get to know james vincent mcmorrow, the irish songwriter who counts drake and 'game of thrones' as fans
We find out how his Chris Isaak cover came to soundtrack the Seven Kingdoms, why he makes records in the freezing cold, and which Neptunes track is his ultimate jam.
Dublin born musician James Vincent McMorrow has been through a couple of iterations throughout his five-year career. Initially erring towards the more indie/folk side of life, McMorrow discovered an alternative voice on this year's We Move. McMorrow's third album in five years, We Move manages to be simultaneously minimal yet substantial, with thoughts you might expect to be expressed by the likes of Father John Misty, but made more in the mindset of James Blake. Working with three of alt-pop's most progressive producers — Two Inch Punch, Nineteen85 and Frank Dukes — We Move is forward-thinking, instant vintage, minimalist R&B that floats through themes of uncertainty, anxiety, and general unease. As well as his own work, McMorrow's faultless falsetto can also be heard on "Hype" from Drake's Views and on the trailer for Game of Thrones, while he's currently working on dvsn's new album. Here's 10 other things we recently discovered about the triple-named troubadour.
1. McMorrow used to sing about the moon and the sun, but he doesn't sing about the moon and the sun no more.
"People talk about wanting to make records about life, and they're very spiritual and 'in the clouds.' That's fine, but I don't really understand that," says James of his lyrical leanings. "My favorite musicians are like Matt Berninger from the National and Father John Misty, I like people like that, people who are cynical and who have an eye for the real, rather than those who talk about the moon and the sun," he decides, pointing out that he used to be more of the latter, than the former. "As someone who used to talk about the moon and the sun, it just doesn't give you anything back after a while," he laughs. "I don't want to dismiss those songs, they're from a time and a place and I stand behind them, but it becomes about, 'what am I saying? What am I talking about here?' I want to talk about my experiences as a human being, but my experiences as a human being aren't waking up at sunrise to sit on a beach. My experience as a human being is waking up at 11am and thinking about going to buy some fucking milk and having to talk to people. The goal, or the challenge, with this record was how you turn those ideas into something that has a kind of poetry to it. I wanted to make a record that's about how I think about life but that's not all existential metaphorical stuff, you know? It's real."
2. He recorded the album in three cities: Toronto, London, and Dublin.
"They're three places that hold a lot of memories for me. Before I made this record I lived in London, and Dublin is obviously my hometown. Toronto was one of the places I used to go when I started playing shows outside of Ireland. They're three different animals; Dublin is definitely my comfort zone, it's where my studio is, so if I was ever in a position where I wanted to go back and reboot a little bit, I'd return to Dublin and kick it there for a while. It's a place where I can do the things I want to do without time pressure. I've always had a fascination with Toronto from a musical perspective. It's huge; it's kinda like New York — it's very big and very concrete and the music that's coming out of there, at this moment in time, is very singular. It fascinates me. So working with two guys [Nineteen85 and Frank Dukes] from there was something I'd wanted to do, although wasn't my agenda. I was just looking to work with people who loved music like I did and who could do what I couldn't — it just so happened that two people were from Toronto."
3. James likes to make records in extreme conditions.
His second, Post Tropical was made in seclusion near El Paso in Texas; for We Move, he went from the heat of L.A. to subzero Toronto. "It was freezing cold when I was there and that's really interesting to me because I think weather does impact how you make music," James decides. "I always find myself making music in the fucking freezing cold, but that's fine. For me, it balances everything out, cos I wrote a lot of the songs in Los Angeles at the start of 2015 so the songs had an amount of sunshine already, so I didn't want to end up with a 'light' record. It needed a balance, a bit of cold, so there's no better place to go for cold than Toronto in January cos it is so bitterly cold. I do think weather has an effect on the sounds and the ideas. I wanted it to have an aggression to it, and in the cold it's easier to come up with idea for aggressive sounds. For me it is, anyway!"
4. James's favorite song by pop wunderkind Nineteen85 is "Too Much."
"When I first met Nineteen85, his name popped up on about eight or nine songs that I was aware of. But the thing was, his credit was next to seven or either other people so it's really hard to know, in 2016, what people can do," he points out of the proliferation of people often credited on one single record. "So I was aware of him, I'd heard 'Hold On We're Going Home' and I thought that was a jam, but he was credited on there with three other writers. The reason I really like 'Too Much' is because he's the producer on there, it was just him. You can really hear what he's doing with drums, I fucking love that record. He didn't fuck with the Sampha part too much, it's pretty raw, very unadulterated, he didn't mess with it. I could tell from that that he had a lighter touch than a lot of guys. And then he put out 'Truffle Butter' with Nicki Minaj; I love the use of the Maya Jane Cole sample, it's really clever."
