Kanye West is misunderstood. James Vincent McMorrow certainly believes as much, anyway. Unlike Chicago’s finest, the Irish troubadour of hypnotic timbre will probably never prompt hastily written clickbait every time he tweets, but he’s keen to highlight the more meritorious aspects of The Greatest Rock Star On The Planet.
“I think that when you’re someone like that and you do the things that you do and you say the things that you say, you definitely are misunderstood,” he begins. “If you look past the hyperbole, obviously the things he says are quite crass, but to a degree he’s right all of the time! I remember laughing when he kept talking about leather jogging pants with Zane Lowe and how he was on that before anybody else. It’s a ridiculous thing to say, but then you look at how he’s approached style and fashion, and then you look at what happens afterwards, and you’re like: ‘Well shit, he’s actually right’.”
“He gets lost in the mix because the things he says are so sound bite-y and so meme-able that you forget that even in terms of modern song writing you can never look past 808s & Heartbreak. That record changed how people like Drake, everybody, me… top to bottom everybody looked at the idea of being open and vulnerable on an album while also occupying a sonic space that was never really done before. I listen to that record and then I listen to ‘Marvin’s Room’ and I don’t think Drake would exist if it wasn’t for 808s.”
Preach. Does McMorrow ever feel misunderstood, though? He continues to resist the lazy ‘folk guy’ tag that many have thrown his way since the release of debut album Early In The Morning back in 2010. Unafraid of the majesty of pop and hugely enamoured with hip-hop, rap and R&B, the 33-year-old is keen to explore his sound in a bid to consistently shake things up.
Enter third record We Move. Though the 10-track offering comes with a familiar ‘most personal yet’ narrative, the case of James Vincent McMorrow strides past hollow press release bluster. Indeed, he crafted his own announcement of the record in the form of a candid open letter issued via social media. Across 427 words, he detailed the usual lead single and production credits gist before getting to the heart of the matter. He spoke of a lack of confidence, deliberately hiding behind previous material, and “taking safe roads because honestly I was terrified.”
Bold admissions and welcome ones, too. The resulting body of work – which counts the likes of Nineteen85, Two Inch Punch and Frank Dukes among its personnel - is officially out a few days by the time DiS dials him up. Jet-lagged and understandably a touch wrecked in the midst of the promotional hubbub, McMorrow is nonetheless engaging company, prone to intriguing rambles and subsequent unnecessary apologies. He sounds satisfied without being utterly content, a healthy state of play for anyone in his position. Kanye would surely approve.
DiS: What was going through your head the moment you posted your open letter?
James Vincent McMorrow: I don’t read responses so much. It’s not like I’m disconnected from it; I know from my own personal experiences in putting things up and engaging with people that psychologically speaking it’s good to put things up and, more importantly, if I feel good with what I’m doing and what I’m saying, then I’m okay. I say the things that I feel like I want to say right now and my hope is that people will received it the way that it’s intended. If they don’t, that’s okay. I feel good in all the things that I’ve done, in everything that I’ve made; every video, every piece of music that I’ve released now, this album included. I feel good about what it is and what it does. That’s all I can ask of myself.
Was it a case with previous work that you didn’t feel that kind of confidence?
Yeah, I think that’s probably fair to say. When we first put out ‘Cavalier’ I was in a car driving up to visit my parents and I was sitting in the passenger seat with my phone in my hand. It started to pop when the record came up and I remember feeling really worried because that song was definitely a push forward for me in terms of where I wanted to be and for anybody that had heavily fucked with my first record, the reaction I was expecting was probably equal parts good and bad. I sat there with my phone thinking: “Oh, god, here we go…”, but when that song came out, peopled tended to get it more than they didn’t.
That was the first moment where it was just like: “Okay, cool, I can do the things that I want to do and not be so fearful.” There definitely was an amount of fear with the second record in terms of the whole making and releasing and playing behind it that was born out of this, “Am I able to do the things that I want to do or am I going to be forever bound to this initial idea that people have about me?” That idea didn’t exist on We Move because I knew what was possible of me and what was possible of the audience. It made it a lot easier.
Had you ever previously written something that you didn’t feel comfortable putting out there?
It’s hard to say because I think by the time a song is finished, I’m happy with it. There are probably versions of songs on more of a production level than anything else that I wish I had committed a bit more to. There’s a song on Post Tropical called ‘Gold’, and I had a version of that which I was working with very early on that was very much in line with We Move, at least sonically. Again, I just wasn’t committed enough so I found a way to make that song where I was really proud and really loved how the arrangement ended up but I worked really fucking hard to make it work and make it feel the same way that the more simple version felt to me.
To be honest, from a lyrical standpoint I have probably backed away from saying certain things in songs. I’ve put more of myself in an original draft before working quite hard to blur myself out of the image a little. It felt quite strange to say such personal things. I’m just not a person that gives a lot of myself away to people. I have close friends but we don’t share intimate details of our lives with people, so the idea of doing that to thousands every night just seemed really bizarre and surreal to me. Ultimately, every song that I have finished I feel proud of, but there are moments within those songs where I wish I had been a little more willing to tackle the initial idea rather than finding some circuitous way to tell it.
How does that apply to something like ‘I Lie Awake Every Night’, a song which deals with very personal and real issues?
