Song Writing

Shelley Morningsong

by Jeff Suwak

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New Mexico's Shelley Morningsong, winner of the 16th Annual Native American Music Awards Artist of the Year Award, was born into music. Her grandmother taught music and played piano. Her mother played accordion and piano. Her grandfather played banjo. Morningsong herself picked up guitar and classical flute as a child, earning an early education in her craft by making up musical skits with her siblings. She later picked up the Native flute, an instrument that now holds a special place in her heart. All of those things put her on the trajectory that has brought her to today, when she represents one of the leading voices in Contemporary Native American music.

It's difficult to talk about Morningsong's music without talking about her husband and creative partner, Fabian Fontenelle. It's also likely that Morningsong wouldn't want me to try. The bond shared by the two is obvious every time they perform or speak together.

Fontenelle is one of the original members of the American Indian Dance Theatre. He is also great, great grandson of the Omaha people's Chief Big Elk. Fontenelle appears on many of Morningsong's albums and accompanies her on stage, where he drums and dances. He's an integral part of Morningsong's music, and she wouldn't have it any other way.

With Fontenelle at her side, Morningsong produces a wide range of music. Some of her songs are straight Bonnie Raitt-style rockers. Others are softer lullabies or Native flute instrumentals. Much of her other music defies any easy classification, mixing traditional Western and Native instruments with ambient nature sounds, electronic effects, and spoken word in a wholly unique manner. The song "Grand Father Mountain Lion," from Morningsong's latest album Sacred Mother, is a good example of this fusion of styles. On its surface, it's a simple tale told by Fontenelle of encountering a mountain lion while riding his horse through a box canyon. The sounds and music accompanying the story, however, amplify the sense of reverence for the natural world that underlies Fontenelle's tale, creating a feeling of mystery and awe in something that might otherwise appear trivial. All of Sacred Mother's songs explore this intriguing mix of techniques and sounds.

Perhaps the most consistent theme running through Morningsong's music is her message of a universal connection among people of all nationalities, races, and creeds. Even in these jaded modern times, Morningstar is unapologetic in her celebration of human unity and in her belief in the power of song. That same sense of integrity and sincerity runs through all of her songs and performances. Making music, clearly, is what she was born to do.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): You recently won Artist of the Year at the 16th Annual Native American Music Awards. Can you share a bit about how that experience has been for you?

Shelley Morningsong: I was so surprised and honored to receive Artist of the Year at the Native American Music Awards! I was absolutely in shock actually and when I heard my name called to receive it I almost couldn't stand up! I wanted to cry but kept my composure, what a blessing. I don't take this award for granted. I'm deeply thankful for the gift of music and most importantly to me is sharing that gift with the world.

Songfacts: Many of your songs delve into spiritual beliefs drawn from your Northern Cheyenne heritage. How would you say those cultural roots affected the way you approach your music?

Morningsong: My cultural roots do affect my music because that's a part of who I am on this Earth. It's how I view life and what I know and treasure. At the same time, because of my mixed heritage it's very important to me that I relate with all people and try, through my musical message, to connect us all by our commonalities and shared humanity.

Songfacts: Your husband, Fabian, is also your artistic collaborator, acting as dancer, storyteller, and drummer. "Your Love, My Medicine" is dedicated to him. Can you expand a little bit on how the two of you work together, creatively? Both in writing your songs and in performing?

Morningsong: Fabian is everything to me: my sweetheart, best friend, work partner. We met in 2001 when Fabian was touring with Robert Mirabal from Taos Pueblo, New Mexico in the Musical Theatrical show called Music from a Painted Cave. I auditioned for the show and we ended up touring together with Robert and a group of about 25 people. We've been inseparable ever since!

Fabian is an extremely talented Mens Northern Traditional dancer; he is deeply committed to his Zuni and Omaha traditions and religion. He is an educator on Native American culture. What he brings to our performances is so beautiful and inspiring. We have found a way to combine the Native Contemporary music that I love to write with the very traditional dance, traditional music and storytelling that he shares. Some of the songs I write I have included traditional rhythms to the music so that Fabian can dance while I sing. Somehow our collaboration, from the very beginning, has always been so natural. When I present my contemporary songs for our shows Fabian is a fantastic choreographer and knows just what to do.

Songfacts: Your newest album, Sacred Mother, incorporates a wide array of musical instruments with spoken word and ambient sounds in a very distinctive way. It manages to feel simultaneously modern and ancient. Did you go into this album with a specific vision already crystalized in your mind, or is it something that evolved out of the creative process?

Morningsong: It was really both. Fabian and I had a vision for what we wanted to do but as we went along it sort of evolved. Because Fabian is such a great storyteller and his voice is so magical when recorded, I knew that we had to have a story or two on there spoken by him.

