Friday, January 30, 2009

Q&A with Brit star James Morrison

My phone interview with Morrison took place during a tour stop in Salt Lake City on Jan. 23.

He opens for Adele in a sold out L.A. Wiltern show tonight, does a sold out solo gig at the Belly Up in Solana Beach on Saturday, then returns to SoCal for an appearance at the Coachella Festival in Indio on April 18.

Tell me about the current trio you're playing with on these dates.
It's me, another keyboardist and a guitarist. We’re kind of doing it acoustically (on the opening dates). I’ve got a full band I play with back home, which is guitar, bass, drums and backing singers.

Do you find a big difference between the American and British crowds?
The American crowds are easier to get on your side, really. They’re already waiting for you to come on, whereas the English crowds, it takes them a little longer to get into it. I saw so many funny people in the audience last night [in Denver]. There was this guy, I think he was deaf or he was just mental. He was signing the words to every song. I watched him for about half an hour, it was amazing. Just brilliant.

For the Belly Up show you’ll be headlining. I assume your set will be much longer.
Yeah, we’re going to have to put some more songs in. Hopefully, we’ll get some backing vocalists for that one as well.

Congrats on the latest BRIT nomination. What was the experience like when you won the last time around?
It was mental. Everything happened so quick – the release of my album, just all of that was quite a lot to take in. Then I won a BRIT which was unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe it. Obviously, I was really pleased. It was a real shock, definitely.

Was the success of “Undiscovered” in England also surprising – how it took off?
Yeah, I expected to have to work for at least a couple more albums before I had that much success, really. It came really quickly, so that was pretty scary. I thought, ‘if it can come that quick, it can go that quick.’ It was a bit daunting, but I just rolled with it. As long as I keep my eye on the quality of the music, I’ll just take it as it comes really.

The latest album "Songs For You, Truths For Me" is well on its way, having gone platinum in the UK. Relieved you haven’t had to deal with the sophomore slump?
Definitely. That was one thing I was really worried about. I did the best I could. I just wanted to know that if it was successful or wasn’t a success that I’d still be happy with it. That was just the main thing I was focused on. Rather than try to pull things together (on the basis of) ‘Is it going to sell?’ I wrote songs I could feel good about and hopefully that’ll be the thing that will sell it.

When you entered the studio, did you have any goals on how you wanted it to sound – maybe bigger and bolder?
Yeah, I wanted it to be bigger and rock a little more. I did try that in the beginning, but it just sounded wrong and like pastiche pop/rock. It just sounded crap. So I just wrote songs on the guitar again and didn’t worry about the style. As long as the song was there, we’d build the production around that.

You have some interesting co-writers on the album including Dan Wilson of Semisonic, who earned a Grammy for his work with Dixie Chicks and Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic. What did you learn from these guys?
Just exactly what I thought: they all want to write a good song and it’s all about the song rather than…I’m lucky to be able to work with people that just want to write good songs. Obviously, if you want to get on the radio, you do try for that. At the same time, working with Dan – he allowed me to do what I do and just direct me and steer me when I needed it, basically. He said, ‘what do you want to write about?’ I told him and he said, ‘there you go. You’ve got the lyric already.’ He was like a pro steering me in the right direction.

Did your lyrical inspiration come from friends and family on this album? You have one song about your sister.
There is a song about my sister. In general, I think you do get inspired by people you know and experiences. The song “Once When I Was Little” is all about holding up to your childhood. I know a lot of people that had to grow up quite quickly like my mom, my brother and sister. If you have rough experiences growing up, it can ruin you as a person. In a lot of ways, (the album) was inspired by friends and family, but it was more about my relationship with my girlfriend.

“Save Yourself” is one my favorites. Did you have the classic Motown sound in mind when you did that one?
Yeah, I love Motown. It was hard not to do that sort of stuff because I love it. I do lean toward that anyway sometimes when I’m writing. I do try and avoid it because of how many records are coming out with Motown stuff. It was natural for me to do that. I love Motown and I think there’s no harm in leaning toward references you immediately enjoy and have been inspired by. There are a couple tracks like that – “Nothing Ever Hurt Like You” and “If You Don’t Wanna Love Me” is like a Sam Cooke kind of thing.

