Soulful Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow is in the midst of a spectacular US tour to promote the deluxe edition of his stirring sophomore album, Post Tropical. The album, full of dreamy synths and warm 808s, brought McMorrow to the electronic music world's doorstep and marked a transition for the artist, whose debut LP Early In The Morning featured the crooner singing in his signature sharp falsetto over mostly an acoustic guitar. We chatted with a very receptive and talkative McMorrow before his show at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. Our conversation touched on Post Tropical, his forthcoming third album, today's music industry and his upcoming collaborations with the biggest names in dance music.
EARMILK: You released a deluxe version of Post Tropical on Nov. 11. What does it include?
James Vincent McMorrow: It'll have two new songs and one demo I made with Moors, the openers for tonight's show. They feature on the song. I told them, "By the way, I have this song" and invited them on and we liked it. There are also five remixes and two solo versions of songs. I've been recording in the studio working on someone else's record artists and had an hour to kill [to record them]. It came out nice. Putting the new songs on was very much me having an enjoyable summer, and making these songs I liked and wanting to play them live and have people know them. So I released them on SoundCloud and people really responded. Particularly the first song, "When I Leave", people responded to strongly. The directness of that song and the simplicity of arrangement is very much where I'm going.
Music to me tends to be moving through the gears but also getting things out of my system. Like on the second record, I felt the need, a compulsion to produce something really intricate and I did. And now I've done that and I feel like I'm getting better as a songwriter and losing all this pretentious bullshit that I had a little bit where I was like, "I need to wrap this up in so much riddle and rhyme." What was nice about "When I Leave" was that it was very direct.
EM: When you release a new song, it always makes waves on the internet and always seems to chart on HypeMachine. How do you feel about this debate around paying for music and Spotify?
JVM: Internet has been helpful for me but, in principle, Taylor Swift is absolutely right. I read an article she ran the other day. Streaming is an experiment and I don't think it's a good idea to devalue music. I don't think SoundCloud and Spotify set out to devalue music. They are trying to create something that's very much of its time and I think I would rather someone stream and pay me than someone stealing something and I get paid nothing. But. obviously, I don't feel and neither does anybody else that we get paid enough for the amount of times people listen to our music. Someone told me a statistic where my album was being streamed 100,000 times a week or some shit on Spotify, and I was like, "That's amazing!" because that's millions and millions of plays and millions of millions of listens and that's fantastic because people will come to the shows. For someone like me who doesn't have a label, that's great. I have Vagrant but they just put my record out and don't do anything else. There's no money behind it, no tour behind it. We're in a big room tonight and the fact that we can get 1,000 people in this room tonight with no money and no backing is great. A huge amount of that is due to the fact that when I put out a song, like you said, it goes high on HypeMachine's chart or it gets a lot of plays on Spotify or SoundCloud. I'm not going to go mug those people off and say, "Fuck you, you don't pay enough," but I don't think that they pay enough. So it's a weird situation.
People like Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke are right. It's an experiment and its in flux. The labels are getting pretty well paid from a lot of the plays but I don't necessarily think it's coming to the artists and I think people like Taylor Swift have the right to say, "I don't need to do this." And she sold like 1.5 million records in a time when no albums go platinum. People will still buy music. People buy records if they're good and they're sold the right way. I find it helpful for people like her to do that because it gives people pause. This is massive. When The Black Keys keep their music off Spotify, it's not a big deal. But if a quarter of the people on Spotify are listening to one artist, and that's Taylor Swift, she rightly stood up and said, "Fuck you."
EM: Maybe it will lead to artists getting paid better by these services?
