Dublin troubadour James Vincent McMorrow told David Hennessy how he wants to show a vision of Ireland at the upcoming Imagining Ireland showcase at the Barbican, why being Irish is the best thing that ever happened to him and how he approached his new album from a different perspective.
“I think it’s going to be something really beautiful, that’s my hope,” Dublin singer- songwriter James Vincent McMorrow says of his upcoming Imagining Ireland show at the Barbican in London.
James has curated a line-up of artists for the night that includes metal-inspired acoustic rock group The Scratch, folk-rock troubadour Sorcha Richardson, Dublin RnB star Aby Coulibaly and Galway contemporary folk artist Niamh Regan as well as himself.
Every artist on this bill is someone McMorrow personally enjoys listening to and represents exactly what he feels it means to be a modern Irish musician.
“Getting to do something like this Barbican show where I get to bring my friends over and kind of present- not to sound pretentious but- a vision of Irish music and Irish creativity that I believe in, that’s a lovely feeling.
“I chose who I chose because, first and foremost, I’m a fan of theirs, of their work.
“I think anyone that knows me knows I wouldn’t placate anybody by bringing them in unless I had a sense of admiration for them.
“I think they all present to me a vision of Ireland that I really believe in.
“Sorcha is someone whose music I feel is incredible. I’ve had the ability and the privilege of working with her over the last few years.
“Niamh Reagan’s albums are incredible. I’m a big fan.
“It’s the same with The Scratch, unbelievable group of musicians.
“Again, I’m a big fan.
“The same with Aby Coulibaly who is someone whose music I had listened to but I didn’t actually realize she was from Dublin.
“I didn’t know she was as close to me as she was.
“It just feels like this is a line-up that I think is a beautiful cross section of what Ireland is doing right now and more importantly in the face of the last two years, it’s a group of people who are really kind of owning their moment, you know what I mean?
“Really not letting the last few years of heartache define them.
“Niamh put out her first album nominated for the Choice Prize.
“I very much believe in this group of musicians.
“These are a group of musicians that I adore, and I really believe in.
“It felt really nice to be asked to do it.
“If someone comes to me and gives me the opportunity to put a group of musicians that I really love on a stage like the Barbican, I’m always gonna say, ‘yeah’ like it’s a no brainer.
“It just feels like a really strong group of musicians that represent what this country is capable of.”
And it feels like Ireland is capable of a lot these days as it produces hip-hop, RnB and electronic music stars in addition to the more traditional singer-songwriters.
“Historically, there’s been a very, I would argue, quite a myopic interpretation of what Irish music needs to be.
“I’ve never adhered to any structure in terms of what Irish music should or shouldn’t be.
“I’m an Irish musician by default. I’ve never thought about it in any narrow terms.
“I just thought everything I do is inherently Irish, because I am Irish and I’m seriously proud of my Irishness.
“But I also see it as my job and obligation to push what that means forward as much as possible.
“And I would like to think that over the course of five or six albums, I’ve done that in 10 years, and I see a symmetry between the way I think of it, and these artists that I’ve asked to come and play.
“It’s our job and our responsibility to subvert that notion.
“I think that’s what’s happening in Ireland much more now.
“I think it used to feel quite niche to do anything outside that narrow spectrum but now it feels like the norm, which is incredible and how it should be. But it is a process.”
Since his 2010 debut album, James Vincent McMorrow has established himself as a multi-faceted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer – working on albums for the likes of Drake.
A platinum-selling artist who has clocked up over a billion streams and reached number one in the Irish album charts, James has a network of collaborators around the world and stretches across folk, hip-hop, RnB and more.
James says London has a special place in his heart as he came here early on in his career and is now here often.
“I’m there pretty much every week at this point working on records for other people or recording for myself.
“I’ve always loved it, it’s always been a huge part of my musical story because in the beginning, when you’re trying to make it, you go to London.
“I obviously tried that and it didn’t work, and then I came back here (Dublin) in the early 2010s and made my first album.
“There’s a sense of challenge in London that I really appreciate like the vastness of it, the anonymity of it.
“London has this kind of scale and vastness that I think is sort of comparable to LA or New York in the sense that whenever I go there, I feel like I’m working.
“I feel like, ‘Okay, I’m locked into something that’s bigger than me’.
“And I feel like it brings out the best in me so I love it. I’ve always loved it.
“When I was starting out. I went over there but I basically spent all the money I had within two months.
“It was a hard lesson to learn.”
Wherever he has gone in the world, James has seen how strongly the Irish support each other.
“Being Irish is the best thing that ever happened to me.
“And what I mean by that is you have a built in audience around the world before you even have to do anything.
“And I think everybody that’s on the stage next week will tell you the same thing that being Irish means that you can get on a plane pretty early in your life span as a musician, and you can play to people that are showing up for you because someone back home told them or there’s a connectivity there.
“It’s kind of like your nan talking over the back wall to another nan.
“There’s an Irish community that feels really palpable and really strong.
“I used to feel it especially in the beginning when I used to go to America and there’ll be like two or three hundred people and most of them will be Irish.
“They’re showing up and it was like beautiful but it wasn’t kitschy, it wasn’t ridiculous.
“It was like an earnest, ‘We are proud of the fact that you’re Irish and you’re playing shows. We’ll support you’.
