IF YOU want something done properly, do it yourself. Sometimes it is the only feasible approach. It certainly was for James Vincent McMorrow as it saved him from artistic frustration and inertia, and helped him create a starling debut album and launch him on a potentially exciting musical journey.
You could be forgive for thinking that James Vincent McMorrow’s entry onto the Irish muisc scene and his rise to prominence was a mere matter of eight months.
He is huge in Ireland, his debut album Early In The Morning was nominated for a Choice Music Prize, and Britain is starting to take notice, as confirmed by his recent appearance on Later...With Jools Holland.
The reality however is far different, as the County Dublin singer-songwriter’s journey began in 2008 and it was a path that was neither smooth nor straightforward.
“I moved from Dublin to London in the hope of getting a record deal there,” James tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “I tried recording in a studio in London with other musicians but we weren’t clicking and I wasn’t getting anywhere.
“That led to a lot of turbulence. I was unhappy. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working. It was naïvety on my part. I don’t think I put in any work as a musician. There was not a lot of back story to me. I hadn’t done a lot of shows.”
After taking some time to ponder his situation James accepted that the traditional studio based recording approach was not the way to go. As luck would have it though, a house situated by the sea in a remote part of Co Louth became available and James felt that recording an album just by himself might prove more fruitful.
“I went to that house and stared out the window,” he says. “There were no shows, no friction. All I had available to me was a house perched by the sea, some old equipment, my voice and guitars, and one microphone. That is limiting but I thought it will be 100 per cent mine.”
In that isolation, James created something splendid. Early In The Morning’s warm tone, pastoral West Coast 1970s influenced music, and his marvellously realised songs (“Harmony-driven pastoral folk-pop music” in James’ own words ), announced the arrival of a genuinely exciting new talent.
“I wouldn’t have made the album any other way, as the album and the place it was recorded are linked,” says James, “ but I didn’t have a goal to make the album that way at the start. If someone had offered me a studio in Brooklyn I would have said ‘Yes’ and the album would have turned out sounded different. I wasn’t trying to manifest something by making it in a certain place.”
A key feature of the album is James’ voice - delicate, gentle, soulful, and often haunting. While it is no surprise to hear him cite Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as influences, or indeed John Steinbeck in terms of lyric writing (“It’s the way Steinbeck describes nature and how it is a focal point in his work,” says James ) his chief inspiration is soul singer Donnie Hathaway - a major influence on artists like Stevie Wonder and Snoop Dogg.
“I never heard of him until I read an article about his rhythm section and I went to check them out on a live recording,” says James. “As a kid I wanted to sing out loud and the first time I heard Donnie Hathaway that made a connection.
“I can vividly recall the experience of hearing him sing for the first time, it was a song called ‘I Love You More Than You Will Ever Know’ and I still get those same feelings listening to him today. I don’t think there has been a better singer. He’s peerless.”
James now had his album recorded, but getting it out there for people to notice and listen to proved his next challenge.
“The album was a slow burner,” says James. “I put it out in Ireland in February 2010 and there were nine/10 months of it not getting much of anything. I had no money to promote it. It was only when I licensed the record for the US and UK, and ‘This Old Machine’ came out as a single a year later in Ireland and got radio play, that things started moving. It takes a while when you do it independently.”
Although it was hard work at the time, James feels that the experiences of the past two years have been worth it and were important for him to go through.
“I don’t look back on that and think ‘I wish I didn’t have to go through all that’ because I’m glad I did,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that, the album would not have been made. It was when I was in the house, just me with a recorder that it clicked.”
Over the last six to eight months Early In The Morning has lodged itself in the public consciousness, to such an extent that James’s Galway Arts Festival show in the Róisín Dubh could be the last chance to see him in such an intimate setting. Indeed Galway has a special significance for the singer-songwriter.
“I have a lot of fond memories of Galway from my childhood as we would often holiday here,” says James. “It’s always been a city I have enjoyed. I played one of my first live shows in the Róisín Dubh, in early 2008, supporting Juliet Turner.
“I’ve played a couple of times since but the album was only just out then and people didn’t really know the songs, so I’m really looking forward to this gig and to a full room of people that have had time to hear the songs and get used to them.”
James Vincent McMorrow and his band play the Róisín Dubh on Friday July 22 at 9pm. Tickets are available from the festival box office on Forster Street and through www.galwayartsfestival.com and www.ticketmaster.ie See also www.roisindubh.net