This week more than ever, James Vincent McMorrow understands the role he’s been cast in as an entertainer.
The Irishman is in Toronto, where he has spent the last few days on a mini holiday, taking the weekend as a break from the rigors of a tour that has seen him travel across the United States and up into Canada, before a slate of shows in the Midwest and in the Pacific Northwest to cap it off.
“I’m not putting myself out there as the savior of people’s souls or anything,” McMorrow says when I reach him over the phone. “That’s ridiculous.” McMorrow and his band have just spent the last few days playing shows along the East Coast of the United States, smack at the tail end of one of the most contested – and surprising – presidential elections the U.S. has ever seen. In a twist of fate, he found himself in Washington, D.C. on election night, and playing at the 9:30 Club the next evening to an audience still in shock.
As the Dublin native prepares for his show that evening at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in downtown Toronto, he takes a moment to collect his thoughts before proceeding: “But if people could go to a place and feel catharsis for an hour and forty minutes, then that’s my job. I take that seriously.”
James Vincent McMorrow plays The Metro in Chicago on Wednesday, November 16, 2016. We Move is out now on Faction Records.
Brightest Young Things: You’ve talked about some of the creative freedom that comes from being a known entity as a performer, and capitalizing on that to grow and expand your sound in a different direction. What inspired the aesthetic behind We Move?
James Vincent McMorrow: It’s simplistic to say, but it was the life I was experiencing from 2014 onwards. For the first time in my life, I made a note in my head to be aware of things as they were happening, because they might not happen again. Up to that point, I wasn’t really that appreciative of what was going on, or thinking about documenting life in a plainspoken manner. I was talking about my life and writing songs, but then I’d go back and listen and they’re about dreams, and legends, and metaphors – and that’s just not my life! [Laughs] That’s not how I think about life. It’s the classic songwriter trick: I want to talk about things that are tangible and real to me, but I also want to do them in a way that’s poetic and artistic. And then you fall down this rabbit hole of ridiculousness where you’re talking about shit that doesn’t feel tangible.
At the start of 2014 I thought to myself that I needed for this record to mean something to me, and say something. And if it was simple, and isn’t poetic or metaphoric, then that’s ok. It was an effort to see what happened if I just made songs that appealed to me as a music fan and weren’t overly complicated. It was a lot of not worrying, and I decided that I wouldn’t be so concerned about “what happens next?” That was definitely consuming in the past: what happens? Where do I go? What do I do?
But music is a self-propelling thing; you can’t rely on anybody but yourself. This is the first time I leaned back on that and just enjoyed the moment as it happened.
BYT: What can we expect from you going forward? Are there any styles or sonic textures you’re curious to incorporate into your music?
McMorrow: [Pauses] Not really. I’m not like a musical magpie, you know? I don’t hear other people’s records or bands and think to myself that I’ve got to bring those sounds in. We Move is the record that I’ve been trying to get to for the last three records now; it was as much as anything an effort to refine the sounds and ideas from the previous albums. My hope is to continue that refinement and narrow down my ideas into more concise things. How can I say the things I want to say in the least amount that I need to say it?
When I started out making music I thought it was about thrills and adding layers, but I realized with this album that I want to focus on saying the most with the least. That’s really compelling to me. That’s the thing I want to take forward with this record, and hopefully get better with my songs, and my band, and fundamentally just try and refine it down to a sharper, more coherent thing.
BYT: I think a lot about that as a writer. How do you express the most ideas and emotions in an elegant and concise way? It’s really hard to do.
McMorrow: Yes, it really is. If you go back and read your work from when you were a teenager – when you were writing that stuff, you thought “oh my god, I’m so profound. What I’m saying is so real and no one understands the realness of it.” Then you look back on it ten years later and wonder how you ever thought that was so profound. [Laughs]
What we understand to be profoundness, or importance – it changes. It should change. It should be this moment where you can’t believe that equalled grandness or importance, but it’s really just flowery words about nothing. That’s how I look back at certain songs that I’ve written, and I think the same. What was I trying to say there? How could this compel you, when it’s so shrouded in allegory and metaphor? It’s in the clouds, and it should be about bringing it down to the ground while retaining an amount of poetry and vividness to keep people engaged. But it should be tangible.
BYT: I cringe when I read some of my older pieces. They just seem so heavy handed.
McMorrow: [Laughs] I know what you mean! It’s definitely something that happens. But seeing it is good though! Some people don’t see that, and look back on their work and feel like they ran shit from back then. It’s good to see the flaws in the thing – if you don’t then you’ll never be able to change it up. So it’s good to cringe a bit. [Laughs]
BYT: How did you and Nineteen85 and Frank Dukes first link up? How was that working relationship initially, and how has it evolved?
