James Vincent McMorrow talks gigs with caves, cats, and more

James Vincent McMorrow has had a whirlwind year. Since releasing his debut album Early in the Morning last year, he’s received rave reviews in his native Ireland and beyond for his recordings and his striking live performances. I caught up with James at Bowery Ballroom, where he was warming up for a second show with fellow Irishmen Bell X1.

So, first of all, I just wanted to say that your show was really great last night even though you were really exhausted.

I was absolutely. I played a show last week and I was really unwell. I thought that was about as bad as I’d be onstage. As soon as I started singing last night, I didn’t have the heart that you need to power through. I was like, “I can’t. I can’t sing anymore.” I had this whole setlist, and I was looking at it going nope, I can’t because I’ll pass out. Just exhausted. It’s a terrible idea to travel all that way through timezones to play a show.

Well you did that last time you were here with Bell X1 [at Le Poisson Rouge in October].

I did. That’s the only time I’ve ever done it, and both shows have been like a haze. I can’t remember anything from last night. I just remember going, “Okay, this is my last song” and then my guitar strap breaking and being like yeah, this is definitely my last song.

When you were opening for Bell X1 last time, was that the first time that you toured in the US?

Yeah. I’d done a couple of shows in LA and stuff, and I was over in September, but that was the first time I’d properly played night after night. My whole purpose for being in New York is because of the show I did at Mercury Lounge recently, and then I had all this press stuff planned, and then the plan was to go to the West Coast afterwards to start the tour with The Civil Wars. They just rang and said listen, we’re playing these shows, do you want to come? It just worked out. It was literally just like yeah, let’s make it work, and we could only make four days fit. But it’s better than nothing. Just getting to hang out with the guys is awesome because they’re deadly. It’s cool to be able to come to these places and hang out with your friends.

Do you feel like you’ve picked up anything from the bands you’ve opened for? You’re usually by yourself, acoustic, and Bell X1’s last tour here was acoustic, but now they have the whole full band, kind of electro thing going on.

Do I pick up anything, as in do I pick up tips and stuff? Paul [Noonan] has a stage presence all his own. There’s no mimicking that. I always like watching the bands I open for. It’s just good to watch as much music as possible. I’ve seen Bell X1 play more times than any other band period purely because I’ve played with them all these times, and I always try to stay to watch the bands. Before that I had never seen them play, not in my life, not in Ireland, but then I come all this way and I’ve seen them like 20 times. But it’s great watching a musician do something that you don’t necessarily do. What they do and what I do are different. Musical commonalities and all that. Yeah, it’s deadly.

Do you ever feel like you have to overcome the conception of ‘guy with acoustic guitar coming out onstage alone’?

Yeah. I do. That’s why I didn’t do it for the longest time. It’s not a solo record, it’s not a singer/songwriter record in that traditional sense, so it’s a bigger thing. I didn’t want to make that downtempo thing because that’s not me; I wanted to make a big, interesting record. So I have to try to replicate that with acoustic guitar, which is kind of a strange thing. It’d be nice to have the band, but I didn’t have them, I couldn’t afford to have them with me, so it became a reimagining of the record solo, as a solo musician, which I was anti at first, but now I love. I love playing on my own, and I love interpreting these songs solo. I know because of the nature of the songs, they’re not traditional strum away songs, so people see a guy come out onstage with a guitar, they think a certain thing, but hopefully when they listen, it’s not what they would have expected, I guess. Fingers crossed. That’s good. I like that aspect of it. I love playing opening shows because it’s like nobody knows you, or a lot of people don’t know you, and not a lot of people are going to care about the opening act a lot of the time, so it’s like you’re competing to win people over. Going on a stage with a guitar trying to win them over, it’s a challenge.

Well, last time you played with Bell X1, I remember finding out that your album wasn’t out here yet, and I was sad. I asked my editor if I could review it because I knew it was coming out. I was surprised by how lush it is, five part harmonies and all that crazy stuff. Do you wish there was any instrument that you could do live but can’t because you only have two arms?

