James Morrison speaks to Vinyl Chapters about his new record, working with Joss Stone, and what he likes about touring.
After taking a four-year break between albums, James Morrison has made a welcome return with new record You’re Stronger Than You Know. Featuring a much more live sound than previous work, the album sees the You Give Me Something singer in a good place, stress-free and loving making music. Not content to just stick with one sound, the record branches out to areas we haven’t heard from the artist before, making it feel as though something has changed in him. Vinyl Chapters spoke to James about this new sound, what he loves about live music and why he’s made the switch back to vinyl.
It’s been about 4 years since you released your 4th record, Higher Than Here. What have you been up to?
This and that! I’ve been busy actually, I’ve done really cool things. I did a concert with BBC at the proms. That was with legends like Tom Jones, Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore from Sam and Dave…that was cool. It was probably one of the best things I’ve done in my career. Absolutely loved it. I was buzzing for weeks after that. I’ve done the odd gig here and there as well, but I took a bit of time off because my Mrs got pregnant and it was a difficult pregnancy, so I had to deal with that, really. I was still writing in between, quietly working away in my little music workshop, putting stuff together and taking my time with it. I would have put an album out if I had something that I felt good about, but I didn’t so I thought it would be better to come back with something strong when the time was right. A lot of what I do works on how I feel about it: if it feels wrong then I don’t go with it. If I trust my instincts then it’s normally alright!
Your new record You’re Stronger Than You Know features a more stripped back and raw sound. What were your ideas behind the record?
I just wanted to have a collection of songs that were recorded live, that weren’t overproduced. I wanted it to sound like all the records that I loved. From early Stax and Motown to anything with soul, Dusty Springfield, Jackie Wilson, that kind of thing. I was even listening to Hosier and some newer stuff. I just like music that has a beat, any beat, backbeat, hip-hop beat, reggae, anything.
Generally, I just wanted to put a live album out and go back to where I started, which was just singing live in a room. I wanted it to be more like the gigs I do. I have this thing where people come to the gigs and they’re like “Oh?, it’s this thing, it’s not what I thought it was gonna be”, and I just wanted the record to match up to the gigs. I wanted more of a connection between the live vibe and the album.
What was it like working with Joss Stone on track My Love Goes On? How did the collaboration come about?
I shoehorned her into it! I held her in a room, I tied her up and said if you don’t do it, I won’t let you out! Nah, I’ve met her a few times across the years, she even gave me my Brit award. She was so friendly and it was like I already knew her. I’ve seen her at gigs and she’s come to a few of mine. We even sang together at Coachella, so there is a bit of a history there. When I wrote the song, the idea of getting someone on it came about and I tried to think of soul orientated singers from England that weren’t obvious choices. That first album of hers, to me, was just alive and really good. As an 18-year-old, when I listened to that album, I was blown away by it. So to get her on a record was amazing. It kind of felt like I’d been on a journey because of this collaboration – I used to listen to her when I cleaned vans, so to finally sing with her on a record was fun.
Was it easier to have more freedom and creative input into this record over previous releases?
Definitely. Nothing was over thought in any way. Not any part of the process. I’ve never had it where I’ve made an album and there’s been no stress. Because of what I’ve been through in my personal life, it’s made the music and easy thing. All the decisions I made in the songwriting were really quick decisions, just trusting my instincts. In terms of getting that live sound and getting to what I really like about music and getting it recorded, I’m getting better at it. That’s what’s enjoyable.
The whole process of getting the songs together and getting signed up to an independent label from people that I knew was a really nice feeling as well. It wasn’t for commercial reasons, it was for reasons from the heart. It was made in a really organic way. The only way I could do that was to stop stressing about it all and just do what I normally do, which is to try and sing something that means something to me. I’m so proud of it. People are singing the songs before they’ve even come out, which means they are really listening to them.
Have you got a specific song that’s a favourite on the record?
