Band Notes: James Morrison

Before his sold-out show at 9:30 Club on Wednesday, the British singer-songwriter talks shaking up his image and the song that made him reconcile with an ex.

By: Tanya Pai

At 21, most people are cramming desperately for midterms and trying to develop their beer pong skills. James Morrison, on the other hand, was touring the world and performing chart-topping singles, winning fans and awards alike for his bluesy love songs. The British singer-songwriter's first album, released in 2006, went triple platinum in his home country; that same year he was the best-selling male artist in Britain. His third studio album, The Awakening--which was released in September and has already sold half a million copies worldwide--attempts to tap into a harder-edged, more genuine side of his music. Before his show at 9:30 Club on Wednesday, Morrison chatted with us about breaking away from ballads, singing to his daughter, and channeling his personal life into his music.

How's your day going?

Good, it's a nice sunny day. We're in Minneapolis, on the bus. We're here just till after the show . . . we've got a little three-week tour to cram in all of America, and then we do some festivals in Europe.

How do you unwind on the road?

If we have a day off we have some drinks and a bit of a laugh on the bus, maybe smoke some pot [laughs]. I'm just using the things I used as a kid, just taking the piss out of people, letting them take the piss out of you, picking on people's vulnerable sides. We're all a good bunch of people; we've worked together for quite a while, so we can rip on each other.

Have you played in DC before?

We played in Washington once before, but I can't imagine for the life of me where it was. To be honest, I'm nicely naive about where I'm going until I get there. It doesn't matter what you know about a place, I'm just going in with an open mind.

You've traveled all over the world at this point--do you have a favorite place you've been to?

Japan is one of those places I never thought I'd get to go to. Australia. San Francisco is one of those places I always love going in America--LA is completely different, but I really like the more chilled-out areas of California. I like New York, as well, and we played some gigs in Chicago . . . I wouldn't really want to go there if I wasn't playing a gig; it's cold and windy and quite stark-looking. I did a gig in Switzerland in a castle, which was pretty cool. I kind of like outside gigs. I just like hippie settings, either a dirty little club where it's all sweaty or somewhere outside where people are getting high and listening to music.

This tour is to promote your newest record, The Awakening. How's it going so far?

It's been going good. It's a really nice feeling, seeing how people have been receiving it. I've been off the radar for about three years, so to know I have a fanbase that still comes out and sees me is pretty great.

How do you think your music has changed from your first album to this one, your third?

I think I've just got a better sense of what works. I know I can think of mid-tempo ballads all fucking day long, and I wanted to get away from that, to be more about life and less about love. I just got to that place where everyone was like, "Oh, James Morrison, he's so cute, and he sings love songs." I wanted to try to write about personal things, my connections to life. . . . When you listen to the songs, you hear them for what they are rather than me trying to write a hit. I know what it feels like to do something you don't feel 100 percent right about--when I released my second album I felt like, "Shit, I should have spent more time getting it right." It's a horrible feeling when it's already been done. So now I'm a bit more confident about how to get what I want.

You work with cowriters--can you tell me about the process?

I mainly get as much of anything I do finished as possible. Sometimes I have ideas that are too finished, sometimes I do a verse and a chorus or just an intro, but generally I get all my ideas together on my own. Starting from scratch with someone I've never worked with can take a lot longer because you've got to allow space to let their ideas in. Cowriting is weird--you're either on the same page or you're not. Some people just want to write the chorus that'll earn them a load of money, but I'm lucky all the people I work with are really good writers. They help me get there.

Is writing an album by yourself in the cards?

Yeah, writing a record on my own is actually the next goal. I'm building a studio at home so I can write the next one on my own, and maybe co-produce it.

You also have a daughter, right? It must be hard to be away from her for long periods.

Yeah, she's three. [Being away from her is] the hardest thing about touring really. Then at the same time, after I've spent two weeks at home I'm glad to go away and tour again [laughs]. It's concentrated amounts of family time, which is an amazing thing; I'm working all the time and then I go home and it's intense family stuff and I have to catch up, so by the time I go back on the road I get a break. I love being with my daughter, I love going home, it's just not very often.

Does she have any favorite lullabies you sing her?

There's this old '80s song from this movie The Man With Two Brains. A man falls in love with this brain and puts it in the body of his wife, who's a bitch. [sings] "If you likea me, like I likea you, and we likea both the same." I sing that to her sometimes, and she loves that. She usually tells me to shut up singing, though, because singing is work for me, and she says, "You're not working now, Daddy."

Many of your songs deal with very personal subjects, including the recent death of your father. Is it hard to get up and perform them in front of people?

No, it's a weird thing. It's easy to perform the songs; it's a creative thing, you can lose yourself in the music, I'm not constantly thinking about my dad and how he's not here. I use these things to inspire the songs. It's more when I have to talk about --if someone says, "Oh, your dad was an alcoholic, do you want to talk about that?" it can be quite difficult to talk about. When I'm singing about stuff, it's easier. It's a relief.

But it must be strange to look out into a crowd and see thousands of strangers singing those personal words back to you.

It's always pretty mad when you start out with a song in a bedroom or a kitchen . . . but it's one of the best things about writing music. It's quite a buzzy thing to feel like you're making history--not history, necessarily, but you're writing something that could [end up in] the subconscious mind.

Is there a song you feel that way about?

I've had a few songs that have fazed me over the years. I just remember "Let Her Down Easy." I'd just broken up with my girlfriend, and all the lyrics really fit. I felt like I was meant to hear that song at that time, and I ended up getting back with her because of that song. And now we have a kid together.

Who do you listen to in your spare time?

My iPod has stuff I've had for ages--Sublime, Citizen Cope, Toots and Maytals, Bob Marley. It's stuff I like that reminds me of certain times. Every now and then I listen to something new, the odd bit of dubstep, a bit of hip-hop, a good little mix of classic music. Mostly I listen to stuff I grew up listening to . . . things that remind me of certain times with my dad or personal songs that open your memory to certain things.

Last question: I was just in England, and my British coworker and I were having a debate over whether Roses or Quality Street chocolates are better. What do you think?

[laughs] Good question. Roses, because you get better choices; with Quality Street you're always left with the fudge fingers. I like the caramel ones with the hazelnut. They should just do a box of those.

James Morrison performs at 9:30 Club this Wednesday, May 16. Tickets are sold out.