A songwriter from Dublin, McMorrow’s vocal talent and songwriting has resulted in invites from some of the worlds’ most influential artists to play alongside them including the legendary Al Green, Tracy Chapman, Bon Iver, Mark Ronson, and Iron and Wine. His literary references, coupled with his appreciation and embracing of the styles that influenced him, make him one of the more compelling singer/songwriters of our time. TDOA writer Amy talked to James about the art of his music.
TDOA: We’re fascinated by your interest in American writers like Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. What draws you to their writing and how does it influence your lyrics?
JVM: It’s the imagery and the pictures that they painted, they were so all consuming and vivid. Someone could read their words, you’d close your eyes, and see everything they were describing in such detail. I’ve always been fascinated by writing like that, when I was making the record I was reading a lot of books by Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, poetry by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, a lot of Irish writers. There are a lot of commonalities between the great American writers and the great Irish writers, such a singular and unique sense of their environment.
TDOA: Vocally, I think you’ve got something really unique. Who influences you?
JVM: Hearing Donny Hathaway made me want to sing. He is, and always will be, my favourite singer. He had such control and poise in his voice. He was always exactly where he intended to be vocally, and he could think 32 bars ahead. He knew every avenue he could take his melodies. I listened to a lot of soul singers when I was learning; Marvin Gaye, Al Green, D’angelo, but as a songwriter I’ve always been drawn to folk music, so I’m equally as influenced by how Neil Young or Joan Baez use their voices to articulate the intent behind their writing. Female singers as well, have always been hugely important for me, probably because of the nature of my voice: Karen Dalton, Billy Holiday, Judee Sill, the list is endless really.
TDOA: I hear a very Burt Bacharach sound in your songs – are you a fan?
JVM: Of course, I think any musician worth his salt owes a debt of gratitude to Burt Bacharach. I love the rhythm of his songwriting. Everything had a distinct roll to it and his vocal lines were never static. They were like flowing trumpet lines, always moving with the chord structure. No one could write songs like him.
TDOA: You didn’t start playing guitar until you were 19 – was it difficult to learn? Are you still learning?
JVM: I learnt the guitar so that I could sing, not to be a dexterous guitar player. So it wasn’t hard to get to a place where I could play well enough. It was the same with the piano and all the other instruments. I got it to where I had just enough knowledge to write, sing and keep time. But over the last few years, by the very fact that I’m playing more intensely and writing more and more, I’ve learnt so many new things. I think that I’ll always be learning. I can’t imagine ever not wanting to discover new instruments or new ways of playing the ones I already have.
TDOA: Emotion is the real story of your music – can you talk a little about your songwriting process? What makes you write?
JVM: I don’t know what makes me write, it’s just a compulsion and desire I’ve always had. For me songwriting is usually a tale of two separate things, the music, and then the lyrics. I spend a lot of time with melody, putting it together with chord structures, thinking about where it all could take the song. Once I have a really solid sense of a songs structure, then I look at lyrics. I tend to pull words out of the melody as I hear it, random phrases and syllables, then slowly piece them all together. It’s not until I have the first line that I can tell what the song is going to be. Writing this way tends to give everything a slightly more fragmented and abstract feel, which I really like.
TDOA: I’ve read that you’re quite influenced by Sufjan Stevens – what particular elements of Stevens’ work do you think have been most influential?
JVM: Everything about his work I find influential; his melody, his words, the way he puts it all together. When I was just starting to think about my own songs I heard “Come on Feel the Illinoise”, and it was like this revelation. He was doing almost all of this himself. His words were flawless, the arrangements were just mind boggling. So complete, you can’t imagine another thing he could have added to any of those songs to make them any better. I know I’m coming across like a super fan here, but I don’t even care. His music is worthy of the highest praise!!
TDOA: Who do you think is making the best music right now? Genre doesn’t matter – just good stuff.
JVM: Based purely on the new things I’m listening to a lot at the moment, I’d have to say Lykke Li, Julianna Barwick, Iron and Wine, James Blake, and Kanye West.
TDOA: What elements of traditional Irish music have influenced your sound?
JVM: The storytelling is the key for me, Irish musicians tell stories in a way that’s wholly unique to them, in the same way that the brit folk singers and US singers of the 60′s and 70′s were singing about things that only they could sing about. My dad was and still is a big Luke Kelly fan, and I sought out a lot of stuff myself like Planxty and Van Morrison. Not too sound too cliche and ridiculous here, but there really is a mystical and almost spooky sensibility to traditional Irish music. When it’s done well it’s a thing of sheer beauty.
TDOA: Early In The Morning was released in Ireland in March of last year, so I’m assuming that those songs have been in existence for a while. Is it at all frustrating that the album is just now getting a U.S. release? Is it safe to assume that you’ve got an album-full of material that you’ve written since then?
JVM: There are parts of it that I find frustrating, but then I understand how this all works. At the end of the day, I put this out in Ireland by myself with little or no money. There was no way it was going to miraculously come out in other parts of the world until I found someone to put it out with me, and those things take time. As the days go on, I’m feeling more and more connected to the songs on the record. I’m just excited by the prospect of playing them to as many people as I can over the coming year.
I do have new songs that I’ve been working on, and am playing a few live, but I’m not a fast writer at the best of times. So I’m taking my time with them. I know I won’t be making a second album for a little while yet, so I see it as a great opportunity to make sure whatever ends up on record number 2 is worthy of being there.
TDOA: I read that you’re a punk rock kid! What? Where can we expect to hear those influences in your music?
JVM: It was more hard rock bands like Refused and At The Drive-In than straight punk rock music. But it is true, my first introduction to music was playing drums in heavy rock bands when I was in school. A lot of the bands I listened to back then I still listen to now. I know I’m not exactly making that kind of music, but I can hear some of it in there still, especially in how I play the drums. I play very heavily because of how I learned. I break a lot of sticks!
As for the singer/songwriter thing, I guess I avoid it because I’ve never looked at myself like that at all, every song I’ve ever written, I’ve looked at as though there were seven other musicians in the room with me. Every instrument I own or can beg steal or borrow, I will throw at it. I think about songs like a band would think about songs, I’ve never seen it as being just me and a guitar.