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
The Awakening–which was released in September and has
already sold half a million copies worldwide–attempts to tap into a
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
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
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
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
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.