James Vincent McMorrow on lockdown: ‘You question how well-rounded you are’

The musician used the pandemic to redo his upcoming album and to reflect on his life

“I never really thought I would get to five,” says James Vincent McMorrow of reaching the number of albums he views as forming a bona fide body of work. “It has always been such a protracted journey for me. Five seems like a lot, but there are people I know with 15, so it’s all relative to where you are as a musician.”

Where McMorrow is now is where he deserves to be. His forthcoming album, Grapefruit Season, continues steady progress that started in 2010 with his debut album, Early in the Morning, deviated with 2013’s follow-up, Post Tropical, and cruised along, with subtle gear changes, via 2016’s We Move and 2017’s True Care.

Grapefruit Season, he conveys over a Zoom call, is a different beast with different beats. (It is also his first album since he signed to major label Columbia Records.) The finished master of the album arrived a week or two before the start of March 2020.

I would say that, for sure, I have taken some aspects of my life for granted, my life as a musician

“We were all very happy with it,” he says, “but then the world ended.” Back at home in Dublin, with a partner and a toddler, and with nowhere to go, spare time and added deliberation, he adds, revealed something different about the new songs, aspects that “make you think you wish you could change this or that. I’m not so weird to suggest that the lockdown periods afforded me a rare opportunity to change things, because I was crying in the bathroom like everybody else. Once I moved through that, I decided I needed to dig into the album again to see if I could get more out of it.”

To his ears, how does the album sound now compared with what he had in March last year? Brand new? The same but a variation thereof? “It is different,” he allows.

“I’ve never been so into my own thing that I considered myself incapable of being objective, even though the subjective has to be there, too. In other words, I can always tell if something is correct for me, personally, to inhabit or not.

“The reason I moved to Columbia Records with this album was that I could step out and be a bit bolder in the ambition for the music. When I go back to listen to my albums, my songs, I had always wished I had been able to do a little bit more to the music, but when it was my own money and time it was a different equation. Of course, you are never going to be totally objective in the process, but because I came into it with a certain amount of imposter syndrome, I kinda know where I need to be – or, more specifically, where something isn’t.”

James Vincent McMorrow: ‘I was crying in the bathroom like everybody else’
James Vincent McMorrow: ‘Because I can sing the way I sing, I always thought that music would always be there for me’

We are not alarmed by McMorrow’s admission of ambition and a sense of needling away at things, sometimes relentlessly, to achieve the desired result. It is, after all, something of a characteristic. What is a major surprise, however, is hearing him utter the words “imposter syndrome”.

“Well, during lockdown I did a lot of reading on imposter syndrome because I always knew there was something of that in me, but I never really understood the realities of it. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be self-possessed. If anything, the fact there was a little voice in my head telling me I was a fraud pushed me way more than I would otherwise have done, probably to the betterment of me as a career artist because I’ve always pushed myself, never sat back.

“I think it was driven by the little voice in the back of my head saying, ‘You need to do this thing, you shouldn’t say no to that opportunity’, so I’m just trying to be a bit more okay with that little voice, and to be more inclined to tell it to shut the f**k up. You always think the thing you’ve just finished is your best work, but what I would say is the new album is the closest to what I’ve always imagined a work of mine would feel and sound like.”

James Vincent McMorrow
James Vincent McMorrow

As we know, on June 10th last at Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens, McMorrow was the first musician to play an actual gig in front of people since March 2020. While he spent most of lockdown tinkering away in his home studio finessing Grapefruit Season, replacing a few songs with new ones, he wasn’t joking when he said he was crying in the bathroom like the rest of us. I ask what the most important thing was that he learned about himself during periods of lockdown.

“I’d be loath to come back at you with some sort of glib response about a higher thing that I learned. I hear a lot of that, and I question it because I think if anyone was like me, they were probably just existing or subsisting on a day-to-day basis. I would say that, for sure, I have taken some aspects of my life for granted, my life as a musician.

“Because I can sing the way I sing, I always thought that music would always be there for me, that I could always sing on a stage and there would always be an audience, no matter how many people turned up. When that gets taken away, you question how well-rounded you are as a person. I know I certainly did.”

He mentions watching a documentary about Kate Bush. During it, he relates, Bush talks about stepping away from the music business to avoid becoming a self-important caricature. As soon as you achieve a little bit of success, McMorrow implies, an industry is built around you that is intended to keep you on a treadmill. There is a trade-off, of course: as further success arrives, the ability to exist in a day-to-day life can fade away. Such a proposition, he admits, was laid bare for him.

“When all the bells and whistles of being a relatively successful professional musician are taken away, then what are you left with? What, exactly, is the person? I’ve never really had a chance to reflect on that. I don’t want to suggest that I had a euphoric period of reflection where I came to the realisation to take this into the next stage of my life, endeavour to make changes, but I’m certainly going to try to not take things for granted.”

He will also try to be, he concludes, a more rounded human being who will refuse to take “all my self-worth from conversations like this, music I release, whatever gets played on the radio or how many streams I have”.

McMorrow’s parting line is something we can all only hope for. “If I get an incremental change out of all of this, I’ll be ecstatic.” 

James Vincent McMorrow’s new album, Grapefruit Season, is released via Sony Records in September. He performs at the Isle of Wight Festival on September 19th, and starts a European tour from February 2022

The Maturing of James Vincent McMorrow

“Being a kid and being a songwriter was never in my favour. I didn’t have the capacity to form any thought that was coherent, and the reason I never wrote or released any songs in my early 20s was that everything I wrote and finished wasn’t right, it didn’t fit me. I just didn’t feel I had anything to talk about. I think I have gotten better at it, and I say that without wanting in any way to sound condescending or arrogant.

“You can call it maturity, but I don’t want to give that too much credence because I don’t feel particularly mature, and I don’t feel particularly responsible. Of course, I don’t feel the same way as I did when I was 20, but I have lost all the pretence of being a musician in that cliched way, and by doing so it has gotten me to a much better place as a writer. I don’t know where that has come from, and I haven’t thought about it too much – I’m just grateful that it’s here now.”