ABOVE: JAMES MORRISON.
British musician James Morrison wants to break away from his easy listening, pop-soul sound. Morrison emerged in 2006 with a throaty voice, adorable curls, and a pocket full of languid love songs. Much to Morrison’s dismay, this debut quickly pushed him into a singer-songwriter category, perhaps best described as “people you’d expect to find on the soundtrack of a Richard Curtis film.” It is a label that Morrison’s been uncomfortable with ever since and is finally trying to combat with his third album, The Awakening. A much more energetic affair than his previous records, The Awakening features a few funk-heavy songs such as “In My Dreams” and “Beautiful Life” and a collaboration with English pop sensation (think Rihanna via Adele) Jessie J. There are still a few Love Actually-worthy tracks for Morrison’s loyal fans; his first single “I Won’t Let You Go” has already featured in commercials for Australian soap-opera (and prequesite first “break” for Australian movie stars) Home and Away, but the album is definitely a step in a more personal, honest direction.
On his last visit to New York, Morrison popped by our offices to discuss his take on The Awakening, his public persona, and his favorite day of the week. (We stick to the important stuff)
EMMA BROWN: When did you get to New York?
JAMES MORRISON: Three days ago.
BROWN: How’s it been so far?
MORRISON: I love New York! I’ve been here a few times. The first time I came it freaked me out quite a lot, I went to see a film in the cinema called Zodiac, [which] was freaky enough, and then I came out and their was a massive riot in Times Square. I don’t know what it was, I think it was after a football match. That was my first experience with New York, after that it’s been really nice even though it’s been freezing cold. [But] I’m not here to have fun; I’m here to work.
BROWN: Awakening is quite a dramatic album title.
MORRISON: Yeah, I wanted it to be quite dramatic. I wanted it to feel like I was starting again almost, or giving that impression to other people as well. I’ve woken up finally from all my insecurities about being an artist, all of the things in life I’d let slip by me because I was so busy on the road being “James Morrison.” It was the first time that I’d had proper time off to let life catch up with me and assess things—I lost my dad, I had a kid—so it was a pretty intense time in my personal life. I just wanted to capture that in the music and make it feel like a complete fresh thing, a new strand, rather than carrying on from my second album and worrying about how it’s all going to link. I just wanted to write some good songs that I felt good about, that were personal, that had references to soul and folk and pop and rock.
BROWN: So it was more of a personal awakening?
MORRISON: Definitely. If I didn’t get this album right, I didn’t want to come back.
MORRISON: Yeah, I just didn’t want to do it anymore if it wasn’t for the right reasons, if I wasn’t doing something that felt meaningful. I just felt like this sort of second-rate singer because I was singing pop stuff. I wanted it to be more back to my core, back to who I am as a person.
BROWN: When you write songs that are so personal, do you feel vulnerable or exposed?
MORRISON: No, not really. When I talk about it, it’s hard sometimes, because it is personal, but when I sing, it just makes me feel free. That’s the whole point, to sing about stuff that is real and true.
BROWN: What would you say you’re most excited about on this album?
MORRISON: Hm, I don’t know. They are all little bits of a jigsaw that kind of meet each other. But I was really excited when I did ‘The Awakening’ because it’s got a little bit more guts to it than anything I have done before. I have always been a bit like, “Oh the ladies like it but the blokes are not really that into it,” so I just wanted to try out a tune that the blokes would like. It’s a rocking track to play live.
BROWN: You’ve mentioned before that guys don’t really like male singer-songwriters, but you’ve worked with some male singer-song writers like Jason Mraz; were you a fan of Jason’s before you worked together?
MORRISON: Yes, I’ve been to see him in concert in London, he’s really good. His band were amazing as well. I was just getting my band together at that time, so I remember thinking, “Fuck, he is really good!” [But] he never really said a lot to me when I spoke to him. He’s quite quiet, or he keeps himself to himself, which is fine but I always like to make it a bit more personal and I didn’t have that connection to Jason. It was fun working with him on “Details in the Fabric,” he’s a nice guy and he’s talented, but I didn’t get a lot out of it in terms of the personal experience of meeting someone else who’s an artist. I did a gig with him in Las Vegas and I was like, “Hey, Jase, how’s it going?” and he’s like, “Yeah, good. Here’s what I want you to do.” It was a bit businesslike.
