festivals like Coachella in the past, where you were a huge draw. I’d imagine those performances bring you face-to-face with scads of younger bands — many of which certainly cite your work as a major influence. Has anyone been bold enough to declare as much to your face?
Morrissey: Many do, and each year seems to bring a new wave of bands who give me a flattering nod. Smiths songs certainly have an astonishing afterlife. Even Lady Gaga said to me, “You showed me how it’s done.” I have no idea what she meant by “it.”
It is becoming more and more known that you do not have a record deal — but you do have a new album ready to be recorded. Has there been any contact from labels since you’ve started discussing this publicly?
None. Universal say they are interested, but their communications have gaps of eight weeks, so they obviously aren’t that serious.
How, exactly, did you end up without a label? What happened with Universal?
Universal and my then manager [Irving Azoff] decided to release my last album [“Years of Refusal”] during Brit Awards weeks, an unwinnable situation for someone like me who is the exact opposite of Brit Awards wretchedness.
So, I suffered badly against the usual sandblast of Brit Awards publicity, and my relationship with Universal and my management collapsed due to their bad judgment. Everything matters.
What would be the best case scenario for you, right now, with this record? Do you have a certain label in mind? Indie, major?
I am independent by nature. I am an independent artist even when I am on a major label. The word “indie” is meaningless now. It’s so over-used that people think it simply means green hair.
You recently played new songs “Action Is My Middle Name,” “The Kid’s a Looker” and “People Are The Same Everywhere” (sidenote: what stellar titles, seriously) on BBC Radio 2. Out of your new material, why did you choose to record and premiere those?
They have a climbing-into-the-ring quality that seemed essential to convey at this stage.
What is your take on what’s happening in the music world today? There are dramatic figures like Lady Gaga reigning in pop music, but do you think it’s anything new or different from what you’ve seen throughout your tenure in this world?
I say without bitterness that it is nothing new. I like the idea of women who are in full control, but I am tired of seeing singers who cannot deliver a song without the aide of seven hundred and fifty frenzied dancers assuming the erotic. It is actually fraudulent, and the exact opposite of erotic. Edith Piaf was seven inches high, always wore a modest black dress, and sang without stage sets or lights, and her voice roared above the wind, with the most incredible powers of communication. I’d like to see McDonna [Madonna] attempt that.
From an industry standpoint of music, everything has changed. You’ve called yourself something of a traditionalist in this sense. What aspect of the music business, as it stands now, frustrates you the most?
Although everything has opened up, music seems to suddenly be stifled. There are no songs anywhere about social awareness. 1971 suddenly seems quite radical by comparison. But you can’t complain too much because you begin to sound like a cloistered nun.
Back when you signed with Sanctuary before “You Are The Quarry,” the label revived Attack both for your releases and, as it was suggested, for you to serve as something of an A&R man. Did you ever end up scouting new artists as part of that deal?
Yes. I had some personal successes with chart positions for Jobriath, James Maker, Nancy Sinatra, Kristeen Young… lower-regions, but, as ever, air-play was completely impossible. They were all released on Attack, which was a venture textured by myself and my manager of the time Merck Mercuriadis. It was great fun.
You told Pitchfork a few weeks ago that you have no interest in being innovative in terms of self-releasing your music (a la Radiohead). Is this because you have little interest in, specifically, being involved in the business aspect of music in addition to creating it, or is it something else?
I don’t want to get too involved in marketing budgets, online promotions and download set-ups because it would be a bit like Gertrude Stein mapping out a TV campaign. I want to sing. I want visibility. I am essentially Al Martino, not Seymour Stein.
Any plans to extend the tour you’re currently out on, or perform outside of Europe?
It is incredibly expensive to tour, and without a sponsor or a rich spinster aunt, we can’t travel very far. I’d need to inherit a shipping fortune to get myself to South America, for example. Australia might as well be Pluto.
You have such an extensive catalog, and obviously your fans have very strong opinions about what songs they want to hear from you in concert. How do you decide which older songs to work into your setlists?
It’s a self-regarding gesture. I would find the idea of compiling a set-list that doesn’t wildly excite me to be too restricting. The fire in the belly is essential, otherwise you become Michael Buble — famous and meaningless.
Tell me a bit about the autobiography you’ve been working on. What sparked your desire to tell your own story?
I see it as the sentimental climax to the last 30 years. It will not be published until December 2012, which gives me just enough time to pack all I own in a box and disappear to central Brazil. The innocent are named and the guilty are protected.
You’re a legend in the music world, so much so that I can imagine fans bum-rush you in the streets, tattoo your photo on their bodies. Yet you’re known for your self-deprecating nature. Do you ever ponder this paradox?
The paradox is that I have no love for myself as a human being, but I have immense pride in the music I make, and I believe it has an important place. Others do, too, and the thousands of people with Morrissey tattoos certainly proves something.