When Blake Morgan graduated from high school, he was a bit of a rebel.
“I was threatening my parents to not go to school and be in a rock band and tour the world,” says Morgan, who grew up in Dearborn. “I guess in a hilarious sense I’m doing that now.”
The 2013 graduate of Western Michigan University is a tenor for the world-renowned British vocal ensemble VOCES8 and as a member of that group tours the globe, performing in places such as the Tokyo Opera City, Vienna Konzerthaus and Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and in thousand-year-old cathedrals. He has also recorded albums in legendary locales.
“We’ve recorded our latest album at Abbey Road Studios, in the same room where the Beatles recorded all of their songs,” says 28-year old Morgan. “So that was pretty cool.”
Becoming one of the ‘8’
After graduating from WMU with degrees in music education and music performance, Morgan moved to New York City and started subbing as a singer at St. Paul’s Chapel of the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street, a suggested freelance venue for singers. Then Glen Miller called. Miller is the director of music and organist at Kirk in the Hills, a Presbyterian church in West Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Morgan had met Miller during his last year at WMU, after being invited to help establish a vocal group in Ann Arbor called Audivi (now based in Detroit).
“We hit it off really well, and, of course, I was already a huge fan of his incredible vocal ability,” Morgan says. “I just wanted to learn everything I could from being in the same room with him, but in the end I think he somehow became a fan of my musicianship as well.”
Miller asked Morgan if he could record a really difficult piece of extended harmonies called “Path of Miracles” in Austin, Texas, with the Grammy-Award-winning ensemble Conspirare two days later. Their tenor was sick. Morgan agreed, the group shipped him the several-hundred-page piece, and he hopped on a plane for Texas the next day. Jobs came very quickly after that for the 22-year-old.
“My resume was stacked over the course of this three or four months,” he says.
Then, in 2014, the eight-member male vocal a cappella ensemble Cantus came knocking. Morgan spent a little more than a year with that group before joining Chanticleer, a Grammy-Award-winning male classical vocal ensemble based in San Francisco. While on tour with Chanticleer, Morgan met Barnaby Smith, VOCES8’s artistic director. Morgan wasn’t aware of it at the time, but VOCES8 had an opening for a tenor. The group’s tenor must sing pop songs well, belt out solos and change the mechanism of his voice to sing almost a male alto, says Morgan, a “niche” skill he apparently has. In 2016, Morgan became the first American to join the British ensemble.
He describes the first time singing with VOCES8 as “surreal” and admits to plenty of nerve-racking moments onstage. The other singers have a “pedigree,” he explains, having spent their childhoods singing in cathedrals across the United Kingdom without much rehearsal time — approximately 15 to 30 minutes of rehearsal for an hour-long service, “which is very different than the U.S. mentality,” he says, which involves more preparation. Now Morgan has to be ready to sing quickly. “With VOCES8 you kind of hang on for dear life when you walk up on stage,” he says.
Music in the genes
Morgan grew up in a household where music was akin to breathing. His dad, Rick Morgan, was a drummer for Motown artists in Detroit. His mom, Rayleen Morgan, sings and plays the flute. Blake “was raised on a drum set” and also picked up the guitar, French horn, piano and bass.
He initially headed in the direction of an instrumentalist, auditioning as a jazz drummer for the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp Jazz Touring Ensemble. But Mark Webb, director of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp International Choir at the time, asked if Morgan could sing and urged him to send in an audition tape. Morgan got a spot, and that changed his life, he says.
“You don’t have anything to hide behind,” Morgan explains. “Before that, I always played instruments in band and orchestra or rock bands, and I always had something to hide behind. Even when I was singing lead in a rock group, I always had my guitar strapped on and I could hide behind that. It’s a real vulnerability to be just using the thing that comes from your body: the voice.”
Yet, when Morgan enrolled in the jazz department at WMU, he auditioned as an instrumentalist. Again, Morgan was pulled aside — this time by the late Steve Zegree, then WMU professor of music and director of WMU Gold Company, who suggested he apply to the jazz voice school, saying, “We’ve heard you scat before.”
“I ended up getting a scholarship,” Morgan says.
Morgan gives Zegree and retired WMU opera director and private voice coach David Little credit for his growth as a singer. Morgan says he had catching up to do when joining VOCES8, but he was prepared for that challenge by Zegree.
“He had this ability to recognize potential in someone even when that individual couldn’t see it, and that’s a rare skill,” Morgan says. “He pushed me beyond what I ever thought I was capable of. He really held me to the fire many times, and I know the things I do now will never be as difficult as how extreme he pushed.”
Little also saw Morgan’s potential and allowed him to “unlock it,” supporting Morgan’s interest in studying classical voice and singing in operas, in addition to fulfilling his jazz requirements.
“He never told me that you can’t do both,” Morgan says. “He always said when you’re a musician — and Steve Zegree said this as well — versatility is the most important thing. You have to be flexible and willing to adapt if you want to make a living in music.”
On the side, Morgan composes and sings folk music under the name Esto. The Spanish pseudonym refers to the first song he ever sang with the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp International Choir, “Esto Les Digo” (meaning “This I Say to You”), by composer and choral arranger Kinley Lange.
“It really struck me,” he admits. “That piece has sort of been a constant in my life ever since.”
Another mainstay in Morgan’s life has been northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Though he’s been around the world, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan continue to fuel his work. Morgan wrote and recorded a folk music album about Houghton, Michigan, titled Houghton Hancock Hum-Alongs, inspired by the summer he spent there working as a counselor at a camp for advanced high school students interested in engineering. Morgan patrolled the halls at night and hosted dorm activities, including playing his guitar and singing Top 40 hits with “young engineering geniuses.”
“The ‘night-centric’ nature of the job meant I could spend the bulk of my days exploring the Keweenaw Peninsula or writing music,” Morgan says. “There’s so much untapped, untouched beauty up there.”
Absorbing landscapes and nature allows him to become more of a vessel, he explains, so that sound becomes a gift rather than a creation, and writing and arranging stem from inspiration rather than logic.
“I see something or hear something that just strikes me and falls into my lap, and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, it’s complete,’” he says, “sort of like stumbling on a buried treasure. You stumble upon this ancient city, and you’re sort of digging it up rather than building it. That manifests itself into my songwriting.”