5. Legendary engineer Jimmy Douglass worked on We Move.
Douglass is an OG in the music industry; known for his exemplary Grammy-winning ear that has tweaked the records of everyone from Led Zeppelin to Aaliyah. "He was always just the dream, someone I didn't think could happen, But I reached out to his manager, Paul Adams, one of the nicest people in the music industry, and he really loved the record so we went from there," says James of enlisting the man also known as The Senator. "Jimmy is an amazing human being who has been able to transition through the decades — from The Neptunes and Timbaland up to Blood Orange and Dirty Projectors. He shows up everywhere cos everybody loves him. He's a boss. And he has stories for days, he's the best."
6. The first time James heard himself on Drake's album was the day Views came out.
"I'm a huge Drake fan, so the idea of me being somewhat involved in the record was an honor. The way it happened was I was giving song ideas to Nineteen85 — this was after the album was done — and he was playing something in the studio one day, they heard it, they just put it on top of the track. He called me like 'Hey the album comes out in five days, we put your vocal on it.' and I was like, 'Ok, deadly!' I heard it at the same time as everybody else cos they're such a secretive bunch of people; they don't play stuff for anybody. They just ask if they can use it, and you say yes because you want to be part of it [laughs.] It's been great in the sense for me that this is the music I've always listened to and fucked with, but some people might not realize that. I don't have massive label and budgets so I have to rely on a good will and things happening organically in order or people to get to understand who I am, and what I'm doing. So things like popping up on Views are a big win for me."
7. James has played everywhere from Sydney Opera House to Jools Holland, but his favorite show to date was at the Roundhouse.
"To be perfectly honest, the Roundhouse show last week was definitely the best show I've ever played, without a doubt. It's the first time I've ever conceptualized a live show. I'm not a good rehearser — I hate being in a room playing songs to empty walls, it just seems shit to me. I always thought 'Fuck it, we'll go on the road and we'll get better as we go along.' So this is the first time I've sat in a room with a full band and full rig for two weeks in a rehearsal studio and really worked it all out. So it's in really good shape. Not to sound cocky, but I think we really nailed the Roundhouse. And it's a trip; years ago, the only show I would play in London would be in front of 60 people in some tiny bar, so crazy to sell out the Roundhouse."
8. Pharrell is the man who has taught James the most about music.
"I know it's a cliché, but it has to be Pharrell. Well, The Neptunes, it's rude not to include Chad [Hugo]. I used to go so deep on their productions. In LA a couple of years ago, I met an artist called Kenna — he works for MySpace now — I ran into him in a bar in LA and got talking about his record. I was obsessed with that it and I remember Chad produced it on his own. It was an amazing, weird, trippy Depeche Mode type thing — he couldn't understand how I knew his record, but I owned every single production they did. I owned so many crap albums with eight crap tracks on there because there was two obscure Neptunes tracks on there. The Neptunes taught me, at that point in life, what you can do with not a lot of equipment, not a lot of gear, you didn't need an 86-track studio, it doesn't matter how many mics you have in front of your guitar.. . It was just someone sitting with an 8-track digital recorder and a laptop trying to figure out how to make music without having to get into a studio with a ton of people and be overawed by them. I was so inspired by them and it also made music so tangible for me. In terms of groundbreaking, my favorite has to be "Grindin" by Clipse. It's just minimalist perfection — nothing goes on in that track for 80% of it until that little high-hat thing comes in around the bridge. Awesome."
9. He featured on a Game of Thrones trailer.
James' cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," which he often plays live, has been popular online for a good while now. "That was crazy, yeah, to have the song end up being used, because I love that show, I've watched them all, obviously. I just started watching The Americans, it's really good. It's been on my to-watch list for two years, and I got to it on this tour and now I'm smashing through it. It's perfect when you're on the bus cos you have so much downtime you need shows you can really plough through, have a few seasons to catch up on. I'm gonna do that new HBO one, The Night Of, next."
10. James found his confidence — and his voice — on this new record.
"I'm not a grand person, I don't think in particularly lofty terms about music, it's just a thing that I do, the only thing I know who to do. Not that I'm lacking in confidence — you can't be a musician and not be confident and have self-possession — but at the same time I'm also quite an introspective person, it takes me a while to figure things out. It's taken me a minute to figure out all of the pieces. I've had enough experience over the last five years of making records to know in myself what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong. I'm a harsh enough critic of myself to know when I'm fucking up and when I'm wasting my own time or when I'm using metaphor instead of speaking about real things, because it's easier to speak in metaphor. It might be simplifying things to say I'm doing the opposite of what I did before but the three guys who worked on the record are supremely talented and supremely successful — they're not timewasters, they don't suffer fools easily. To put yourself in a room with those three, you have to have your shit together; you have to know what you wanted to say. Their mere presence on the record alone made me step it up, know what I wanted to say and to own my position a bit more. I've always wanted to write plain-spoken, simple songs and use this type of production but I always danced around it and never really owned it. But these guys don't work in this pretentious indie world that I grew up in, they're just like 'just fucking do it.' It was really enlightening and really revelatory because it makes you lose that element of pretension that I certainly had, and probably still have [laughs]. It definitely lessened by pretension and helped to create a body of work I'm really proud of."
'We Move' is out now.
Text Hattie Collins