NEAL MORGAN was a teenager when he fell in love with a drum kit, but he didn't use it to write songs for well over a decade. "It was such a given that I had to play guitar or piano to communicate what I wanted," he says. "But guitar always felt so wrong."
This is a short explanation for the surprising thing about Morgan's solo albums: There are no strings, or instruments of any kind, other than drums and voice.
In his work with Bill Callahan and his childhood friend Joanna Newsom ("one of the most fearless, risk-taking songwriters alive"), Morgan is known for his elegantly restrained drumming. But on his second solo album, In the Yard (released last week on Drag City), drums are the exuberant centerpiece. His voice is unaffected and earnest, the melodies lovely, and the lyrics evocative of actual experiences—quarry swimming, walking past a familiar house, napping. But percussion—bombastic or hushed, layered or sparse—is the star.
In the early '00s, Morgan gave up drumming while he held down half a dozen jobs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This turned out not to be a detour so much as a fast track to finding his voice. Being up to his ears in visual art, especially the work of neo- and abstract-expressionist Philip Guston, finally gave Morgan license to abandon guitar and write songs the way he wanted—drums and voice only. Guston's "Evidence" is the cover of In the Yard.
Morgan's beloved abstract expressionists would probably recognize his process. "Everything I do is built on first impulses," he says. "I hit record and go with the first impulse, whether drumming or singing. Then I hit record again and layer over it. In that way, it's a collage."
So how does one guy play all the layers of a drum-and-voice album live? "I never thought I'd be interested in singing with backing tracks, but I actually love it," he says. "Some nights I sing from behind the drum kit, the next night with pre-recorded stuff.
"I like to do things differently," Morgan continues. "To experiment."