An Interview with James Morrison

by Allison Walker, published June 5th 2012

For someone who has been in the business for six years, James Morrison appears to have finally found solace in the truth threaded in his newly released album The Awakening. The English singer-songwriter and guitarist elaborates on what fueled this album that deals with personal battles and joys, as well as what his genuine feelings are about the fame he’s collected throughout his career. With a background that includes sold out shows, hyped collaborations and a BRIT award, Morrison maintained a primarily humble personality as he took the time to sit and talk with us at the Royale before the last gig of his American tour.

Tastemakers Magazine (TMM): Boston is the last stop on your American tour. Is there any reason why you chose us to end it?

James Morrison (JM): I think it’s cause it’s closest to home.

TMM: So you’re mentality wasn’t that Boston rules?

JM: [Laughs] No, but I actually think the last time I toured over here with my first band we ended in Boston as well. We played the Paradise?

TMM: Oh, ok. Now you’ve toured the U.S. before.

JM: Yeah, a few times.

TMM: Was this tour any different? Did anything stand out?

JM: Well, yeah, I mean it’s the first time I’ve had my new band over to the States. I was just excited to have my new band and my new songs, apart from that not really. It’s always pretty hard when I come to America cause not as many people know who I am.

TMM: You think so?

JM: I think so, yeah. I haven’t really cracked America. I mean, I’ve got a fan base that knows who I am. Every time I come over here it’s to kind of try and get a song on the radio and yeah, you know, I’m not fuckin’ about, I want to do well over here you know? I just kind of enjoy it for what it is really. I’ve done a tour with John Mayer; I did a tour with Adele over here.

TMM: Is there a specific venue in the U.S. where you look forward to playing?

JM: Well, a few in New York actually. Webster Hall was always good. I’d love to play Madison Square Garden one day. Actually, to be honest, I do really like the smaller, kinda clubby venues like the 9:30 club in D.C. I played there a few times now and every time I play it’s always really good. In terms of like prestigious gigs I don’t know really, I like playing New York and San Francisco. I played the Fillmore, that was pretty cool for me cause Aretha Franklin Live At Fillmore West is a sick album that I love, so it’s got a lot of history there.

TMM: And then this summer you’re gonna be in Europe? You must be excited to get back.

JM: Yeah, I love going to Europe, it’s wicked.

TMM: And you’re playing some awesome festivals? Like T in the Park?

JM: T in the Park, Pinkpop, a Norway festival? I’m doing loads of stuff. I try not to find out too much, because then it’s more like a normal job then.

TMM: Well, T in the Park you’re the same day as Swedish House Mafia.

JM: Oh, yeah?! Interesting.

TMM: Would you say you enjoy headlining your own show or do you enjoy playing alongside other bands at festivals?

JM: Yeah, you know, I think I’ve never been comfortable with being the headline act, but at the same time when you’re a support act you always want to be the headline act. But when I am actually the headline act, I dunno, I find it quite uncomfortable because it’s like there’s nowhere to go after you. You gotta be the one that’s like “this is how we fuckin’ do it!” you know? Where as when you’re the support you can just go out and be like the underdog band that plays just really fuckin’ hard and gets everyone going. I don’t really feel comfortable being the main act all the time but I dunno I just try and treat it like a gig and if I play good then it’s good, you know?

TMM: Totally. You’ve been in the music business now for what 5 or 6 years right?

JM: Yeah. Well, I suppose more than that, but yeah, I had an album out when I was like 21 so it was like 6 years ago now.

TMM: You’re traveling all the time, you’re touring- how do you stay grounded through it all because you’re away from family and everything?

JM: Well, I’m alright really. I have good people around me, you know? All my band all my crew. I’ve known them since I started out, since I was 19, 20. They’re kind like my people who keep me grounded. I’ve got my family at home that I speak to all the time. So I’ve got people that I know that know me and they won’t blow smoke up my ass… they’ll be the opposite actually.

TMM: We’ll that’s good that you have a sort of traveling family. I want to talk about your new album, The Awakening, can you tell me the significance of the title? Did you have a specific “awakening” when you made it?

