Dublin-born singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow has been gaining positive critical attention for his latest album, Post Tropical, but when I talked to him, he was just another guy standing on the side of the highway.
“Something exploded in the engine,” McMorrow explains, chuckling softly. “I’ve just been standing outside like an idiot trying to get out of the way.”
Automotive troubles aside, McMorrow sets the tone for the interview early on; he speaks calmly, but his clear passion for the music world seeps through regardless.
When his album dropped back in January, it caught listeners’ ears for its unique quality, not simply in terms of modern comparisons—though it isn’t often you hear a lingering falsetto beating through the radio as his does. McMorrow explains that he’s at a very different musical stage than he was when he released Early In The Morning, his first album.
“If I could make [a] record now, I wouldn’t make that album,” says McMorrow. “That album was born at a certain time in a certain place with a certain set of circumstances.”
McMorrow took the risk of reinventing his style to what suited him at the time—and evidenced by his sold-out world tour, it seems to be working.
When it comes to McMorrow’s personal view of his recent rise to fame, he tries not to get bogged down with radio plays or chart listings. It’s all about pushing himself—particularly with his newest album, which he describes as featuring some of the most vocally taxing pieces he’s ever done.
Luckily for McMorrow though, his talents have taken him far past backseat performances. Post Tropical reached number two in the charts in his hometown of Ireland—second only to Bruce Springsteen’s album, as McMorrow notes with a laugh. He tiptoes around answering what it was like to find out just how well his album had done as he gets lost in recollecting on comparisons being made between himself and Springsteen on posters around town, but for a fleeting moment, he couldn’t hold back the pride he felt in his work.
“When you succeed in your home country, it’s special,” he says. “They now understand I wasn’t just messing around.”
Currently winding down his tour, McMorrow is starting to settle into the musician’s lifestyle: he warms up his voice beforehand, wears his watch on his right hand for luck, and, if he’s feeling particularly superstitious, re-wears outfits from previously good shows—which he admits is insane. But aside from a few quirks here and there, McMorrow largely seems content with his life on the road; he insists that this is what he was meant to do.
“I made a choice a long time ago to not do anything other than make music,” he says. “If that means playing guitar out of the back of my van, so be it.”
McMorrow also tells me about some of his earliest musical memories, such as frequently carrying around Michael Jackson’s Bad and the memory of listening to U2’s “The Fly” for the first time.
“At that moment in my life, I remember absolutely being obsessed with that guitar riff that starts the song,” recalls McMorrow. “It’s one of my first proper musical memories.”
It’s interesting to note McMorrow’s instant infatuation with the guitar, as it was the first of many instruments that he would learn to play. On Post Tropical alone, he admits to playing every instrument featured except the clarinet.
“I’ve never counted how many instruments I play,” he tells me. “I love the idea [that] if you learn it yourself, you’ll just know it forever.”
McMorrow really won me over, however, when I asked him to convince me, in 10 words or less, of why I should go to his show here in Montreal and he stuttered around looking for the right argument. I even heard him counting under his breath and I imagined him sitting on the highway next to a smoking van full of instruments trying to fit his life’s journey onto his two hands.
“I can’t do it,” he finally sighed and admitted to me. “Anyone who wants to go, it’s because they’ve heard something they want to keep hearing [….] We’ve spent a lot of time on this show and I think it’s worthy of other people’s time.”