“Breathtaking” is a word that often gets banded a little too generously when it comes to musicians, but in the case of James Vincent McMorrow, it’s fair to say it’s a justified description. We met in Hackney on the hottest day of the year, which seems fitting (though uncomfortably sweaty), in lieu of his most recent album aptly being named Post Tropical. The album, sunbathed and sauntering, allows for a platform for McMorrow’s outstanding musicianship – in particular, his instantly recognizable and – here it comes – breathtaking falsetto. In a surprising twist, in between guzzling ice water and whining about the heat, we actually managed to find some time to talk about some music.
Post Tropical’s opening track, 'Cavalier', marks a clear movement away from what has largely been branded as the ‘folk’ sound of McMorrow’s debut album, Early In The Morning. “I was nervous putting out Cavalier first because to me, it’s a very polarizing track. There are songs on the record that would’ve been a nice bridge between the first and second record but I felt like life is so short, why fuck around?” Evidently the “fuck it” approach worked well, as the track was met with a wealth of positivity. “[The response] was really a lovely thing because I wasn’t expecting it.”
It’s undeniably endearing to listen to the singer talk about this particular track, as while he enthusiastically discusses 'Cavalier', its importance to him is apparent – “You only get one chance to make a first impression so I didn’t want to try and dazzle you in 10 seconds… It was important to me that people listen to it all the way through. It really made me think about making records because every time you do something like that and it works it gives you more confidence. “
The remarkable shift in sound between his first and second albums has, of course, been a bit of an elephant in the room – “The first record was made with fuck all money and I wasn’t very good. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know how to make a record. I’d written like 10 songs in my life… I was just trying to see if I could make a record.” Clearly, he definitely could make a record, and a pretty spectacular one at that, as Early In The Morning found critical acclaim.
The development between the two albums seems drawn out of the justified confidence McMorrow gained from producing the first record, as well as now simply having access to more instruments. “With the second album I was never that concerned about whether I could make a record or not because I knew I could. Sonically, the first album’s not where I ever wanted it to be, but it’s where I was because I couldn’t buy anything else. I just had a guitar, drums, a piano, and some other bits and pieces I’d collected – whereas with this album, sonically, it’s how I wanted to wrap my songs up.”
We reach the clear conclusion that complacency is a pretty awful trait, so it’s refreshing to discuss his ambition in ensuring his songwriting is ever-changing and oftentimes intricate. “Say I made a record that was just me and a guitar, and then another that was also just me and a guitar, I’d just think, why bother? Do something else because repeating stuff seems really lazy and boring to me. I’ve always wanted to push myself and I’m always intrigued by new sounds. My mind wanders and goes a million miles an hour so I wouldn’t be any good just sitting with a guitar and writing songs – I’d get so bored so quickly. I need complexity in my life to make it work.” Thankfully for fans of Post Tropical, another vast change in direction sounds unlikely as McMorrow seems keen to continue building upon the sound he’s established as he works towards album number three. “The new stuff is definitely more overt than before, more fun, but I love the general vibe of Post Tropical. Songs like 'Cavalier' are where I always wanted to be as a musician and a singer, so the new album will ultimately be an extension of that song and that idea.”
Having toured around the world extensively over the past year, you’d be forgiven for assuming it may have taken its toll, but McMorrow appears unfazed by it. “You have to embrace touring and find a way to not let it ruin you as a human, because it can totally eat you alive. I love playing shows and that’s the overriding instinct”. Somehow, he manages to remain charmingly humble when talking about his shows at The Sydney Opera House. “It was what you’d want it to be – if that makes sense – as in, it’s a very iconic building. There are three or four venues in the world that you think about playing when you’re thinking about what venues you’d like to play. But yeah, it was amazing."
With touring in mind, and the ridiculously humid weather acting as a gentle (relentless) nudge, we’re led on to discussing a great British pastime – festivals. “I think we’re ready now for festivals, it’s been a mixed bag; some really great ones and some not such great ones. My favourite thing about festivals is trying to win someone over. I’m very competitive and I like being in a position of 'some of you may not like me, but let’s talk', and I think that’s cool.”
Our interview’s taking place the day before his performance at Latitude Festival, one that he played back in 2011. “We played in a tent really early and there were a couple of thousand of people in there. It started to rain really heavily and it suddenly became absolutely packed. It was one of those really lovely moments when we got to play to 7,000 people who were kind of… trapped. And then the rain stopped and no one left. It was a really perfect thing.“
Listening to him play, it’s pretty easy to understand why 7,000 people chose to stay listening in the tent after the rain stopped, because I suppose “really perfect” is a good way to describe McMorrow’s music.
Words by Victoria Parkey