An Interview with James Vincent McMorrow
‘Rising Water’ announced your return to the world this summer. Why did you feel this was the best track to tease what to expect from ‘We Move’?
I hadn’t realised this until recently, but with my first two records, and now with this one, the first song anyone heard was also the first track on the album. Maybe that’s just coincidence, maybe not. There’s definitely something to be said for introducing people to a new record with the first piece of music they’ll hear when they possess that record. I think ultimately I just felt like ‘Rising Water’ was the best way to open people up to what’s about to come. I mean the first line of the song is ‘we’re in it now’. There’s nothing ambiguous there. It’s a song that just goes from the first second you hear it. That’s just what I wanted people to hear first.
Your new album ‘We Move’ is a richly textured album that sees you delving deeper into soul, electronica, R&B and beyond. What were the major influences that came to steer the eventual sound of the record?
I mean honestly the major influence that guides where I go is me. I don’t listen to other things and think “Yeah, I want to go in that direction”. I just get more confident, I get more ambitious. I learn more about what it means to be the musician I have been in my head since I was 17-years-old. In terms of specific examples of musicians I look to and find inspiration in, my guiding lights have always been confessional songwriters like Neil Young, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye. People who put themselves out there on the line so vividly. Up until this album I didn’t feel confident enough to do that myself. In terms of modern guys I think Drake and Kanye probably encapsulate that singer songwriter spirit. From a production and textural standpoint, I mean I grew up loving the Neptunes and their minimalism, Prince – my influences on a production level tend to be heavily in the RnB and hip-hop world. Having said that, I have a lot of love for people like Bon Iver, James Blake, Antony Hegarty. Singer songwriters who’ve managed to carve out a world that’s singularly their own.
The album was written between Toronto, Dublin and London – how did each city and the extensive travels that preceded “We Move” play their part in it’s writing and recording?
The travel was in itself an integral part of the album. The physical act of moving from place to place, of being removed from places and things I felt comfortable with. I don’t ever intentionally seek out left of centre album making processes. But looking at it now I realise that I thrive when I put myself in these less-than-comfortable positions. With each album it’s for a different purpose. With this album I was just having a lot of fun experiencing new places and new people. From a lyrical standpoint I was getting to some places I never could have gotten to had I been at home in my own studio with my own familiar surroundings.
“I still came with these vast arrangements”
Lyrically, ‘We Move’ offers some of the most personal and revealing lyrics to be found in your repertoire. They often reflect on an array of difficult subjects. Was it a conscious decision to change and write more openly for this record? Is it important to face your demons though songwriting?
Like I said before, that confessional, to the point, directness of people like Neil Young has been the thing I’ve dreamt of doing my whole life. But I’ve been too afraid to fully possess up until now. A large part of that was down to this self-imposed notion that in order to be confessional it needed to be me with a guitar or me with a piano. Because how could I meld together the lyrics I wanted to write with the sonics I choose to pursue? How do you put a plain spoken and direct lyric on top of a synth and an 808? The key was just not thinking about it. Again, part of why I travelled, it removed the opportunity to overthink. So lyrically I wasn’t letting myself off the hook. If I wrote something down the job wasn’t then to find metaphors and images to replace the direct lyrics. Instead it was to try and find the poetry and the rhythm within the words I had. So no heavy replacement of words, just refining it down.
You worked with some stellar producers on this album, including Nineteen85, Two Inch Punch and Frank Dukes. Did they change and challenge your way of writing for this record in comparison to how you worked previously?
Without a doubt. Going into this album I knew I had a way of working that… worked. But at the same time I think it was unsustainable. Ultimately it wouldn’t have allowed me to get to the level I wanted to as a musician. I was taking on so much with the first two albums – writing, playing, producing, mixing. To think that within all of that I would be able to ultimately end up with the greatest album possible was wrong. Because in order to focus on one of those elements, I would have to take my eye off another. That’s just how it is. No one can sustain all those things on the level they need to. So bringing in outside voices to the album created that foundation whereby I could focus on the songs and the arrangements, the key things that were motivating me, and trust that these other people would be able to bring those other elements. I still came with these vast arrangements. So it was about trusting those three guys with the ideas. If they chose to dismantle them, erase ideas, change things, then I had to believe in their vision as much as I believed in mine. Not an easy thing to do when you’ve spent so long in a room working by yourself. But we all built the work out of our friendships. Everyone was in this album for the right reasons. So there was always this sense that we were moving together towards the same goal.
Your cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ turned a lot of heads earlier this year when it featured on the Game for Thrones Series 6 trailer. What attracted you to cover the song in the first place?
It’s a great song, simple as that. I’ve always loved it. But then who doesn’t love that song? It’s pretty perfect, and Chris Isaac is a beautiful singer. I used to play it in my show but hadn’t done for a couple of years. I guess someone from Game Of Thrones heard a version I had recorded at a show in like, 2011 or something, and they felt it was right. Cool to be even tangentially involved in that show. I’m a big fan.
“I’m thinking a lot about strong and simple statements”
Three albums in and six years on from your breakthrough debut album ‘Early In The Morning’ – how do you feel you have progressed as an artist since then and what lessons have you learned?
I try and learn as many lessons as possible. I didn’t start releasing music until I was like 26. I suffered from a lot of confidence issues which kept me away from sharing songs with anyone. So I feel like I’m still really on the curve where I’m learning significant amounts about myself and about how to make music better. To make it closer and closer to the vision for it I have in my head. I mean the progression is there indelibly for people to see. Across three albums now I feel like you can see where it started and where it’s gone. I listen to the work and I can hear where I was trying to go on the first album. I can hear me pushing out and getting closer on each work since then.
Tell us about working with Kygo and Drake on their new albums. What were they like to work with, and how did those collaborations come about?
Well I mean it’s apples and oranges. With Kygo it was very much a back and forth and we’d been talking a long time about trying to make something together. Kyrre (Kygo) is a pleasure to be around generally and a really great musician. So it was very much a collaborative thing. The fact I’m on the Drake album is 100% down to Nineteen85 and nothing else. He mailed me one day to say he’d put some vocals of mine in a Drake record he was working on and that they were going to stay in. I didn’t hear the song until the rest of the world did. That’s how they roll. They’re very low key and keep to themselves, incredibly professional. So that really had nothing to do with me. I’m just a grateful passenger on their enormous ship!
You’re playing some of your biggest gigs in the UK to date this October. What can we expect from your upcoming live shows?
I try and really put everything I’ve got into the live show. Not just sonically, but visually. Anyone who came to the Post Tropical tour shows will be well aware of that. I think we created something really special on stage. I’d like to go even further with this album. Not even that I want it to get bigger and more elaborate, it might even get more minimalist. I’m thinking a lot about strong and simple statements rather than a lot of smaller nuanced sounds and visuals at the moment. But we’re playing bigger places and the scope should ultimately be bigger too. It’s important to present a show that fills every space available to it.
‘We Move’ sees you expand your sound with exciting and uncharted new horizons. What’s next for James Vincent McMorrow?
I haven’t thought about it. At this point in my life I’m always working on something new, but with no real intent at this moment. I always hear musicians say they’re working on three new albums and then none of it ever comes out. So I don’t want to be that guy. All I’d say is with ‘We Move’ I feel like I’ve created the best thing I’ve made up to this point. It’s the closest to how I’ve always wanted to be musically. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing I’m going to make. My intent is never to outdo the last thing, but it is to go beyond where I’ve gone before. So I’ll keep doing that.