Singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow talks to Barry Egan about how he expects tears when he plays the first post-Covid live gig, his teenage eating disorder, his new album ‘Grapefruit Season’ - and trying to stay humble.
When he appears in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, James Vincent McMorrow is wearing a baseball cap, trainers, and a full beard, and arrives at the bench near the bandstand at the appointed time. (He texted precise directions.) But he doesn’t sit down. The bench is wet from the recent lashing rain so he suggests we look for somewhere dry to sit and talk.
He has a way with words. We walk through the soggy grass, and he talks just as you imagine he would from the songs that have graced TV series such as Grey’s Anatomy and Game of Thrones.
Intense. Yet strangely ethereal.
Still, peering in from the outside at the singer/songwriter probably pales in comparison to the view from within.
In an interview early in his career, he said his brain was equal parts optimism, paranoia, drive, confusion, fear, blind confidence.
How is his brain in 2021? “Basically, the same,” he says, “with maybe different percentages of each.”
His new album, Grapefruit Season – his fifth – is, in a general sense, about the idea of being OK with never being OK. “It was borne out of waiting for this chink of light to come from the sky and show me the path, the way,” he says, when we find a dry bench, “waiting for that moment where I feel like a grown-up.”
James is, of course, a grown-up of 39 years of age, with a wife and three-year-old daughter, two houses, a recording studio, a record company, a management company, with employees and a career that has him feted all around the world.
“Yes, I’m a grown-up, but when I was a kid, being grown-up wasn’t necessarily like a physical thing. It was like a mental thing. At some point, responsibility, I thought, would click into place. That’s never necessarily happened for me. I have always felt a great responsibility to others – often to my own great detriment, mentally and physically.
“While being quite analytical and quite thought-based in what I do, I have always, also, had a lack of regard for the future. I am not necessarily thinking about anything other than pursuing the thing that is in front of my face. That is quite positive, but it comes with an amount of mental anguish.”
How did fatherhood and those responsibilities change him?
“I have no clue to be honest,” he says. “I’m not the guy to sit here and be like, ‘it taught me empathy and understanding’. That feels like nonsense. When you’re in something, you don’t stop to apply perspective and meaning, you just try your best to be as good as you can be at it all. I guess if I was to think about it, it’s made me a little less self-conscious. Basically all I do every day is try and make my daughter laugh because she’s the funniest person on the planet as far as I’m concerned. And if doing that means I make an arse of myself in public, I’m pretty comfortable with that. That’s definitely new.”
The title of the new album came from a conversation James had with someone on tour about how eating grapefruit is something he does when he feels bad. He was using grapefruit as a form of emotional balance in his life, because his mum told him as a kid that it was really good for him.
“I liked the notion of that, of things that I had to add to my life to find the sense of peace that we are all striving for. And it has never landed for me.
“I feel happy. But happiness is not a complete state for me. It is a transient state, like it is for everybody; we are trying to find this permanence of happiness and it is exhausting. For a long time, I was seeking it out.
“Now I am more comfortable in just going, ‘F**k it.’ I am more comfortable now with the reality of never figuring it out than I have been before. I accept that I am never going to feel the way I want to feel about myself.”
Which is what?
He’ll never feel at peace?
“I wouldn’t imagine so. I think that would involve me removing myself from the great conflict of my life,” he says, meaning making music. “I have never been interested in doing anything other than pushing myself really f**king hard. It has always been my way.”
The idea of leaving and going to live on a beach somewhere appeals when he is stressed to the hilt and pushing himself in the studio. But the reality of escaping to solitude doesn’t.
“Peace is a very abstract concept. My brain is my brain. I can’t necessarily do a lot to keep it in check and keep it quiet and centred and in balance. My brain is wired slightly differently. When I was a kid, I had a really debilitating eating disorder that affected me from the ages of 14 to 17…”
Recently, James has become more vocal about his past. At the start of his career, he was closed off to letting people know about the reality of his teenage years, because he didn’t feel the two needed to overlap: he never wanted the talking point to be ‘mentally fragile musician makes mentally fragile music’. He wanted the music to stand on its own merits. It did.
“There weren’t a lot of people I knew when I was a kid that were checked into hospitals suffering from eating disorders – and especially not boys.”
He was 15 and in third year at school. He describes his condition as: “Anorexia that progressed into bulimia. The root of it is, ‘I can’t control the world but I can control this.’ There is something incredibly empowering and strong and really vitally scary in that.
