“I couldn’t tell you what music Arcade Fire make, you know? I love that. Something’s either good or bad and if it’s good, job done.”
Shelley Marsden talks to James Vincent McMorrow about why he actually enjoys touring – and making music without ‘genres’
WITH CDs almost a thing of the past and digital downloads making nobody a fortune, every modern artist knows he or she has to hit the road to make a serious dollar.
Dubliner James Vincent McMorrow, fresh from playing Latitude Festival in England, its Irish counterpart Longtitude last month and dates with Massive Attack and The National, knows it more than most. Since his second album Post Tropical came out in January, he’s had four weeks off.
He seems cheerful about the miles he stacks up in the name of making a living. “I think Enya’s the only person I know that can get away with not touring and still live in the castle…” he muses. “You realise really early on in your career whether you’re someone that likes touring or not. If you don’t, then it would be difficult to be a modern musician.”
Built for touring
The eloquent singer-songwriter tells me he’s ‘well built for touring’, that he has always found it a compelling experience. This matches my perception of James Vincent McMorrow, as a slightly tortured artist, or at the least a hopeless romantic, an image perpetuated by his name, the beard, the whimsical nature of his debut album.
He claims he can ‘physically’ remember the feeling of the first UK tour he ever did, which involved driving himself and his engineer to his own gigs. The first was at The Castle, a Manchester pub and he recalls how chuffed he was to think they’d sold out the 60-capacity venue.
But he’s quick to add that, though he’s been back there and played to 1, 500 people, the feeling’s the same: “And things are going well for me, which gives me what I need to get back on that bus, and go back on that plane.”
The motivation for seeking out new experiences on tour comes and goes, he says. Sometimes you want to do things, other times you don’t want to get off the bus until it’s time to play a show, then all you want is to get back on the bus and head to the next town.
He says: “It depends on the country. Sometimes, it’s not physically possible. In America, for instance, you could have nine, ten hour drives between places so you literally play show, get on bus, drive through the night, get up in the morning, have breakfast and you’re in the next venue by noon. That’s the life.
“If you have a couple of days off, you do stuff and we try and do things. I have a good bunch of 10, 12 people with me on the road at any one time. There are some of them who really make an effort and love the touring thing, want to go see stuff. That really helps me to switch off, because at the moment I just want to sit on my arse, fiddle about and tentatively make music on my computer.”
Inspiration Down Under
Inspiration is often found on tour. There have been raves about James’ new video for Gold (his life-affirming cover of Lana Del Rey’s West Coast), a hauntingly graceful piece of work that was shot at sunrise in San Francisco and stars a professional roller-skate, ‘David’. It was inspired by a guy the singer saw while he was out for a run and running past Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art.
“There was this old guy amongst all these skateboarders, just roller-skating. I thought it was really beautiful. This classy, elegant gentleman was skating like a ballet-dancer or something. I remember thinking it would be lovely to capture that and apply it to a song. We’d been talking about a video to Gold, and had a window of a couple of days in the States to do it.
“It was very well thought-out in the end, but initially the idea was simple – let’s see if we can find a guy that can roller-skate, looks really compelling and is an interesting human-being. I didn’t want to put anyone on camera; it had to be someone I was inspired by.
David is, in James’ words, an amazing man who has dedicated his life to skating and owns his own rink: “It’s the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up in the morning. We gave him the song, and we shot it in San Francisco on a bank holiday which was so lucky – we essentially got the city to ourselves until 9, 10am. Everything just worked, it was incredibly serendipitous.”
The second album
Gold features in the critically acclaimed second album Post Tropical; soulful, sonically audacious and full of dusky vignettes, almost otherworldy, it’s a different beast to the largely acoustic Early in the Morning which went platinum, reached number 1 in Ireland and picked up a Choice Music Prize nomination upon its release in 2010.He’s talked about both being inspired by the R&B and hip-hop he grew up with in Ireland, but to hear them it’s not an obvious inspiration.
The paradoxical, ‘wish-you-were-here postcard’ artwork of the album cover (a polar bear together with a palm tree) reveals something of its creators own lack of traction with styles and fads, however. “Whatever people label me doesn’t give me much pause; those labels are never anything I necessarily saw in myself. I played guitar on my own at the start because I couldn’t afford to bring a band on tour.
