An interview with James Vincent McMorrow

Delicate and deliberate, there is a great beauty to everything James Vincent McMorrow turns his hand to. He released his second album Post Tropical in January of this year and has just wrapped up a North American tour by the time we speak. It’s been a flurry, but a good one. It’s easy to overuse the word beauty when it comes to a talent such as McMorrow but this record, and the sheer magic of the live performances that go alongside it are a cut above.

Early in the Morning was recorded in Drogheda, Co Louth, in a little studio by the sea. Creating his second album in a place so far removed from the first record further serves to reflect the contrast in the two records but wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Looking for studios in Ireland, nothing came close enough and it wasn’t until a US contact recommended a studio in El Paso that everything began to fall into place for Post Tropical.

“Some bands they looked after had all gone through this studio in El Paso and were totally in love with everything about it, what it was, and the people who worked there, the surroundings. So I checked it out and fell in love with it too, there was a will and desire to have me come and record there that was really palpable, I genuinely arrived there with one guitar, because I knew that they had every piece of equipment I’d ever need, and if they didn’t, I knew they’d go out and find it.”

It proved a perfect match. “Really it was a magical spot. I think as it worked out, I got a lot from the studio beyond just the equipment…the atmosphere of the place definitely worked its way into the fibres of the album.”

Post Tropical steps into a new territory entirely. While he remains immensely proud of what the first record achieved, he realises now that he had no idea what was possible on the back of such an album or even what it meant to be a modern musician.

“Taking all the things I’d learnt since that album came out, taking that success and understanding what it meant, my intention was to create something that reflected those experiences, that lived up to what I believe is the responsibility I have as a musician, to really dig into the sounds you hear in your head and to create the most interesting and vivid things possible without questioning or worrying about where it might go or what it might do once it was finished.”

He keeps coming back to the fact that he loves this record. He just wanted to make the most beautiful thing possible. “Articulating those sounds, chasing those vague kind of crazy sonic ideas I had, or looking at songwriting from a fresh perspective, I think for the first time I started articulating my ideas fully and as I heard them in my head from the moment of inception.”

Indeed when it comes to Cavalier, James had been thinking about the song for six months before he even penned a note. He can hear the possibilities of a song and all of the complex layers beneath it before it’s even a song. The depth to this record, not to take away from the triumph of Early in the Morning, and the use of a whole new range of sounds doesn’t take away from the original creative process. “Generally I find that being in the studio, turning on instruments and writing little snippets of ideas on the fly, experimenting with sounds and production more and more, that’s where I draw inspiration to create records and songs.”

The stage design for this particular tour, lit up pyramids and projections on a circle that looks over the entire stage like a moon – is both fitting and starkly beautiful. An awareness of his audience feeds into this vision. “I’d been thinking a lot about the impact of a stage production and how if it’s done well it can almost become another musician up on stage with you, adding texture and dynamic in the right places. I’m also aware of the fact that everyone at shows has cameras and is constantly snapping, so I wanted them to take photos and for those photos to be immediately connected to the album and the songs.”

A coherence surrounds this record and everything to do with its tour. “I wanted it (the stage design) to be related to the album cover, but not mimic it, I loved the circle on the cover, I loved the idea of articulating the glacier somehow on stage, and I’ve been a fan of 3d mapping technology for years, I wanted to use it in a really subtle way, for it all to move as the songs move. To my mind there’s no reason you can’t be ambitious like this, it just requires some thought and finding brilliant people.”

The nerves haven’t disappeared this time around, despite that incredible voice. He is more aware now of his nerves and takes them for what they are. He knows he has one chance to make an impression and that will always override any butterflies. “If you don’t get nervous then you’re not doing it right. I think nervousness has slowly migrated over to excitement, butterflies in the stomach before the performances; it keeps you totally in the moment. I don’t want to ever lose that. I suspect I won’t for a while though, I always told myself if I ever became jaded on this then I wouldn’t do it.”

He gets pretty bothered when he sees people who don’t appreciate how amazing their situations may be. Without sounding preachy, he is fully aware of how fortunate he is. “It’s the most compelling position to be in at the moment watching this album spread out the way it is, these tours we’re doing are far and away the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of.”

Last gig you were at?
I don’t get to many gigs as a spectator any more. Last one I can remember going to was an Irish band called Girlband, my friend James Byrne who runs the Any Other City label in Dublin puts out their records, he introduced me to them years ago and they’ve been my favourite Irish band since then.

Last play you saw and loved?
I think the last thing play related I saw and loved was my friend Jeremy’s documentary about the touring production of Richard III that Kevin Spacey starred in, it’s called ‘Now: In the Wings on a World Stage’. It’s brilliant, even if you don’t dig Shakespeare.

Favourite sandwich?
Either the pastrami sandwich with mustard at Katz deli in New York, or the Reuben from Zingermans in Ann Arbor, Michigan, both are insane.

Last book you read?
Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada. Incredible, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Batman or Spider-man?
Batman, because it’s attainable in some weird ridiculous way, you know, guy builds himself into a superhero, who wouldn’t love to think that was possible?

If you could have nine of anything what would it be?
Minutes of pure silence in a day.

Claire Healy

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