James Vincent McMorrow Finally Belongs

The Irish singer-songwriter on why he sounds nothing like an Irish singer-songwriter

Trying to track down James Vincent McMorrow is a hard task these days.

With the sound of passing trucks and waitresses taking food orders in the background, McMorrow tells me – via Skype, from a road side café in Dakota – that he has just driven all day from Minneapolis, and is currently on route to Seattle.

After that it’s on to San Francisco, followed by two sold out shows in LA. This is his third tour of the US this year. Just three years ago, McMorrow had played a handful of live shows, and was no more than a bedroom singer with an eight track. Now, he's one of the stand out acts scheduled to perform at the Belfast Festival at Queen's.

After recording a couple of demos at home in Dublin at the start of 2008, McMorrow managed to get a publishing deal with EMI, and decamped to London. Initially, he thought that all his prayers had been answered.

'After the deal I got with EMI, I thought that all was right with the world and that I’d go make a record in a studio with producers, musicians, and it would all be fantastic,' he explains in his charming Dublin accent.

'Unfortunately that’s not how it worked out. I didn’t enjoy the studio, I didn’t really enjoy my time living in London, so I came back to Ireland. I was a little bit disillusioned with the whole process.'

He did the unthinkable and decided to go make a record by himself. With little money or equipment, he spent six months in a house just outside Drogheda, recording Early in the Morning, his debut album. McMorrow is a firm believer in writing while recording, and says he had very few songs written when he went to record the album.

'I’ve never gone into a recording process with a firm set of songs. I like the spontaneity of following a song where it leads you,' he says. 'I trust the process. I believe that if I keep chipping away at ideas that songs will present themselves. Some of them may not be good, and if they are not, I know pretty early, and I can discard them.

'Also, I couldn’t really tell you what any of my songs are specifically about. I’m not really in the habit of explaining songs very much lyrically, because I think it demystifies songwriting. There is no overt meaning behind any of my songs.'

Listening to McMorrow’s album, you suspect that one of the reasons that his music has been warmly welcomed by an American audience is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of the clichéd Irish singer-songwriter. He says it would have been hard for him to try and mirror that sort of music, simply because he’s never really heard it.

'I guess I don’t sound like an Irish singer-songwriter; I make the music that I feel compelled to make and it manifests itself from that. I know I play guitar and I sing, but I don’t really consider myself a singer-songwriter,' he explains. 'I’m not sitting there with my guitar writing songs, and then bringing in anonymous players to flesh out the sound. I don’t have a session band with me, it’s just never been my thing.'

From making music in his bedroom to supporting artists like Tracy Chapman and playing on the Jools Holland show in a matter of months is a difficult process for McMorrow to get his head around. It's been a learning curve, to say the least.

While he may have got the recording process bang on, improving his live show was something he had to work on once he realised that there was actually an audience out there interested in his music.

'When I started with this record on day one I had literally played 16 shows in my life. I used to put my head down and just barrel through the songs without thinking about the audience or the intent behind the songs. It was just all wrong.

'The early shows were shambolic in my mind, but looking back it was a learning curve. Once I understood what a live performance was about – which was about half way through last year (2010) – everything changed. I didn’t understand it at the beginning. I didn’t know how to do it, but I do now.'

While most artists spend years trying to crack the States, McMorrow says that the reaction from the American audience has been the most impressive since the record came out.

'In Ireland, not that many people had heard the album. In the US it’s different. The record has been out for five or six months, people have listened to it, they know the lyrics, they want to sing along. I’ve never had that before, it’s just phenomenal.'

Before he leaves to get back on the freeway to drive another 1,700 miles into the night, I mention that he must be glad of the decision he took to go make the record himself. That choice has ultimately given him freedom and control over how his future records will be made.

'It depends on what kind of music you make,' he admits. 'If there is no creative, organic process to begin with, then you might as well sign with a big label and get them to make a record for half a million quid and beat people over the head with it until they buy it. For me, it was never a place I belonged.'

James Vincent McMorrow will be performing at the Grand Opera House on October 23 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens. Book tickets here. More details can be found in the Culture Northern Ireland What's On listings.