JM: Yeah, definitely. I mean my dad died about a year and a half ago now. I was writing for the album and yeah in the middle of nowhere my dad died and it just kinda fucked me up for a while and I didn’t really feel like I wanted to go into the studio again and make music again. I didn’t feel like that was the right thing for me to do at the time. I just felt like I needed to get my life back on track cause I really have a life, you know? I’d been away for like 3 years so to go home and try and sort of get a life back together was my main priority and once I kind of felt like I was a normal person again I went into the studio and started writing about my dad and I have a kid, I’ve got a little girl now. So everything at that time was changing. A lot of important things that happened to me were happening at that time. I just felt like I needed to be shook up as an artist and as a person and losing my dad and having a kid just kind of did that really. Just speeded me up to kind of go “ok, right I’m not fuckin’ about anymore, I don’t wanna do that anymore, I don’t wanna be that anymore, I’m gonna do this.” So it gave me extra sort of focus and perspective on what I needed to do to get what I wanted out of life and out of being a musician.

TMM: So would you say that this album is your most personal yet?

JM: Oh yeah, definitely.

TMM: That must have been a big step. Were you nervous to get all that stuff out in the public because fans, critics, everyone get to have their shot at what you’re putting out there?

JM: Oh, I didn’t give a shit really. I was so kind of in that place that I didn’t really think about any of that. I just kind of thought if I really like it and it feels good then my instincts are telling me that it’s a good thing. I’d rather do that then second-guess what I think people would want from me. It’s like anything you do, if you feel so strongly about it you do it without thinking about it, and the less thinking about it you do the better it is. It was just coming out so I just trusted it and wrote about it and the album is what it is because of that.

TMM: Is there a song on the album that you would say means the most to you?

JM: “In My Dreams”, when I was writing that I was like a bit of a pussy, I cried a little bit. I don’t know I felt like it really captured what I was feeling at the time. My dad had been gone and I didn’t feel like I was going to see him again but I was going to bed hoping that I would dream about my dad so I could see him again, you know? I didn’t really dream about him so I wrote a song to get him to come into my dreams. It just felt like a really nice sentiment to leave the fact that my dads died in my mind. To leave the sentiment that I could see him again just was a really personal thing for me to kind of write down. I love playing it. It still has a good reaction every night when people hear it, it’s like one of people’s favorites songs off my album. That’s why I’m stoked cause I really like it.

TMM: Does that make it your favorite song to play live?

JM: “Slave to the Music” is good to play live, that’s always good fun, it always gets people dancing and stuff. “Person I Should Have Been” to me is a really personal song just cause of what it’s about and I didn’t write it with anyone I wrote it on my own. I don’t know they’re all personal songs really. They all kind of add to each other.

TMM: You have the song, “Up”, with Jessie J. What was it like working with her on that one?

JM: [Laughs] When I first met Jessie J, man, I was scared to meet her. She’s quit intimidating, you know? I’m just a bit more reserved. If someone’s really loud in a room then I’ll let them be loud. I’m not gonna compete for time and attention. Where she’s quite the opposite she’s quite comfortable being the center of attention, so I just let her be the center of attention for the day and got her vocals. I had to kind of direct her a little bit just cause she can go anywhere with her voice. She’s like [imitates an exaggerated high scale] doing all this crazy stuff it was amazing but I was like yeah… we can’t really use that. It was awkward at first but by the end of the day it was alright. I really liked her and she was funny, she had a good sense of humor. I’ve seen her since and she has got a side to her that’s a bit of a diva and all that but underneath it all I really like her. I think she feels like she has to be like that more than she is like that.

TMM: You’ve also collaborated with Nelly Furtado, you’ve sang with Jason Mraz, is there anyone else you would want to work with?

JM: Ah, fuck, I was thinking of someone the other day. What was their name? To be honest I feel like I’ve done enough collaborations for the moment. I don’t really feel like I wanna do another collaboration yet. I don’t wanna just do it for the sake of it. Do you know what I mean?

TMM: Yeah, totally. Well what about alive or dead collaborations?

JM: Ohhh, well I just bought this thing from Jimi Hendrix, man, Jimi Hendrix is one of my favorite guitar players. He’s sick as fuck. I’d get Jimi Hendrix. I like the Black Keys though!

TMM: Yes, they rule! It’s just the two of them rocking out.

JM: I fuckin’ love The Black Keys. If I could be in a band I’d be in The Black Keys. He’s got a wicked voice and his licks are sexy as fuck.

TMM:What would you say your relationship with your fans is like? I mean you’re really personal on your album but other than that would you say you’re a pretty open person with your fans?

