James Vincent McMorrow is more or less an introvert. This may not come as a surprise, considering that his first two records, Early In The Morning (2010) and Post Tropical (2014), were created in isolation: the former in a house in “the middle of nowhere,” Ireland and the latter in a “quite remote” studio near El Paso, Texas.
This was, however, not the case for McMorrow’s forthcoming album. We Move (out September 2 via Believe Recordings/Caroline) sees the Dublin-based musician doing just that: moving beyond and obliterating his comfort zones both emotionally and sonically. McMorrow traveled to various countries to record, assembling an impressive roster of respected producers and collaborators including Nineteen85, Two Inch Punch, Frank Dukes, and Jimmy Douglass.
The result is a strikingly soulful record that propels McMorrow from Early In The Morning‘s indie-folk, acoustic tracks to an R&B inspired, synth-pop sphere, with his deep-rooted love of hip-hop and R&B at the forefront.
We caught up with McMorrow while he was in New York to talk about his highly anticipated third album, the first record he ever bought, and his song in the Game of Thrones trailer.
PIMPLOY PHONGSIRIVECH: It’s exactly a week until We Move is released. How are you feeling?
JAMES VINCENT MCMORROW: People are starting to hear it now so it’s in that weird space but I’m not worried. I’m excited. I’ve been sitting on it for a while.
PHONGSIRIVECH: I know that this album is quite a departure, stylistically speaking, from your previous releases. Did that evolve naturally or was it a conscious decision?
MCMORROW: No, it was a really natural thing. I have a vision for everything that I make, but … I’m not that considerate about what I do. I do whatever is in my head and how it ends up tends to be the thing that it’s supposed to be. It was never a premeditated decision. I’ve been dancing around the idea of making this record for most of my life, but it’s always one thing or the other that just stopped it from happening. At the start I had no money, so you’re limited in what you can and can’t do. The second record you get more confident, you learn a little bit more, you have success and that helps. That second record was a big step out for me sonically, so when people received it well that was the last piece where I thought, “OK. I can do these things and people will accept it.”
There’s always that worry that when you have a lot of success with the first record, which I did, and it was tied to a particular aesthetic, which was a guitar, that there’s a certain amount of your audience that are probably going to reject you moving on from it. So having to move through that second record was a required thing; I just had to push past it, accept that some people wouldn’t like it, and that hopefully other people would like it and that would balance out. And that’s exactly what happened. There was a lot of thinking that went into it, but a lot of it was a very organic process from album one to here.
PHONGSIRIVECH: You produced your first two albums pretty much in seclusion, right?
MCMORROW: Pretty much, yeah. The first one for sure. The second one I recorded some of it in Dublin and some of it in Texas, which was quite remote. It was outside of El Paso.
PHONGSIRIVECH: And this one?
MCMORROW: This record I went where everybody else was. I went to L.A. because that’s where a lot of people I wanted to potentially work with were. I’ve always had a weird fascination with L.A. I wanted to kind of live there for a little while—try it out.
PHONGSIRIVECH: How was that?
MCMORROW: It was cool. I mean, it’s…
MCMORROW: It’s almost like a sociological experiment for me to be there because I’m not an L.A. guy. I don’t take meetings—you know what I mean? I don’t really know how to interact very well with people in L.A. because everybody’s got an agenda and everybody’s like, “What do you do?” “Where are you going?” Or it’s like, “What do you know?” And I’m not on a grind—I was there to make music and to meet people but I wasn’t hustling for anything. I mean, I really love it. I don’t want to knock it. It’s an interesting place to be and [was] really functional for me. And also Toronto, that’s where two of the guys that I worked on the record were, and in London, Dublin, and Miami as well.
PHONGSIRIVECH: And that sort of explains the significance of the title.
MCMORROW: All of the different places where the album was physically made were a part of the narrative. With this one, I wanted to move because I wanted to remove comfort from the album-making process, because it feels uninspiring for me. … To make an album in my own studio near my own house just felt like not the way to get to the point that I needed to get to. Like I said, these [previous] albums have been slowly opening up windows and the window has been getting wider and the opportunity is getting bigger. To then just sit in my house and repeat the same process wouldn’t have pushed that open all the way. So the choice was really simple. It was like, “OK, I’ve got to put myself in unorthodox places like L.A—places that I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate towards naturally—and live there and see what it’s like.”
When I first reached out to Ben [Ash, who is known as Two Inch Punch], myself and [Nineteen]85 had been in touch and we were working on some other records together. They were the ones that wanted to work on this record. I played them the songs, and said, “This is what I’m doing.” I was just letting them know in the sense that, “If we ever end up working on something, this is what I want and this is where I’m at with it.” Ben and 85 both said, “Come to us and we’ll make it,” which is not a comfortable position for me—to go to someone else’s studio and be in their zone. But that feeds into the idea of the title. That was it: Let’s just go to where people are and put myself in their comfort zones, thereby removing all of my comfort. And that would make me think about the music a little bit more because they’re such big time guys. They don’t really have the time to spend four weeks talking about a drum sound. We get in, and you do it, and it’s creative from start to finish but it’s a different type of creativity than I grew up on in my own album cycles. It was different to how I considered music up to that point, which was the point: to just throw myself into it. That then helped with the lyrics in terms of the ideas, like, what does it mean to move—emotionally or physically.
