James Vincent McMorrow: Exotic Ambition
Despite the success of his debut album, James Vincent McMorrow wanted to push himself further. The result is Post-Tropical, his new release. Eamon Sweeney reports
'There is always an element of trepidation when you're facing the world with something you've been working on for a year and a half," James Vincent McMorrow confesses over a strong coffee to fuel his conversation with Day & Night. "I'm a guy from Dublin who used to make records in my parents' front room. It still doesn't really feel any different."
In fairness to the chap, upping sticks to a pecan farm half a mile from the Mexican border in El Paso to follow up a number one selling debut album is a little bit different from banging out a couple demos in your folks' gaff.
"The instinct was to move myself out of my comfort zone," McMorrow reveals about his latest big adventure. "I put myself in a whole new world. I worked literally every day from five o'clock in the morning to 12 or one the next morning. I wanted to give it that vitality and energy that can only come with such an intense schedule."
McMorrow believes the unconventional backdrop of the farm, which also has hosted the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Beach House, provided a crucial catalyst for the creation of today's release of Post-Tropical.
"The working environment was both fascinating and inspiring," he says. "It was completely amazing. I didn't do any research into it. The only thing I did was to look up Google Maps to see where it was.
"There were no houses or anything nearby. I suppose anyone who has watched Breaking Bad would be familiar with the aesthetic of it. There's a photo of me taken standing next to a white sand dune. It looks like snow, but it's sand and it's freezing cold because it reflects the heat even more.
"My mind melted. I didn't know where I was standing around in this white desert. It's half a mile from the border and you hear all these stories. It was eye-opening to say the very least.
"The guy that ran the place even paid for me to come out there and check it out, such was his belief in his studio," McMorrow continues. "Tony is a funny guy. He's about six foot seven and has a massive shock of blonde hair. He looks like one of the bad guys from Die Hard.
"He didn't force an agenda and take loads of photographs and put them up on his website or on Facebook and Twitter accounts. To all intents and purposes, no one knew we were there. He was fascinated by the idea of someone coming all the way from Ireland to make a record."
McMorrow's star rose dramatically in the States and UK thanks to a cover of Higher Love by Steve Winwood, which ended up sound tracking the closing scenes of Gossip Girl. He also does a mean Wicked Game by Chris Isaak and showed himself to be a masterful interpreter of several classics to mark the tenth series of Other Voices.
"Covers are a really good tool when you start and you've only got one album and need to flesh out your set," he says. "I was doing a version of Like The River by Sun Kil Moon for a while, because no one was aware of Mark Kozelek. I want to share those songs with people. I don't see any reason to do a straight cover version. I want to have a different angle on a song.
"Higher Love by Steve Winwood is one of my favourite songs wrapped up in this massive Nile Rodgers production. The verses are heartbreaking. It sat for seven or eight months on a charity album. Then, when I was doing a tour in the US, someone at the label asked me for a song that wasn't on the record. He lost his mind as soon as he heard it. It ended up popping up in TV shows and big ad campaigns.
"The money went to the mental health charity, Headstrong, which was fantastic. It gave my record a whole other life, especially in the UK where it went to a whole new level. I would go and play shows and people would freak out over that song.
"It served an incredible purpose and it was pretty spontaneous. It wasn't like I thought, 'We've got a lag in our album sales. I need to do something catchy'. It felt like a lovely thing that people really responded to.
"In my experience in music, that's what the best things tend to be. If you plan something too much you plan to fail."
McMorrow is blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in modern pop, possessing a choir-boy croon he spent years grafting, despite being a relatively late bloomer in the vocal department.
"I started to sing around 18 or 19," he says. "We're Irish and we all sing at parties, but I started to sing properly around then. I couldn't sing. I could hold a tune, but my range was tiny. I used to just sit in the house and play piano all day long.
"I remember reading Quincy Jones' autobiography about bringing in vocal coaches to add range to the vocals on Michael Jackson's Thriller record. I thought if Michael Jackson has to add range to his voice, then it's possible that I could, so I'd do it every day without fail.
"I spent three or four years sitting in a room in the dark challenging myself to sing Stevie Wonder records and just die on my ass. I also did it with Higher Ground and would fail spectacularly. I'm drawn to people like Chris Cornell too. A singular voice has always resonated with me. I had the belief that I could get there."
McMorrow sees the remarkable progression on his expansive sounding new album, which seamlessly blends elements of soul, pop, R&B and electronica to be not just desirable, but essential. "I started off with such narrow parameters about what was possible," he states. "Then you realise that anything is possible. There is no reason why you can't do whatever you want."
"I learnt so much, touring," he adds. "It's about looking around you and not predicting what is going to happen. I wanted to look into my head and create everything. I could also use every piece of equipment that was available to me. I don't like the idea of limiting it. I didn't want to repeat myself.
"The first record was me just figuring shit out. Now I know how to work a studio and push myself. The responsibility is not to repeat myself, not just coast. You can coast and just pick up a guitar and sing a song, but it wouldn't be good enough."
McMorrow doesn't fear the big bad world of declining album sales and has witnessed his popularity spread like wildfire thanks to the internet. Spotify has come in for a kicking lately from several artists, with Moby quipping that Thom Yorke's reaction to the digital present is like "an old guy yelling at fast trains".
"It's the Wild West at the moment with music," McMorrow says. "No one knows what's going on. There are certain periods where you have to do anything and everything. I felt like I had a beautiful record with my first album, but I didn't have the infrastructure or people in place. You need to have those things at certain times. Anyone who ignores that is pretending that it's still 1972. I love the fact that it's not.
"I don't tend to talk about the commercial aspect of it. What bothers me about the likes of Thom Yorke having a go at Spotify is that it is not being talked about on a musical level. There is a reasonable argument to be made that if music is for free, then music gets worse.
"An artist can make a fortune because they can put a video up on YouTube and it gets ten million plays. They put a car ad at the start of it and they have a deal. People don't talk about those things. Music is designed to tick a box, and that is terrifying to me because I want it to be about records. People will still buy a well thought out pop record. That's the conversation that should be happening, rather than making music to hustle on YouTube and iTunes."
Whatever way the digital wind blows, which to be fair opens up new audiences to music that no old-fashioned marketing campaign ever could, McMorrow joins a burgeoning club of Irish musicians doing well for themselves and garnering recognition and high praise on the world stage.
"There is a really healthy group of musicians touring and travelling and doing it on their own terms," he maintains. "It's nice to travel the world and see that. I get a kick out of that and being in LA finishing a tour and being able to see Lisa Hannigan the next day.
"Ten years ago, a lot of bands tried to sound like any given band who were very successful at the time. Nowadays because of the nature of the industry, people wait until you've built something. I developed an infrastructure on the first record. Then various labels came in and augmented it, which was amazing. I've noticed that Lisa, Villagers and Glen Hansard do things on their own terms.
"It's extraordinary, people automatically give a shit about you because you're Irish. We punch way beyond our weight for the history of our artistic life. It blows my mind. We're a tiny nation and we do so much."
- Post-Tropical is out now. James Vincent McMorrow plays Seapoint, Galway on January 30; Cork Opera House on January 31; The Set Theatre, Kilkenny on February 1 and the National Concert Hall, Dublin on February 4, 5 and 6.