Then on “Precious Love” you have the amazing Waters Sisters on backing vocals.
Oh yeah, man. Brilliant. When they came in, I was blown away! They’re awesome.

You’ve said “I don’t feel like a soul singer, but I can sing with soul.” Do you think people have trouble differentiating between the two?
Yeah. Obviously, if you put references to soul music in there - like I have done on a couple tracks – you’re going to get a bit of that. It can be confusing. I try to just concentrate on the lyric and what you’re singing about and let that be the soulful part of it. Rather than the style of what you’re playing. It’s hard not to lean toward those references when you’re writing because that’s the music I like and grew up on. It’s half and half. You don’t have to do a three step beat to be soulful and you don’t have to rip to be soulful. You can just sing about things that are important to you, that mean something and open yourself up in the song and that’s soul music to me.

Do you like more stuff from the mid-60s to 1970s?
That’s the music my mom and dad used to play all the time in the house. That was all the music I could get hold of for a period of time because we didn’t have a lot of money. I used to just listen to radio and put my mom and dad’s records on. All my references are from (their) music collection.

Some people questioned your authenticity after the success of the first album. Was that due to a glut of similar male singer/songwriters around?
Yeah. It didn’t help me at first when I came out. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, you’re like another James Blunt.’ I’m like, ‘for fuck’s sake. You know what I mean?’ It’s really annoying. You just want to get credit for being who you are. I didn’t bring out an album then because it was in fashion to be a singer/songwriter. I probably got signed because of the label because of that reason. I don’t care really. I got the chance to make an album. Whether it’s because (a certain type of act) was favored at that time or not, I took it with both hands and tried to write what I felt good about really and tried not to worry about all that stuff. Yeah, I think you do worry about that because everyone looks at you through a bloody magnifying glass and dissect you apart. I think that’s fair. When a lot of artists come out, that’s what you need to do to suss out who the artist is and stuff. You’re going to get that.

Do you think all the busking on street corners that you did helped you hone your performance style?
Definitely. It teaches you to be a little tougher. You’re not always going to please everyone. But as long as you can enjoy it and get on with it, it gives you a bit of backbone. If something goes wrong in a gig, which it did a lot when I was busking, like you break a string and you can’t replace it, you just carry on. It does teach you to get on with it really. And not be too precious about stuff.

Going back to the latest album, what was it like working with Nelly Furtado on “Broken Strings”?
It was great. She’s brilliant. I didn’t know whether it was going to happen or not in the beginning because duets aren’t something that I’d normally do. But it seemed natural for that song. I wanted to get someone who’d be an interesting collaboration. And Nelly Furtado was someone who’s in another world from me musically. It could’ve been a disaster or great, but I went for it. Luckily for me, it worked.

And the accompanying video is very emotional with you facing each other on each side of a mirror and all the flames…
It’s funny actually: on the day I was waiting for that explosion at the end all day I was so excited about it. They got this fire guy and he was like [in exaggerated American accent], ‘ok, be careful guys. If you don’t need to be in here, get out. It’s going to be pretty dangerous. There may be shards.’ He was building up to this big thing. When they said ‘action’ and went to blow it up it was like the tiniest thing ever. On the video it looks alright, but I got a laugh out it and said, ‘is that it?’ I expected like a big flame ball. It was over before it even began. It was good fun filming it. She wasn’t there (at the same time) for the shoot, but when I recorded the song, she was in the studio.

How did the collaboration with Jason Mraz (“Details in the Fabric”) on his new album come about?
His producer worked on my first album, so it was coincidence. Martin the producer called me up and said, ‘I’m working with this guy Jason Mraz and he’s got this song that could be a duet.’ They wanted a husky voice, so I went in and did my thing. I found it flattering that he wanted me to do stuff. I didn’t want to overdo my spot on the song. It was good fun. He’s a great artist. We have the same management now.

What’s next for you?
After the Adele tour, go back home and a couple tours in England Mar-Apr and festivals in Europe. It’s just a gig year really, which is wicked. I love gigging. I’ve done a lot of promo last year already. I’m always busy.

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