James Vincent McMorrow: Taking back his tunes

After his second album, ‘Post Tropical’, the Dubliner found himself in demand as a songwriter for hire, but decided to keep the songs for his new album, ‘We Move’

The day before he travels to Brisbane to play a one-off show at Byron Bay’s balmy, bucolic Splendour in the Grass festival, James Vincent McMorrow is coming to terms with a few important things.

The first is his current tenure as collaborative songwriter with certain people he'd prefer not to name. The second is realigning his erstwhile lack of confidence and his self-confessed "shy, awkward" nature with being lauded to the hilt for his second album, 2013's Post Tropical, as well as for his recent vocal contribution to Kygo's hit song I'm in Love.

Dressed for Australia in T-shirt and shorts, and sporting a short but mischievous beard, McMorrow is surely on the cusp of credible crossover success. With his third album, We Move, he is delving into new sonic territory that references previous work while forging a leaner, cleaner identity. What gives?

"The first single from Post Tropical was Cavalier," he recounts, "and when people heard it and saw the video, it seemed that it had a big effect on musicians, producers, and so on. Generally, the song did very well, but it was the reaction on that level where a lot of people were calling up and asking about sitting down to chat."

Blurred lines McMorrow agrees that the lines are blurring between who is a songwriter for other people and who is a songwriter for themselves.

"Some amazing songwriters that have careers of their own also write for a lot of people – look at the Beyoncé record [Lemonade], the songwriting credits on that are staggering."

Cue number one: a number of people asked if he would write songs for them.

“I would, sort of, start writing on the tour bus, thinking that this or that person requested to hang out and chat, and that I’d write a song with the intention of giving it to them.”

Cue number two: McMorrow changed his mind. “I was writing songs, yes, but I really knew that what I was writing was for me.”

As if to confirm this, several months into 2014, he began what would become a beneficial association with Paul Jeffries, aka Nineteen85, a Canadian songwriter and record producer best known for his work with fellow countryman Drake and the likes of R Kelly, Jessie Ware and Nicki Minaj.

“We just got on really well. I played him some of my stuff, and he was like, ‘we can do this for other people, but they should be for you.’”

Selfish genius?

There’s a wry admission of selfishness in arriving at such a decision. The McMorrow beard is stroked as he answers. “There’s definitely selfishness involved in that when I was writing them – ostensibly for other people – I had removed my own pretentiousness from the equation; my own musical – well, I might just call it snobbishness.

“I’ve written songs in the past, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m in love with them, but then my indie instinct kicks in and I feel I need to do things to the songs to change them. In my musical world, musicians spend a lot of time trying to cover up songs because we’re almost afraid of putting them out there.

“With the new album – because I wasn’t thinking like that, because, initially, the songs were not for me – I was writing what I would want to hear. At all times, it was like, is this song cool, does it make me feel excited? If so, then brilliant. But by the time it got to a point where they were built up, I knew they were definitely for me. Why? Because I loved them, and I didn’t want anyone else to sing them.”

What was it like going from singer-songwriter for himself to a songwriter for others? In the beginning, he says, it seemed unnatural; he admits he had to “lose a bit of his preciousness”.

“My early years in music were always, ‘oh, I’m not doing that!’” He laughs at the recollection.

“When I signed my publishing deal, I was like, ‘oh, I don’t want to write for other people, I’m a recording artist’. You have these ideas, don’t you, but then you realise that no one is judging you but yourself. People judge, of course, and that’s fine, but ultimately your opinion, as a musician and artist, is what counts.”

During this time, there occurred another creative game-changer for McMorrow: while working with Nineteen85, he was introduced to a more minimalist working methodology. There was, he admits, far less of an intricate thought process to song construction.

“That’s probably why it worked,” he concedes.

"It was the first time I hadn't conceptualised what I was going to do. I wasn't thinking ahead of time, I wasn't writing down acres of ideas on pieces of paper. I learned with Post Tropical that high concept was great, but sometimes it goes over people's heads. Sometimes, it goes over my head. Things that I look for in music I realised weren't necessarily the things that I was putting into my own music."

Regarding We Move, he says, there were ideas floating around, but not much else, apart from wanting to make a singer-songwriter record that musically flouted convention, and lyrically made a point.

Road to somewhere

We Move is a slinky, suggestive affair, as well as a substantial shift in McMorrow's songwriting sensibilities. There's a sense that he is no longer at a head-scratching crossroads in his career but rather on a road to a specific somewhere. He views his development as a songwriter in quite simplistic terms.

“It’s natural, because it hasn’t been a thought-out process. Within that, however, there were stops and starts and some convoluted instincts. I think every musician goes through a crisis of confidence. When you put out a song, people judge and give opinion, and your perception of it is then perhaps based on that. So the natural progression for me, really, is getting to the point where – in the most positive way possible – I didn’t care about what happens after a song came out.”

And what of his own measure of his songwriting skills? There’s another soft laugh and a slight shrug of the broad shoulders. He readily admits that it’s difficult to answer such a question without sounding either egotistical or humble.

“I wake up in the morning,” he considers, “and think about songs, and then I write those songs. Sometimes they’re very good, and sometimes they’re not so good. The notion of self-worth as a musician or a songwriter tends to come from others – the idea that you get validation from elsewhere, which is something I always thought was the case. But recently, I know it to be not that way at all.

“I wake up in the morning,” he says again, perhaps more for emphasis than effect, “and I know that I can write songs. I also know there’s a huge amount of work involved in trying to construct or create something that has worth and value – but, yes, that’s what I do.”

- James Vincent McMorrow plays Black Box, Galway, on October 5th, and National Stadium, Dublin, October 7th. 

We are scientists: the chemistry of pop music production
"The producer's job is to be scientific, to find a way through the songs that is fluid and which works, and to keep it lean or not, depending on what side of the musical fence they come from. Nineteen85 is a very lean producer . . . Previously, I would have tried so hard to keep every single thing in, but there is a musical reason for what they do. That was something I lacked before – I would wander down alleyways, and while I'd find my way back out I'd do it in the most convoluted way possible. Whereas Nineteen85 and the others would say, 'just take a wrecking ball, smash the wall and get out.' Very direct, very strong, and that's something I definitely needed.

“As for writing a song that might get on to a big pop star’s album, I find that really interesting, and I think the potential for someone like me to write one of those songs is there, crazy though that might seem.”

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