“The nature of my voice and the fact that I had a beard maybe had an influence. I never got bothered when people called me the ‘sensitive Irish folkie’; you have to understand the climate. I came out at a time when people were making these gigantic folky records. We live in that kind of world these days; there a million tags on every website to link things to other things.”
He’s happy, though, that people are talking about the right things with his second album, seeing beyond the image and realising it’s not really about ‘folk’. He is a self-professed R&B singer, he says. “That’s where my instinct is and where I live and die. Everything else is whatever I hear in my head. There are so many bands now that are hard to define – I couldn’t tell you what music Arcade Fire make, you know? I love that. Something’s either good or bad and if it’s good, job done.”
Unboxing his sound
When he did press for his first album, he tells me, people would often ask what he listened to and they’d say well, I don’t hear that in the album.
“I hear it in the first record, but because of the instruments I was using and had to hand, it wasn’t in –your-face”, he explains. “Look at the song We Don’t Eat, the repetitious nature of it and the kick-drum, that to me is the sound of hip-hop and the music I grew up listening to. But due to how it’s wrapped up, it’s not that obvious. But I hear it, in If I Had A Boat, too.
In the second record, he says, everything changed. “The first album was me trying to will something into existence. I had no money, and you do the best you can with what you have. With the second it was the same principle, but what I had to hand was success – the knowledge that I can make things that resonate with people.
“That confidence breeds other things, and you push out of it more. I wanted to make a record that was reflective of where I was, aesthetically and musically. It’s as close as what was in my head as you could conceivably get.”
Speaking of money, the first album was done on a shoestring in a drizzly Drogheda – the follow-up was done at ??? in a scorching Texas, right on the border with Mexico. It was, he tells me, a ridiculously surreal place to wake up in every morning. For someone used to a rainy, green Ireland, was tantamount to being on the surface of the moon.
“It was the essence of ‘desert’. There’s also a huge pecan farm where the studio was, essentially a giant orchard, which sits in sunken baths of water, so can you imagine… That’s a bizarre thing to look out on every day! But it was an incredible experience.”
The melancholy Irish
There is, I suggest, a melancholic element to James’ sound; his evocative, falsetto voice is a big part of that. Has it anything to do with being Irish? This gets a big laugh, one of the first from a guy who clearly favours intense over frivolous.
“I’m not conscious of it, but there’s merit to what you’re saying! There is a melancholic nature to us Irish that is prevalent in a lot of the art and culture we create. You grow up and you’re in school reading Seamus Heaney poems and listening to Irish music and it has an effect, for sure. It’s not The Beach Boys. But look, if you grew up in America you’d be reading Walt Whitman which is no more cheery than Heaney.
“I guess there’s a melodic lilt to what us Irish do though, which resonates with me. The main thing for me in terms of that type of emotional evoking is that I’m a singer. Rhythm and blues has been based on blues, it’s in the name – minor chords, drawn-out melodies, lyrically it deals with consistent themes of love and loss. That’s what I grew up listening and loving.”
But he’s not a sad guy, is he? Like the beard thing, people do make assumptions. “I have my moments like everybody”, says James, “but I love my life. I like singing the way I sing because it makes me feel happy, it’s not to dwell or revel in sadness, I’m singing to expunge it I guess, to make myself feel better.”
Known for performing with a touch of the shakes on stage that could be a throw-back to those heavy-drinking days, he decided to give up the booze two years ago, part of a realisation that he was taking his success and the rest for granted.
“Music can become a party quite quickly”, he explains. “That can have a knock-on effect; it makes you feel like you’re going through the motions. I didn’t want my last memory to be something I half-remembered, I wanted to experience everything with the fullest clarity. So I quit drinking, and it made everything more vibrant, buzzier. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but I love how I feel and I don’t want to change it.”
It’s about the journey
Again, it’s in terms of geography that James maps his success. When he started out, it was playing in front of twenty people at Whelan’s in Dublin. This year, he found himself playing two nights at a packed out Sydney Opera House, and doing a six-week tour of America. At this stage, there aren’t many corners of the world music hasn’t taken him to.
He says: “Being on the road in the States is… it’s the romantic notion I’ve dreamed of as a kid since I read all the clichéd books like Jack Kerouac’s. But the reality never fails to deliver. I don’t think I’d ever tire of looking out of my tour van and seeing the Rocky Mountains loom in front of me. These are experiences you get to keep forever.
Visit http://jamesvmcmorrow.com for more.