Sitting at the top of a set of weathered wooden stairs overlooking the ocean, Genie Morrow seems to belong in Wellfleet’s wild, windswept landscape. “I believe we can access creativity here in a different way,” Morrow, the singer-songwriter and front woman of New York City-based Sputnik the Band, says. “Being in Wellfleet is a reminder of a simpler life, of going back to nature, as opposed to being on our phones or computers.”
Morrow grew up in the New York City suburbs and Wellfleet, where her parents bought a second home in the 1970s. When the world shut down this past March, she came here to be with her mother, Jean, a painter who now lives in Wellfleet full-time. Morrow stayed through the summer and into the fall, writing a flurry of new songs inspired by her lifelong fascination with James Dean, the ’50s movie star who died at age 24 in a car crash.
“He was the first artist I connected to as a young person, and now he’s come back to remind me of something,” Morrow says.
Morrow’s earlier interest in Dean was rekindled when, after playing a series of Sputnik concerts in Michigan last fall, she visited Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, Ind. There, she picked up the memoir Jimmy & Me, by Lew Bracker, one of Dean’s friends.
“I was deeply touched by this book, because it talks about James Dean as a human being and not an icon,” Morrow says. She wrote to Bracker to thank him, and, when he invited her to an event in Palm Springs, Calif., she flew to meet the 92-year-old author in January. Not long after, the pandemic hit.
“I had James Dean magic on me,” Morrow says. “All that emotion began coming through in the new songs I was writing here in Wellfleet. I’ve been waking up at sunrise and walking over to my keyboard, and it has almost felt as if the keyboard was playing itself.”
Sputnik the Band will be performing one of Morrow’s new songs, “Boy From the Sky,” along with an earlier song inspired by Dean, “She’s Alive,” at its live concert, now moved to its rain date of Sunday, Oct. 18, at Payomet Performing Arts Center’s Drive-in. The band will also be releasing a new album with the Dean songs, as yet untitled.
“Most of what we usually do is indie rock, but this album is very different,” Morrow says. “The songs are mellower, and the James Dean themes are intertwined with a sense of nostalgia for simpler days.”
Morrow grew up in a family where creativity was encouraged, surrounded by art and music. “My brother painted his bathroom yellow, turned it into the Yellow Submarine, and put one of the Beatles’ heads in each porthole,” Morrow says. According to family lore, Morrow began singing her own songs and attempting to write them down at the age of three. She learned to play the piano but was most drawn to the punk rock music her two older brothers were listening to. “They introduced me to bands that have influenced me ever since,” she says.
After studying literature and music in college, Morrow got her first job at the book publisher Random House. “One day, someone brought a small, red accordion to work and told me that they wanted me to join their band,” she says, smiling at the memory. “The Old World sound of that French accordion has come into my music ever since.”
Empowered by the Buddhist practice she embraced in her college days, Morrow eventually left the corporate world. “I started teaching music and drama workshops to children after school,” she says. “I worked on my music and formed our band.”
Sputnik the Band came together in 2003. The founding members — Mic Rains on guitar, Pemberton Roach on bass, Nigel Rawles on drums, and Morrow, the singer-songwriter, on guitar and accordion — have been together ever since. The band’s name was inspired by one of Morrow’s early songs about the dog sent into orbit by the Russians on Sputnik 2 to see how it would fare. (It quickly died.) “I was thinking of this dog not having any say over what was happening,” Morrow says. “They just put it in the satellite, strapped it in, and sent it out. I began thinking about whether we have a say in our fate, even our survival.”
Sputnik the Band has put out three albums with Grammy-winning producer Carl Glanville. “I feel grateful that we’ve had such a long run together,” Morrow says. “If there are issues, we work them out. It hasn’t been easy, and, sometimes, we lock horns. But, at the end of the day, we all love and respect each other.”
At the upcoming Payomet concert, Dominic LaMorte and Benjamin Samuelson will sub for Rains and Roach. “Benjamin also has a connection to the Cape,” Morrow says. “His godfather owns Terra Luna in Truro. He was happy to come down here to play.”
Morrow, who now teaches yoga to children and has been leading outdoor classes for Wellfleet’s recreation dept., says that she wants her songs to inspire hope for better days. “As difficult as it is right now, with this political climate and everything that is happening,” she says, “I still believe that we can transform the world.”
Dreaming of Genie
The event: Sputnik the Band, live in concert
The time: SUNDAY, Oct. 18, at 5 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, Highlands Center at Cape Cod National Seashore, Ballfield Drive-in, 29 Old Dewline Road, Truro
The cost: Pay-what-you-can from $20 to $50 at payomet.org