“I think that I’ve probably made as many changes as I could physically and mentally make.”
James Vincent McMorrow is talking about his time in Covid lockdown, which ended up being a period of deep transformation for him as an artist and, well, a human being. The Irish singer/songwriter picked up and left his lifelong home in Dublin to relocate to the country and, moreover, shifted his entire artistic perspective. While you were working on your sourdough starter, McMorrow was rethinking the whole creative process. As he puts it: “I made some very hard and quite strict decisions to not go back into the idea of making music with anything other than a sense of love, and that being the central purpose to the whole thing.”
Longtime listeners to McMorrow can probably tell. His latest effort, The Less I Knew, is a whole different vibe. McMorrow cut his teeth on weepy folk by way of bearded sad sacks like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes and, like those acts, has found interesting ways to evolve his sound in the ensuing years. The Less I Knew is full of lush, verdant jams, with sharp, bright edges where his early work swirled into mist. And to hear McMorrow tell it, this is less the result of an external artistic shift than an internal personal one.
“I changed my environment, changed my setup, changed some working situations for myself in terms of how I release music and the people I work with,” he explains. “I tried to ensure that whatever I do, however I do it, that there’s a sense of appreciation for the moment in it, rather than an expectation that tomorrow I’m going to wake up and the sun will rise the way it did the day before.”
“Obviously, that was a pretty paper thin veneer that existed for all of us,” he says. Fair enough.
A New Reason
McMorrow turned to music in college, inspired to learn how to play a guitar by the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Band of Horses. In true folk singer fashion, he recorded his debut by himself in a small cottage on the Irish coast and became a quick sensation, playing Later …with Jools Holland and notching platinum sales. In subsequent albums like Post Tropical and We Move, McMorrow proved a tricky artist to nail down, effortlessly sliding through genre influences like sunny California pop, smoky bar room rock and even some echoes of R&B.
“Every record that I’ve ever made, I’ve always tried to put myself in really uncomfortable situations,” he explains. “Whenever I’ve found a level of success, I’ve almost tried to move the level in order to keep feeling hungry and keep growing.”
“It’s worked in a lot of ways, but also it’s a very stressful way to do anything,” he admits.
Covid was a time of reflection, where McMorrow started questioning whether or not his approach to music was worth the internal pressure he put on himself. He says he asked himself: “What if I completely reject the idea that this should be stressful?” It was a novel concept.
So he made a rule for the recording of The Less I Knew: “If I’m in the studio and it doesn’t feel fun, I’ll just leave the situation.”
“Once I started doing that, the music just got infinitely better and more coherent,” he says. “It’s one of those things where you look back and you go, ‘I wish I’d thought about this earlier.’” He laughs a little in regret, and then shrugs.
“I’m a big believer in everything for a reason.”
Erring Towards the Abstract
He’s not just talking about changing his sound, production and genre, to be clear. McMorrow says the same mentality applies to his songwriting as well, although that’s even harder to quantify. “I can see the different moments [over my career] where I was trying to say the thing, but I wasn’t quite confident or self-possessed enough to occupy the thought.”
He says he used to be a little more deliberately vague in his lyrics, giving fans a lot of freedom to interpret the lyrics in a way that made sense for them. “I was quite deferential to the process,” he says. “I was just happy to be there. I’m an insular person, so I wasn’t very predisposed to share my life or my agendas. I would keep it to myself.”
McMorrow said that started to change on his third album, where he wrote more explicitly about his past struggles with an eating disorder (“I Lie Awake Every Night”) and realized that his fans valued his vulnerability and specificity. He started to be more forthright in his lyrics, to the point where he says he developed a “chip on his shoulder” and swung the opposite direction, writing songs that resisted alternate fan interpretation. With the new album, he says he feels like he struck a new, healthy balance.
“I feel fully occupied within it,” he says. “Every lyric I can tell you what it’s about, without removing the mystery and the magic of the thing. You don’t want to give away all the secrets. We want people to get the thing that they want to get from it, while also maintaining this level of push and pull between you and the audience.”
He compares his latest philosophy on songwriting to Bob Dylan’s famously opaque “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which has almost as many interpretations as Dylan has fans. “The fact that [Dylan] has never planted the flag and said ‘this is what it’s about’ is what makes it work,” McMorrow says. “I definitely always erred on that side of the line.”
“When I’m writing the lyric, I want to do it in a way that is clear-eyed so that people can read it and get an amount from it, rather than when I erred towards the abstract to protect myself at certain junctures,” he says. “That gives me what I want as the artist, while also giving people what they want as the listener.”
McMorrow is taking his time more seriously these days. He keeps circling back to realizations he had during Covid about how fragile everything is, and how quickly it can all go away. He’s not taking anything for granted, and that includes music.
“I’m approaching it with less of a sense of preciousness,” he says. “You get into this cycle where you think every song is this hallowed thing you put on a pedestal. But it’s really not. Music is supposed to be taken off the shelf and ripped apart and played with.”
And that, he says, is a post-Covid revelation. “I don’t know if I necessarily appreciated that before,” he says. “It has to be this malleable thing.”
There’s a bit of a paradox here. He’s taking his time on earth a little more seriously, which has led to taking music a little less seriously which has, again, paradoxically, made it better. “When I get in the studio, I’m not going and going like, ‘’This has to be this Sistine Chapel of a thing.’ It can just be what it wants to be. And within that sense of less preciousness, less nonsense around the actual craft of it, the music just feels really natural to me in a way that it didn’t before.”
He feels more confident. He’s no longer questioning his abilities. He’s more interested in developing himself. “I am going forward so that I can keep going back to the well and keep finding new ways to say things.”
In short, McMorrow’s changes are only just beginning. But now, he has a better idea of where they’re taking him.