Yeah. I mean. I couldn’t pick one. I think I could do the Dick Van Dyk, kick drum on my back, banjos to my knees, I would. I like playing the guitar, and it works for me. I like singing. Singing is what I do, and the guitar facilitates my singing. That’s all I really care about. It could be a banjo, it could be a mandolin, it could be anything. I would literally sit on stage and play drums and sing. But yeah, there are instruments I’d love to bring out on stage to play and there are instruments I wish I could play, but I just don’t think it’s feasible. And it’s a slippery slope. I don’t like the notion of chopping and changing instruments. I think you should try to stick to one instrument and do that well. Like here’s the accordion. I can’t really play it… Because I can kind of play those instruments, and I did on the album not really in a live context. I played a mandolin onstage for the first time two weeks ago in London, and I was really terrified. It was like starting again. I know how to play mandolin, but I don’t know how to play mandolin live. It’s a crazy thing. Never pulled that out before.

How important is it for you to have your name on your music? There are so many artists out there who have different names, like being a character rather than being themselves.

I thought about putting it out under a name, but then I thought everybody’s doing that. It was easy. I just called myself by my name every time I played live. Before I put out the record, I called myself by my name. Obviously I could’ve changed it, because I play with ten people sometimes. My name is my dad’s name and my grandfather’s name. I’m James McMorrow, I’m not James Vincent really. I added the Vincent to add that separation between me onstage and me in real life. I’ve always been called James Vincent obviously, but I never called myself that. I always went by James McMorrow when I played live, but then I made the album and put in the Vincent because it is my name and I’m third in line, so I thought it would be nice. I just like the idea of it. To me, that’s like putting it out under a band name because it isn’t what I call myself in day-to-day life, not like using a crazy name or changing your name to Engelbert Humperdinck. That’s a good separation for me. The notion of calling it under a band name is strange to me, because when you’re introduced, you’re introduced by a band name, but you’re a solo guy, so I think it would be too confusing for me. I couldn’t pick a pseudonym or an alter ego, and there’s not more than one person onstage, it’s just the one person. You have to qualify it, like such and such is really just him. Sun Kil Moon is just Mark Kozelek, and it works for people like him. I don’t think it would’ve worked for me. I would’ve confused myself.

Do you feel like you want to write from a personal angle, or do you prefer to tell stories?

I tell stories, but everything I write is about me or my life, but it’s not just a linear, obvious thing. It’s pretty. I like abstract lyrics. I like stories that are disconnected from my life so I can sing them night after my night without having to think about it.

To keep from breaking into tears, like “oh, it’s the sad singer/songwriter guy crying again about his sad life.”

If that’s your thing. There are musicians in the world who do write that and write it beautifully. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve never been able to sit down with a guitar and write a song from start to finish quickly, and you listen to it and you know. Trying to do that well, I think, is almost impossible. There are very few people I’ve heard that do it in a way that doesn’t sound really self-indulgent and just tedious. So for me trying to wrap my lyrics up in riddles is a really good way to keep it disconnected from my life and also not going down that road. Oh I’m so sad or oh I’m so happy. That’s so simplistic. Writing music is one thing, writing melody is one thing, but then there’s writing lyrics. I think it should be a whole different thing, spend a lot of time on it. If I was to do it quickly I would just rhyme mat, bat, cat.

So did you have a lot of the songs half-formed before you recorded? I know you went off and were isolated a while.

There was one song that was finished, and I had that finished for maybe two years. It was the one song that I had with me that I always knew would end up on the record, and nothing else that I’d written did. Everything else was written in those five or six months. There might be two other songs that I was playing a little bit, but they were changed so fundamentally. Choruses were torn out and completely put back together. Everything else was put together in that space because I wanted to have a linear fashion. If you’re carrying in five songs and writing five new ones, you might’ve written it two or three years ago. Musicians are always changing, your writing style will always change and develop, so it would’ve been too weird. I thought let’s try and approach all of these songs as if they were new, and write a bunch of new stuff to see what comes out when you put it all together.

Have you done a lot of new writing yet, or are you going to wait until you have the time to go off on your own and focus on that?

I don’t write well, like I said. I just have to sit down and devote some time to it. I don’t have time this year. I have two, three songs that I wrote last year, two of them solo and one with the full band, but the full band song in particular is slightly more indicative of where the new album will go because it’s slightly more writing with a band in mind because I’d never played with a full band before. I’ll still play everything on the record, I’ll do the same thing, not the exact thing, but I’ll track the whole thing myself. I’m trying to think about playing the songs live and trying to make it more fun for everybody. The song’s very much based around my voice and the harmonies, and all of the instruments serve that to a certain extent.