JVM: I think it will because they want Taylor Swift on Spotify. I think other people will follow suit. They might look how she sold over a million copies and think, "Well maybe if I don't give my record to Spotify, maybe it will sell a little bit more." That's something no one has ever talked about. If another big massive pop star, say Ariana Grande, doesn't put her album on Spotify, will she go from selling 130,000 copies in her first week to selling 230,000? And is that more money from sales then she will ever get from 10,000,000 play on Spotify? I don't know the math but hopefully this will elicit a little more of a conversation. I like SoundCloud. They were good to me at the start. I like the heart of the company and think it's really sound. I think now they're going to start monetizing it and it will change but I think the instinct of these companies is good.
EM: If SoundCloud changes to become more like Spotify, I think that'll take over. But back to you…
JVM: [Laughs] I know, everyone in the world is talking about Taylor Swift right now. She's winning right now.
EM: Are you on a trajectory of going more synthesized, more electronic and more computerized?
JVM: The idea of more computerized is a bit of a misnomer. Everything I do has been computerized, everything from Early In the Morning, which was recorded on logic on a laptop. It was recorded in lo-fi manner because I had one mic but I made it the best thing it could be and I mixed the absolute crap out of it to try to make it the best thing it could be. So computers have always been the thing for me. My computer is my life. If I could handcuff my laptop to my arm I would. We've been on tour for seven days in a van and everyday I've been working in the back with my laptop because that's just how I work.
The instruments on a song like "Cavalier", the sounds on those songs, on "Red Dust", that sort of warm wash is where like to sing. Singing over an acoustic guitar was never an easy thing for me. I can't do what I want to do. There's a reason soul singers don't use acoustic guitars very often because its difficult to combine the two [sounds]. I love the acoustic guitar and I really enjoy doing shows by myself. But synthesizers and fender roads and piano and more washed out cords and broader cords its easier to do what I want to do. Also I love the sound of them. I love putting my voice on top of them. The third record has all been recorded on my computer and I set myself really strict limitations on it to not over blow it, to not go and put 200 tracks of audio on it. I'll record my drums back in my studio, I'll play keyboards in the back of vans and try to capture something really spontaneous and big, and record my vocals. That's it, not over think it. And I've involved more acts as well. Like people. I've been lucky this year to work on three or four records and work with great people. I've made a lot of friends in the world of production, in the world of big time kind of stuff.
EM: Can you tell me what you've been working on?
JVM: Yeah, I worked on a record for UK artist called Tourist. Will [Phelps] is awesome. We worked on that together. I'm not sure how many songs will end up on his record but I definitely think at least one will. It is a really beautiful song. Will's a great songwriter. "I Can't Keep Up" is amazing, that was the first time I heard some of his stuff. He used to work in the Mac shop in Covent Garden with a friend of mine who told me about him. But he sort of disappeared off my radar and then popped back up. He just signed with a management firm here called Teamwork and started hitting up my management about doing something. I hadn't thought about it for a while and they played me "I Can't Keep Up" and asked, "Would you want to do something on this?" I was like, "No, that song's finished. It's great."
I forgot about it for a while and ran into his management and they were like, "Let's do something." So he sent me through two demos and I wrote to them over the space of like 15 minutes and sent them back. And it was like perfect, so I flew to London. They're great. Will's amazing, he's an amazing singer as well, which is not what you expect. [His voice is] really wicked, he's got a very thoughtful aesthetic and he gets it. He's killing it at the moment: He was part of writing team on the Sam Smith song ["Stay With Me.] Will quietly just gets things done. A lot of people blow their own horn. Will is brilliant but he doesn't let you know or go on about it. He's just quietly putting it all together the way people should put it together. His live show is amazing and is perfectly captured in the video for "Wait." "Wait" is a great song and his record going to be fantastic. So he's one of people I've been working with. This other UK artist, this girl named Denae Moore who sings on the SBTRKT record, she opened some shows for me I really liked it so I helped her out with some stuff. She's amazing. And then another UK dance artist Duke Dumont. I worked on that record.
EM: What?! That sounds like an interesting collaboration.
