Here comes the sun
He used to stack trolleys in Dublin airport, but Malahide man James Vincent McMorrow is now an international passenger with a rapidly expanding fanbase. He talks to JIM CARROLL
HINDSIGHT IS a wonderful thing. Looking back now, 18 months on from the release of his debut album Early in the Morning, you can see how everything fell into place for James Vincent McMorrow. It looks easy from this vantage point. A great reaction to the album in Ireland, followed by bigger and better gigs, tours and festivals here as time went on and his profile grew. Interest from out foreign was followed by gigs, tours and festivals out foreign. A plot falling into place like an episode of Law & Order.
The truth is a mite different. Early in the Morningmight never have been made except for some twists of fate. McMorrow had already worked on an album which didn’t work out and was contemplating calling time on things, but a house in a Co Louth village brought him back into the game.
Then, there’s the fact that, unlike most acts, he only got around to fine-tuning his live performance months after the album was released. When you consider the evidence, a hoary line from Ol’ Blue Eyes comes to mind: McMorrow did it his way.
Today, the Malahide native is between continents. He’s back from a US tour and has a week to catch his breath before a UK and European tour begins.
When you have a hot record, everyone wants a piece of you. When you’re writing songs which are heartfelt, appealing and emotional, you’ll find no shortage of takers for your wares. It’s difficult, though, to be everywhere at once.
“It’s great when you’re playing in the US and it’s vibey and there’s a buzz. But then you come back here, the distance has an adverse effect. You feel frustrated, you want to be over there more.
“I’ve brought some more people in to help [Gary Gersch, the man who signed Nirvana to Geffen, and his management company ATO are now working with McMorrow] and that’s made a difference. It feels really strong now.”
McMorrow started out as a drummer in various bands while studying marketing in college. “It was post-hardcore stuff,” he says, “but none of them were At the Drive-In. Loud-quiet-loud has always been my first love so that’s where I was at. Playing the drums in those bands was a nice existence. I could sit at the back and be anonymous and observe everything that was going on.” He burned through bands at that stage. “I think I was in five or six bands during that first year in college. The frustration of being in a band with people who wanted to talk about music rather than make it got to me.
“I wasn’t singing, I hadn’t started singing, drums were the beginning and end for me at that point. Had I found the dynamic I was looking for within a group, like a compelling singer and musicians I felt a kinship with, I’d have stuck with it and seen where it went.”
But it never happened. “Nothing clicked. I’d be there going to myself ‘this guy thinks he’s a singer and he’s not’ or ‘if he can do it, so can I’ and that’s where the initial spark came from.”
Over the course of a summer job spent pushing trolleys around Dublin airport, he decided it was time to ditch the bands. The drummer would turn singer.
He camped out in the front room of his parents’ house. “There’s a piano there and I went in and hammered away. I wasn’t even thinking about songwriting, I was just looking at the dynamics of a song and what makes it tick. I was listening to a lot of records to find out what made them work.
“Once you start listening to music like that, you’re going to want to write songs. I had a little eight-track recorder and kept recording these snippets of songs and ideas. When I was learning the nuts and bolts of recording, I listened to The Neptunes a lot. They fascinated me with how they could generate a chorus from a song when there was almost nothing there. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it sounded right.”
He tipped away at it for four or five years. “It was very workmanlike, there was no glamour. I read stories about musicians who wake up one morning and the birds are singing and they write these amazing songs. It wasn’t like that for me. It wasn’t dramatic, it was a very slow process. I stayed the course.”
Yet he was producing the goods. A tip from venue booker and manager, the late Derek Nally, lead to a deal for McMorrow with EMI Publishing. “It was low-key. I got enough money not to have to do the job I was doing”.
Then he moved to London. “Why? It felt pre-ordained, it felt like another stop on the track I was on. You wrote songs, you did a demo, you sign a deal, you move to London, you make a record.” But McMorrow found himself in a strange town still figuring things out. “I enjoyed my time in London, but I detested it as a musician. I was still learning the basics. I hadn’t played live much, I was still writing, but I didn’t have enough songs that I felt much heart for. In my head, this was supposed to be how it all went, but I had missed steps. I had missed playing live, I missed writing songs that you feel proud of. It felt cold and wrong.”
He spent five weeks in a studio and came out with nothing. “That was so depressing. I think there was a certain belief that I’d blown it, that that had been the shot. But I knew that there were songs to be written and that I had them, but the frustration was that I couldn’t get to them.” McMorrow came home and spent Christmas 2008 in his parents’ house wondering what came next. “I thought that was it. I was minutes away from calling time on it. I had no other opportunities.” Then, he was offered the loan of a house for a month on the beach in Termonfeckin. He packed his instruments and equipment in his car and drove to Louth.
“There was no grand scheme. I just wanted to write some songs and use them as a catalyst to generate something. I suppose the only time I’ve been happy and comfortable as a musician was in the front-room of my parents’ house making those little demos. I was making them for myself and not for other people with none of the pageantry and ridiculousness of what happened in London. That’s what Termonfeckin brought back.”
One month became two and three and then it was six months. What McMorrow was producing in the cold quiet of an Irish winter and spring was Early in the Morning, as the songs which he couldn’t write in London came together. By the end of 2009, McMorrow had the album in the bag, the album which seemed impossible to him the previous year. It was released in 2010 and McMorrow found himself on a whole new track. He’d only played a handful of live shows before, but now he was singing for his supper every night. Some nights were good and some were, well, not so good.
Case in point: the Castlepalooza festival in August 2010. It was a dog of a gig, the proverbial stinker. “I’ve never walked off a stage so dejected in my life. I wasn’t giving the live show any respect or time and that gig showed it. Most people cut their teeth playing live so when they come to make a record, they know the songs inside out and they can get onstage and do it. I couldn’t do that because I hadn’t played enough shows.
“After Castlepalooza, I realised I wasn’t doing it right and had to correct it. I went off to Germany and played seven or eight shows in a row so I felt I knew what I was doing and was in control of what was happening. It was at the Electric Picnic that year that I first felt things were beginning to happen. We played an early slot and the tent was full and the energy felt right.
“There were so many things I had to work out about the record, playing live and myself. You have to learn your craft. I knew how to write songs but I didn’t know how to get them across live. Now, I do.”
Thoughts have now turned to a second album. “I had this romantic idea of writing while touring and documenting what I was seeing out the window, like driving through Montana for the first time,” says McMorrow. “But all you want to do when you get to the hotel at four in the morning is sleep.
“I wrote next to nothing the first six months of the year, but I’ve started thinking about the next record a lot since June. I’ve started putting together snippets and idea with a view to writing and recording in December and January.”
He won’t be going back to Co Louth to record it, though. “This one feels like a much warmer record, more lush and it will be cold here in December and January. I’d like to open the studio window and feel the sun coming in.
“I still want to retain what would happen if I was in a room by myself. I’m not trying to resurrect the spirit of the first record – that’s done and I’m eternally proud of that – but I want that sense again.”
* James Vincent McMorrow plays Dublin’s Olympia on October 21 and 22, Belfast’s Grand Opera House on October 23 and Cork’s Opera House on October 25