Thirty years ago, Travis Morrison was a computer-loving 12-year-old from Alexandria, Va., who had never spent much time away from home.
The small Montessori school he attended was something of a “hippie enclave,” complete with its own pet horse. In his free time, he liked to program hand-me-down computers and play sports, though he concedes he was “small and slow—which was frustrating, but it didn’t stop me.”
His world got a little bigger that June when he arrived at the CTY Summer Programs site at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “I had never been a summer-camp kid, and had never gone to boarding school, so I remember that having to get myself down to the hall for breakfast was a big deal,” Travis said.
He was living on a college campus for three weeks, taking an advanced-level course in paleobiology. Oh, and his girlfriend was also attending the program, taking the same class. What could possibly go wrong?
All these years later, the memories are fuzzy. Travis remembers the whole class loading into a van and driving to a nearby rock formation to hunt for trilobites. He remembers trying to sneak away from the group to make out with his girlfriend. He remembers dancing like a maniac to “Burning Down the House” on the weekends.
And he remembers that somewhere in the midst of it all, he got dumped.
Travis recalls broodily wandering across a sports field. It was raining and his heart was freshly broken. He just wanted to sit underneath a tree and think for a while. It was like a scene straight out of “Better Off Dead” – except in real life, there was a piercing crack as lightning struck a nearby tree.
“I kid you not, I felt the surge through my whole body,” Travis said.
He remembers staggering to a building, and joining a bunch of other CTY students who were taking shelter from the storm. Their eyes widened as he told them about the electrical blast he’d just survived. Suddenly, they treated him like a captain who had triumphantly battled a raging typhoon. His ex even decided to go out with him again.
Travis returned to CTY the following summer to study astronomy. “The teacher was this really funny guy,” he said. “I remember in his class watching the movie ‘Silent Running,’ about this guy who is sent into space with these plants. It’s a pretty obscure movie. We also watched ‘Fantastic Planet’ and ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ Those movies made a huge impression on me because I was really into the art of space and planets.”
When he returned home that summer, he got his first guitar. “I really wanted to play the drums, but my parents wouldn’t let me (because of the noise),” he said.
He started taking lessons, and later, writing songs. He was 19 when he and some college friends started an indie-rock band, The Dismemberment Plan, with Travis as the lead singer and songwriter.
The jilted-boyfriend seed planted in his lightning-tinged CTY days has occasionally resurfaced in his lyrics. “Ellen and Ben” tells the story of a seemingly inseparable couple that “broke up loudly at a wedding and never saw each other again.” And in “The Ice of Boston,” one of the band’s most popular songs, about a pensive New Year’s Eve spent alone, Travis sings, “I sit there in my easy chair, looking at the clouds, orange with celebration/And I wonder if you're out there.”
He enjoys the act of putting his feelings into lyrics. Sometimes, he said, it’s more like finding out what his feelings are through songwriting.
“I love language and read a lot of poetry and short stories,” he said. “I have a short attention span, so (songwriting is) something I can do in fairly short bursts, which works well for me. As an artist, you spend a lot of time telling yourself no, but when you think about it, a lot of songs don’t make literal sense but just kind of feel right. I kind of put this here and that over there, and it feels nice. That is incredibly satisfying and it makes up for the days when you close the notebook and say, ‘That’s a bunch of garbage.’ I guess my advice to young artists would be, I think they need to understand that you’re just going to have to write many, many, many bad things and it’s going to be terrible, but keep doing it.”
The Dismemberment Plan has released five studio albums, “!,” “The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified,” “Emergency & I,” “Change,” and “Uncanny Valley.” They’ve toured with Pearl Jam, co-headlined with Death Cab for Cutie, and played sold-out stadium shows.
Now, 20 years after the release of their first album, the band mates still occasionally perform together, but they all have also found success in other fields. Travis, now 42, has put his programming skills to work as a web developer for the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. He’s now working on a startup called Shoutabl, a website- and social-network-building tool for up-and-coming musicians. On Sundays, Travis can be found singing in Manhattan’s Trinity Episcopal Church choir.
Where his love life is concerned, it’s safe to say Travis has put those stormy skies behind him. He’s happily married to VanityFair.com editor Katherine Goldstein; the two live in Brooklyn and recently welcomed their first child, a son named Asher.
He said he’s lucky to have a second career to fall back on.
“Some people are cut out to be an entertainer 24/7, and some people burn out, and I think (the latter) is far more common than fans imagine … it’s a nightmare that some people get stuck in, having to go on stage and play the same songs every night. There are times when I wish I was Kanye, but not all that often, really,” he said. On a recent warm evening, he seemed relaxed, content and hopeful, as he got ready to meet a friend for dinner.
“I’ve got two careers and someone else is buying dinner,” he said. “That’s about as good as it gets, really.”