“Getting dropped by the label took away a lot of pressure, I didn’t get any s**t about making hit singles…” - hmv.com talks to James Morrison
After more than a decade and four albums as part of Universal Music, James Morrison is going it alone.
His new album, You’re Stronger Than You Know, comes out on his own label Stanley Park Records, and it marks a radical sonic departure for the 34-year-old.
Gone is the slick production, the twinkly pianos and the glacial strings of his earlier work like ‘You Give Me Something’ and ‘Broken Strings’, in comes raucous soul, loud brass and pumping guitars.
Recorded in a week with producer Mark Taylor and a live band, the album arrives in shops today (March 8th).
We spoke Morrison about making the new album in such a short space of time, reconnecting with his roots and why he’s relishing life without a major label…
When did you start putting together the songs for this album?
“It’s a right mixture. One of the songs was written 10 years ago, another four years ago, a couple of years ago and five or six in the six months before recording. Once I knew I was going to do the album with a live band in the studio, I knew what I was writing towards and I got a few more tunes out.”
Why did you decide on a live band for this new one?
“I did a Stax night, the BBC Proms. Booker T, Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Tom Jones, all these amazing old school soul guys. A few of them told me “Man, you can sing like a motherf***er!’. It felt great. I felt supported and loved and it told me I could do soul music. So I just thought ‘F**k it’. Instead of a cool soul record, I just thought let’s get a band in the room, all the brass, all the horns, do it that way. It’s not traditional soul. There’s a bit of country in there, a bit of rock, but you can hear what I’m listening to.”
“Loads of Van Morrison. The Band, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, Credence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Sublime. Traditional music. Music that comes to life with electric guitar and a sick drummer. Stuff that’s been muted in the past. Buried behind shiny production. It’s not like I’ve done anything brand new. But it’s a lot more me. No gimmicks."
"It’s more organic. This took a week to make. The other albums took months. Getting dropped by the label took away a lot of pressure, I didn’t get any s**t about making hit singles, it was really freeing.”
You’ve got just one producer this time. Getting that right must have crucial...
“Yeah. But it didn’t feel like a choice. Mark Taylor has done loads of my records. He’s never made a whole album and he really wanted to do it. We had a chat and I said to him ‘Come on! Let’s stop f**king about it.’ He understands me. He knows what I want. He knows my vibe and gets all my references. He lets you figure it out and then grabs it when it's right. He’s a quiet director.”
You didn’t want to get one of the American soul producers? Someone who knows the sound inside out?
“I did, but I thought it’d be too obvious. I love that it’s homegrown. Two white English guys making a soul record, that’s a challenge. He’s a producer known for pop and R&B, I’m on my own for the first time, it’s new for us both. We wanted to dive in.”
You did it in a week. Was that because that’s how long it took? Or how much time you had?
“I wanted it quick, but that’s how much time we had in the studio. We did 16 tracks in a week and kept 12. Then we had a week doing overdubs and getting the horns in. Then we mixed it and it was done. No f***ing about. No A&R man telling me to change the drums or add more strings. There’s space on these songs."
"I listen back to my early records and there’s too much going on. A lot of my favourite records are quite empty, it’s the voice, the vibe and the people in the room. ‘It’s A Man's World’ has f**k all in it and it’s amazing. It’s not saturated with strings and tricks. Simple truth.”
What kind of album is it lyrically?
“It’s kind quite dark in a few places, but it’s a feel-good album. It’s about seeing your strengths and embracing who you are. I want people to believe in themselves and show the world what they’re about. That’s where I was at. I was having a bad time in my relationship, we’d had a baby, that was really difficult, I got dropped from the label and I had to build myself back up."
"I didn’t know if the relationship would make it, I didn’t know if the baby would make it and I didn’t know if I’d ever get to make another record. This is me telling myself I can do it and finding inner strength.”
This is your first album on your own label, how are you finding life on your own?
“I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve liked pulling it back. I don’t mind looking at the balance sheets, making things look good on limited resources, I like it, it’s more creative. Delivering on a budget and using my relationships with people to get the best. Limitations do help, it’s better than having a load of wedge to splash about. This album cost about 20 grand to make. That’s nothing for a major label, but for me, it was everything I needed.”
You’ve enjoyed looking at balance sheets, some artists would rather die than do that...
“I was brought up with nothing. I was a scruffy kid from Rugby doing open-mic nights and I went from that to being James Morrison the pop star selling loads of albums. I never felt comfortable with that leap. I feel much more connected to the person I was then. That was a pop version of me. I’m not just this romantic singer people see in the media. I’ve had to dig a bit deeper. I’ve built myself back up and I’m more solid than I’ve ever been.”
Sounds like you’re enjoying life on your own...
“I’m not dissing my labels. I’m very grateful for all they’ve done for me. But I feel like I’ve hit my stride and I know where I’m going. I could go and make another album tomorrow. There’s no one in my ear going ‘This needs to be trendier, it needs to dancier’. I’m not that guy. I’m traditional. If you listen to ‘Broken Strings’, it’s this dancey pop song, that’s not me, I don’t listen to stuff like that. This is where I am.”
How’s your live set coming together? Will it be heavy on the new material?
“Five of the new tunes. Which is enough, I think. Then all the big tunes and some older ones that I want to play. ‘Dream On Hailey’ is back in the set, ‘Please Don’t Stop The Rain’ is out, that’s too pop. It’ll be a journey of all the songs, but it’s the songs I’m feeling right now. Fast, rocking and soulful.”
What’s booked so far?
“It’s pretty busy now. Got a UK tour and a European tour in the spring and then we’ll be back around in the autumn. A few festivals. I’m doing Glastonbury this year and some European ones. It’s all good.”
Presumably, at this stage in your career, you go to places you know you do well, rather than trying to break out?
“You know what? If it called for me to go to America again, I’d find a way. But I’m 34 and I’ve got two kids. I’m not spending months in the back of a sh**ty transit van trying to break America. I’ve done that. Unless I get a record that connects, there’s no point. I’ve got plenty of places I do well. I do really well in Ireland, Holland, Portugal, Switzerland, I don’t need to go chasing something.”
Now you’re on own label, you do another album whenever you like, will you look to do it quickly...
“100%. I’ve got momentum and there’s no f**king about trying to please a label. I’ve got six new songs already, I’m planning a new EP for later in the year, another one for next year, I want to keep going…”
James Morrison’s new album You’re Stronger Than You Know is out now in hmv stores.