By Eliza Mills
I can hear the harmonies before the heavy doors of Brighton Music creak open. James Vincent McMorrow and his band are doing a sound check, and the music is bouncing off the brick walls and slipping out the door, where a jealous looking couple listening outside asks, “Who is that?” as I walk inside. The venue is completely empty except for the band and the sound engineer—a collection of ooohs, aaaahs, and check, checks, fill the room. The band members tune their instruments: two guitars, acoustic and electric, a bass, two pianos, and a mandolin. James asks the engineer to turn up the drums, and a heavy thump echoes through the hall.
My first experiences listening to James were solitary; his music calls up memories of walks in the hills and train rides past thick forests. The band breaks into a test run of “Sparrow & the Wolf,” and the audience of two is flooded with high harmony and soaring melody. Later, when they play the same song to a crowd of two hundred, it will be just as quiet, the crowd just as reverent. James’ songs are striking, they demand a sort of hushed listening.
James is predictably soft-spoken and unpredictably funny. “Do your best Jagger!” he jokes with his bassist before climbing the stairs to his dressing room. Did he always want to be a musician? “I was shit at everything else,” he says.
James grew up playing the drums, surrounded by music and musician friends. Eventually, he learned piano and guitar and taught himself to sing. The transition from drummer to lyricist and singer was a part of James’ musical growing-up.
“I wanted to wait until I had something to write about,” he says, “a lot of young musicians start up and they have nothing to say…I wanted to make something with resonance.”
James’ debut album, Early In The Morning was recorded in an isolated house by the Irish sea on a single microphone. The album is very intimate, evocative of nature and a homey familiarity, but James is quick to note that his style is not limited to the sound from his first record.
“People call this folk music, and I love folk music,” he notes. “I love The Beach Boys and four part harmonies…but my favorite record this year was the Jay-Z and Kanye album [Watch The Throne].”
Though James says he has no plans to make a hip-hop album, his next project will be more rhythmic., and involve collaborations with his band’s drummer. James is adamant about the importance of change in his music. When asked who his influences have been he cites Steinbeck and Faulkner but says that just because he was reading those authors when he made his first album, doesn’t mean his inspiration will stay the same. Lately, he’s been listening to Wye Oak, Twin Shadow, and The Antlers.
“I don’t really go into the album with an idea in mind… in that sense the songs do write themselves,” he says.
Though a serious songwriter with an album he professes to being “eternally proud of,” James has room for humor in his music. His cover of Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” blew up on YouTube after he recorded it as a joke for a radio station back in Ireland.
James also recorded a quiet, slowed down version of Steve Winwood’s ’80s pop hit “Higher Love” for a charity album, but insists that this was not at all comic. Although the original could not be more different from James’ cover, which is chock-full of synth and horns, he says “Higher Love” is one of his favorite songs. During the show his band leaves the stage for the Higher Love, and James sits alone at the piano. The crowd is virtually silent through the piece, but when it ends, the applause is outrageous.
James’ solo presence onstage is captivating, but his band’s stage presence adds something exciting to the live show. They’re completely in sync, and the extent of the band’s work is clear in concert. The recorded versions of these songs are salient and stunning, but the music is brought to life by performance; a palpably uplifting tone colors some of the less obvious songs from the album. “And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop” and “This Old Dark Machine,” two songs that I’d neglected prior to the show, were transformed by the band’s onstage energy. The audience was entirely enthralled, breaking its entranced gaze only to sing along. James and his band put on a fun show— just loud and wild enough, but still somehow beautiful in a way that is true to his music and style.
During the interview and the concert, it became clear that James is a storyteller and a poet. His songs come from imagination and experience—they leave listeners reeling, wanting more. If you haven’t heard it yet, check out Early In The Morning, and if you’re lucky enough to be in the vicinity of a show, go. James Vincent McMorrow’s voice is one that demands listening, and his story is one worth hearing.