JVM: [Laughs] It's cool. It's a big song, as in physically big. I'm really excited about it. First time I heard it, it was 60 percent done. I tracked vocals to it and wrote some sections like the bridge. And we did a show in London where he was debuting his live thing and we sang it live. It's such a great song. I haven't heard the finished version but I think its going to do really well for him and the lyric, it really is great.
Adam [Duke Dumont] is in a really great place in his career, I think it's there for him. "I Got U" and some of the songs have set him up, and they [his team] want to bring it home. He's doing it the right way. What I like about Adam is he could easily go full on main room dance guy, be a guy behind a fader and make an absolute fortune. But he's not looking to do that. He wants be thoughtful and really make something. His hands are deep in it and he's thinking about it. The idea is of people like Adam is almost like Kanye West – you have to be a curator and know the right people to reach out to and work with. Adam and his team do that well.
EM: Have you been working on any production or just songwriting and singing?
JVM: For the Tourist record, I wrote the melody and the lyric but there isn't anything I could contribute to Will's production, because he's brilliant. I did some synth work and stuff on the Duke Dumont record and wrote some lines and different bits. But that's kind of my world. I understand chords and voicings and stuff. But again, like Will, he doesn't need help with production. They're dance guys. I'm and R&B guy. There's nothing I could contribute to that, nothing I could do that they couldn't do better themselves. I don't need my fingers in every section. It's their work and I'm looking to contribute how I can. It's the same way with this Kygo thing. It's his thing…
EM: You're doing a Kygo thing too?!
JVM: I've been working on some ideas for some stuff. But I probably shouldn't even talk about it yet. It's much more his thing. I'm a big fan and I think he's great and I think he's again going to run next year and it's cool to be part of it, in whatever fashion he chooses. He came to me with a very specific request and then he's going to do his thing with it. It's his and it's mine, but really it's him. I can't really describe it. He will probably kill me for talking about it. Suffice it to say, he's fucking cool and it was great to hear the music as it comes together with those types of people. I've been asked to write for a lot of people. The great aspect of that is that I've written a third record made up of all these songs I was going to write for other people. In the end, I said, "That's my song. I wouldn't want anyone else to be singing that." I was asked to write for five or six really big people and I didn't give them anything. Before, I got in my own way [when writing songs]. [This time,] I wasn't concerned with is this chord being exactly right. I wasn't over thinking like I always do. I said, "That's a beautiful idea and, slowly but surely, I'd have a full song. It's how I used to do it. I used to just kind of go from start to finish in a linear fashion. Then, I went really fucking for it with Post Tropical and with songs like "Gold", thinking how can change the key and things that you do when you get too caught up in it. I've gone full circle and back again its just about writing songs and singing them with heat.
EM: Has anything come out of you and Adventure Club since they remixed "We Don't Eat"?
JVM: Yeah, we talked about some stuff. I always said to them, "Send something through whenever you want to make a record," but they just haven't made a record. They are literally just having too much fun and probably making too much money. If they felt like they needed to make a record, I'm available to them to contribute whatever needs contributing. They were looking to do a remix on the second record. I wasn't that keen on it because I wouldn't want to go back to the well just because it was amazing the first time. That's not my instinct.
If they ever want to make an album I'm completely down to throw my voice in it and see what happens but they haven't. We've hung out a bit and I saw them at Coachella. We talked about me jumping up and doing "We Don't Eat", but it was a bit too intense and messy and difficult to do. There's never been a good time to do it and they never reached out because there's not an album. I don't know what they're making, but they're probably getting 50 or 60 grand a night by going and a doing a show and then getting on a plane and doing it again. It's an intense lifestyle.
You have to take a break and sit for five or six months and make a record, which is hard to do when the heat is on. I know this myself, if you stop you can get worried that it wont start again. And in the dance world, where the turnover is so intense, you don't want to stop and then find that someone else has taken your place in the line. It's difficult in that world to feel secure. It's different for me now, but at the beginning of my career we had to keep going because there were more and more people when I'd come back to a venue. And now, I'm running for the right reasons. I'm not worried. I keep coming back because there are more things I want to do.