What I want to do with the second record is to have it be more about the individual players, everybody have their own job to do. Jill plays a lot of mandolin, and I want to have more mandolin parts not just serving the melody of the chord structure. It’s going to be a while. This year is pretty much blocked off until January. So maybe in January if I’m actually physically capable I’ll sit down and try. I really want to, but you can’t get too excited about it either. I know I get frustrated because I can’t even if I want to. I want to see where this record can go, because it was just me in Ireland, and now a year later I find myself in France and England and playing to all these people and coming over here and trying to get that going over here. We’ll see what happens.

You have a gig coming up in a cave.

I do. Myself and Lisa Hannigan. Do you know of her?

I do. I love her music.

Cool. Myself and Lisa and this other guy called Caoimhin O Raghallaigh who’s an Irish fiddle player who’s incredible. He’s going to open it. It’s in a cave. I actually don’t know any more than that. The woman who runs the Cork Opera House in Ireland had this idea and came to me with it last year, and I just said yes. She said, “Do you want to play a show in a cave?” and I said yeah, and then Lisa said she was going to do it too, and we forgot about it completely. Then all of a sudden there was all this press and they’d put the tickets on sale, they sold out in like a minute or something insane.  It’s just this tiny little cave that only holds a couple hundred people. You have to walk a mile to get to it, and it stays the exact same temperature all year round. Nobody knows how it’s going to sound, the way the instruments will hold up. All we know is we’re going to be playing in a beautiful cave. It’s going to be filmed. That’s all I care about. I will figure the rest of the stuff out. It’s far away yet, but it’s going to be brilliant fun. It’s going to be deadly to hear Lisa too because it’s just going to be her and a guitar.

And she can project so well. Her voice is so unique.

She’s my favorite female singer, along with Joanna Newsom. She sings everything like she means it. She’s proper.

Is that the weirdest gig you’ll have done, or have you done weirder?

Last year I played some weird places. I played one in particular that springs to mind. Bear in mind, when I started in Ireland, it was kind of starting from scratch, so the first five, six months of the year, I was just playing anywhere that would have me. One in particular was a festival in Dingle that sounded incredible on paper but in reality was an absolute joke. Dingle is a beautiful town, and there’s a little town outside of it that’s also beautiful, and they were like, “You’re going to play out there in this other town in this bar.” It was a festival that was on, but it wasn’t a musical festival, it was like an arts festival, and there were only two of three musical things on. They hadn’t promoted them well at all. I was in this bar, and I arrived and the engineer wasn’t an engineer at all. He was like a boat captain. So he set up the mic, and there was loads of feedback. I was like, “Can you fix that?” And he was like, “I’ll fix it when you play.” And then he left and never came back. I got up onstage, and there were like fifteen people in there sitting on couches. It was really odd.  The mic kept feeding back, so I was like okay, I’m just going to sing at the front of the stage because there are only fifteen people here. And then a cat jumped up on the stage and sat beside me. For the rest of the show, the cat wouldn’t leave. It just sat there beside me. It was pretty weird. It was really weird, actually. That was one of the weirdest shows I’ve ever done.

The next day, I did a festival in Kilkenny. I had taped a tv show that week, and it was the biggest thing that I’d ever done in Ireland, and it aired that night. It was really big thing for me because the week before, nobody had really bought my record, and it was the worst thing ever. So that happened and then I turned on my phone that night, and there were like 200 missed calls. The album went to like number one that week. It was a big thing, and all I could remember was playing with this cat. It was a really surreal cat.

So what’s next after this tour in the States?

Back to the UK. Glastonbury. We get back and go straight to Glastonbury, and then to France. Then we’re doing a big show with Bell X1 actually, at the Marquee in Cork, which is great. That’ll be amazing because it’s full band for me as well. Then festivals until September and back here in September. Three-week headline run of East Coast and West Coast, so that’s going to be deadly. The year is just touring, anywhere that’ll have me really.

Even if they have cats.

Yeah, man. I’ve played with cats before. I’ll do it again if I have to. I’d rather not, but you know, whatever.

For more information on James Vincent McMorrow, check him out at http://www.jamesvmcmorrow.com/

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About Casey Hicks

Casey Hicks toils her daylight hours away in an office high above Manhattan in order to afford nights of passionately scribbling. The first song she remembers ever hearing is "Lola" by the Kinks. She thinks this explains a lot.
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