BROWN: How do you decide who you’re going to collaborate with?
MORRISON: A combination of who’s around at the time, who I like, who I think is going to be an interesting person to work with.
BROWN: Anyone you want to work with in the future?
MORRISON: There’s a few people I like, but I try to be realistic. I don’t want to do too many collaborations. I love Citizen Cope, I’ve met him a few times. Stevie Wonder, Ray LaMontagne.
BROWN: Do you often get compared to other artists?
MORRISON: [I used to get compared to] James Blunt and Paolo Nutini. I came out at the same time as both of those guys, we are all singer-songwriters, my name is James, so I can see why it happened, [but] it really pissed me off in the beginning.
BROWN: James Blunt or Paolo Nuntini?
MORRISON: James Blunt. One, I’m not really a fan of his music, and two, I don’t think we sound anything alike. He has got a really, really high kind of voice.
BROWN: A little bit girly…
MORRISON: A little bit girly, yeah. But he sells a lot of records and he does well… I’m not slagging him off, it was more about not being taken as an individual. I get compared to lots of different people from Stevie Wonder to Al Green and Sam Cook which is great, [but] a bit much for me to take seriously. I love Stevie Wonder, he is my favorite artist. There is bound to be a little bit of Stevie in there because I love him so much.
BROWN: You’ve been a musician and in the public eye for six years now, do you have any words of wisdom that you would want to impart on someone who is just starting out?
MORRISON: I don’t know; other than try and figure out what it is that you want to say or who you want to be as a person. The closer the relationship between who you are as a person when you’re not performing, and who you are when you’re performing, I think, the better. If you have to be someone completely different when you’re on stage… for me, it just doesn’t work like that. I’m a more confident person when I’m on stage, but I’m still myself. It has always been important for me to know who I am and carry that into my music.
BROWN: You don’t have a stage alter-ego like Beyoncé?
MORRISON: No, I’m not like… what’s her name, Sasha Fierce? Sasha Fierce! You can definitely see she has another side to her when she performs. Ultimately it’s still her, it’s just a different side. It’s a different side of your personality.
BROWN: But you were only 21 when you started, that’s quite young to know exactly who you are.
MORRISON: I didn’t know who I was at that point. That was the trouble. I was a young lad still, I just knew that I loved soul music and great folk music. I just tried to write songs that would reflect all the music that I liked. I was really unsure of myself as an artist and as a person, I was still growing. That’s what’s nice on this album; I’m 27. I’ve had a kid. I lost my dad. I’ve been through enough to know what it’s about, know the bullshit, know the good side of it. Taking all of that into the third album just makes it easier to do what I do. I haven’t got the secrets. I’ve just been really lucky to be in the right place at the right time and I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but it’s been a bit of luck as well. You’ve just got to be prepared for the opportunity. If you want to be a singer, you’ve got to have some songs ready to play to people.
BROWN: This is a bit of a random question, but would you rather spend a day as Mick Jagger or President Obama?
MORRISON: [laughs] Definitely Mick Jagger. I wouldn’t want to spend a day as a president, it would be too hectic, stressful. I’m not a politician in any way. It would be fun it being Mick Jagger; he’s probably kicking back in his mansion with a pool and a big cigar. Mick Jagger, any day of the week.
BROWN: What is the most irritating question you get asked in interviews? I shan’t hate you if it’s one that I’ve asked you already…
MORRISON: [laughs] I always get asked “Who do you want to collaborate with?” All of the time. The truth is, all of the collaborations I’ve ever done have been by accident. It’s the repetitiveness [of interviews] more than the actual question. They ask like, “What’s my favorite color” sometimes and I think that’s pretty lame, but I’m pretty easy-going. It takes a lot to annoy me.
BROWN: Has anyone ever asked you what your favorite day of the week is?
MORRISON: No. I haven’t got a favorite day of the week actually. It used to be Friday, ’cause I knew I’d have the weekend off. But now my weeks don’t work like that. So whenever my day off is, that’s my favorite day.
BROWN: Do you often forget what day it is?
MORRISON: All the time! But I kind of like it like that. It just feels like you are not bound to time.
THE AWAKENING IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON iTUNES. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON MORRISON, YOU CAN VISIT HIS WEBSITE.