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Interview: James Morrison discusses his new-found creative freedom when making new album You’re Stronger Than You Know

The singer-songwriter talks openly about his latest record.

James Morrison
Credit: Stanley Park Records

James Morrison rocketed to fame in 2006 with his debut album Undiscovered.

He quickly established himself as one of the UK’s leading artists achieving international success with songs such as You Give Me Something, Broken Strings with Nelly Furtado and I Won’t Let You Go. With a new label home, Morrison is gearing up for the release of his new album You’re Stronger Than You Know on Friday 8th March 2019.

I recently sat down with James to discuss the creative freedom he had while making his new record, talk about collaborating with Joss Stone, and to find out why it’s been four years since his last album.

Welcome back! It’s been a little while hasn’t it?

Yeah, I’m stoked! It’s been too long for me. I’ve been doing a lot of like personal stuff, which has been great, but equally for me to feel validated in myself I like doing the music thing. Making tunes and performing is what gives me a buzz so when I’m not doing it, I get the lack of endorphins. Even a good day’s not the best day if you’re used to be on tour and having crowds. When you’re not doing that it’s quite depressing. It’s weird. It’s like feeling you’re on a roller coaster then all of a sudden you’re sat in a little car not moving anywhere. It’s the same feeling as when I get off the gig thing. For example nine o’clock at night, all of a sudden I’ll start being awake because I’m used to gigging at that time. I get this adrenaline rush and I’m like, ‘what the fuck is going on?’ It’s been a while since I’ve been doing it but now I’m back in it, it feels like I haven’t been away really. It’s good!

A lot of artists find it hard to adjust once they come off stage after a two hour show…

I’m fine with it finishing! It’s only long term. If I’ve been on tour for a few weeks and a few months go by and I’ve not done anything, then it starts kicking in. I get bored and want to do something and I get a bit antsy. If I’ve done a good gig and it’s finished, I’m glad it’s finished. I’m not like, ‘oh I want to do another half an hour’. It used to be like that when I did open mics and you get five minutes and two songs. Then I’d be like, ‘oh I want to sing some more’. I have it when I see another band play and I want to get up and sing then. If I’m on holiday and there’s a band in the pub and they’re singing, I’m like, ‘oh I want to get up’, I get itchy (laughs).

James Morrison

Credit: Stanley Park Records

You must be very itchy then because it’s been four years since your last album…

Yeah! I’ve been excited to get moving again especially with music that I feel good about. That’s taken me a while to get that together. Even though I’m saying it’s my best album in terms of the sound of it and how it was made and the feeling that I had when I was writing the songs, and putting it together was really natural, I still feel like there’s a better album in me but the format of how it’s presented is my favourite bit of it. The way it was made and the players in the room just playing. There’s not loads of people doing that anymore, it’s all track orientated. Other than obvious people like Pablo (Nutini) and Hozier, it’s all track and grime. There’s nothing wrong with that but I think it’s all been saturated with the same stuff. It feels like it’s good that there’s other people coming in giving alternative sounds and music to to add into that. That’s why I feel excited because (my album) is nothing like what’s getting playing on radio. It’s quite straightforward band in a room really, which you don’t get a lot these days. That’s why I’m excited.

This album sounds quite free. You don’t have the commercial pressure that came with your first three albums because the charts are so different now than they were back then. Did you find it liberating that you have been able to make the album you wanted to make?

100 percent. That’s why I’m excited. As soon as I got dropped from the label I felt like I had some freedom. The first few weeks felt bad. I felt like it was all over, I was crap, I was never gonna make another album and then I just quietly worked away. Over time I had enough songs that I felt good about to make an album and I’ve been talking about making an album the way that I’ve made this album for a long time. Since Undiscovered, when I made it with a live band in a room, but it’s not as produced. It’s not as full sounding as Undiscovered, which is good. I just used all the all the things I’ve learned along the way on this album and forgot all the stuff that I learned that’s useless when they were trying to get me to sound like I was Radio 1 and be current. It made me stop believing that what I had to bring to the table was good so I stopped believing in myself.

It’s only when I got dropped that I was forced to do it myself and that’s when I started to feel good about it. I’ve talked about making an album like this with Mark (Taylor), the guy who produced it, he’s the label owner as well. I’ve known Mark for years and he was like, ‘let’s just do it, let’s just make it. What are we fucking about at? You’ve got a voice, you’ve got the songs, I know how to get the players in so let’s just make it’. That’s what we did. It just felt free, it felt really quick and uninhibited. (There was) nobody going, ‘what songs are on the album?’. We were all in agreement together that the tunes on the album are the right tunes. It just feels like an album that was made in the old school days where they just go, ‘go record some songs, see what happens and we’ll put it out’.

