Ahead of the release of his new album 'Early In The Morning', singer and songwriter James Vincent McMorrow chats to Linda McGee about growing up, the song-writing process and being his own worst critic.
Linda McGee: Growing up, what were your musical influences? Did you grow up in a musical household or was this a passion that you sought out yourself?
James Vincent McMorrow: No, there was always music. No-one really played but we listened to a lot of good music, I would consider. My mum was a big fan of ELO and Elvis Costello. She used to play that, consistently, all the time when we were kids. And my dad, he would claim to be a singer... you know, he loves singing and he used to sing a lot when he was a kid and at parties and stuff like that. So I come from a very party-musical family. Everybody, as soon as they have two drinks into them, everybody sings, on both sides. My dad would always be a big entertainer on that front and then my mum, as well, would always sing 'The Streets of London', so that's sort of where I started listening to music.
LM: And did your parents encourage you to pursue this career path when you were younger?
JVM: They would have, had I chosen to. I didn't really. I didn't start playing music really until I was 18/19, so it was a relatively new thing. I didn't play much music in school. I took up the drums when I was 17 because some friends of mine were in a band and I wanted to be in a band. I wanted to be in their band. So I took up the drums. But I was listening to pretty heavy stuff at that time, like a lot of heavy metal.
LM: So, at what point did you start thinking 'I could make a career out of this' or did you ever consciously think about it like that?
JVM: I always had this very simplistic notion of it – if you were good that you would do OK. I just essentially stayed at home for three years and just learned to play as many instruments as I could and listened to as many singers as I could. Like when I got to about 19/20 I started listening to singers. I normally just listened to bands. Now I listen to a lot of old singers, not a lot of new stuff. And then I discovered newer things along the track, like Sufjan Stevens and bands like Band of Horses, who I'm a massive fan of, and they started making me pick up more instruments and adding to it, because I never saw myself as just a guy with a guitar so I was always learning and trying to pick up as many things as I could.
LM: And did you find that the fun of it came from that experimentation, of trying out new sounds?
JVM: Aw absolutely, yeah, still is. The things that I come up with all come from that. The record took six months to make and every day it was literally trying as many different things as I could to and see what would work.
LM: So did you lock yourself away and set deadlines for yourself or just spend weeks trying new things? How did you approach the album?
JVM: That was how I approached it. I think it worked because I didn't approach it with the notion of making a record. I started a record in the UK last year and it wasn't quite clicking because I'm just not a good studio musician, because of the way I learned to play music. I need to be in a room, just full of c**p! There was a clock ticking in the corner and it didn't really work so I came back here and just thought about it. And I moved into a house outside of Dublin and just brought everything I owned.
LM: Did you feel that you needed to shut yourself off from all of the outside influences in the world in order to be able to concentrate on your songwriting?
JVM: Yeah, I'm quite easily distracted. I don't know if I'm attention deficit but I certainly am easily distracted by other things. So you've got no other option but to work. In saying that, I was there 24 hours of day for the guts of six months and for a lot of that I would find things to do, to not have to work. I was on a beach so I ran a lot and I read a lot of books and stuff like that. But there wasn't much else to do. There was no Internet so I just didn't have any options... Definitely no Internet.
LM: Did all of that time go smoothly or were you tempted to run away from it all and abandon the idea at any stage?
JVM: All the time I chipped away at it and, in the initial stages, it was a little bit torturous. I wasn't sure what I was doing. Like say, I went off with the idea of just trying to figure out what I actually wanted to make, with the notion of going back into a studio later down the track and making this record properly in the way that you're told it should be made. And then as the months went along I was sort of writing new stuff and scrapping old things and rewriting... And then half-way through the process I took maybe two or three songs that I'd finished and gave them to Ken (manager) and to my publisher and they loved it... But you're never sure because everything sounds so big and, even with the type of music that I make, it could be a little bit on the sketchy side, sonically. But they freaked out about it, they loved it and that was it.
LM: Was there a sense of relief then, having someone else listen to the songs and approve of them? When you're working on your own I imagine it must be difficult to get strike a balance between what you love doing and what you think is going to sell or get airplay or even just please the fans...
JVM: Well I think that when you add all these different people to your life it's sort of their job to try and sell things and it's my job to do it. In saying that, it's not in the back of my mind when I'm writing it but I like certain things in music. I like big choruses but I also play folk music so I sort of put those two together and then added as many things from the stuff that I love and tried to put it all together, in the hopes that it would be something that people would respond to. You never can tell but as I was working on it because I've been doing this a couple of years – I've been writing songs for maybe three years now – and over those years you sort of get a good sense of what works and what doesn't. And I'm my own worst critic, which was really beneficial. Had I been one of those people who thinks everything I do is the greatest thing in the world it probably would have been really different.