“Growing up in Ireland in the late 1980s/early 1990s, people weren’t openly talking about their feelings. Even when I went back to school no one talked to me about it. I went to a school, Sutton Park, which was quite progressive. There wasn’t like an overtly masculine regressive energy, but still no one talked about it.
“But everyone knew. It was a small school. We didn’t talk about it. So I didn’t talk about it.”
Did anyone talk about it?
“I went to counsellors and stuff like that.”
Did his parents talk to him about it? “Not really. They did their best. Again, it was a hard thing for parents to be faced with a son who had an issue like that. It was quite an unknown territory. I know that they did their best. They found the hospital. It was a great hospital, it was in St Pat’s. It was a great programme. And it did its job in the sense that it got me physically better. But it didn’t necessarily address the mental symptoms. But then they did bring me to counsellors for a good two years. So they did a good job. I think they weren’t well built to talk about stuff... "
Nowadays, he believes he has channelled that need for control into his work. “When I make records, I think a lot about stuff in an analytical sense.”
Born on August 17, 1981, James grew up in Malahide with an older sister, Ciara, and a younger brother, Kevin. His father, Jim, was a successful entrepreneur who ran a meat company.
“He’s from Dundalk. He had to fend for himself at quite an early age. He was always a very good gambler. He owned a lot of race horses. My dad is an interesting human.”
His mother, Maeve, was an accountant, originally from Waterford. “She was the studious part of our family growing up. My dad was the fun side. He is very gung-ho and very positive – to a fault, I would suggest. He never really saw the negative in people and I think a lot of people took advantage of him because of that. My mum was a good balance for him. She came from a very analytical perspective. I think I have both things in equal measure.”
He also inherited, for a time, his mother’s belief in Christianity. That faith was explored on We Don’t Eat in 2010. “If this is redemption, why do I bother at all?” he sings.
“I will stand over it to my dying day as a song that I would be very proud of,” he says now.
“When I hit my early twenties, I delved quite deeply into religion and faith, Christian religion and Christian faith, as a means of solace. I was trying to find my way musically and felt a little bit lost. Religion gave me an amount of comfort. That was really helpful to me for a while.
“My mum went quite deep into Christianity in the middle of the 1990s and we spent a lot of time at Baptist-type churches. She took me to a Baptist church in Swords. It is a very American, charismatic type of preaching. So, it was like the Bible Belt, in the sense that a lot of Northern Irish Christians had that Bible Belt instinct in them.
“I guess you can extrapolate that down here. So, because my mum went to church, we went to church as kids. Then when I was in my early 20s, I kind of came back to it a little bit and found a friends’ group that were actually quite helpful to me musically.”
Is We Don’t Eat about a crisis of faith?
“I wouldn’t say crisis, more an understanding that this wasn’t an answer to a question I had been asking myself for a long time. For about three or four years, it was an answer and then I guess being exposed to the wider world... You know, when you are in a little bubble, everything becomes very insular. And for a long time my bubble was making music and going to church and being very quiet in myself.”
He stopped going to church in around 2005, when his life got busier. “I didn’t agree with these regressive opinions in the church. But to say it wasn’t for me is a bit glib.”
He has retained some of what he picked up in church: “The decent aspects of having a faith, being a good person and trying actively not to be an asshole. Actively trying not to be an asshole in the music business is probably a full-time profession. It is very easy to succumb to certain aspects of it and to be a bit of a dick, and I never really wanted to be that person and I think having this faith gave me enough humility in the music business to not fall into the trap of: ‘Holy shit, I’ve signed a publishing deal. I’m set, this is all going to work for me. Let’s go get f**ked up.’”
When he was 15, his parents bought him a drum kit. He would play it in the garden shed. “The neighbours were very accommodating.”
At school, he found a group of friends that he played music with in garages just for the sheer love of it. Then, for four or five years, day in, day out, he sat at home in the front room of his parents’ house, slowly piecing together music.
“I didn’t finish any songs, because I had this thing where I thought if I finish a song and play it for someone and they don’t like it, it will break my heart. I’m quite a fragile human from a psychological perspective.
“There is no exaggeration to say that I waited until my parents left for work and then I would sing for three or four hours non-stop. And then they would come back and I would stop. I never sung out loud. I was very anxious.”
He was supposed to be at DIT on Bolton Street studying sociology and marketing. “I didn’t really go and then they found out and kicked me out,” he says.
"The reason I speak about them is because I want anyone who is thinking about being a musician to know that you can find support in places you didn’t expect," he says.