You can tell by listening to it that it’s an album that stems from creativity rather than a formula. There’s no trying to predict what’s going to be a hit or what will top the charts…

Yeah. It was literally just guys in a room going, ‘that sounds good, let’s do that’ or we’d get in eight takes and go, ‘that’s the take’. It was obvious which ones were the good ones. You just use your intuition and your instinct rather than your head, sitting in a room analysing, ‘is this going to be the single? Is it fast enough? Are the drums right? What’s the production like? Who are we marketing it to?’… all of that crap. There was none of that this time. It was literally get in a room, really sing your ass off, play it well and we’ll put it out. I think that’s why I’m excited about it. It feels the closest representation of who I am as an artist and what I want out of the music that I’ve ever created.

James Morrison - You're Stronger Than You Know

Credit: Stanley Park Records

For me it’s always been about your voice. It’s so distinctive and on this album you get to hear that more soulful side whereas I feel previous it’s been curtailed by the production a bit…

Yeah it was. Because I was young they were saying, ‘do this pop stuff’ and I got sidetracked after Broken Strings really. That was a fluke song I tried one day. They were like, ‘try this production’. It was quite a white sounding song… not a dance beat but that white dance music thing. The only reason I got into it was because Nelly (Furtado) was on it. Then it just took off and it was my biggest selling single. Then they were like, ‘yeah do stuff like that again’. I got sidetracked and it was only when I got dropped and I was forced into rethinking stuff, that I realised I’d been sidetracked and I needed to get back to where I was coming from in the beginning, which was blues, soul, rock, a bit of pop… all the music that I love. Rock’n’roll, soul music, doo-wop, 50s chorus groups, funk… all that stuff.

That’s what’s so interesting about having Joss Stone on My Love Goes On. She’s had a similar experience in the industry…

Yeah. That’s why I liked working with her. Not only has she been there from the start, she gave me my BRIT and we sang together at Coachella 10 years ago. I’ve been to her gigs. She’s a great singer, she’s easy going, she’s not got an ego, she’s beautiful to look at… what’s there not to like? She’s just awesome. She was everything I wanted and more. It had been a while since I’ve seen her so I was quite nervous about it being as vibey as it was before. I thought maybe she’s changed and she might be a different person but she was just the same as she’s ever been, just more mature and she knows what she wants. It was to great to work with someone like that.

I mean Nelly (Furtado) was great… she was a bit mad but great. Joss is like salt of the earth, she’s like me in the way that she’s grounded and she doesn’t take herself seriously but she can sing her ass off. She can sing the telephone book and it sounds great. It’s good to do something that’s a bit more straight down the line rather than, ‘who’s an interesting collaboration?’ which is what I tried to do in the beginning. I thought if I do something too obvious people see that. That’s why it’s taken me so long to work someone like Joss because I think that I was trying to go a bit left rather than straight down the middle. This time I’ve just gone straight down the middle because I haven’t had the energy to try and break new ground. I just wanted to make record that I can put on that I like the sound that sounds familiar and reminds me of all the records I love.

When making the record was there anything about having this creative freedom that really surprised you?

There’s one song on the album called Slowly, which I’ve had for four years and I always loved it when I when I first did it. I never put it on the last album and I was thinking it was one of the best songs I’ve ever written. No one else was getting excited about it until now so I put it on this album. It just sounds really good. It sounds a bit more rocky not Led Zeppelin rocky but there’s an element of Led Zeppelin there somewhere. I want to get into that side of music a little bit more. Get away from the pop stuff and get a bit heavier. More soulful, more R&B or more heavier rock wise. I’m really getting into the idea of how to get that.

I think it would be interesting to hear you incorporate a bit of Country into your sound, like the kind of thing Chris Stapleton is doing…

Yeah. There are a few tracks on the album that are a bit more country sounding. I had a song that I think Keith Urban was going to sing it but I thought I was going to sing it. To me it’s a country smash. I’ve never really been into country music as such. I like Gillian Welch, I like Alison Krauss and Union Station. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss made that album and it was brilliant. I like some of it. I like it when there’s the element of the person in the music but that’s do with the singer. Chris Stapleton is wicked but I like a mix of more styles.

James Morrison

Credit: Stanley Park Records

You’ve got a headline tour coming up. Will this be the first opportunity you’ve had to play these songs live?

