The New Irish Songwriter: James Vincent McMorrow
A spring tour in Australia on the immediate horizon, thoughts brewing of a sophomore album and the world at his feet, James Vincent McMorrow has stormed onto the scene from virtual nothingness in the last year. It was January of last year that the Dublin native’s debut album, Early In the Morning, found its way to my desk for review, and I was completely stunned.
In many ways, McMorrow is Ireland’s answer to the growing success of the ethereal indie bands in the vein of Bon Iver and Band of Horses. The tone of his voice is spectacularly warm and his arrangements are elegant but simple. I sat down with McMorrow this summer in the middle of his American tour with famed Irish band BellX1. Various BellX1 and McMorrow band members wandered in and out of the hotel lobby, all commenting on the New York summer heat and asking each other the schedule. “Are we in Boston tomorrow?” “Back to New York on Friday?”
For many Irish artists, McMorrow explained, touring America is a whole new world.
“I see it as a big challenge. Places like France, Germany, the UK, where [Early In the Morning] has been doing well, you can drive top to bottom of the country in a day. In America you can’t even do a tenth of it. So I think if you ask any musician, they will always say they want to do well in America, it’s a big nut to crack.”
And in America, the perception of the Irish musician is ever changing. It has been over ten years since Damien Rice’s O coined for him the Irish singer-songwriter image. After series of copycats and attempts to capitalize on the success of acts like Rice and The Frames, it seemed the quiet and tortured poets of Ireland were all but spent. McMorrow comes in a new wave of the Irish singer-songwriter. He joins the world stage with Lisa Hannigan and Foy Vance, who have all taken their niche to different places, exploring new genres of influence.
“Well, in Dublin there’s always guys running around with guitars,” McMorrow joked. “When there were a few about 10 years ago who were really successful, it then meant there were a lot of less original versions of them. I’m glad that isn’t so much happening anymore… It’s great now to come to these new places and see the Villagers or Lisa Hannigan doing well. To come to a place and your friends are already there.”
McMorrow’s story of success begins, of all places, at the Dublin Airport. He began playing drums at the age of fifteen as a hobby. Then after college, took a job pushing trolleys at the airport while he explored drumming in heavy metal bands. Does he think it’s strange to transition from heavy metal to the much softer, folk sound he’s embraced?
“On paper it does,” he laughed, “but I think if you asked anyone they’d say that the music they listened to as a teenager is a lot different from what they end up making.”
McMorrow picked up guitar at 19 and began experimenting vocally with different sounds. Then in the winter of 2010, he stole away to a house in the nearby Irish Sea, alone for half a year to compose and record what would become Early In the Morning.
“Recording it was really unspectacular. I just wanted somewhere quiet and the house was offered to me. Someone could’ve offered me an apartment in New York and I would’ve taken it if it were quiet. I just wanted somewhere with no silly distractions like computers and
people. I’ve always been a fan of my own company.”
That place ended up being a small house outside Drogheda. He ran alongside the sea almost every day and spent the better part of five months isolated, writing and recording. McMorrow’s songwriting was influenced in large part by the atmosphere he was suddenly very alone in. He learned and played all of the instrumentation on the album.
McMorrow allowed the changing atmosphere to influence the movement of the album. “I got there in January so it was very dark and wet, sort of bleak … It’s certainly easier to sit down at do a drum track when it’s like that.” The collection of books he brought with him dictated the album further “I had a big collection of all of Steinbeck just before I went out there and read all his little stories like “The Pearl” so that influenced me.
“A lot of the writers I like are really descriptive about nature.” Nature is most certainly the theme of Early In the Morning, almost every song packed with stirring descriptions in the lyrics. For McMorrow, tackling lyrics is the last piece of the songwriting puzzle.
McMorrow’s unusual writing process requires recording and composing to become one and same. “I need to be able to hear [my music] back. I have to record and write at the same time. I’m not someone who can just sit down with a guitar. I find if I write that way it becomes too linear – the melody is linear. I just prefer if I can hear it back, then I can take things and build them, the little melodies or structures in my head. And the lyrics come later.”
When Early In the Morning was released, McMorrow suddenly found himself in need of a band and a tour manager. The world of professional musicianship started to unfold before him. “I’m a big fan of my own company,” he joked, but also seriously spoke about his ongoing struggle to release creative control, something he has learned to deal with much more as touring becomes the dominant lifestyle for McMorrow. He needed a band to tour.
“I found it really hard with just a guitar to duplicate what I was doing,” he said. “None of us [in the band] are really spectacular players. I didn’t want anything too slick sounding because I think a band should sound different every night.”
Now with a second album well in the works with a release date pending, McMorrow has quickly become another overnight Irish songwriting sensation.
“For such a small country, I think Ireland really punches above its weight when it comes to art and music,” he mused. The world certainly should turn its ear Ireland’s way.