I’ve got a few! I really like Power. Also, I Still Need You and Slowly. For those tracks, we just kind of played them a few times and got to know them enough so that we knew what we were doing and then we just went at it. I’ve known a lot of the guys that played on the album for years. It wasn’t like a load of new people, there were relationships and crossovers there. I wanted everyone to feel comfortable. Even the producer had worked with a few of the guys before so it was easy. It was just like a little family. We knew what the job was and what we were trying to do.
How do you find touring these days? How has it changed?
Touring has been something I’ve always loved. But in the beginning, I was so scared about failure and I wasn’t comfortable with being me. The crossover between being delicate and strong…I just never knew which side to go. Now, I’m not too worried. I’ve done some of the best gigs I’ve ever done in terms of how I feel and how I sound. We’ve got no track at all. Everything is live. It’s slightly different every night which is fun, and it’s great with a band. I did a gig on my own the other night which was good, but a totally different thing. I feel like I’ve got my armour on when my band’s there and I can do anything. Hearing all the different ways they play the music inspires me more to do different things every night. That’s what I love about music; you don’t know what you’re going to do next and you just go for it. Now I’ve got so many songs I can switch a few around in the set.
What’s been the strangest thing that’s happened to you on tour?
There are so many things that have happened! It’s hard to think! It’s not the strangest thing, but off the top of my head, we were playing up a mountain in Switzerland, The Eiger. It was almost 2000 feet up. It’s so high the air is really thin and I was trying to do the big notes but it was really hard because you can’t really breathe very well. We did the gig and as soon as it finished we got on snowboards and just smashed it down the mountain! That was pretty cool.
How do you feel about the resurgence of vinyl? Are you a fan of the format?
Yeah! But, I never used to be. Records were around when I was a little kid but then the world moved onto tapes and CDs. When I bought my first car I had tapes, and then I started buying CD’s, but in the last 7-8 years, I’ve been buying vinyl, slowly but surely buying little bits I like. I play vinyl every day when I’m at home. I love it. I get why people love it. I didn’t get it for a while: they’re cumbersome to carry about, but now I understand it.
I love going record shopping. Every town we’ve been to for a gig, I’ve also been going to buy records. It’s cool. You go into a weird little record shop in the middle of nowhere and the owner is well into the music so you can have real good chat about it. One guy made me a cup of tea while we were looking at the records! It’s part of it, isn’t it? Being around people that like music and know what you’re on about. You also never know what you’re going to get. I used to love going to car boots for that same reason, and it’s the same with record shopping. You could find something really funny or amazing that you wouldn’t have even thought about. I love looking at all the different artwork, and it’s nice to actually physically own it.
With the ever-changing nature of the record industry and streaming, what’s been different for you when promoting this record?
You need more people to help you with the promotion because there’s so much stuff to put out there. I have a team of people that help me because I’m not the sort of person that’s proactive with online stuff, I’m just about the music really. It’s good to have the team to get the music out there because there are so many people accessing it in different ways. For me, as long as the album felt good, I knew it would be alright to promote and work on whatever format. I made the record in mind of people that buy records. I wanted an album that people would want to put on a record player; I wanted it to be an organic thing. My hope was for people to see it as a great vinyl album, which I think it is. I never thought of vinyl on any of the other albums I’ve released but, on this one, because I’ve been buying records more and music is going so digital, I wanted to go back to the roots of what I love about music. That is, people in a room, music played live and sounding great on vinyl.
What are your plans going forward? Any ideas for the next record and what direction it would take?
It would definitely still have that live vibe about it. I do want to push the envelope in terms of the speed of some of the songs. I want to get faster! I really want to do something with a few riffs and really go for it. I want to make people go “Fucking YEAH!” when it’s played, not just “Ohhh, hasn’t he got a lovely voice!” I want people to jam out. I love rock music, y’know, soul rock, I want it to have a bit more attitude.
When I’m playing live, people like the stuff when I go for it a bit more just as much as the ballads. I’m really enjoying the other side at the minute, the rockier stuff like Slowly or Call The Police or Power. All my favourite singers have the sweet stuff then also they tracks where they can really go for it and that sounds wicked live.
James Morrison is currently on tour around the UK and Europe. Check out his tour dates and find out the latest news here.