JM: I am to a certain extent. I am. I try to be as open as I can be all the time but certain things in life and certain people don’t allow you to do that because they want something that you cant give them. A majority of my fans are really cool and they’re just really good people and they like listening to my music and they get off on what I’m singing about and they relate it to their own lives and I get some pretty amazing stories on how its helped people in their life and then on the other hand there’s all these people that just want the celebrity thing you know with the pictures and the Facebook and the Twitter thing. That to me, that side of things is way out of control in general. I could do pictures all day but it takes like two hours to be able to do it and everyone wants to ask you the same questions about songs and it’s just…I dunno I freak out. I can’t have a normal conversation with someone cause it’s already loaded for me to answer certain things. Do you know what I mean? I’m quite open to having conversations with people and if I go out after tonight, which I will do, and get to talking with someone it’s probably easier cause you’re not in the setting of the gig and stuff. It’s quite hard to open up to people when they see you in a light that’s not the true light of what you are. They see you with like celebrity glasses on so they’re not talking to you like a person you know? Like [in an exaggerated American accent] “I can’t believe it! I just walked past you down the road. I can’t believe it!” I was like come on I’m just a normal guy don’t freak out. I’m always up for meeting the fans and giving them time but usually I get dragged away cause it gets too hectic, you know? I’ve never portrayed myself or ever thought of myself as like a celebrity anyway it’s just sometimes its difficult dealing with what comes with that. You know most people are cooler they’re just like “Hey good to meet you, James. Love you’re songs like wicked keep coming back to America” and that sort of stuff and then you get the head case fans that are like “Did you write that song for me!?” Like I’ve never met you before in my life!

TMM: Someone said that to you?

JM: [Laughs] Yeah, I’ve gotten it quite a few times actually. I mean most people are cool, man, most people that are my fans are really cool and they’re understanding. I try and be open as I can with my songs and my lyrics and interviews so that people don’t feel like there’s a barrier when they do meet me. That’s half the problem to me with the celebrity and the security and it’s all just bollocks anyway to make them look more important than they are to build that kind of attention. I always feel uncomfortable with it because I was one of the kids that wasn’t cool in school. I didn’t have loads of mates. I didn’t have loads of attention all the time. All that side of things is a bit weird for me but as soon as I’m on stage singing to people that are enjoying my music then that’s where I feel comfortable.

TMM: Well it’s nice to hear someone who’s really grounded in their music and doesn’t get hyped on the glitz and glamour.

JM: I kind of hate that side of it to be honest it makes me feel a bit like…uhh… I don’t know like I’m not doing something meaningful. If it was all about celebrities and pictures and I was shagging a lot of girls and being a little dick on tour then I don’t think that I’d feel good about what I’m doing.

TMM: So what do you see in the future for James Morrison? When the tours all over and you’re home?

JM: Oh, I’m well excited actually. I’m getting a studio together at home that I’m building myself. I’ll be finished touring like in mid October of this year so I’ll be going home, getting in the studio, having some sick house parties, going camping. I’ve pretty much got like 6 months of nothing planned so I’m just gonna do whatever the fuck I wanna do and just enjoy myself and spend time with my daughter and do some writing for the next album.

TMM: So you are planning on making another album?

JM: Yeah, definitely. I wanna write a lot of it myself, try and have a go at co-producing it, but I don’t know how far I am down that line. I just wanna kinda write it myself and demo it up at home.

TMM: Last question. You’re only 27 so I mean it’s kind of hard to cap it all now but if you were to pick something that you’re most proud of as of now in your music career what would you pick?

JM: Shit. I mean I’ve done a lot of gigs that are really cool, like I did the Diana gig, I supported Stevie Wonder at a gig in London, supported Bruce Springsteen at a gig, doing those John Mayer dates was pretty cool, I did a tour with Take That to like 60,000 people a night, I’ve won BRIT Best Male Solo and this and that, but out of all of it actually the best thing I feel is this album and this whole time period for me. It’s just a much better time period for me to be an artist and to be the artist I wanna be. In the beginning I was really young and I didn’t know what I was doing, you know? I didn’t know people would view me as this kind of romantic singer/songwriter guy, I just thought I’d have these sweet little songs that would go on the radio and got a bit of soul but I was really naïve. Where as now I kind of know what it’s about. I’ve got a kid and I feel like I know what’s important and how to get what I want. So writing this album that’s really personal and deals with my dad and stuff is something I didn’t really know I’d ever be able to do and now I’ve done it. It’s a great feeling I get from trying to make an album that I really like rather than an album that’s going to sell, so that’s the thing that I feel good about. I’m just really glad I was able to have confidence in myself to just do what I wanted to do. That’s the nicest feeling that I’ve ever had.

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