The revelatory thing is that it’s not hard to do. I guess it’s to occupy a space where you’re comfortable with the premise of saying these things. I’m a huge fan of Josh Tillman, and I genuinely loved watching the trajectory of him with the Father John Misty thing. That was really inspirational to me. It was like, “This is a person”. I remember Josh when he was making records under the J. Tillman thing and they were very sad, very angsty, and then I saw him with Fleet Foxes and he was hilarious, this super funny guy behind the drum kit, and I wondered where that was in the music.
Then you see the Father John Misty thing and it’s so self-possessed and fully formed, so clearly there was a moment where he was like: “Well, fuck this”. You’re not being real, you’re not doing the thing because you’re afraid, and you have this preordained idea in your head of what you should be. We ‘should’ be these sad musicians saying bad things, but we’re not putting anything real or tangible to it. That’s something that I felt, too. Once you flick a switch in your head and say: “Okay, I’m gonna say these things now”, and you commit to it and occupy its space; whether it’s developing a whole character in order to embody this idea, or whether it’s just like me and I’m like: “Well, fuck it, I’m just going to write these things down and I’m going to tell people what they’re about even though I don’t have to.”
Which ties directly into your overall approach on this record.
Part of the idea I had was to be honest properly for the first time and not in some pretentious high-minded way – just be fucking honest. Once I decided to do that, it was actually really easy, even with a song like ‘I Lie Awake Every Night’ where you’re drawn back to being younger and not fully formed as a person. These are things that I still carry with me, but it’s not hard to do. Sometimes it gets heavy singing them but that’s good, I want to be onstage every night in these moments, I want to feel that what I’m talking about is something real and tangible because I think that translates to the audience. People can sense when you’re singing something just for the sake of singing it, whereas now at this point in my life I need to sing things that actually mean something to me.
You worked with some interesting people here, some of whom pushed you to really strip things back. Was it difficult to apply that restraint?
It was a little jarring to begin with. Say when you write something and you’re incredibly into the idea and you pass it off to an editor and the editor sends you back something littered with liner notes with red ink all over it… that’s a hard thing to deal with because you believe in every single thing that you do. So the idea of somebody with a cold, clinical eye going: “Nope, nope, nope, that’s flowery, that’s ridiculous, you can’t say that, you need to change this…”, it’s hard to hear.
I spent a year constructing these songs and trying to make something that I was excited by and I felt like I had this thing and I was excited for them to be involved and for their input but I really wasn’t prepared for how much they would change up the songs in some cases. Everybody was coming from a different aesthetic standpoint and their own working models. ‘85 has become who he has become working in the OVO camp, being around people like 40 who are very minimalist and very much into doing the most by saying the least.
It’s an interesting balance to figure out, I’d imagine.
He brought that energy in, whereas I was coming with ideas that were pretty grand; 46, 47 layers of track, the usual thing that I have, and if he was feeling something he’d say it but if he wasn’t, he was just like: “Nope, that needs to go”. The reason being that it didn’t need to be there, which is a new concept for me. “That doesn’t need to be there. You don’t need it.” Once I got past the jarring nature of that, I welcomed it.
Outside of the studio, what have you been listening to? I know you’re quite a big Beyoncé fan, so how did you feel about Lemonade?
I really love it. It’s a funny record because in a way she has created something that has zero singles on it. There’s no typical Beyoncé top of the charts thing, which is an amazing thing for someone in her position to do, but she’s done it beautifully because she created this visual album with a narrative arc to it. How I listened to it was quite similar to how I’m currently listening to the new Frank Ocean record. There’s no single. There’s no song where you’re like: “That is better than the rest of the album”; it’s just all perfectly knitted together and it’s odd in a lot of ways.
It’s a new space for pop stars to occupy and it probably has something to do with the people she worked with. You have people like Ezra Koenig and Father John Misty writing verses for her, so it’s a totally different animal. It feels like a whole different way of approaching pop song writing, which I love. I went to see her in Croke Park and it was amazing, her show is ridiculous. I’d never seen her play before and it was a weird experience for me all day long. I love that record. Beyond that, I can’t stop listening to Blonde at the moment.
It’s pretty incredible.
It’s weird. I think I probably had the same reaction as everyone else when I first heard it; “What is this?” I love channel ORANGE and it’s got so many amazing singles on it that you’re just like; “Where are the singles? How are there no songs on this record that radio will play all the time?” But then you dive into it and lyrically it’s really profound. The way he visualised and articulated the whole thing is so impressive; it’s such a beautifully thought-out thing where you have to go and read the text in the Boys Don’t Cry magazine to really understand what he’s talking about, and I love that he’s not making it easy for people to digest. It means you’ll keep coming back to it.
Something you’re very much not digging is polka, which you called out on Twitter recently…
Ha! I can’t even remember where I was, I think it was an airport in America and there was a polka band playing in the lounge. I don’t even know what the fuck polka is. To be totally honest I was just so strung out on jet lag and lack of sleep for the past two weeks so my Twitter has become a place to share the ridiculous things in my head with the world. I was in a room and polka was happening and I really didn’t want it to happen.
Would you like to take this opportunity to apologise to the polka community?
I would not. I would like to double down and say that polka should never happen.
We Move is out now on Play It Again Sam. For more information and tour dates, visit his official website