PHONGSIRIVECH: “Get Low” is stunning. What was the inspiration for that?
MCMORROW: It was written in L.A. It was written not about L.A.—I don’t write about specific things because I find that specificity removes the ability a song has to push wider. I’m not saying that that’s a hard and fast thing in music; obviously there are people who write about very specific things in their lives and do it really well. But there has to be, in my mind, slightly more general ideas behind the song. The inspiration for it was from living there and being totally not sure how to… Have you ever been in a position where all of a sudden you’ve become hyperaware of your hands?
PHONGSIRIVECH: Yeah. Absolutely.
MCMORROW: Where you’re like, “Do I do this with my hands?” [gestures] Or, “Do I do this all the time?” [stuffs hands in pockets] That to me is L.A., where I’m going everywhere and I’m super aware of my hands. What should I be doing? What should I be talking about? And people size you up very quickly. They’re like, “Who are you?” “What do you do?” “Can you help me?” That’s just the nature of it. It was the idea of being in an uncomfortable place and trying to navigate the waters. That’s where the spark of that song came from.
PHONGSIRIVECH: I know you love hip-hop, and working with Drake and OVO has influenced your work. Can you talk a bit about that?
MCMORROW: Everybody that knows me knows that my love of R&B and hip-hop has influenced my life not even as a musician, but generally in terms of growing up and looking to America as an inspiration. People like Pharell Williams and Timbaland … when I was a kid those people [were] guys that I really wanted to be. The hip-hop aesthetic and the way it’s produced always motivated me. Alongside that I was still wanting to make great traditional songs because I’ve never had any desire to rap. My love of hip-hop is driven by my love of rappers, but it was built out of my love of producers. That was always the aesthetic that I wanted to pursue, but then again I was playing guitar so it’s a very strange thing to try and meld together. Trying to find a route through to make a record that was a “hip-hop record”—where I’m not rapping or anything—that just took a while to figure out. But hip-hop has been the guiding light of my life as a musician and a music fan. It’s the one common thread through all of it from the time I bought my first record probably. It’s always been there.
PHONGSIRIVECH: Do you remember what that record was?
MCMORROW: I do. The first record I ever bought on CD was when my babysitter brought us to a record store. I was way too young to buy this record but it was Doggystyle by Snoop Dogg. And I was way too young—this was preteen shit. [laughs] I don’t even know why I bought that fucking record. And there was a Red Hot Chili Peppers record as well. There [were] a few records that I bought that day and I think I bought them because they had Parental Advisory stickers and I was very into that.
You grow up in Ireland and people listen to U2, so I used to listen to Achtung Baby and Zooropa a lot, but they were records that you’re given as a kid. You’re given them and you put them in a Walkman because you want to listen to something on holiday. I listened to a lot of stuff like that, and a lot of Michael Jackson, but the first time that I ever went and purchased a record it just happened to be Snoop Dogg.
PHONGSIRIVECH: You never seem to take breaks.
MCMORROW: Yeah, I don’t really do downtime. I’m always working on something. This album feels a little bit more like the end of something—like something that I started on the first record and I’ve gotten to a point now that I wanted to get to. I think that’s why I’ve always kept working. It’s because I haven’t said the thing I wanted to say or done the thing I wanted to do with these records. The feel and the sense that I get with this album is that I’ve said the thing, so that’s almost like a door closed. Then into another room now maybe, where I can push on, do more things again and hopefully at the end of this album cycle I’ll take a little break. I probably won’t. Life is short. I’m here to make music, I’m not here to sit on a beach. That sounds really boring to me. [laughs]
PHONGSIRIVECH: And the track on the Game of Thrones trailer. How did that happen?
MCMORROW: I was in a movie theater. I was about to watch a movie and I got a text on my phone that said, “Would you like to have a song in Game of Thrones?” That was pretty much it. I’m not sure if people know, but that song [“Wicked Game”] was recorded on my first album. I forgot all about it. I don’t play it anymore or anything like that. I’m a big Game of Thrones fan so I said yeah, but honestly I didn’t really think about it until it came out.
It’s a different type of energy to anything I’ve ever done before because everything I do is slow and steady, like a sustained rise. It was a funny little window into a different world where it’s instantaneous responses and gratification. It was quite a surreal couple of days where people were asking, “Who are you?” “What’s this thing?” And I’m like, “I’ve been here for four, five years.” Those things happen and you know in two weeks’ time it’ll subside. But it was fun. The funniest thing was that people kept asking me if Jon Snow was alive or dead. And I was like, “I can’t fucking tell you.”