Yeah. I went to South Africa recently and did about four gigs out there. The first gig that we played was the first time I was ever playing any of the songs live. It was good because as soon as I played the first song that was new, they reacted like they knew it. I wondered if they thought it was another song. It made me feel like I’ve made the right decision. Everything feels right. That’s the only way I can describe it. I’m not worried about how far it’s going to go in the chart. I’m more excited.

I feel so good about it that even if it does bad and it doesn’t sell any copies, I’ll still be sat here thinking, ‘I like it’, which is an easier feeling than selling a million copies, like Broken Strings, and being like, ‘it’s not my best song ever’. show me. I wanted to get away from that feeling of having a song that everyone knows and loves that I don’t like. I want to get a song that I love and get everyone to love it as well. The feeling of feeling good about this album outweighs my worry this time. Before I was always like worried about how the next album was going to do because of the pressure from the labels. The first one did so well that they wanted me to do it again. Too much pressure stops you being creative.

There’s always that fear that if you have a hugely successful album and then release something completely different, you might alienate your fans…

I’ve been given the best opportunity I’ve ever been given in my whole life by being a singer as a career and on a platform as big as this to do it in a way that you can enjoy and feel good about yourself. The pressure was too much and it’s only now that I’ve got older that I can do it for those reasons and not care about what people think of me so much. I know I’m not the coolest guy and I’m fine with that whereas before I was like, ‘no I want to be cool’ but now I don’t give a toss. I just feel better about everything and I feel more comfortable in myself. After my last album didn’t do so well and I got dropped, it allowed me to process what failure feels like and it wasn’t that bad (laughs). People still like the songs. It didn’t sell loads of albums but people still like the songs and I got to do some amazing gigs that people loved and I loved.

I thought failure was alright, it wasn’t that bad. I’m never gonna write an album that’s shit that no one likes. If they already like my old stuff, they’re going to love this new album. That’s why I’m excited. I feel like it’s going to add to what I’ve already got like the poppier stuff like Wonderful World and You Give Me Something. It’s going to add to that and just allow me to have a wider reach of audience, a wider reach of the scope of the songs and where I can with it. The more albums I keep making, the more I know what I need to do for the next one. That’s why I think I want to go a bit more rocky or something that just digs in and is a bit more fun. I really like Royal Blood.

I’ve been listening to lots of Nirvana, that’s probably why. I just love stuff that digs in. In the beginning I was more playing around with the pop thing but I think as I’ve got older I like playing with the soul and rock together because you don’t really hear a lot that. Lenny Kravitz is probably the first person I can think of that’s got rock and soul together. It’s not like I wanna be cool, I just want it to sound cool.

You said the last album was a failure but it’s all relative. It arrived during a very uncertain time in music…

Yeah. Because I was stuck between (the label) trying to get me on Radio 1 and me knowing my audience being on Radio 2, I was not quite in either world. I had that sample on Demons that I didn’t really mind but Radio 2 wouldn’t play that. Then I had my next single, which was a bit more traditional for Radio 2, but it didn’t get played. I feel like it didn’t work because too many people were messing around with the style, the production and the mixes. They were telling me I was this thing, when I’m this thing. I’m not slagging off anyone. I was happy to be there at the time. It was only when it came out I realised it was wrong. I’m grateful for everything that everyone’s ever done for me and worked with on my albums and helped me achieve what I’ve achieved and stuff but it’s nice to be free of the big corporate thing a little bit. I’m with Warners now and they’re helping me distribute it, which is amazing. It still feels like it’s home grown but I’ve got the support of a label, which is great so best of both worlds.

Have you got any other plans so far for this year?

I’ve already got six tracks towards the next (album). Probably about two or three of them I really like. I’m just gonna keep writing and try and keep the momentum going. I might put out another EP towards the end of this year and then another one next year and then maybe join them together as an album, something like that. I’m not sure. I want to keep the momentum going though. I don’t want to wait another year or two years to bring out another album. Now I’m at this place where I feel comfortable, and there’s not so much pressure from labels and stuff, I can do it quicker. Maybe tour America too. I’m not sure, it’s difficult. I’ve got two kids and I’m 35 so spending time away from the family for eight weeks at a time is harder. The dream would be to play Madison Square Garden. You know pipe dreams, you’ve got to have them don’t you?

James Morrison releases his new album You’re Stronger Than You Know on Friday 8th March 2019. Watch the music video for My Love Goes On featuring Joss Stone below:

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