“Being a solo artist does not come as naturally to me as it does to other people,” James Vincent McMorrow tells me. Both on his third album, out today, and in conversation, the Irish musician is opening up as never before. Recently you may have spotted him singing on Drake’s blockbuster album Views, on Kygo’s dance smash Cloud Nine and on the trailer for the latest series of Game of Thrones, and he’s currently working with some of the hottest international producers in urban music. But as we talk, it becomes apparent that he’s succeeding almost despite himself.
“I have control issues for sure,” says the 33-year-old. “When I talk about my career arc, a lot of it is about control.” His first album, Early in the Morning from 2010, was recorded alone in a small coastal studio north of Dublin, with McMorrow (Vincent is his middle name) playing everything. The follow-up, 2014’s Post Tropical, he made in a remote part of Texas with just a couple of studio engineers for company. “They were my people, and also to a degree they were subordinate to me, so they weren’t gonna call me out on anything from a musical perspective.”
Only on this new release has he permitted the influence of other creative voices: Ben Ash, who as Two Inch Punch has produced songs on big albums by Years & Years and Sam Smith; and Toronto producers Frank Dukes and Nineteen85, best known for their work with Drake. The latter in particular, who was born Paul Jefferies and who McMorrow calls “85”, has several huge Drake hits to his name, including that 15-week number one, One Dance. Now commanding massive fees to work on a track, securing his services without a giant cheque was a great coup for McMorrow, who is big in Ireland but still less well known elsewhere.
“We met two years ago, at a point when I guess I was taking a speculative look at him as much as he was with me,” McMorrow says of Nineteen85. They were introduced in Toronto with a view to writing together for other artists, but McMorrow ended up keeping most of the results for himself. “We still exist on a level pegging though obviously he’s a huge deal in the production and songwriting world now. He was the catalyst for the album. He was the one constantly texting and emailing me, wanting to know when we were gonna make my record. He saw something in it that I wasn’t seeing at the time. He heard something.”
What he heard was something quite remarkable, especially coming from a beardy Irishman who many had pegged as one more tearful singer-songwriter after his maudlin piano cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love – his breakthrough hit in 2011. McMorrow has now fully transitioned into a future soul man to file alongside Frank Ocean and D’Angelo. His rich falsetto, once obscured beneath layers of reverb, is now clear and to the forefront. The music beneath is crisp and sparse. It’s marvellous.
Guilty of spending too much time in isolated search of perfection in the past, this time his collaborators advised himself to loosen up, to an extent. “I’ve been strategically precious: precious about the right things rather than all the things. It’s debilitating trying to be precious about everything, it distracts you from the best stuff. Working with ‘85, he said you’re not making music to impress yourself. You’re not making music to live out all of your best dreams on every single song. That probably made me more ambitious. My goal is still the same, but the things I would do in the past, lots of layering to maybe fudge over something or sand off an edge, just weren’t possible.”
What’s changed to make him loosen his iron grip on the music? He’s begun to think more about a past that he was previously trying to ignore, and realised that those control issues go back a very long way. One song on the new album, I Lie Awake Every Night, revisits in song the eating disorder that afflicted him as a teenage boy in Dublin. To be honest, I wouldn’t have known what it was explicitly about, with lines such as, “You’ll never learn how much I wanna burn,” if the press release accompanying the album hadn’t said so. It’s his decision to talk about it in public for the first time.
“I put that in my biog. The mental health issues I had as a kid were something that I ran away from pretty aggressively when I hit my twenties. I’m a classic example of a person who keeps their mouth shut. I just ran away from it going, ‘I’m fine, I’m totally grand,’” he tells me. “Now I have things to say that I wasn’t confident enough to sing or talk about five years ago. It’s the same as turning up my voice in the mix and turning down the reverb. When you’re getting on stage every night singing songs, they need to mean something to you.”
Between the ages of 14 to about 17, McMorrow developed anorexia that moved into bulimia. He missed a huge amount of school. At his lowest point, he was hospitalised in a mental health unit, weighing somewhere between five and five-and-a-half stone. “It was a bad situation for maybe two, two-and-a-half years,” he says. “The song was written about a point when I was hospitalised because I just wasn’t coping well with life. I had friends but I didn’t think about life the same way as them. It’s a chicken and egg thing: was I unhappy because I didn’t make friends easily, or did I not make friends easily because I was unhappy? There was no singular moment that happened [to trigger it]. I just have a predispositon towards control and wanting to have control of my life. The classic thing with eating disorders is that when life is out of control, it’s the one thing that you can control.”
This is a far rarer condition among men, and male musicians, than women, which is partly why he wants to speak up about it. Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers was the most notable male musician to talk and write about it, on the band’s 1994 song 4st 7lb. Elton John, Justin Hawkins of The Darkness and Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon have also suffered. McMorrow was inspired by the Tumblr post Frank Ocean wrote in 2012, just prior to the release of his Channel Orange album, in which he came out as gay. “That was really compelling and inspiring, and it gave a human element to the work. That post became a hugely defining thing, but once I heard the record, I had a better understanding, and that’s the point.”
McMorrow’s album is called We Move. It’s about growing up and changing, moving ever onwards despite everything. He doesn’t want to offer a misery memoir or be a martyr. “This isn’t what the album is about, but it’s a part of it. How could I talk about the title without talking about it? There’s no desire on my part to win a sob story competition. I’m not that guy. I’m saying those things because I feel like it’s the right time to talk about it. And if there’s a possibility that someone reads it and hears it and feels a bit more connected then that’s good.”
We Move is released today on Believe Recordings.
Oct 17, Roundhouse, NW1 (0870 389 1846, roundhouse.org.uk)