"My folks both lived their lives their way, built it themselves, and yes we had issues because all parents and kids do, but when I said I want to be a musician, they surprised me by letting me pursue it. I obviously didn’t think too much on that at the time, but I realise the reason they let me pursue it was because they did do everything themselves, they didn’t know anything about music but they knew I was serious, so they took it serious. They literally let me make music in their house for years, play drums, make noise."
"I didn’t share any music with anyone for years because of my anxiety, that’s true, no music, never sang. And yet they still just let me keep going. When I did finally make my first album and I couldn’t afford to finish it, my mum gave me money to have it mixed, at a time when they probably needed that money for themselves."
"The day I sent her the first album I didn’t hear from her for two weeks, and I assumed that meant she didn’t like it. When she called me she was crying and she said she didn’t want to call me too soon because the work deserved that time and respect. I wouldn’t be here doing this without their help."
He played his first show, he says, in 2005 or 2006, near Connolly Station in Dublin. In early 2009, he started writing his first album.
“The trajectory of making it and the demos was a few years of a lot of raised hopes and dashed hopes.”
In 2010, he released his debut album Early in the Morning. “No one gave a shit. I was playing to about 20 people and a cat, and then a year later, we were playing to like 3,000 or 4,000 people a night in Ireland, in the UK, in Europe and in America, Australia. Pretty much everywhere around the world.”
Part of the buzz was created by his ghostly cover in 2010 of Steve Winwood’s track ‘Higher Love’. More than 14 million people watched the video on YouTube. A year later he was on BBC Two’s Later... with Jools Holland. His second album, Post Tropical in 2014, recorded in El Paso in Texas, was nothing like the first one.
“Post Tropical was obscure. I saw the reality of repeating the process as being a finite resource. You can try to push the walls a bit wider and if that means you lose a little bit of your fanbase for the possibility of gaining a little bit more down the track, that felt compelling to me. It did work. It was what needed to happen.”
His next album We Move came in 2016, and was an even bigger progression for the man once hailed as the nu-folk messiah from Malahide, as was True Care in 2017. Of the latter, he says: “It was more utopian than dystopian because it was made in a bedroom in my house on a laptop over a three-week period. It was the most fun I’ve ever had making music because there was no agenda to it, no commercial expectation, just weird beautiful sounds and whatever came into my head.”
He married artist and photographer Emma Doyle in 2016. “We’ve been together since I was 26. We broke up for a little minute at one point. I was exhausted coming off the back of the first album and I think I had a bit of a mental … I wouldn’t be as dramatic as to say ‘a mental breakdown’, but I certainly had a pause in my work. That would have been 2012. I think it all just overwhelmed me. I’m not best suited to this life. It is one of the many ironies of being this person.”
In an interview in 2014, James recalled how his relationship with Emma almost came to an end when he overreacted to an accident in Dublin involving an instrument.
“I have a beautiful old guitar and Emma dropped it,” he said at the time. “I thought, ‘God damn!’ I was so mad. I grabbed it, threw everyone out, went to sleep. And I didn’t see her again for months.
“That quote makes it seem like I literally lost my shit and kicked everyone out,” he says now. “I’m not that bad. We were pissed on the balcony of the apartment the Róisín Dubh in Galway give you when you play the venue. I was definitely annoyed, but also mainly drunk, so it was more a case of ‘OK, I need to go pass out!’ than ‘everyone out!’” he laughs.
“We didn’t see each other after that because she was in college in Galway and I was a poor musician living in my parents’ house in Malahide. Once the summer came, we saw each other again and it all obviously worked out. God, that quote makes me seem like such a tyrant!”
On Thursday, at the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin, he will play the first concert in Ireland with a live audience since the beginning of the pandemic. Tickets for the pilot gig sold out in just 30 seconds.
How does he feel about performing again?
“If I don’t cry, I’d be wildly f**king surprised. My guess is tears will be the dominant reaction.”
He is grateful to everyone involved for getting it across the line. Logistically, he says, it’s been one of the more complicated things to put together.
“It feels like an amount of pressure on me and the band to deliver, but honestly we’re f**king ready to do something special and I definitely appreciate the gravity and expectation around it all.
“I just want to ensure that this isn’t a one-off performative act, that this is part of a wider conversation that fully supports just how vital and important the arts are to the landscape here, both financially and culturally.”
And the show?
“It’s going to be strange,” he admits. “Usually a performance is heavily one-sided. In this instance, I feel that ratio goes out the window. We’ll all be in it together: everyone on stage and everyone in the crowd.”
New album ‘Grapefruit Season’ will be released on July 16 and is available for pre-order now. James Vincent McMorrow will play the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, Thursday, June 10, with more live dates at ticketmaster.ie
This article was updated on June 6, 2021.