James Morrison on why he considers his latest album, The Awakening, to be his first
James Morrison (due tomorrow night at the Fox Theatre) first started performing at open mike nights in England before he hit it big as a singer-songwriter with a crossover appeal between pop, rock and R&B music. Two of his songs, "Broken Strings" and a cover of "Man In The Mirror," earned him a decent following in the United States. After six years of playing music, Morrison is embarking on his first national headlining tour behind his third album, The Awakening. We caught up with him over the weekend in San Diego for a chat about the difference between British and American fans, why he chose to duet with Nelly Furtado and how he chooses which Steve Wonder songs to cover.
Westword: So what have you been up to today?
James Morrison: I've had three full-on days, so I just slept last night. I got an early night and just slept. I walked along the sea-front, got a coffee in the city, bought a T-shirt. Pretty laidback, really. I've got some TV and some radio [promotion] and then I've got the gig to do. I'm just taking it easier really. This is the last day of four days of hard work, so I'm looking forward to a day off tomorrow.
It's a Mexican holiday tonight, so I'm just going to... I've been working hard, man, and that's the trouble. When you're working hard, you can't party. It's really annoying. I got into this job thinking I'd be partying every day, and I did do that in the beginning. I was partying all the time when I was younger, but I've realized you can't perform as good as you want to when you're getting high and pissed and staying out late. I've got a job to do at the end of the day, so I'm trying to do that.
But surely you've got to have some time where you can unwind?
I have little tiny pockets of time, and when I do have them I totally exploit the fact that I can do a lot. Like tonight I'll be getting pretty pissed after the gig, I think; try and do some shit that's just bad for me.
You started as a performer doing open mike nights, right?
Yeah that's right.
How does that time in your life, doing those open mike nights, compare to where you're at now, headlining your own shows?
It's weird. There's a lot actually that's changed, but really, at the same time, not a lot has changed, either. I'm using the same things that I gained in experience doing all that when I'm doing my big shows; it's kind of just things like relaxing in front of a crowd, learning how to handle a crowd, or if someone is lippy at the front -- I don't know, I don't really get people that are lippy -- it's just all the experience I got out of playing open mikes and playing songs off the cuff and covers off the cuff and just diving into live stuff, even though you don't know all of it. It's all that stuff, really.
If something goes wrong live on stage, I don't get all flustered because I've been through all that. Whereas I know people that have made records in their bedrooms and they've got their sounds and stuff, but when it comes to live music, they can't handle the... when it goes wrong, they don't know what to do because they're inexperienced. I did it the other way: I did the live stuff first before I started writing, so I'm quite comfortable with playing live in general just because of those experiences doing those open mike nights.
You mentioned you used to do covers at open mike nights. Are there any covers that you still do live that you first started doing at open mike nights?
That's the thing. I'd been really really lucky when I first started out because I ended up doing what I used to do back in the day. I did a radio thing the other week - a cover of "Gangster's Paradise" and Coolio over the acoustic guitar. I've done covers like "Man In The Mirror." I've done Stevie Wonder covers, Bill Wither covers, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Ray LaMontagne -- just people I like. A lot of the stuff I used to do, that's stuff that I'm still doing.
You're pretty famous for some of your Stevie Wonder covers, too, aren't you?
Yeah, I love Stevie Wonder. I try to be careful with which ones I pick, but I wouldn't do them if I didn't think I could pull them off with my band and stuff. I used to do "Master Blaster"... we used to try loads of bits of different things, a bit of "I Wish" -- we never played that live, but we practiced it, and it sounded sick. But yeah, I just think you have to be careful with covers because you can easily start being a covers band, do you know what I mean? All of my favorite songs are Stevie Wonder, all the ones that people in cover bands play, anyway, so I try to pick obscure ones that are not too, sort of, favorites or whatever. I'm always careful with covers.
Are there any songs that you wish you could cover but don't think you should because you don't want to turn into a cover-band sort of situation?
I'd love to play anything reggae [laughs]. I just fucking love reggae music. It's quite difficult to pull off reggae when you're white. "Superstition" is one that I'd love to do, but it's just been done to death by so many cover bands. It's one of those things that you save for parties and for home and stuff. And it's funny, too, because a lot of Stevie Wonder songs tend to be staples for those live singing competitions like X Factor or American Idol or anything like that, and you don't want to go down that route.
No, not at all. I don't want to seem like I'm trying to pull something off that I can't. If I'm going to do something, I want to own it. I'm not going to do it unless I make it my own or do an interpretation of it that's effortless. You're just going to be disappointed because it's Stevie Wonder. I mean, I love Stevie Wonder -- every little inflection he does on the melody I can try and imitate that to the best of my ability but even for me it's quite hard to. You have to be careful.
While we're talking about live music, I do want to talk about "Broken Strings." One of the things that always fascinated me, when you were performing that song live in the U.K., was that you always had a new person that you were performing with. What was that like?
It was fun. It was fun to be able to mix it up with different singers and get different interpretations of what they think it should be. That's the whole point of it being a duet for me, really. It's more about working with someone else that adds a different take on the song; everyone does it a bit different. It was fun for me to be able to use that song as a platform for me to work with them.
I worked with Keisha [Buchanan] from the Sugababes; she's a really good singer. I've done it with a few X Factor finalists in Germany and Italy and stuff. But the main person that I really liked doing it with was Nelly [Furtado]. That's kind of why I picked her, just because she's got such a recognizable voice. She's different in style.
How did the collaboration with Nelly Furtado and even the song you did with Jessie J for The Awakening, "Up," happen?
By accident, really. They build up their own momentum. I mean, even "Broken Strings" in the beginning was never going to be a duet. When it did become a duet, it was just an off-the-cuff idea. Someone was just like, "Oh, have you ever thought about doing a duet?" And I was like, "Not really." I kind of thought duets were quite cheesy, just not very cool. But then once the idea came out to do it, they were like, "Who would you pick?"
Of course, I wanted Nelly Furtado -- she had "Maneater" out at the time, I think. So I just said, "Yeah, Nelly Furtado's got a voice you can recognize, and she's different, and she's got a clean voice." I just thought it would work. Even when I got to the studio, I didn't know it was going to work until she laid it down and we listened to it. I just love working with different people because it mixes it up for me, and it keeps it interesting for me, and opens the song up to interpretation and makes it even more meaningful - and opens it up to a new fan-base.
And there's a new energy there, too, because you're working with someone else as opposed to just by yourself?
Yeah, exactly. And it's a good thing for my ego [laughs] working with people like Nelly Furtado and Jessie J and stuff. I haven't got an ego, but it's nice to perform with people like this who want to work with you.