McMorrow: We met in Toronto – I did a show up here in 2014, and someone reached out from 85’s camp maybe 2 or 3 months before that, just to mention that he was a fan of my work and would love an opportunity to sit down and chat. As you can imagine, the schedule on touring is so relentless, so we had a really limited window back in town. He came to the show with some friends of his, and I invited them backstage – which was a pretty small space. It was a particularly hot day, and it was really gross up there. [Laughs] I remember him walking in and seeing all these sweaty Irish people fumbling around with bags and ironing clothes, but he was zen the whole time.
He’s a really zen and low key guy, and we got on really well. It was one of those things where it wasn’t even under the auspices of making my record because I was fresh on touring my second album, but we figured we’d stay in touch for some future collaboration – maybe he’d ask me to work on some other records for other people. But we just developed this rapport where he’d be really honest in his opinions and assessment of the songs, and he has a production palate and ideas that are really compelling to me, the way he thinks about music. It was an organic partnership, born out of friendship. We just liked each other.
The same thing happened with Frank, really. Frank put his hand up pretty quickly when I was working on the record, and I happened to have a song I was struggling with. So I sent it to him, and he flipped it around pretty quickly – in like a week. It worked perfectly.
BYT: It’s great that you’ve found people with whom you’ve been able to collaborate and resonate with sonically and aesthetically. It seems like you understand how to complement each other’s ideas.
McMorrow: Yeah, we do. We have a really good understanding of each other’s works. There’s always this common misconception in terms of musicians; what we listen to, where we come from. Just because the music I make falls under a more traditional singer-songwriter banner doesn’t necessarily mean that the type of music 85 or Frank might make isn’t in my wheelhouse – and vice versa! They can sit in a room and talk to me about Neil Young just as much as I can talk to them about 90s UK RnB. We all come from a very similar mindset: good music is good music.
BYT: I know you made a concerted effort to physically get out of your comfort zone during the creation of this album. Do you feel like you were able to rise to the challenge? Are you now comfortable in these kinds of places – like Los Angeles – and if so, what changed for you?
McMorrow: The idea of movement and change was definitely at the forefront of my mind while making this record, and comfortable situations are not my go-to. I just don’t like them, and I don’t think good art comes from comfort. While from a humanistic standpoint I would have much rather been at my home that I own, surrounded by friends and family and controlling my environment completely, going to places like LA, Toronto, London, was really important. It was party of the tapestry of the record and brought something to my writing. It battled back that floweriness that can come from comfort – what we were talking about a bit ago. And you don’t even know it’s happening, but you’re doing it because you’ve always done it that way, in that room. I wanted to remove all aspects of that.
It was never about going to LA and becoming comfortable in LA – I’m never going to be comfortable in that city, because it’s just not my city. I’m an introspective human being and someone who likes to be alone in a room. The idea of going out and talking to people…there’s something appealing about it, but also there’s something that feels alien to me, as a cynical Irish man. It was about putting myself in positions where I’d wake up in the morning and think “ok, I need to write today,” because I was there for a limited time and couldn’t mess around. I worked to find the right people to work with, and while there were a lot of reasons for doing it, fundamentally the purpose was to remove comfort, remove ease.
BYT: I was at your show in D.C. the day after the election.
McMorrow: [Surprised] Oh, wow.
BYT: You did as good a job as anyone could have in those circumstances – walking into a room full of seriously depressed people. How do you cope with an audience that is clearly distracted?
McMorrow: Thanks! Yeah, I know what you mean. Back in the start of my career, people don’t know you and you have to fight to win them over, so it’s a very different battle. But I approach every show from the same fundamental perspective: this is a conversation, and my job is to make people leave the show feeling like they’ve seen something singular. It’s not about smashing someone over the head from the jump-off. The show you saw started slowly and it unfolds.
This week especially has really brought into focus what we’re doing, and what we’re supposed to do. I woke up that day in Washington on my tour bus and I felt physically nauseous. I felt sick. I couldn’t fathom the idea that it was the reality – and I’m not American! I get to go home in three to four weeks to my own country, that’s got its own fair share of problems, but fundamentally hasn’t installed a racist empty vessel at the head of it. I can’t even imagine what it could feel like for people, especially in Washington where the numbers were so heavily for Hillary Clinton – the statistics were crazy.
I spent the whole day in Washington trying to figure it out. What do I do? Do I go out and talk about this? Do I try and engage? I just realized that wasn’t what people were there for – they’d be distracted and upset, but maybe that’s exactly why I should do the show I’ve always done: to give people a focus beyond “what the hell is the future going to hold now?”
We definitely went on stage in Washington with a sense of purpose, to try and still make this fun. We can’t forget what’s happening, or ignore it, but let’s put it aside and take people out of that mindset for an hour and forty minutes. It’s a heavy thing, and you can’t not talk about it, which we’ve seen in every show we’ve had since the election. But we have to trust that people will want to go to the place that they wanted to go to before this veil of despair fell over the country.
I got caught up thinking about what I should do for this show before it dawned on me that this is exactly why music exists: it’s escapism. People want to go to a room and listen to music, or put on headphones. There was nothing we needed to change other than to do our jobs to the best of our abilities.