"I’ve never longed for cohesion. My brain just doesn’t want it ..." - James Vincent McMorrow details the making of his new album, Grapefruit Season
When any artist makes the jump to a major label after a long career of doing things largely for themselves, it’s a given that it’s a statement of intent.
For Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow, he’d worn his self-sufficiency as a badge of honour. On his first two records, McMorrow did absolutely everything himself, before finally inviting outside producers in on his third LP. That album, We Move, saw him moving away from the folky sonics of his early work and into something more R&B-influenced. That change won him critical acclaim and a wider audience, an audience that only grew on his fourth LP, True Care.
By the end of that touring cycle, McMorrow was in big venues and way up the bill on festivals, he’d also begun to produce and write for other artists, including Drake and Kygo. So what now? He could head back and make another record, largely by himself with a few trusted collaborators, or he could take a leap, partner up with one of the major label behemoths and open some new doors.
He chose the latter. Now with Sony, McMorrow has taken full advantage of his new surroundings and a larger budget. On new album, Grapefruit Season, he’s worked with hitmaker supreme Paul Epworth, Lil Silva, who has worked with Adele, Banks and Kano, and Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly. Together they’ve produced a dark, lilting collection of songs, one that doesn’t go looking for a single sound, but instead embraces a myriad of influences for a challenging and rewarding album, one that will demand lots of listens.
The album is out in hmv stores today (September 17th) and we spoke to McMorrow about the making of it, why the album’s delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise, how a joke about hitting things too hard on tour inspired the album’s title and why he’s embraced life on a major label...
You’ve been sitting on this album for quite a while, has that been frustrating?
“It has. Historically, I'm used to moving quite fast, so the fact that I’ve had to sit on something I’ve spent two years making has been a source of frustration. It gave me time to make it better, so I’m grateful for last year, in a really f**ked up way. I’d have been putting out an album that wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. I needed to learn a lesson in patience, I think a lot of us did, I needed to learn that I’m in control of nothing, none of us are.”
So it wasn’t locked and you’ve just been ticking days off the calendar…
“What happens when you make an album is that you start with a lot of energy, and, by the end, you’re dragging a corpse across the line. It’s the same every time, you start with such grand aspirations and then you end up taking what you can. Pre-lockdown, my mindset was more based on the fact that I’d spent two years making the album and that was long enough. It was certainly good enough to come out. But as soon as it stopped, it seemed ridiculous to not use all this idle time I suddenly had on the album. Four songs got changed, I took four out and put four new ones in. I changed the running order totally. I changed a lot, it’s very different from where it was.”
A lot of artists will say that about making an album, you don’t finish, you just stop…
“Definitely. Everyone’s process is different. I’m a massive control freak and I’m involved in every part of it. I’ve never had a problem finishing anything, but I’d gotten to a point where I could live with it coming out as it was. If you have time, there’s no point in just living with something, I knew it could be better. This is the album hitting full potential.”
Where did the four new songs come from? Because there are a few different producers on the album, did you go back in with those guys?
“Two of them I did here by myself and they were brand new. There were no other versions of those. I’d done ‘A House And A River’ with Paul Epworth and it hadn’t made the final tracklisting before, but I knew there was something great in there, so I went back and re-did it myself. ‘True Love’ was two different songs that got put together. I gave that to Two Inch Punch to work on. I’d be working with him and Jessie Ware on some stuff and we were in a good place and I asked him to have a go at it.”
You worked with Paul Epworth, Lil Silva, Patrick Wimberley and a few other producers, is that the way you like to work? With lots of different collaborators?
“I produced, wrote and played everything myself on my first two albums and I did that because I’m not a very open and inclusive person. I’m getting better, but I know my instincts. I love being in the studio, I love making music, I’m not the greatest communicator, I’m not good at articulating what I want. So I did it myself, just because that was the easier thing. I am self-aware enough to know that you always hit a point where you can’t achieve anything more by yourself. From there, either you accept that it’s going to be that way and it’s the law of diminishing returns, or you give up aspects of control to other people.”
And you chose the latter…
“I started on my third album. I did a lot with a Canadian producer called 1985, he was brilliant, he works a lot with Drake and he taught me a lot. Those sessions showed me that the egotistical part of myself wasn’t as tricky as I thought it was. He showed me that I could fight with him back and forth, but I accepted that he had the wisdom and I could learn from him. Then working with other people started to become exciting. On this album, it was my first time working with a major label and they were very trusting in my process. They let me do whatever I wanted.”
“Because I’ve been so self-sufficient in my career, they knew I wasn’t going to be frivolous and that I’d really get the most out of a session. That was how I got to work with Paul Epworth. Paul’s been on my list since I’ve been in school, I’ve been a fan since his days of working with Bloc Party. When I heard he was a fan of mine and understood my music, that became a real goal. Who better to learn from?”
His studio is The Church, which sounds like an audiophile’s dream…
“It’s in Crouch Hill and it’s such a great place, really inspiring. Paul works the way I work, running from instrument to instrument, letting it all come out. You get on the computer and then you fix it later, you work while you’re excited. I loved that, and, given Paul’s CV, which is Grammy after Grammy and the biggest albums of all time, he still loves getting in a room to create something and that’s what I love."
"I can’t deal with people who get in a room and spend the whole time posturing and talk to you as if there’s a camera constantly on them. Lil Silva, Epworth, Patrick Wimberley, all the people I’ve worked with, their vibe is put on overall, get in a room and make things. None of them sit around and talk about how great they are and get somewhere average.”
