During the first lockdown in New Zealand, Nicky Moran took the time to write her 10th album Unlocked. A true achievement, the album dips into reflections, musings and prayers she had during this time of isolation. With various themes woven into each track, she weaves a colourful tapestry of sound and thoughts that is sonically captivating. We were able to chat with Nicky Moran about the album, reaching a musical milestone, prison tours and much more!
OSR: What is your earliest memory where you knew that music was what the future had in store for you?
Moran: 8 years old sitting in the haybarn with the cousins all saying what are you going to do when you grew up. I remember saying, ‘I’m going to be a singer. On TV.’ From that time I started taping songs off the radio to learn them and taping myself singing on cassette, really interested in the recording process
OSR: Your latest album, Unlocked, is a bit of a milestone as your 10th Gospel album. How do you feel your music has evolved since you started this journey?
Moran: I had 20 years of growing in songwriting before starting albums in 2008. They were pretty heavy on the frenetic piano playing and being really ornate with the keys dominating the whole song, or the band. The songs were more basic in arrangements but the genre styles I am embracing are diversifying and widening with great production and musician involvement keeping true to the Gospel lyrical content.
OSR: The album is packed with themes ranging from praise to contemporary worship, but can you tell us a little more about the backstory?
Moran: Around a quieter time at home, most of the songs were inspired during the extended lockdown in New Zealand 2020. It’s based on private contemplation, prayer to see the best in others, stepping out to be who we were meant to be and Scriptures that lift up the Lord and lift up our spirits. The name Unlocked is about people coming out of their own personal jail and being set free in the heart and mind.
OSR: While the album has a 70s and 80s pop sound, there are sprinklings of country, blues, rock and Americana. Was this blend something you actively tried to achieve or did it happen more organically?
Moran: I love to make music that is interesting to the senses and don’t want every song to sound the same or be relayed in the same style. It keeps me musically interested when replaying the song and keeps boredom out. Originally, we thought the basis would be country and tried out lots of different styles of country and deviated from there.
OSR: What was your creative process for the album?
Moran: I tend to be busy all the time, but I was just pretty still, so many songs flowed into my inbox/imagination from Above. I have deeply desired and chased after writing songs for decades and now I tend to just receive the songs, like dictation. I ask, “How does the lyric go?”, “How does the music sound?”, “What rhythm is the best?”, “What arrangement would suit the message of this song?”. In one unusual situation, I was looking after a patient who was on suicide watch, first the rhythm came, then the lyrics while praying to bring light into a dark place. It’s my faith journey. Then I collaborate with producer Maciek Hrybowicz about arrangements and logistics and more and more hand it over to him after years of creating demos and building up the sound/flavours that I like and feel the most authentic.
OSR: What do you feel is the biggest influence on your music?
Moran: Not wanting to sound like contemporary Christian worship and wanting instead to reach a crossover of mainstream and Gospel lyric loving audience authentically. I’m particularly influenced both with piano instrumentation by Elton John and vocal/songwriting by Carole King.
OSR: There is a very positive message in the album, but which track do you feel showcases this the best?
Moran: Here’s two examples. For those who are closer to the Lord: ‘Holy is the Name’ is a catchy, different/disco gospel track, contains high praise, testifies to real hope, and a strong declaration of faith, very uplifting and danceable. For others who just want to be encouraged and feel good again, ‘Rise Up My Soul’ is a classic country ballad that gives a pep talk to oneself to find your wings and try again, learn to soar and call your obstacles stepping stones instead of stumbling blocks, based on sound principles, bringing hope back into focus.
OSR: Do you feel that people who are not spiritual will be able to connect with the messages and themes of the album?
Moran: I think, firstly, the music itself is quite catchy and well-produced so it holds its own. Especially the first 10 tracks and the last track which is a love song, these would appeal to people who are less spiritual. Some later songs in the album are more restful/worshipful/peaceful/orchestral and would appeal to a more specific Christian audience. When people just listen and let the songs wash over them or tap their feet to them, many have told me they experience positive side effects, they feel less anxious, more peaceful, fun comes to visit and stress seems to go on holiday. Many people say they don’t listen to the lyrics especially but they love the way the music makes them feel, chilled out. My purpose is for every song to benefit the listener in some way with some kind of helpful message or lyric.
OSR: How do you feel this album compares to your previous releases?
Moran: I like it more, it has stepped up in arrangements, vocals, genre styles, the production is great thanks to the producer. It is solidifying the style that has become my trademark. Accessible contemporary Gospel lyrics. It is definitely a step up from The Truth musically which is most similar in lyrical Scriptural content but more mainstream sound. It is a major step up musically from where I started with live recordings in 2008 with Nicky Moran Band (NMB) live and the Surrender albums that were very gritty/edgy and written when I was ill, before my healing breakthrough.
OSR: Over the last six years, you have toured New Zealand prisons performing gospel shows, what was the drive behind this?
Moran: I believe every life is precious, even those doing time for criminal charges. My personal God-given mission in life over these years has been to lift up souls who are struggling to hope and to shine some light and love from Above. I want to raise morale, encourage and bring fun and a reason to live and try to change again with the Redemption message. So far, I have done 450 Gospel shows with classic covers and gutsy originals in all 18 New Zealand prisons. I perform in the prisons using multi-instrumental live looped music and now with backing tracks. Feedback has been fantastic from prison staff, chaplains and residents alike. It’s a month of being on the road for me, up to 4 concerts a day, which can be tough but the reception I get and the joy I see in people, makes this voluntary work so worthwhile.
OSR: You are preparing for your second tour of the year, how exciting has it been to get back to gigs after lockdown?
Moran: I just want to do what I really love, I’m so committed to this that I left my part-time nurse job recently to fully focus on music and touring. So when lockdown came at the start of the tour in September this year I had to get my inspiration to extend, to be flexible, adaptable and try new things with smaller more intimate audiences. This has worked out really well for promo, video and unusual venues and boosted more interest in the music. So now I’m doing pop-up house concerts, pop-up community outreach concerts, pubs, churches, rehab centres, prison or mental health units here and there and hospital concerts with audiences in the main corridors. I’m hoping to branch into Maraes (Māori meeting places), gang HQs and further community venues. The sky is the limit, sometimes it’s easier to think smaller than larger and have lower expectations that are constantly exceeded. People donate if they want and purchase albums if they want, if not they had a great experience and generally tell me so! I have had to reschedule many events and cancel some but chose not to be disappointed but optimistic for more opportunities, then go get them!
OSR: Other than your tour, what else can we expect from you in the coming 12 months?
Moran: My plan is to complete the New Zealand North Island Unlocked album tour over summer, then hoping to head to the New Zealand South Island in autumn, preceding the next national prison tour in May 2022. I have been asked to perform the Unlocked Gospel album at a country music festival in Poland in July 2022, so would like to go if that door stays open. Australian prisons are on my hit list next for a personal mission, so in anticipation of touring there in 2022/2023, I’ll need to trim my musical gear to take overseas. So, I’m prayerfully stepping into a new double album recording project of proven classic covers. These are songs I already performed in prison and pubs. I’m seeking to gospelise the lyrics a little and feature each song in an authentic genre to feel as if I wrote the song, giving credit to the composers with permission of course.
Thus, recording my most enjoyed cover songs, making them into high quality, full band, well-produced backing tracks with producer Maciek Hrybowicz is next. Onwards and upwards!