Interview: Joseph Morpurgo – Soothing Sounds for Baby
‘A lot of the records I’ve found straddle that line between innocent and nightmarish’
This article is from 2015.
Two years ago, part of his act involved launching bits of chewed-up apple on nervously giggling audience members. And last year, he pretended to be a large blob of static (before his costume was accidentally and mysteriously ditched on the penultimate day of the festival). So if you’ve not seen Joseph Morpurgo’s solo work before, this might give you a tiny flavour of what to expect from Soothing Sounds for Baby, the Oxford Imps grad and Austentatious member’s third independent outing.
This year’s Fringe affair emulates the format of Desert Island Discs, Radio 4’s long-running music-based interview show currently hosted by Kirsty Young. And preparing for his show has given Morpurgo a newfound respect for the veteran broadcaster. ‘I mean, you’re doing a superb job,’ he tells me, laughing, midway through our interview. ‘But she has to really probe a wide range of people.’
As in 2013’s Truthmouth and 2014’s Odessa, Morpurgo will transform himself into a similarly wide cast of characters in Soothing Sounds, each a different Desert Island Discs castaway. And like those two previous Fringe sets, he’s turned to ‘found’ material as a vehicle to drive his comedy: this time, it’s vinyl with him spending the last year looking for the oddest records he could find. ‘I looked all over the place,’ he says. ‘Car boot sales, bargain bins, charity shops, pub vendors, attics. There’s a recording of a Spitfire engine from a collection of engine sounds. I’ve got some whispered religious poetry self-released by this dude in America. Instructional magic circle LPs.
‘The most horrendous one is this old Disney recording of 'It’s a Small World (After All)'. It’s a 30-minute audio safari featuring the same song over and over again. The music changes from being a western American instrumentation to balalaikas and people singing in Russian, and very dubious Chinese voices. It’s quite nightmarish. A lot of the records I’ve found straddle that line between innocent and nightmarish: a nice line to straddle.’
Thanks to the ‘found’ component they have in common (Truthmouth’s characters were prompted by stock images found online; Odessa’s by a short segment of grainy VHS footage), Morpurgo sees Soothing Sounds as completing a sort-of loose trilogy. But this particular show also comes from his long-held passion for music.
‘I was a music journalist for a couple of years and I’m a big music nut,’ he explains. ‘I guess in a sense [using vinyl] came from wanting to be a crate digger, one of those people who devotes their life to scanning out old stuff, but not having the means nor the courage to get properly involved in that lifestyle. This seemed like a fun compromise. What if I spend a year being a crate digger? Not to DJ or to do radio shows, but to build this audio show.’
Odessa’s darkly chaotic tone invited very welcome comparisons with David Lynch. ‘More of that, please,’ Morpurgo chuckles. ‘I am a really big David Lynch fan, Twin Peaks is phenomenal, and I can see how it bled into that show completely.’ And although he promises that Soothing Sounds is brighter and more colourful than last year’s, the tone is a marked contrast to his work with Jane Austen-inspired improv group Austentatious, who graduate to the big time this year, playing the 400-capacity Underbelly in George Square.
But it’s also thanks to improv that Morpurgo’s solo hours have taken on the form they have. ‘In improv you are given something that’s essentially arbitrary, and the nature of the performance is what you then do with that. I’m not the sort of comic that has a finessed world-view. Joseph Morpurgo doesn’t have a huge amount of pointed and important things to say about the world,’ he laughs. ‘Whereas if you outsource that responsibility and say “I’ve chosen this thing and the show is about this thing”, the fun of the performance is watching what I’ve done with that constraint. That’s the way I like to work at the moment.’
Joseph Morpurgo: Soothing Sounds for Baby, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 8–30 Aug (not 18), 8.15pm, £8.50–£10.50 (£7–£9). Previews 5–7 Aug, £6; Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel, Underbelly George Square, 0844 545 8252, 8–31 Aug (not 18), 1.15pm, £11.50–£12.50 (£10.50–£11.50). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £7.