James Vincent McMorrow Gets Up Early in the Morning: An Interview
Once upon a time, a talented singer-songwriter named James VIncent McMorrow decided to make a record, and in order to make that record, he decided to work in isolation in a little house on the Irish coast. The result of that process is the dazzling and moving Early In The Morning, which finds McMorrow delving into vivid images, all delivered in his voice with an impeccable range that goes up to a sweet falsetto.
ELM: Were any of the songs written prior to your time off the cost in Ireland?
JVM: There were a few, with ‘down the burning ropes’ and ‘we don’t eat’ the melody and structure were pretty much there going in, but the arrangements changed a lot once I started playing and recording them alongside the other songs that ended up on the record.
ELM: What kind of vocal training have you had?
JVM: None at all really, I did some singing with a friend of mine who studied opera just after I left school, but it was really just hanging out in his front room singing arias badly and listening to Elvis! I really learned to sing by sitting in front of a piano for hours on end, hitting keys and trying to hold notes. It was trial and error stuff; if I couldn’t hit a note one day I’d try it again and again until I could. In the last year and a half my voice has really changed a lot again, I have an understanding of it that I never had before, it comes from playing night after night.
ELM: Do you think you’ll stick to the purely DIY model for your next record?
JVM: There were so many ideas I had for the first record that I couldn’t make happen, recording with one microphone and by myself was really limiting, and while those limitations brought out a lot of other great things, for this next record I’d like to be able to articulate everything that comes into my head, whether it works out or not. I’ll do a lot of the early work with just myself and an engineer, I’ll play all of the same instruments as before, but at some point I’ll bring in some other people to help me, some incredible players and arrangers, I really want it to be more of a collaborative effort.
ELM: You said in a MySpace blog that this record was very intimately about you. Do you think, as time goes on, you’ll experiment more with writing about characters and situations that don’t involve yourself as much?
JVM: Lyric writing is such a vague thing; I have no clue where it’s going to go next, it really could lead anywhere. Writing about situations and characters that are removed from my own life could happen, although I can’t see myself ever seeing a story in a newspaper and wanting to set it to song, I’m not a very literal songwriter, I wouldn’t see a tree and sing about that tree, if that makes any sense at all!
ELM: What are some of your favorite love songs?
JVM: “I love you more Than You Will Ever Know” by Donny Hathaway, “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Hope There’s Someone” by Antony and the Johnsons, the list goes on and on.
ELM: Have you noticed a difference in how US audiences receive you than Irish ones?
JVM: There are differences between audiences in every country I’ve been in this year, some are really quiet, barely even making a sound between songs, and some are louder and more vocal. Both are different, both are great. There are similarities between Irish And US audiences; they’d fall into the more vocal category I guess. The last tour I was on with the Civil Wars in America was fantastic, the crowds were so quiet while I was playing, then between songs they’d get louder, then I’d sing and they’d be silent again, it’s a lot like that back home.
ELM: Is there one song on the record that’s closer to you than the others? If so, why?
JVM: I think the first song on the album, If I had a boat, is the one that probably means the most to me. I am proud of every song on the album, they’re like my children, so it feels a bit wrong singling out one for special praise, but when I came up with the initial melody and idea for If I had a boat, I could hear it opening the album, and I knew it was something I could build another 10 songs on top of.
ELM: Do you think you’ll write and/or record your next record in the same house?
JVM: I definitely won’t, making the first record there was an incredible experience but I would never do it again, it had its moment, to work there again would feel contrived. The next record I’ll make somewhere different, I’m not sure exactly where yet, but the initial demos of the record feel quite warm, so I want to make it somewhere warm. It could be a studio, or it could just be another house where I can set up a studio in the living room and open the windows. I’ll know it when I see it.
ELM: You like to do cover songs when you play live. Do you think you will ever make a covers album?
JVM: I’d never say never, but right now it’s not something I see myself doing. I sing covers when I play live because I love the songs, and because I think it can give an audience a better sense of where I’m coming from musically beyond my own music. But in terms of recording those songs it’s not on my to do list, I’m more interested in writing new and better songs myself at this moment in time.
ELM: Is there anyone with whom you’d like to collaborate?
JVM: Maybe the Neptunes? I was obsessed with them when I was starting to make and record music, I’d never heard anything like them before, I sort of imagine it was like when people heard Prince for the first time, you just knew it was something totally new and totally special. And if we’re drawing up some sort of hypothetical wish list then Sufjan Stevens would have to go on there as well, it was his music and the way he recorded it that made me believe I could make a record by myself, the man is just pure genius.
ELM: Do you feel comfortable sharing more about the red oak tree you sing about in “Follow You Down to the Red Oak Tree?” Where is the tree?
JVM: There isn’t really that much to share, there wasn’t a specific tree I saw where I thought ‘I have to document that’. It’s a metaphor, for what I couldn’t tell you, the image popped into my head one day and I built the song around it. As a general rule I tend to steer away from analyzing lyrics too heavily, when I sing them I know what they mean to me, but I think musicians should keep the intent and meaning of songs to themselves, it’s far more interesting for people to hear a song and speculate on it rather than being told specifically what it’s about.
ELM: Your lyrics are very visual, and I’ve read that you do some visual art as well. Do you ever sketch out songs visually while you’re working on them?
JVM: I’ve done a couple of simple drawings before that have sparked a lyric or an idea, but I wouldn’t put down a guitar and pick up a paint brush while I was working on a song or anything like that. It’s not really my world, music is my love.
ELM: What surprised you about working so long in isolation? What did you learn from it?
JVM: I’d never undertaken even remotely close to this before, so I guess a huge part of me was surprised and excited to get from start to finish. On a technical level I learned how to record and engineer an entire album by myself. Going into it I wasn’t sure if it was possible to make an album like that, the push in the music business is towards studios and producers, even once it was finished I was half expecting people to say it would need to be re recorded with proper equipment. It was reassuring when none of those conversations took place, music is about heart and honesty, and if they’re in it then any sonic flaws don’t really matter.
ELM: How many instruments do you play?
JVM: Perhaps 8 or 9, but with a lot of those my understanding is pretty simple, I know how to make them work for my songs, but I couldn’t sit down with the accordion for instance and start playing extended prog jams, as much as I’d love to. Maybe one day.
ELM: I saw that you read The Grapes of Wrath while making the record. How did that affect your songwriting?
JVM: I read a lot of Steinbeck when I was making the album, a friend of mine gave me his complete works. I think Grapes of Wrath is a book that resonates with anyone who reads it, the writing paints such vivid pictures, and the story line is so strong and consistently relevant. I’m a fan of how Steinbeck describes nature; you can read the words, close your eyes and picture every little detail. That’s something I strive for in my own writing, painting vivid pictures that are evocative and that people can dig their teeth into.
ELM: Who are your favorite writers?
JVM: Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, and of course Steinbeck is a hero, the book I’ve read the most is probably 100 years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it’s magical. Right now I’m reading comedy a little more, I just finished Submarine by a new author call Joe Dunthorne, I thought it was fantastic, and I’m about to start Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.
ELM: If you could raise awareness of any social cause, what would it be?
JVM: I’ve done some work this year for Amnesty International and delved into what they do quite a lot, I think the right to free speech and human rights are incredibly important causes, especially with all the events unfolding in the world right now. But there are so many worthy causes, they are all deserving of our time and energy.