"I’ve never really enjoyed singing ‘Broken Strings’. But after I re-recorded it, I thought ‘This is actually quite a good song’" - James Morrison tells hmv.com about revisiting his old hits
Greatest Hits are complex things. For fans, particularly fans who haven’t followed an artists’ career since they first picked up a guitar, they’re a great introduction to a back catalogue. But, for the artist, they can be a chore. A chore to fulfil a contract or a chore to keep the wheels turning. If you love creating and writing songs then putting your old ones in a different order doesn’t hold much joy.
Maybe that’s why for his Greatest Hits compilation, soulful pop man James Morrison has avoided doing that. For his collection, which is out in hmv stores now, Morrison returned to the studio with his long-term producer Mark Taylor to record new versions of 13 of his classic songs alongside his regular live band.
As well as dropping two new ones, the singer has breathed life and a live sound into these songs, giving them a whole new dimension.
With the collection out now, we spoke to hmv to find out why he resisted the urge to just put his old singles in a different order…
Why did you decide to take this approach? To go back and rework your older songs…
“I figured I’ve got five albums already so it’d be good to get all tunes in one place. I just didn’t feel comfortable putting tunes people have already heard on an album though, so I wanted to give a bit more. I wanted to get excited about them too and to breathe some life into them. I was quite non-plussed at the start, but I was surprised by how well it went.”
“All those songs that I wrote when I didn’t really know what I was doing, they do still stand up. I wanted to write songs that last, and they have. I know I’ve dropped out of the charts, but my feeling as an artist and my respect for myself is stronger than it’s ever been.”
Was it difficult to put together logistically?
“I’ve figured out that music is as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. I’ve only ever wanted the music to be simple. I wanted to get in the studio, write songs I like, work with a band I like, record them and put them out. That’s it. I love music and I loved it back when I was playing open mics, I just loved that feeling. If you’re just in music for fame, you’ll get exposed. You need to make sure you’re not putting out material that’s super annoying, and if I’ve been guilty of that a few times. What I can do live isn’t what’s on those early records.”
Were you unhappy with those early recordings?
“Some of them were too slow. And some had too much production. They needed to be more open and my vocals more at the forefront. When I started I was a really loud singer and they always put loads of compression on my voice. I wanted less process on my vocals and the sound of the band in the room. There’s hardly any strings on the album and barely any brass, it was too crowded. I wanted the purity of the songs to come through.”
Any of them, in particular, you wanted to revisit?
“I’ve never really enjoyed singing ‘Broken Strings’. But after I re-recorded it, I thought ‘This is actually quite a good song’. It’s just a song, rather than a big production, shiny single. It’s a bit more artistic and not punching the song down people’s throats.”
Most songs still start on acoustic guitar or piano and that doesn’t really change, but your knowledge of what can happen in the studio must be on a whole other level…
“A lot of the decisions I made early on was because I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I got talked into putting brass on ‘You Give Me Something’ and I’d wanted it to be upbeat and rocky. They wanted to sell me like Frank Sinatra, I always felt like I was being sold on the wrong angle, this guy who does ballads and love songs. It gave me a career, and, when things are going well, you want to keep going so I wrote more ballads. I feel like I’m always underestimated, when people come to see me live I can blow them away. I want to explore new areas now.”
You’ve sold a lot of records for a guy who's underestimated…
“When I meet guys, they always tell me that they’re not into my stuff. I know I’m never going to be the coolest, but I’m better than your average generic pop band or soppy vocalist. I’ve had to stand my ground as an artist and demand to be listened to. If you’re successful with ballads, you get written off. It’s a shame, a good song is a good song.”
Safe to say you’re enjoying the freedom now…
“I’m really glad that there are people like Adele and Ed Sheeran who can do ballads and still sell millions of records. It allows me a bit more space and quiet. I don’t feel like I’m pushed by a record label anymore when I’m in the studio. Nobody’s breathing down my neck trying to push me to do something. That feeling is better than all the success you can get. I had the success at the start, I didn’t really enjoy it.”
How’s the writing going? Have you written much?
“I’m really excited. I’ve got loads of material to do and I can’t wait to get in and do a new album. I’ve been doing sessions with people I know well. I float about and occasionally people get recommended to me. At this age, I don’t want to spend time f***king about. A lot of the time it's people who can’t sing technically as well as I can, so they need to be really bringing something to the table. I’m happy writing on my own, just at the kitchen table with acoustic guitar, if I’m with other people, they need to really bring it. I’ve written a lot, but I’m not in a mad rush to get it all out. I’m done with feeling like it could be taken away from me at any moment.”
So what’s the plan for a new album? Do you have a date to get it out by?
“I’d like to start recording at the end of next year, maybe after the summer, then aiming for an album or a few EPs in 2023. I’m going to be touring a lot in 2022 so that’s when I’ll get around to it.”