With a breathy and striking voice distinct enough to stop you in your tracks, singer/songwriter James Vincent McMorrow is traveling the globe to tout his vocal wares. After multiple SXSW 2011 performances in Austin (including the KCRW showcase) and a tour of several U.S. cities, the Irish talent stopped through Chicago before heading off to France, the UK and Germany. He remained in town long enough to grace a packed house at Lincoln Hall before closing out his first mini tour of the States.
It would be interesting to see the U.S. through the eyes of a European musician. “There’s a huge difference between touring in America versus back in Europe,” says McMorrow. He continues, “America is this vast expanse that has to be covered and Ireland is this tiny thing that can be fit in Lake Michigan.” With a smile he adds, “I think it’s statistically accurate you can actually fit [Ireland] inside Lake Michigan. A couple people have told me that – and I had a look on Google Maps and it looks about right.”
One could probably contend that each state in America is kind of like a unique little country in its own way. Whenever an artist at a concert says he loves a city, it can make you wonder how often they really do feel more connected to one over another. “Everywhere we’ve been playing has been distinctly different between the venues and the people,” said McMorrow. One of the cities that stood out from the past three weeks of touring was in our neighboring state to the north. “Milwaukee’s been playing our record already so it was great because people were singing the songs back to us, which was unexpected.”
The pleasant surprise of hearing his own words mirrored from fans left an impact. “I feel slightly ahead of the curve at the moment based on how I thought the year was going to go, so I’m just trying to maintain it. People singing at that show [in Milwaukee], going to a sold out Paris show next week; the record’s been out for 3 weeks in Paris…so selling out a 35o seat venue is kind of surprising!” Surprising for James and impressive to the music industry. Every musician could only wish to hear of seats filling so fast just weeks after a record release.
The tale of the record’s creation is in harmony with the simplicity of McMorrow’s voice itself. Story goes that back in 2008, James took a stab at recording in the studio but felt like nothing clicked. He didn’t have songs that he felt he “had much heart for.” When confined quarters of a studio were fruitless, it was off to a cabin by the Irish sea where he lived in solitude until Early in the Morning took form. As my mind conjured images of McMorrow’s bearded solitude straight out of “Into the Wild” he shared the insight that while it was a great way to create songs, he was glad it was over. “I thought it was going to take a lot less time to be honest. The idea initially was not necessarily to make a record, but to record some songs. I just wanted to go somewhere like that and put some songs together that would compel me – and compel others -to make a record with me. Going into the house, the idea was to kickstart something and then take that into the studio. I kept going and then months went by. I was 4 months in and literally had not played a single note for anyone. I think everyone thought I was slightly losing my mind and started to wonder if I was just having them on a little bit.” After finally unveiling the product of his seclusion, it’s safe to say everyone was put at ease fairly quickly.
So recording in solitude in the house by the Irish sea may have been less zen and more labor, but it’s come to pay off and is worth doing again. McMorrow plans to approach the next album with a similar intent as the first; go somewhere in isolation with the purpose of just writing songs and see what grows. That said, the second record won’t likely be made for a while because the touring cycle for this record still has a way to go. His visit to Chicago this time around was just part of a mini-tour here in America. There’s a full-on tour of the States to come in the Fall of 2011.
After a well encouraged brief interruption to order the famous Schuba’s / Lincoln Hall mac-n-cheese, James opened up about the record being born from a lot of his personal transitions in life on different levels. “I think the thing with the record is that I wasn’t aware I was going through transitions – but then in hindsight – I looked back at it and I realized what it was. I’m spectacularly unaware of myself.” An honest confession that comes as nearly ironic from an artist who crafts songs with what translates as a heightened awareness of emotion as he delivers lyrics.
About those lyrics, McMorrow shared that he doesn’t write them in tandem with a song, but “in an abstract fashion”. He explained, “I first record the melody, listen to it back and then – this sounds ridiculous – but I tend to hear the words in the melody. I write them on paper and the paper slowly fills itself up – and things just kind of present themselves.” James used to write stories when he was a kid, but never wrote poetry, so feels he didn’t acquire a grasp of 4 lines, stanzas or rhyme. “I tend to write and the words will just slowly pull themselves out of the page. It makes things more linear.”
“Linear” is actually the same word James chose to describe how he found his way into music. There was no Eureka moment where he woke up and realized he wanted to be a musician. He started playing instruments in his teens and ended up following a path of music that gradually made him want to be a bigger part of it. Sure, there were Michael Jackson tape cassettes in his pockets as a kid, ELO on the car stereo with his Dad, and the fine singing of Donnie Hathaway – but he never would have guessed he would end up pursuing music as a career.
“Linear” is also the word that can be used to describe James Vincent McMorrow’s path to success. One country at a time – city by city – he’s an artist on a trajectory to win the masses over with his arresting high-pitched vocals and artfully crafted melodies.