EM: You described yourself as an R&B guy a couple minutes ago. Early on, people called you folk. What genre do you think you fit best in?
JVM: People don't know what to describe me as. It's interesting, we're kind of in the middle of things. Which is, the difficulty of music these days is you have to probably pay people a shit load of money to go run around and tell people what you are. That's something I've never had. That's one thing that's been a bone of contention, or talking point among some people. They say, "You were a folk artist and now you're this." I wasn't folk when I started. It was me and a guitar and I didn't have a press machine to tell them anything different. But then, someone wrote it and more people came [to the shows].
I don't think anyone who listens to folk music would consider me a folk artist. There were some big things in the world, things like Mumford & Sons, and I have songs that would fit into bill of what they were doing, but I would consider them a pop band. I've always been a soul singer, always wanted to be a soul singer. I'm singing as a soul singer, not as a folk artist. It's a different thing and it never really made sense to me. And now, I was always sure of what I am but now I'm sure that that genres are weird and pointless. You hear a new one everyday, so it's become redundant.
The idea of trying to define yourself is difficult. I'm a singer-songwriter. That's how I describe myself. I would consider Frank Ocean to be a singer-songwriter the same way I'd describe Elton John a singer-songwriter, and whomever else. I'm a singer and write songs. That's very simply it. And that's evocative of the sense I want to give with that definition. It's listening music and intense on an emotional level and draws you in. It's simple to describe. That's what I've always seen myself as. I could go on about the type of music I listen to and the type of things I was trying to evoke in different songs. I could break down the songs and talk about how that's the soul aspect of my psyche, and that's the guitar/drums part of my persona. It feels redundant to me. The thing with music these days is you need to have a huge machine behind you in order to negate that conversation, which is something I don't have.
Taylor Swift, again, is a perfect example. I don't think anyone sits and talks to Taylor's team about whether she's a country artist anymore. I never thought of her as that. I always saw her as a pop star, just with a guitar and a fiddle, who writes her songs. For me, I've never really had a label to have the wherewithal to figure it out and get behind a message. It's always been reactive.
The idea of genres doesn't mean anything to me. I love The National, but what would you classify them as? I don't give a fucking shit what would you define them as. There are acoustic guitars all over Boxer but it's not a folk record. It's very emotional music. There's songs like "Mistaken for Strangers", that are quite aggressive, put that against "Ada", which is a really pastoral guitar song. What kind of band is Arcade Fire? What kind of music is Radiohead? It doesn't really matter to me; it's awesome and I love it. All I've ever wanted to do was make good music that people like. So I don't care what genre it [my music] is; it's me. I always strive to make music that sounds singular, that if you hear it, you're like, "That's James." That's hopefully what I've achieved.
EM: What are you listening to right now? Is any of it influencing your current work?
JVM: The third record is really simply and kind of just influenced by my year. I listen to music for different reasons, not for inspiration but for cathartic reasons. Or I'll listen to technical shit because it's cool, like the Arca record at the moment. It's dense and really interesting. It's a hard record to listen to because is really discordant and difficult, but there are these amazing snippets. It's the same reason people listen to Aphex Twin. Nothing he's doing is easy. It's not meant to be easy to listen to and I want to understand it on a musical level, and that's why I listen to it.
EM: Any guilty pleasures?
JVM: I don't feel guilty about anything I listen to man, you know. My love of things from the 80s and 90s is well documented. I've always chosen song to cover from there and employee that aesthetic. The instruments I use evoke that period. I love Christopher Cross and I've never felt guilty about that. I listen to a lot of Hall & Oates and yacht rock and I'm not embarrassed about any of it. The Taylor Swift record is brilliant. I don't feel guilty about any of that.
EM: I ended up buying it because that's…
JVM: The only way to listen to it, yeah.
