It’s been a long five years for Carla Morrison. You could go over the laundry list of major life changes — putting her career on hold, moving to Paris, getting married, relocating to Los Angeles, losing her father, discovering her voice — but it wouldn’t do justice to the tumult and triumphs that led up to her latest album.
No, to truly appreciate her return to music, you have to understand that Morrison was ready to leave it all behind. In 2017, after nearly a decade of recording and touring, she quit. She didn’t have a plan, and she didn’t know if she would ever go back. She was just desperate to do something, anything that would make her feel less hollow. “I didn’t feel normal,” she says. “It’s like I was always in character, going through the motions and doing what everyone wanted me to do.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly, she pieced herself back together. El Renacimento is the story of her rebirth — a lyrical recounting of her journey back to herself. Since breaking through with her Grammy-nominated debut album, Déjenme Llorar, in 2012, the 35-year-old singer has gone all in on her tears, her heartbreak, and her pain. She’s Patsy Cline by way of Tecate, Mexico: a poetic songwriter drawn to tragedy and romance, whose dulcet voice drips with the same raw emotion as Rocío Dúrcal’s.
Backstage at Austin’s Moody Theater in mid-May, Morrison is sipping from a warm mug of tea, preparing herself for the latest stop on her U.S. tour. She’s relaxed in a cozy turtleneck and pants, fresh off the stage from her sound check. “Now that I’m on tour again, I realize how sad I was,” she says, reflecting on the months before her hiatus. “I go on stage now and I’m so happy. Everything — my energy, my body — it all feels so different.”
She didn’t quite have the words for it at the time, but Morrison was struggling with depression. Not long after Déjenme Llorar started climbing the charts, the singer found herself dealing with an influx of unwanted attention. She was grateful to have an audience, but along with it came tabloid headlines and questions about her tattoos, her weight, her talent. She told herself that it didn’t hurt, but little by little, she began closing herself off, feeling less and less of the pain until she felt hardly anything at all.
“I felt like I was being told to do better and it was never enough,” she says, her voice catching a bit. “I felt attacked. I kept saying ‘I’m strong, it doesn’t matter.’ But it did. It fucking did. It broke me. That was one of the reasons I left. I was tired of feeling insufficient.”
The scrutiny made her reluctant to take creative risks. But in 2018, she finally said “fuck it.” With no album or tour on the horizon, she left for Paris with her now-husband, enrolling at a small jazz conservatory in the city’s suburbs. Never mind that she didn’t listen to jazz or that she hardly spoke any French; that wasn’t the point. She wanted to deliver a shock to her system — a jolt that would make her feel real again. “I lost myself,” she says. “I had nothing to offer, I was miserable. If I had tried to make a song right then, it would’ve been a lie.”
In Paris, Morrison attended classes two to three times a week, sometimes meeting with her classmates to perform as an ensemble in the city. Slowly, she fell in love with creating again, rediscovering the thrill of collaboration and improvisation. “It was a lot of baby steps,” she says. “I was very mad at music because I felt like it was responsible for the pain I felt.”
She had never studied music like this. And while she sometimes found her classmates growing frustrated when they couldn’t get something right, she was excited by the idea of making mistakes. “I felt like a pez en el agua” — like a fish in water, she says, laughing. “I thought I was pretty relaxed about my music, but jazz made me realize how square I was. I realized I just needed to let go more.”
With the help of her teachers and classmates, Morrison felt safe to experiment. She started introducing pop instrumentation to her indie acoustic style, developing the lush sound that would later characterize El Renacimiento. “I wanted my music to sound like the music I listened to,” she says. “I hadn’t been allowing myself to go there because of the expectations people had of me. But I don’t give a fuck if I’m Mexican and I’m not ‘supposed’ to do R&B or pop. I’m tired of hesitating.” The biggest change, though, is Morrison’s voice. When a vocal teacher told her she had only been utilizing a fraction of her range, it gave her the last push she needed to dive in. “When I could actually hear the potential in my voice, I knew I wanted to do this.”
Her voice is nimble and deceptively strong. She still dips into the delicate, feathery range she first became known for, but her newfound dexterity is something to marvel at — and while she honed her approach in Paris, it’s rooted in an instinct and intensity that can’t be taught. She feels out each song, ad-libbing textural elements and deploying flamenco vocal runs when the moment calls for it. Like a wave, her vocals can wash over you gently, but just as quickly, they can sweep you off your feet, pulling you to the depths of her soul.
“Hacia Dentro” and “Encontrarme” bookend the album, outlining Morrison’s transformation. The first verse of the opening song is razor sharp: “Desperté un día sin sentir/Ganas de querer seguir” (“I woke up one day/Without the will to go on”), she sings over a twinkling beat. On “Te Perdí” she sets herself free, showcasing the power in her voice each time she returns to the chorus. With “Divino” and “Diamantes,” she indulges in her love story, celebrating her return to life. In vivid metaphors, Morrison covers her losses, her depression, and her self-doubt, all contrasted against the pulsating synth-pop arrangements that drive each song forward.
After leaving Paris, Morrison and her husband relocated to Los Angeles. She was starting to build out her album when her father’s death in 2020 forced her to confront her demons again. She had seen a therapist off and on for years, but it wasn’t enough. She felt destabilized. After looking into additional treatments, her husband stumbled onto ketamine therapy as a treatment for severe depression.
She was terrified at first. “That first time, I couldn’t let myself go,” Morrison says. “I was holding onto life, but little by little, I could leave.” The trips lasted about an hour, and with each session, she felt lighter. “I couldn’t understand my dad’s passing,” she says. “I just kept thinking about him passing away by himself. I was so sad, but something finally clicked.”
On El Renacimiento’s final track, Morrison takes stock of the things that nearly killed her. She excises all the lies she’s told herself, acknowledges the wounds she inflicted or ignored, and she paints a picture of herself at rock bottom, yearning to go back to the person she once was. It reads almost like a post-mortem, but when Morrison arrives at the chorus, she’s reborn. To listen to the song is to understand the magnitude of Morrison’s personal renaissance, but to watch her perform it is to bear witness to it.
Standing underneath the spotlight in Austin, Morrison is in an all-black ensemble, her hair slicked back into a long ponytail. With rhinestone-studded gloves, she clutches at the mic while the crowd looks on in rapt attention. Earlier in her set, she took a beat to tell the audience: “I want you all to leave here feeling freer, because to feel is human, and to be human is divine.”
Already, people around me are wiping tears from their eyes. “Quiero volver a mí/La persona que fui [I want to return to myself/ The person that I was],” she sings, her voice fading over the steady piano. She takes a breath, and then her voice soars through the theater, clear and free. “Encontrarme otra vez/Buscar dónde fallé/Redimir el por qué/Encontrarme y volver/A creer“: “Finding myself again/Finding out where I failed Redeeming the reason why/Finding myself and believing again.”
“I wanted to get back to the Carla who didn’t need any of this,” she told me just before the show. “The Carla who was happy to just sit with her guitar and write a song, who had no expectations of herself, and who didn’t give a fuck about what people thought. I think it was just trying to get back to Carla from Tecate.”