LM: So now are you just itching to get up on stage and present these songs to an audience and get that instant feedback?
JVM: Aw absolutely. Well this is the first time that I've gone out and played live with a bunch of songs that I actually like, hand on heart. Everything that I wrote up to making this record were just different ideas and half-finished things and things that I quite liked, but that never really was a fully-articulated thought. This record, from start-to-finish, is genuinely what I always wanted to make and so going out and playing live is easy for me now. Whereas, I used to suffer from serious anxiety because you're going out and thinking 'I don't really like this song...' And, like I say, I like the songs now so the nerves aren't there like they used to be, but I still am... slightly terrified!
LM: Is there a certain comfort in having your band behind you on stage so?
JVM: Aw absolutely. I've been doing a couple of solo shows but I didn't really intend the record to be a solo record... Now when I listen to it I'm like 'This is how it's supposed to sound'. It's not supposed to be just me on my own. It can work but it's not how I hear it in my head. It's nice to have band members... as many people as possible. I mean the record has a lot on it, everything that I could play and even things that I couldn't play. So it's a big sound and it takes quite a lot of people to articulate it.
LM: One of your songs, 'Follow You Down To The Red Oak Tree', was recently used on a Barnados television ad. Have you been getting a lot of reaction to that song or perhaps new fans exploring the rest of your music on the back of it?
JVM: Aw it was great, yeah. I'm completely on board with the notion of putting music in TV and ads because it's what you have to do these days. And as long as you don't make the music with the intention of trying to selling it for that stuff... I finished the record and then people approached me at that stage. Obviously if it's for something ridiculous I would say no but it was a beautiful ad. As soon as they played it for me I was like 'yeah, absolutely'.
LM: In terms of collaborations with other artists, are there a few names on a wishlist somewhere or does that interest you at all?
JVM: Well... based purely on who I think are the greatest people in the world, then obviously someone like Sufjan Stevens, who, to me, is the finest songwriter in the world. He genuinely is an absolutely incredible musician and personality, everything about him is amazing. So, in that world, yeah absolutely, I'd love to be in a studio and just watch him work. The notion of collaborations and stuff I've never thought about before. I love Joanna Newsom as well. I love people that are interesting but also very, very melodic. They're hyper-melodic musicians, as in everything is catchy but everything is also... not serious, because I don't want to make it sound pretentious, but it's proper music, but also it's very accessible. And I think that's the thing about all the bands that I love in modern music. I don't listen to a lot of singer/songwriter guys with guitars that much, although I do quite like a lot of them... People like that, who see it as much more than them on their own. I love that. I think that's amazing.
LM: How do you view the music industry? Do you think it's unfair or frustrating that the products of the latest reality TV show gain instant fame, and often record deals, while lots of singer/songwriters graft for years without any recognition?
JVM: It depends. If you look at TV shows as just being entertainment then they're hilarious and it's a different world and, I mean, it's not my world. To be honest, it's not anybody's world. Those sorts of TV shows, like 'The X Factor', exist in this world, where it's an entertainment thing. The music comes out and if you're lucky you get one or two records and that's totally fine, and the people that are in it, the argument would be, that if you're good enough you don't really need to be in a reality show anyway. I mean, with me, my break into the music industry was quite easy, to be honest. But then the years that came after it were the hard ones. It was probably a bad way it happened. I met a lot of people quite quickly and I made a demo about two-and-half/three years ago almost, and it was the first bunch of songs I'd ever written and it got a really strong response. A lot of people flew over for my first gig, then I met my publisher and I signed with them quite quickly. Then the next year-and-a-half was quite arduous because they were trying to do something with me that I didn't want to do, just go to a major label and do that kind of thing. I wasn't so sure of what I wanted to do or sound like that it got a bit mad so it wasn't until the end of last year that I pulled back from that and then it all sort of made sense I guess.
LM: Was your worry that you wouldn't still have control over your own music, especially when bigger labels are mentioned?
JVM: Well, that's the problem right there. It's that nobody gets a chance any more at major labels, especially not people like me. You do get a chance but it's like you get a window. I'm signed to a UK publisher and they want you to go with the UK label and when you go with a UK label the goal is to get at Radio 1. If you don't to Radio 1, you're done, and I think that's really sad, because Bruce Springsteen made a bunch of records before he made any money and Tom Waits made crazy records... It just doesn't work like that any more... But labels have to adapt and change and stuff and that's totally fine. It's just not a place for people like me, who want to make records, and if you have a song on it that gets to Radio 1 that's wicked but if it doesn't it should sell as a record. That's what I've made. I didn't make a bunch of singles and a bunch of fillers. I made a record that I really, really like and if it works, it works.
James Vincent McMorrow's album 'Early In The Morning' is released on 26 February. He is also about to embark on a nationwide tour - for dates click here.