California Son, a covers album by Morrissey. Photograph: BMG
Morrissey, 59, announced a new album earlier this week: California Son is his first covers album, and will feature protest-themed songs by the likes of Bob Dylan and Buffy Sainte Marie, along with various guest vocalists. Many were surprised to see ostensibly left-leaning artists such as Green Days Billie Joe Armstrong, and Ed Droste of cult indie group
Grizzly Bear, among those backing the controversial singer.
As US music magazine the Fader asked: What possible reason could any of these people have for lining up behind Morrissey now?
Droste declined to comment. The only artist willing to speak with the Guardian was Canadian vocalist Ariel Engle, who performs with cult indie outfit
Broken Social Scene. She received a call from the American producer Joe Chiccarelli asking her to contribute backing vocals for a cover of Joni Mitchells Dont Interrupt the Sorrow. I thought, Oh the Smiths, sure, she says. It was $500 for two hours work.
Engle says she didnt become aware of Morrisseys political views until the album was announced and a friend emailed to question her involvement. Its a very weak argument to claim ignorance, she says, but it is my argument. Its not an excuse but it happens to be the truth.
Morrisseys manager, Peter Katsis, says he is unaware of statements made by any guest vocalists, but that the intention of the covers album was supposed to be fun. This is where his head is at, he says. Maybe enough has been said with the last few albums being political. Of Morrisseys political views, Katsis says: I manage his artistic career and sometimes I have to deal with things he says, but its not for me to comment.
Chiccarelli echoes Katsiss sentiment. I cant speak to Mozs politics, he says. Im a record-maker. Ive known him 10 years and hes been a gentleman and a pleasure. I consider him a friend. When asked about the far-right figures for whom
Morrissey has expressed support, Chiccarelli says: Id really have to research it and see if it crossed a particular line for me.
Engle says that learning of Morrisseys political opinions has left a bad taste, and that she stands in opposition to his views. The inflammatory things he says are not my politics. I think hes completely out of line. I grew up around multiculturalism and I am the product of multiculturalism and immigration. I feel like Ive been had, but its my fault.
The American singer LP offered a statement through a PR representative: As Im a huge fan of his music and poetry, I was honoured to be asked to collaborate on the album. Representatives for Lydia Night of California band the Regrettes offered no comment, but the 18-year-old told punk magazine Kerrang!: Ive grown up loving the Smiths my cats name is Morrissey! Representatives for Armstrong said he was in the studio and therefore unreachable.
The guest stars on California Son are all North American, suggesting a difference between perceptions of the former Smiths frontman in the US and UK. Katsis, who is American, sees the critical focus on Morrisseys politics as a British preoccupation.
I dont think they know enough about it to care about it, he says of Morrisseys US fans. I dont feel knowledgable enough to comment on British politics, therefore its probably not as important to me or the international fans as it is to UK fans. This whole thing has had me perplexed. The subjects are very complicated and dividing.
The figures bear out Morrisseys enduring support across the Atlantic. He ended 2018 with arena shows in North and South America, and has announced his first Canadian tour in 20 years for this April. In November 2017, Los Angeles City Council declared 10 November Morrissey Day.
In America, he tends to be seen as the rock star who sang about queer life and spoke openly about feminism when nobody else did, says Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield. These two images define him, and hes still seen in terms of his pioneering place in history. His grumpy old age is not really held against him. Americans tend not to follow UK politics very closely, so when he makes mind-blowingly offensive statements there might be outrage or humiliation for a few days, or hours, but then its back to listening to The Queen Is Dead.
Despite the headlines provoked by Morrisseys every political pronouncement, the same may remain true in the UK. Penguin confirmed that Morrisseys autobiography titled Autobiography has sold more than 200,000 copies, and continues to sell. In 2017, his album Low in High School entered the UK Top 5 and was the highest-selling vinyl record in its week of release. California Son is currently at No 7 in Amazons pre-order chart.
There have been visible protests against the singer. The backlash against him has been particularly strong in Manchester, says author Dave Haslam, who
organised an anti-racism party to coincide with Morrisseys scheduled shows in his home city last July, in response to Morrisseys divisive views, and his support for the far right. The gigs were then postponed due to logistical circumstances that the singers management insist were not linked to the protests.
But one prominent UK concert promoter says such controversies are still unlikely to have a significant impact on the stars pulling power. Theres always going to be demand for him. There are plenty of people willing to see past accusations, perhaps looking at things through rose-tinted glasses and able to take a more lenient stance because of their affections towards him.
Some British fans remain conflicted. I listened to Bona Drag just this morning, said one who wished to remain anonymous. But I sold my Morrissey T-shirts, and Ive taken down the framed posters and put them on eBay. Its hard to switch off my feelings for him and the music, but Im embarrassed by him. When I bought Low in High School, I joked in the record shop about taking it away in a brown paper bag.