James Morrison: Stevie Wonder is funky as f*ck
British singer-songwriter James Morrison sold more than 4.5 million copies of his first two albums Undiscovered (2006) and Songs for You, Truths for Me (2008), but he says that they were "practice shots" in preparation for his newest album, The Awakening. Chronicling both triumph and tragedy in his personal life, Morrison says that this album is his "most real" recording yet.
Three years in the making, Morrison worked with a new recording label, Island Records, and with a new producer, former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, to create an album that was both genuine and heartfelt. Morrison will perform at The Fitzgerald Theater tonight and Gimme Noise chatted with him about his new album, working with local Dan Wilson, and why he loves Stevie Wonder so damn much.
Gimme Noise: You've said that The Awakening is your first "proper album." How does this album showcase who you are as an artist and as a person?
James Morrison: That was the whole idea for me -- to show who I am. I just wanted to get back to where I started when I was playing in pubs and clubs and I didn't really have a set kind of style, I just sang songs with passion. I wanted to get back to singing and writing songs that felt personal. I felt like I was trapped in a certain box and I wanted to get out of it.
GN: Songs like "Up," "The Person I Should Have Been" and "In My Dreams" from your new album were inspired by your relationship with your father [Paul Catchpole, who died at age 60 after a battle with alcoholism and depression]. Was it hard for you to share something so personal?
JM: It's been pretty hard -- like it would be for anyone losing someone close. There are times when it's pretty brutal, but writing those songs really helped me to deal with it in a positive way. It gave my mind something to think about and gave me a chance to write a song that would encapsulate everything about losing my dad with a positive spin. Sometimes the songs are hard to sing, but most of the time it's a good feeling. I just feel liberated from all the things that I feel inside. It's a good way to get it all out of your system, but it never really goes away. It just helps.
GN: You are now a father [daughter Elsie is now 3-years-old] yourself. How has being a father influenced your music?
The song "The Awakening" is all about my daughter. It's about being scared of having a kid and feeling like it would be something that I couldn't deal with. When it actually happened, it was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. The whole album kind of came from that sentiment and the fact that I was losing my dad. It's like life and death together.
GN: You worked with Dan Wilson [Minnesota-born singer and Grammy-winning songwriter] on The Awakening. What was it like to work with him? What did he bring to the album?
JM: Dan Wilson is a legend. I love working with Dan. He's got a really good sentiment about him as a person and he's a really talented singer and great songwriter. He allowed me to feel like I could do whatever I wanted and he made me feel like it was a good thing. He didn't make me feel like I had to write a certain thing and made me comfortable that I could write whatever I wanted. He's like, "So, what's on your mind?" and I talked about my dad and the fact that I was waiting for him to come into my dreams at nighttime and he's like, "You should write about that." It was a co-write, but he really helped me try to write it on my own as much as I could. He got me in a space to be able to do it and gave me creative support. Every time I work with Dan I really enjoy it and I get a really good feeling from whatever we write. The sentiment of what we write about is always a really good thing. I always feel inspired when working with him.
GN: You've talked about your difficult childhood [Morrison's father left when he was young] and the financial struggles that your mother faced as a single parent. Your career has taken off in the past few years and has changed your life. What is the hardest part about your newfound fame and success as a musician? The best part?
JM: The hardest thing is finding a comfortable platform to stand on to be an artist. Before I was just a regular bloke. I was still quite shy and I never thought I would be the sort of person who would be able to handle being in the limelight and being on stage. The hardest part was learning how to deal with all of that and not letting it make you feel unsure about yourself.
My biggest problem is a lack of confidence and not feeling radical about myself. Learning how to deal with that has been the hardest thing. The best part about it is that I'm doing what I love and I get to travel the world. It makes me feel like I'm living a dream. It is like a dream because I've met so many people that I love like Stevie Wonder and I've worked with Cat Stevens and I've done so many things I've never thought I'd ever do. It's such a difference in lifestyle. The main thing is I'm doing something that I really enjoy which is being creative and making music and it's working. That's the great thing about what I'm doing. I'm connecting to people that I've never met -- all that hippie stuff. People you've never met and having a connection. That's great.
GN: You kicked of your U.S. tour in April. What is the best part about being on tour?
JM: It's like being in a little bubble -- a weird sort of bubble. It can be quite intense if you're not used to it, living on the bus with loads of people. The best thing is that bubble. You start making jokes on tour that stick and they only feel right in that bubble. When you get out of that bubble, none of the jokes from on tour are funny anymore. I really enjoy being in that bubble and hanging out with people every day. You have another family- that's the thing that I like. You see each other every day and if it's people you get along with it's a wicked thing. Obviously the gigs are amazing. When you have a really good gig- like we just played The Fillmore [in San Francisco] which is one of those venues that I've always wanted to play- you get in these moments where you've accomplished something.
GN: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
JM: I just try to relax first of all because I get quite nervous. I try to calm my heartbeat down. I take slow, deep breaths. I also have a necklace that has loads of symbols on it that I wear. I say a little prayer before I go on like, "Lord, help me out. Give me the strength and the emotion I need to deliver."
GN: What is it about Stevie Wonder that inspires you?
JM: Everything. I just love Stevie Wonder. He's pure and I get a sort of purity from his music. He's not all bullshit with his music. It's all quite universal which is something that I always really like. It's personal. He's funky as fuck. He can do pretty much any style and make it his own. His singing style is without a doubt one of the best. He's one of the original R&B singers and he's really just one of those guys that did a lot of stuff first. I just love Stevie and the fact that he's one of the best musicians and he's blind makes him really inspiring to listen to. I just love his voice. If you go back to 1971 or 1972, it's some of the best music of that time and it's still inspiring people today. I just get goose pimples when I listen to some of those songs. The love songs that he writes are on the money- amazing. Obviously there's stuff that he's done that I don't like- some of the 1980's stuff- but even Hotter Than July was a sick album and that was the '80's. I just love his style. I could talk about Stevie Wonder all day.
GN: When you're not performing or writing music what do you like to do?
JM: I like running, boxing, snowboarding and swimming to try to keep fit. I like going on holiday, although it depends on how much time I've got. If I only have a few days and I go home I like to spend time with my daughter and take her to the park and catch up on bits of telly. I like watching films, listening to music, having house parties and having all my friends over. Mainly in terms of activities, I like keeping fit. I like stuff that kind of scares you a bit too. While I was in Sydney I wanted to do a bridge walk [climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge]. We didn't end up doing it, but I like to do things that I wouldn't normally get to do. I try to seek things out like that.
James Morrison performs a short set at Cities 97's Hope in the Heartland benefit at 6:45 p.m. at the Brick, 111 5th St. N., Minneapolis. Lissie and Rocket Club are also scheduled to perform. $24.97-$97. Click here.
James Morrison's full set is at The Fitzgerald Theater 10 Exchange St E., St. Paul Thursday, May 10 at 8 p.m. $25.00.
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