In The Middle with James Vincent McMorrow
Following his recent album We Move, folkster James Vincent McMorrow graced our very own Leeds Town Hall as part of his current tour. We chatted to him to get his views on songwriting, America and ‘Higher Love’.
The first time that Dublin-born James Vincent McMorrow played a gig in Leeds, it was in Call Lane’s cheeky Tiki Hideaway to an audience of around fifty urban beachcombers. His second and only other performance was at the less ill-fitting but still small-scale Brudenell Social Club. Now, his latest performance took him up a step into the acoustic grandeur of Leeds Town Hall – and there was no doubt that his show matched the grandness of the venue. This was McMorrow’s fourth date of his European tour, supported by fellow Irish band Wyvern Lingo – the folky-rocky trio who kicked the night off with a very authentic thirty-minute set. Having collaborated with Drake and Kyga, McMorrow is a paradox: he’s also a die-hard Phil Collins fan, with his drum/singer-led band joining him over the coming year.
So you’ve just released a brand new album We Move, congratulations! How has the reception been so far and the reactions you’ve had on tour?
Great! We’re only four shows in so it’s too early to get a full sense of what the reaction is to the new record. People have been responding to the songs they know well. The makeup of audiences in a show is so early in a tour cos people have bought tickets before they’ve heard the records, so some people might be there because they’re into the first record or they just might be curious. I don’t really look at the crowds that much, but the guys will tell me that they’ll see a lot of people singing pretty deep cuts off the new record already which is great; it means people are paying attention. The two singles, ‘Get Low’ and ‘Rising Water’, people tend to respond to those quite excitedly which is cool.
What’s the decision process in terms of choosing which song to release first?
There’s two sides of the world and the two sides have two different demands. ‘Get Low’ is the single in the US that’s starting to do really well, but that hasn’t been released as a single here. It’s trying to find a route through it that makes everybody happy, and I’m fine with it because I wrote them all and I’m excited. As long as my audience are happy and they don’t want me to make radio edits that compromise the songs too much then I don’t mind. For most of my career, I’ve been trying to get to that point where I can put together the things that I love, which is hip-hop production and my singer-songwriter sensibilities, and ‘Get Low’ definitely encapsulates those things really well. The idea of that song doing well in the US is great because it makes me feel like my decision-making process was right.
Do you think that the success of it in the US is down to shifting towards a more progressively electronic and R&B influence?
I don’t know if that’s true or not. Success and failure is a strange thing. The first time I played in Leeds I remember playing in a place that looked like a Tiki Hut or something on the inside, it was sold out but there were about 120 people or something like that, and I remember thinking “Holy shit this is amazing.” The next thing we’ve come back, and were playing in front of about 800-900 people tonight. Radio has never been a part of the narrative in terms of how it’s progressed, but it doesn’t necessarily have any massive bearing on the success or failure of me as an artist because it’s never been there before. If it comes then I’m excited but if it doesn’t then we’ll just keep doing what we did before and I’m okay with that.
I feel like you’ve evolved quite a lot compared to a track like ‘Higher Love’ you released back in 2010. What’s been the influence for that evolution of your sound?
Just a personal confidence. I know the sounds I want to use and I know how I want it to be. With ‘Higher Love’, it was recorded in an hour and had no real sense of “this is going to be a thing”; it was recorded for a charity record initially and then it took on a life of its own which is great, and I love that song. The last song on this new record is just me and a piano and that’s the first time I’ve ever done that since I recorded that in 2010, so I guess to a degree it has come full circle. Progression seems like you’re moving away from the thing before. I don’t agree with that. You take the things that you want, and you lose the things that are not necessary, so it’s more of a refinement of the idea rather than a progression. I’ve been refining these ideas as a songwriter and as a producer – I don’t see that as a regression, I just see it as part of this thing that I’ve built.
Has working with amazing producers like Frank Dukes and Two Inch Punch helped you in this refinement?
I think that they opened me up to a part of music that I’ve always been obsessed with but never delved into as a musician in my own right because I have certain musical proclivities. I still believe that a vocal, you capture it, you shouldn’t fuck with it; you just leave it. If you listen to ‘Get Low’ which was a one take vocal, I sing the wrong word in the second chorus, but I left it in because I was like, “Fuck it that’s life, it’s supposed to be like that.” What the guys did was bring up the sonic level to a place that I couldn’t get to. It’s a real inspirational thing being in a room with people like that. They just blow my mind. My passion is singing, and writing, and capturing ideas really fast and that catalytic energy, then I include people in the process that have that same sense of passion and catalytic energy for those things that I was doing functionally.
Lyrically speaking you talk about very difficult personal boundaries you’ve had to overcome. Has writing and releasing honest and vulnerable lyrics been a difficult process in the public eye?
No it hasn’t, because it’s not like I’m engaged in a conversation about it that often. The reason I did it is because that part of me hasn’t been accurately reflected in the music that I’ve made up to this point. There’s a way to write a song that is emotional and will resonate with people but also doesn’t have that bit of you in it that reveals the thing that you might not want to reveal.The last song on the record is a song called ‘Lost Angles’, and I just play it by myself and you can see the reaction to it physically in the room and it feels important. Not in a narcissistic bullshit way but it just feels like we’re sharing something that is actually real. I hate when musicians are like “I’m going to sing about war,” like fuck off. For me as a human being with quite humble aspirations and also a pretty heavy level of cynicism as an Irishman, I feel like I see through those things. I don’t believe that. Songwriting that’s honest is vital.
Sian Evans & Kitty Pandya