EM: I bought it because I felt bad about shitting on it without even giving it a try and there are a couple of really good songs on there.
JVM: I like it. I don't get the impression anyone would ever tell her what to do. That's how it should be; you should be the master of your own destiny. I'm not guilty of anything I listen to or watch. I love shitty movies.
EM: What's your favorite shitty movie?
JVM: My favorite shitty movie… Jesus Christ, I grew up watching shit like Predator 2, which is not considered a masterpiece.
EM: Yeah, it's just pure entertainment.
JVM: That's exactly it. I love entertaining things. I'll watch the Expendables 3, I don't give a shit. I don't expect much out of it but it will entertain me and there's a lot to be said for things that are simply entertaining. The more I do this the more I understand it. I used to be a bit snobby about things. I think I've said a few things this year that have made me come across as a dick where I've been like, "Music has to be forward thinking.' And I don't necessarily agree with that anymore. That was me feeling a little pretentious or some shit.
There's a band from here, the Alabama Shakes. I never listened to them when they came out because it felt like revivalist. It felt old and I don't get that. Why would you want to sound like your old? But I listened to that record the other day and it's fucking amazing, it's fucking incredible. Her voice is brilliant. I totally missed the point because I thought, "This sounds like revivalist stuff and it's not my thing, so I'm not going to give this anytime." But that's a shitty way to be and I don't want to be that way anymore.
Part of this new record is me losing that pretentious bullshit part of me that I've had over the past year. Like talking about elevating the artistic plane, but that's bullshit. It is, it's total bullshit. You'll see tonight, we are playing a big beautiful show full of pop songs. I'm a lot more at ease thinking, "I'm a dude that wants to entertain." When I listened to Alabama Shakes, I was like, "How have I not listened to this? Her voice is so badass and I slept on it because, 'Nah, I saw it on TV, it sounds like 1965, so no." That's a bullshit way to be. Do whatever the fuck you want. I admire people who do that. They figure out shit they love and keep doing it. The opposite is these artists who run around trying to find a sound.
EM: Like a Madonna for the past twenty years. Now that she's working with Diplo, I'm more hopeful but still.
JVM: It's tricky with people like that. Someone played me the new Gwen Stefani song and it's just not what you want it to be. It sounds a couple years behind everybody else. What people like, what I loved about that first [Gwen Stefani} record is it's like that Kelis record with The Neptunes and Andre 3000 on it. She said, "Here are ten people in the world that are amazing and who I'm gonna choose to work on this." Gwen Stefani did it and No Doubt did it on that "Hey Baby" record. That was a rad record because they put The Neptunes up against dance hall, and that was a reflection of their love of pop music. And it was fucking dope and it ran it. Now, they're running around trying to figure out what sticks. They forget what to do. People didn't like them because they were on trend, they like them for being them.
U2, go make an amazing record with four dudes in a room. Don't get Ryan Tedder in here. I understand It, I had friends who worked on that record and they kept being like, "We need a single, we need a single." They shouldn't give a fucking shit about a single. They are one of the greatest bands in the world and the biggest band in the world. They could go play for 60,000 to 70,000 people a night. It's pop eating itself. Ryan Tedder and these types of songwriters grew up on [U2's] "With or Without You," and they go, "I want to fucking do that," and then they go help [on the new U2 record]. Don't try to elevate this thing. Write U2, don't write something that's cannibalized.
I'm totally over this idea of elevating shit. Like, "We have to go to Morocco sit in a fucking tent in Morocco." Music is simple if people get it right. Like Taylor Swift said, "This is what I'm going to do," and does it. Like internal poll taking, "Is this going to work? Is that going to work?" I'm done with all that shit. So this third record better be fucking good now [laughs].
Post Tropical (Deluxe Version) by James Vincent McMorrow is available on digital outlets now.
James Vincent McMorrow
Post Tropical (Deluxe Edition)
- Vagrant Records