“And in reciprocation I always felt a sense of like, ‘I need to show up for you because you’re showing up for me’.
“I think it has brought out the best in me and it brings out the best in a lot of Irish people.
“I saw Aby last week on Instagram.
“She was doing her first London show and it was sold out- Just seeing that sense of excitement in her Instagram posts and sort of remembering back to my first show in London in 2009 and just seeing that symmetry.
“I’m getting all misty eyed but it is the greatest, being amongst the Irish community in other parts of the world is the greatest.
“It gives you a leg up that you can’t under estimate and you can’t underappreciate because I don’t think it exists for all other nationalities and other countries. I think it’s a special thing.”
Due to travel to LA before he come to London, James says ‘it feels nice to be back on something resembling a schedule again’, laughing about the ‘novelty’ of it.
How have the last two years been for him? “2020 was actually pretty okay.
“2021, I think, was a bit of an existential black hole for me.
“Because it felt like in 2020 we were all in it together and then as 2021 progressed it became more and more apparent that those of us, especially in industries like the arts and creative industries or anyone that’s self-employed, were kind of on a different timeline or were being treated differently in some respects.
“I think that created a lot of existential dread and a lot of questions around what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
“So it’s been a mixed bag. This year so far has been fantastic for me and I certainly feel like the road is kind of opening up again.
“I’m doing shows and feeling more like myself and travelling and being amongst musicians.”
Will be emotional to get this line-up onstage together after the last couple of years? “Yeah, I would hope it is emotional.
“I think there’s gonna be something really special to it.
“I’m trying to facilitate a situation for everybody that allows us to build through the night.
“What I didn’t want to do was: Sorcha comes on, Sorcha goes off. The Scratch come on, The Scratch go off. Aby goes on, Aby goes off.
“I want it to feel like a performance that people could feed into.
“So I’m bringing my backing band to be the backing band for everybody that needs it on the night so everybody can feed into the atmosphere, and there won’t be any let up so those emotional situations are allowed to happen.
“Because it is big room and I think you need to build it like it’s an actual show.
“I think the premise of these things can be a little cold.
“You know, ‘Here are a group of musicians that may or may not know each other incredibly well that are kind of experiencing this for the first time’.
“You get these performances from musicians and then you never see them again for the rest of the night.
“I didn’t want us to do that. If they were giving me the reins to run this, I wanted to run it like a show that I would want to watch.
“Because I’m not a stuffy, static person, I want this to be a performance. I want this to feel exciting for the audience.
“And to allow for those special moments to happen, allow for those little things that you can’t get to if it is just like, ‘Well, I played my three songs and now you’re never going to see me again’.
“My hope is that we’ll see something special.”
Just last week James announced two new albums due this year, with The Less I Knew due out in June and the title track already out to give fans a taste of it.
That will be followed by the album Heavyweight Champion of Dublin8 to be released in the autumn.
These follow his fifth studio album Grapefruit Season which was released just last year.
But if you thought this wealth of material came out of lockdown, you would be wrong.
“No, it actually has all been created this year,” he says.
“When I got to January of this year, I found myself wanting to take the things that I’ve learned from the last two years: The notion of lost time, the notion of how much I’ve taken for granted the idea that l would wake up the next morning and the world would exist the way I knew it to be the day before and how upended that all became.
“I just thought, ‘If I don’t change, if I don’t do things differently, if I don’t do things that I really, truly love for the most simple reasons considering the opportunity that I’ve been given in my life to do this as a job, it would be a waste.
“I just felt like I would be wasting my time.
“So I rented a studio with no real plans, went in and just started having the absolute time of my life.
“You couldn’t drag me out of it. I was doing it in a way that was different from before.
“Because I just didn’t feel any sense of pressure.
“Because historically I’ve kind of broken my back for records and put so much time into it that when I looked back I thought that wasn’t the best use of my time.
“I just started going and haven’t really stopped since. I just feel like the perspective that I’ve gained personally over the last year is translating into something that feels relatively formidable for me musically.
“So I’m going to ride that wave while it’s here and enjoy it.”
The new album’s title track The Less I Knew, released last week, gives an insight into James’ new perspective.
“I’m trying to write from a place that feels quite like impulsive and with the appropriate amount of thought employed rather than over or under thinking and with that song, it came from a very simple place.
“It felt like I was questioning the merit of everything that I was doing in the last couple of years, and coming out with some interesting realizations.
“That’s where it came from, the idea that if I could do it again, would I do it differently or would I just repeat the same patterns?
“And also, I want to give people some permission to kind of let themselves off the hook.
“Because I do think that there’s a huge amount of pressure on people right now to default back into this old life that they had in 2019 or 2018 before we knew what was happening or where it would go.
“And I think it’s adding a lot of manic behaviour in everybody where we all kind of go, ‘Sh*t, I need to do so much stuff now. I need to make up for lost time. I need to do whatever’.
“And I want to imbue a sense of like, ‘No, you don’t have to do that. It’s okay to still be freaked out by the world. It’s okay if you repeat those patterns. There’s no right or wrong answer to this’.
“And I wanted to try and get that in the music as much as possible, and that’s what that song is about.
“It’s about people going easy on themselves really.”
James Vincent McMorrow presents Imagining Ireland at the Barbican in London on Thursday 26 May.
You can get more information and book tickets here.