A chat with Irish soul singer James Vincent McMorrow
Several years back, I remember being invited on a whim to a small afternoon 88.9 Radio Milwaukee set at The Pabst Pub from an Irish singer-songwriter named James Vincent McMorrow. I hadn't heard of him before, but after he finished his mesmerizing three- or four-song set, I knew he was someone to keep my eye on.
Lo and behold, in the short time since that first Milwaukee performance, the singer's debut album, "Early In the Morning," became a modest hit, fueled by the singer's beautiful lyrics and stirring falsetto. He just released his second album, "Post Tropical," back in January. It's a significantly different sound, a move away from the more sparse, almost folky acoustic emphasis into a fuller sound with hints of R&B, soul and electronic. The singer's lyrics and delicate Bon Iver-esque falsetto, however, still soars and haunts.
McMorrow is back in town for a show tonight at Turner Hall Ballroom. Before he hits the stage, however, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with the Irish singer about his new album, his inspirations, his love of N.E.R.D. and soul and why Milwaukee is a special stop for him.
OnMilwaukee.com: What were your inspirations for your recent second album, "Post Tropical"?
James Vincent McMorrow: Inspiration is a funny thing. I was thinking about what it means to make a record more than anything. I was thinking about the idea of making records and this sort of notion I've had recently of what it takes to make a record. You have to kind of look back at the records you love.
So if I happened to have a particular love for a Donny Hathaway record or a D'Angelo record, I would listen to those and, rather than what the sounds were, I'd think about what they were thinking about when they made those records, the fact that they were making something cutting edge out of what was possible. I kind of wanted to try to make something similar, or at least something that kind of appreciated the fact that it was 2014 (or 2013 when I was making the record).
OMC: What do you think it meant, for you, to be making music in 2013?
JVM: For me, I wouldn't be able to make music if it was any other time period. I know that for a fact. When I started making music, it was with a little 8-track in production, and those things have always been inherently linked for me. I can't separate the ideas of songwriting and production.
I have a studio now in Ireland, and I can sit there and create these huge ideas and whatever I want really with everything at my fingertips. It's incredible to me, and it amazes me sometimes when people want to recreate the sounds and the ideas from 40 or 50 years ago. I love analog tape and I love old records, but I don't necessarily want to make those records. I want to make things that are very much reflective of where everything is musically now.
And where it is now, with technology, you can keep these ideas with just one pair of hands. I'm grateful for the fact that it's 2013 and 2014, and I'm making music because it means that I can keep taking these strange sounds that I hear in my head, I can chase them down, pull instruments from all over the place and keep going and going until I finally hear the sound I hear in my head. I think that's what it kind of means to be here: the ability to make anything that I hear in my head real.
OMC: There's a distinct difference between your first and second album. You can tell that you wanted to bring more technology into it and those new sounds. For instance, you revisited "Red Dust," which was a bonus track on your first album, and filled it in. Was that a song you really wanted to come back to and add more to?
JVM: It was always my intention to put it on the second record. That song was a catalyst for the second record to a certain extent because I wrote it after the first album, in the middle of the album cycle. Sonically, it was a shift in a direction I wanted to go: It was atmosphere, and it was something that felt strong to me in the soundscape, but it was very much the original core idea. I never expanded upon it. I never sat down and really kind of dug into it until it came time to make this record. At that point, all those little ideas you hear in that original version were kind of whittled away or added to.
There are pieces in the original demo that I love, but there are some that I didn't in hindsight, and I wanted to just give it something. That's the thing: It's the same song. It's the same flow and movement as that original demo, but I just adorned it with things because that's sonically where it felt right. When we play it every night now, it feels finished for the first time, whereas when I recorded it the first time, it didn't feel finished. It just felt fun to play because it was a beautiful song to sing.
OMC: Now, if I read correctly, a part of this new focus was finding some old N.E.R.D. covers of yours?
JVM: It is, yeah. I went back and found a bunch of old recording equipment that I started out with, and amongst them were all these old zipdiscs. I used to make all these demos on this little 8-track, and I would just devour records. If I heard something that I wanted to find out why it sounded the way it sounded, I would just record it myself.
I happened to love "In Search Of ... ," the first N.E.R.D. record, so I have a lot of really terrible versions of me trying to break down the parts. I actually saved up and bought the keyboard that was used on almost everything in that period, from like 1998 until 2003 when they and The Neptunes and Timbaland were running the world. I used it on the new record, which was great because that was one of the things I wanted.
It was about kind of, well, not getting back to basics because this album is much more complex than the first record, but getting back to that sense of excitement in breaking down albums and realizing that you could create those things if you could understand them and making music for the love of making music and nothing else.
OMC: Your first album was very acoustic, and talking to you now, it's a lot of talk about the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. and D'Angelo. When did you get into R&B and soul-based groups?
JVM: It's always been my world. It's funny because, with the first record, I was always talking about those things but people were like, "Really, you listen to that stuff?" because obviously I have an acoustic guitar. I don't think many people latched onto it that much because people tended to latch onto the more overt aspects of the first album.
It's been my world since I was 16 or 17. I've never not considered myself a soul singer. I had a guitar and no money, so I made a record and put it out. My world has always been hip-hop and R&B; it never changes. It's just on this record, I'm digging into it more, and I can. That's a big thing. Making a record like that on a sonic level requires a certain amount of time, money and patience. I knew I had the patience before, but I don't think I had the time and money.
OMC: You've been to Milwaukee several times now, for a couple of shows big and small correct?
JVM: It's really strange. It was one of the first places and radio stations to ever play my first record, and it always meant something to me. People would tell me, "Oh, they're playing your record," on this radio station in a city you've never been that's so far away from your home. It kind of mattered to me in a way that, not that everything else doesn't matter, but it was something always special. I've always been very grateful for it, and I've always been very happy to be there.
It's such a surreal thing that some radio station in Milwaukee heard my first record and just started playing it independently and on their own free will. I always thought that was amazing. I didn't have like a radio plug or people telling you have to play this; they just picked it up, liked it and started playing it. And they kept playing it until there's 500 people at my first show in a town that I never even thought of playing before in my life. Those things, they still never fail to make me smile.
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