James Vincent McMorrow: "I’m very ambitious, musically – I want to create great things"
James Vincent McMorrow wants to create great things, not mediocre work. The guiding light for his new album “was to genuinely make something that I wanted to listen to”, he tells Tony Clayton-Lea
James Vincent McMorrow wakes up to yet another day of blood, sweat, tears and glorious weather at Sonic Ranch, the residential recording studios located in a private country setting that borders the Rio Grande and Old Mexico. El Paso is about 40km away, but McMorrow isn’t in the mood for wandering. Even at 5am it’s warm enough for a T-shirt, and so he ambles towards the building’s front porch, where he sits and writes lyrics for the new batch of songs he’s mulling over.
Occasionally, he looks up from his iPad and glances admiringly at the sun inching its way up from the horizon; occasionally, his attention will be diverted by the friskiness of the Palomino horses in nearby fields. By and large, however, McMorrow’s focus is on getting those lyrics finished.
Come 7am, he can hear the other residents of Sonic Ranch waking up. Breakfast. More lyric writing until noon. A robust jog in extreme heat – with his passport handy just in case he gets mistaken for an illegal runner. Back to the ranch. Shower. Studio. Obsess about things. Fret for doing so. Get annoyed at musical instruments. Feel guilty. Shout at microphones. Apologise to them. Bed. Email. Twitter. Sleep. Repeat.
Such was the day-to-day working routine for McMorrow about a year ago, but fast forward to a few weeks back, in mid-December, and residing once more in Dublin, the singer looks as cool as the weather outside and as unstressed as a silk shirt. His work is done, and the second chapter of his life is about to start courtesy of his forthcoming album, Post-Tropical. Four years ago, not many would have been able to predict there would be a second chapter, let alone the completion of a first.
In February 2010, he released, to little fanfare and, perhaps, even less interest, his debut album, Early in the Morning, a collection of sturdy songs that you had felt would go somewhere if more people knew about them. Within a year, however – following one of those instructive periods wherein word-of-mouth feedback gains momentum with each passing month – the record had landed on the shortlist for the Choice Music Prize Irish Album of 2010.
There then followed almost three years of that album taking McMorrow to more international territories than he could possibly have wished for. Early in the Morning grew legs so strong and sculpted that its runaway success surprised everyone, including its creator. Within a short space of time, McMorrow was outgrowing those small venues in which he had served his apprenticeship. But with that level of success comes no small degree of burden, notably in his case the sense of heightened expectation for new wonderful, original material. How on earth can a songwriter cope with such unrealistic presumptions?
“The idea of trying to predict what people will or won’t respond to is risky. My only instinct for the new album was to commit to whatever was in my head, and it didn’t matter what it was. I’m very ambitious, musically – I want to create great things, not mediocre work. The guiding light for the record was to genuinely make something that I wanted to listen to.”
McMorrow is a smart guy, make no mistake. In his early 30s, with a past history of engagement (and then disengagement) with the music industry through a publishing deal he signed with EMI in 2007, he confesses to being somewhat shy while simultaneously talking 10 to the dozen. His accent in inflected with Americanisms, his unruly beard finger-groomed on a regular basis.
Without pausing for breath, or so it seems, he will engage you with details about his strict quality control measures (“the curse of being a musician”), his touchstone album (2000’s neo-soul classic, Voodoo, by D’Angelo – “one of the first I’d listened to that made me obsessively think about production values”), his creative compulsions (“with music it feels natural that, in my head, I can pull things apart and then put them back together very quickly”) and how he feels most creative people are, at some level, mildly autistic (“I don’t function well in certain aspects of society, and you can read into that what you will”).