Do you ever worry that having a range of collaborators will lead to a disparate album? It doesn’t matter if you’re just chasing hits, but albums generally have a thread that ties them up…
“I’ve never longed for cohesion. My brain doesn’t want it and has never craved it. I wouldn’t say I find the idea tedious, I love some albums that are a real mood piece from start to finish, but generally, the way I listen to music is very chaotic. I hate the term post-genre, but it suits me. I’ve never cared how things sound next to each other, only how they make me feel. I’ve always been trying to be confident enough to commit to each song and make them an island.”
“I’ve spent my career in this grey area, I’m not a ‘look at me’ type of person, I want the music to do the talking, I don’t care about how a song makes you feel in isolation. The unifier on an album is me. I’m the conduit for the songs. People tell me they like the way my second album makes them feel and how the album moves. All I hear when I go back to that album is that I wish I’d picked a version of some of the songs that were weirder and more out of step, I feel like my thinking was too reductive and I was trying to make something that was closer to the traditional idea of an album. I should have been braver.”
So the way modern music listening has evolved hasn’t upset you at all…
“When I was a kid and I was putting my songs on MySpace, you had to pick three or four genres, otherwise you couldn’t put your songs up. It was exhausting. I’d go from Fiona Apple to Slipknot to N.E.R.D to Donny Hathaway on the same burned CD in my car on the way to school. I love going from utter happiness to extreme sadness from one song to the next. That’s how I like music to exist.”
Things feel limitless now, Kanye West can make a 27-track album, but a lot of musicians are still quite fetishistic about the album. Maybe it’s because it’s a comfort set of parameters…
“I totally get it. There is something wonderful about packaging up a body of work, something with a consistent energy, it just doesn’t have to be a sonic consistency. This album has a total lyrical consistency, but sonically they’re just allowed to be whatever they want. There’s a balance, I’m equally committed to people who come to me for one song a day and those who want a whole record. You can’t be cynical. In the modern world, there’s a notion of packaging albums up with loads of tracks, just to push streaming numbers. But I don’t want to give up the notion of a body of work.”
It’s a 14-track record, is that 14 down from 15 or 20 or 30 or 50? How much do you need before you’re confident you’ve got enough?
“It’s 14 down from 18. I discard as I go. If I get halfway through a song and it’s not beating what I already have, I’ll discard it. If a song isn’t going to do what I need to do, I don’t need it in my life. I used to frustrate my old labels because I’d have no B-Sides. In this instance, you’ve got the four that got cut and replaced by something better, but that’s rare. I don’t just write for the sake of it.”
When do you know if a song’s going to beat what you’ve already got?
“If a song doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. You have to know at each moment what you’re doing and really be ruthless. I don’t put too much stock in why I pursue the things I do, I just do when it feels like a lesser moment. Songs can come back around. Music can sit in the back of your brain for years and ideas can find their way into other things.”
When did you decide that Grapefruit Season was the right fit for the album title? Was it called that the whole way through?
“It’s always been that. I’ll always try and find something consistent to build an album around. When I made my second record, I called it Post-Tropical because I thought it sounded like a genre and I wanted to exist outside of everything I’d been doing before. With this one, the concept was accepting that I’m not in control. You can spend your whole life searching for a lightbulb moment where everything takes shape or you can accept the chaos.”
"The grapefruit came from this recurring joke on tour. Me and the band were treating our bodies terribly, drinking too much, getting up to all kinds of stupid s**t and then we’d eat grapefruit every day like it was some magical salve for all of them. You’ll probably go back thousands of years and see a hieroglyph of someone eating a grapefruit after a massive banquet. It’s a thing from the ages, even if you drink a bottle of tequila and smoke 40 cigarettes if you ate a grapefruit the next day it’d magically sort you out. I feel like our world is full of that, every corner of social media is people telling each other what to do to feel better. It’s exhausting. This stage of life is exhausting. Embrace it.”
As you said earlier, you’re now on a major label, how have you found the transition?
“I’m pretty locked into the business side of things because for most of my career I’ve had to be. I enjoyed making the record and I felt like Sony trusted me because they knew what I was. My A&R was very positive and encouraging of all my instincts. I’m not a frivolous person, for 10 years it was my own money and you to think about every penny. I don’t think I’d have got to work with Paul Epworth without Sony’s help, that’s the extra resources. But I’m also used to moving very fast and major labels are much slower machines. Add the last year into that. None of this is built for that.”
Were you pushing for an earlier release?
“I didn’t want to put a record out when people’s attention spans were basically at zero. Lots of music came and went last year, I missed a lot. I had to wrestle with the fact that my brain was telling me, ‘You should be releasing music, that’s what you do’, with being on a major label and accepting their decision. I needed to wait until the team could get back in a room together and rediscover their thought process. Ultimately, the album wouldn’t exist the way it does now without Columbia, so I have to be grateful for that.”
Was that your main reason for doing it? A desire to get to the next level?
“I want to get better and not repeat myself. Everything about my career is about pushing forward. I want to push the idea of being a singer-songwriter, I haven’t just sat with a guitar, I’ve gone into lots of places where I had no comfort at all. I just knew that my options were to repeat what I’d done before or try something different. I think I’d have kicked myself if I hadn’t tried it. I’d have been thinking about what could have been.”
Live is coming back around, you start in earnest at the end of the year, how’s the set looking?
“I don’t like the idea of having to sit on my hands until next year, but we just moved the tour until we had the best chance of people being able to definitely see it. I’ve been playing big shows since 2011 and I know I’ve got fans from every era. I’m not narcissistic enough to just play 80% of the new record and I love playing my old songs. F**k it, I’m happy to play Bruce Springsteen sets if people want me to. Especially after a year and a half of nothing, I’m very much up for some marathon sets.”
Just stick an extra grapefruit on your rider…