Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris’ slow, heartfelt cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” was a definite highlight of Jan. 22’s Hope for Haiti Now telethon. It was also the first time millions of TV viewers met Morris, an old friend of Timberlake’s who recently put out his debut, When Everything Breaks Open, on the pop star’s Tennman Records. We got Morris on the phone to talk about the telethon, his album — and when we can expect new music from his pal Justin.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did your participation in the Hope for Haiti Now telethon come together?
MATT MORRIS: I was in Los Angeles, promoting When Everything Breaks Open, when everything was coming together for the telethon. Justin asked if I would like to sing with him. I said, “Of course, in a heartbeat.”
Had he already picked which song to sing?
No. We brainstormed. He suggested it as an idea. We chewed on that for a minute. I had shot a video of me singing “Help!”, a ballad version of the Beatles song, which I posted last year on my YouTube page. He called me a few days prior and said, “Maybe we should think about performing ‘Help!'” So we took both of those songs to the rehearsal space and played through them. “Hallelujah” just felt right. The arrangement came together quickly and naturally.
It’s a song that’s been memorably covered by many artists.
It is a much-covered song, indeed. It’s a great song for it. It has the classic melody. It cuts to the heart. There have been some epic covers, some simple covers. I’m honored to be on the list of people who got a chance to cover the song, you know?
When you were working out your arrangement, what did you want to bring to the song to differentiate from those other versions?
We didn’t get too heavy about it. It wasn’t much of an intellectual process. It was an emotional process for us, I think. I mean, I can’t speak for Justin directly, but I think for the both of us there was a desire to create something in that moment that was beautiful. That was really the intention behind it. If you listen to our music on our own albums, we both clearly have been influenced by Jeff Buckley. It wasn’t about any one other artist’s rendition that we were trying to hold ours up against by any stretch, but if there was one that would have an influence on me and Justin, it would have been that. I heard a really beautiful version of “Hallelujah” by Brandi Carlile that broke my heart. It’s one of those where I’m willing to give it a listen when people sing it. That’s how much I love that song.
Did you have any favorites among the other telethon performances?
I loved listening to “Halo,” Beyoncé. I like acoustic performances, I’m a fan of them, so it was nice to hear her and Chris Martin perform that song. Her voice is just amazing. I also thought Mary J. Blige’s performance was a classic gospel soul performance. It just made me want to stand up off the couch, you know? Everybody brought something really unique.
The telethon introduced you to a lot of new listeners. Why should someone who first heard you there buy your record?
I would be grateful if they would give it a listen. If they were moved by the performances, not even just mine, but the performances from the telethon — if they’re people who listen to music with their heart, not just their ears — then I think they might appreciate this album. If not, if they were at least introduced to my voice on “Hallelujah” and they purchased that song or the Hope for Haiti album, then it did what it was supposed to do.
How closely did Justin work with you on your album?
He was a part of the process the whole way through. Well before we even got into the studio, we had been writing together. I had been showing him songs, saying, “So, what do you think about this?” And he’d give me feedback, or he’d say, “I dunno, why don’t you try this direction,” and I would go in that direction. I trust his gut. I trust his musical instincts. Those have been a part of really every aspect of making this album. He was there recording with us in Austin. We were recording in Los Angeles and he was involved with the final mixes and mastering.
You two met as co-stars on The Mickey Mouse Club in the early ’90s, right?
That is true.
Did you and he stay in touch all through the years after that show?
There was maybe a year, a year and a half after the show had wrapped when we both went back to our respective lives and we didn’t talk quite as much. But it wasn’t long before we reconnected. I was in touch with him through the whole *NSYNC phenomenon, and what was a very explosive rise to superstardom for that band. And then his breaking out solo. We stayed in touch pretty much since we met.
A lot of Justin’s fans are wondering when he’s going to make another record of his own, since he’s been busy with running Tennman and other projects. Do you have any insight into that?
I wish I could tell them. You know, I myself am a Justin fan. I do like his records. I’ve had the good fortune of being a part of the last record — we co-wrote a song together [“(Another Song) All Over Again”] that ended up on the record. So I’m looking forward to a day when his focus shifts to that more. I think it would be great. I don’t have any insight into it. But you can tell people that I’m going to start writing songs in the hopes that that lights a fire. In the meantime, we’ll have to just have to continue to bump Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds. And occasionally he’ll show up on someone’s record. Timbaland just put a record out, and it’s featuring Justin Timberlake. So it’s not that he’s not out there in the world. I have a feeling — and this is not based on any knowledge of anything in the works for him musically, but just on knowing who he is as an artist — I have a feeling that he has so many things creatively in store for people that they can’t even wrap their minds around yet. Whether it’s a movie or another album or whatever he really sets his mind to, it’s going to be good. We just have to be patient.
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Photo credit: Jeff Kravitz/MTV Hope for Haiti Now via Getty Images