Songfacts: In past interviews and writings, you've spoken about your connection to the Native flute and your determination to play it, no matter the obstacles. Was there something in particular about the instrument that attracted you?

Morningsong: I loved the sound of the Native flute from the first time I heard it and I felt a connection with it. They say that the flute picks the person and when I held one for the first time somehow I knew that I would play it. It is a healing instrument and after 15 years of playing I continue to be inspired and healed by it every time I play. I never take it for granted. I'm thankful to be able to play it and I taught myself how to play it. I feel that each one of my flutes is a special friend.

Songfacts: On your blog, you told the story behind "Crazy Johnny." It makes me wonder, was "Brianna's Song" also about a particular person from your life?

Morningsong: Yes! Brianna is our eight-year-old granddaughter, she is a shining light in our lives.

Songfacts: You've got a song titled "Wolf Nation" on Sacred Mother. What, exactly, is the Wolf Nation?

Morningsong: The Wolf Nation encompasses the entirety of our four legged brothers "the wolves" who are sacred to our Native American people, who we consider family and desperately need protection from becoming extinct. Here in New Mexico the gray wolf are beginning to make a comeback. I wanted to write and sing a song that would honor our Wolf Nation.

Songfacts: What was your inspiration for the song "I'm a Warrior"?

Morningsong: This is a song that's really close to my heart. I believe we're all warriors in one way or another, we all experience similar joys and sufferings in our lives. I always say that life is not for sissies; we must be strong for the journey. From the time we wake up in the morning until we rest our heads at night we are all striving to heal, accomplish, overcome, etc. I want to remind everyone that we are all warriors and to have courage.

Songfacts: How about "I Walk in Two Worlds"?

Morningsong: I am of mixed heritage. I am Northern Cheyenne and Scandinavian, Dutch. Within our own tribes and in society there is so much prejudice, and it's painful to experience and painful to watch others suffer at the hands of it. I walk in two worlds because of my mixed heritage and so do many out there, and I wanted this song to say no matter the color of our skin that people are people. Prejudice is senseless and cruel and it goes against the heart of our Creator who made us all in His image.

Songfacts: Fabian's clothing and face painting are incredible sights. What tradition does it come from?

Morningsong: Fabian's paint and the way he paints his face was given to him by his society. He is very sensitive about it and won't share or talk about it too much. The designs have deep meaning that pertain to his life and his sacred society at home in Zuni and he won't share information about it to anyone - not even me.

Songfacts: What performers have you drawn inspiration from?

Morningsong: I was surrounded by music when growing up. I love so many kinds of music - I am inspired by music from many genres! I grew up listening to Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young. I love opera and I love rock and roll. In my younger years, I was especially inspired by Joni Mitchell. I love good, strong and meaningful lyrics. That is very important to me.

Songfacts: The lyrics of "We Didn't Ask Why" evoke powerful images. What story are you telling in the song?

Morningsong: What Fabian and I are speaking of and singing about is a time hundreds of years ago before the invasion of the Europeans and the Spanish when the people were more simple minded and the earth was raw. Many of the stories that our people carry and tell through spoken word are not myths to us, they are real life events that did happen.

We have stories about giants who roamed the land, we have stories that speak of little people and skin walkers. There are stories that tell of how we came from the stars, of how some came from underneath the earth. These were the times when the people didn't ask why. We didn't question. These events were a completely natural part of life. The song begins with Fabian driving his war pony which is his car, and he begins to have a vision of the old world.

Songfacts: What are you singing about in "Return"?

Morningsong: I actually wrote the song "Return" as a prayer to our ancestors. I wasn't sure that it was a song at first but after reading it over a few times I realized I wanted to sing it. It is a message to our ancestors and to our loved ones that have passed on to continue to walk with us, to watch over us and to share their wisdom and knowledge with us for our journey here on earth among the living.

Songfacts: In addition to Sacred Mother, which is available now on your website, do you have anything else ready for 2017?

Morningsong: Fabian and I are so excited about this new CD Sacred Mother! Going into the new year, I have a few ideas up my sleeve! Fabian is such a wonderful storyteller and I've been encouraging him to record an album that really features some of the stories of his childhood growing up in Zuni, New Mexico. I would like to record an album that honors the sacredness of women. I would also like to write a children's book based on the song I wrote called "She talks to the Animals." We'll see what 2017 brings!

As always, Fabian and I remain deeply thankful for all that Creator teaches us through our gift of music and for the beautiful people we meet as we travel.

December 6, 2016.
Get more at shelleymorningsongonline.com.

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Comments: 2

  • Alberta P. Kallestewa from Heart Of Zuni,newmex.What an insispiring interview. Thank you for sharing Jeff SWAK. Proud to know Shelley and Fabian.
  • Jennifer Steel from Burnaby, Bc, CanadaLove your interview with Shelley Morningsong.
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