An interview with James Morrison
PUBLISHED: 11:20 23 June 2016 | UPDATED: 11:20 23 June 2016
A tough childhood; family tragedy; and four years in the wilderness. But for Stroud-based singer-songwriter James Morrison, falling is the way you learn how to fly, he tells Katie Jarvis, ahead of his appearance at Cornbury Music Festival.
I didn’t expect to laugh quite so much, interviewing James Morrison. But life – even the sad bits – has a way of being funny. Like the fact that he went to a spiritual healer, who told him (wait for an unexpected man-rush on spiritual healers here, girls) that he needed to sit on the feminine side of his brain and connect a bit more with the masculine bits.
I mean, really?!? Most women would kill for a bloke (confusing expression, in the circumstances) who was too in touch with his feely side. Not only that. She also told him (wait for a second rush on spiritual healers, girls) that he needed to get out and do more sports.
Football on prescription.
“What she said,” James Morrison explains, before I get too carried away, “was that I was using the majority of my brain to do creative stuff and I wasn’t doing enough sport; because, in any lifestyle, you need to balance out two aspects of your brain – the female and the male.
“So she said to me, ‘Are you into any sports?’; and I said, ‘I’ve started snowboarding and I’ve just bought myself a little motorbike’. Because I always wanted one when I was a kid and I never could afford one. I’ve started boxing; I’ve started running; I’ve started going to the gym.”
And is it fun?
“Oh, 100 percent. One hundred percent! I feel way more open; way more positive. I’ve got loads more energy. It comes with the endorphins, when you work out. I didn’t realise how much difference it would make.”
A touchy-feely man on a motorbike. As if he wasn’t attractive enough.
Or, to give you another yin-yang image, James Morrison wandering around his land with a shotgun and a guitar. “It’s weird,” he said in a newspaper interview I read once. (And now I’ve spoken to him, I can hear him laugh.) “I was brought up on a council estate but I’m a bit posh now.”
Odd thing, life, really.
Here I am in Nailsworth, barely a rifle’s shot from James Morrison’s posh country house. Yet here he is on the phone to me, 300 miles away, in some posh hotel on the edge of Brussels; his voice borne on fading airwaves like a song on a Five Valleys breeze.
Look - it’s probably a very nice hotel (I’m picturing marble portals and a minibar stuffed with Callebaut chocolate). And I’m so not being ungrateful. (Really not!) But, truth to tell, I’d ideally like to be chatting to him while walking through rippling paddocks of grass at his turn-of-century gentleman’s residence. (“There are times when I wake up wondering, ‘When is the landlord going to come round and kick me out?’”)
Or mulling over a pint at the nearby Whitminster Inn, which (according to Facebook) his wife, Gill, reviewed with a high-five stars.
You know, casual stuff; taking-your-time stuff. Seeing what he’s like in the flesh stuff, this singer with the soulful voice and more soulful eyes; whose haunted past has translated into haunting lyrics hinting that all good things could be snatched away in the blink of an empty eye.
Hinting that, even though you’re clasping the deeds to your high-ceilinged house with its dark green Aga, a landlord’s phantom hand forever hovers over an ice-cold phone.
‘You give me something
That makes me scared alright’
But there again, there are plenty of things you can tell from a voice. A voice that answers questions with a friendly “No worries!”. A voice that – like his lyrics – doesn’t bother to pretend to be, or feel, something false. A voice that makes me laugh. I say to James Morrison, at one point, “I read you were going to be a carpet-fitter before you became famous.”
“Well, I was a carpet-fitter. I didn’t want to be one!” he corrects me.
So let’s backtrack a bit. He’s in Brussels as part of an extensive UK and European tour (including, more excitingly, Cornbury!), promoting his new album, Higher Than Here. It’s a long-anticipated tour; a long-anticipated album. An album and a tour that waited, patiently, because James Morrison wasn’t ready for them.
There were four wilderness years during which he lost three members of his family: his dad, his brother, and his nephew.
“I’m very sorry,” I say, with heartfelt inadequacy.
“I don’t really want to go into too much detail but it was a difficult time,” he says. “Spiritually, I was at my lowest point ever in terms of believing in positive things. And I suppose this album is about me finding my way back to the positive place – to the most positive place I’ve ever been.”
And it is a positive album – a really lovely, powerful swathe of songs - his fourth studio album. His latest single I Need You Tonight is just gorgeous – soulful disco, as it’s been described by better than I. But it’s the contrast that strikes me: from the darkness of Demons, with its gospel plea (I close my eyes and talk to God/And pray that you can save my soul); to the track that tied me in emotional knots - Too Late for Lullabies - the song for his mum. It starts with the brutal sadness of a broken childhood (It’s a bleeding heart that never mends); then it morphs, startlingly; catching the listener by surprise as it suddenly recognises, within that difficult past, the gift of the present.
‘You taught me to fly by learning to fall’
“Yeah,” he mulls. “It took me a long time to get to this point where I can see it like that - but I do see it like that now. It took me probably from 16 to 23, before I had my kid, to get rid of the negativity of my upbringing and all the things I didn’t like about it.”
“I suppose getting a deal and having a voice and having music allow me to escape it.”
So fame helped? Sort of? “Though I don’t really like saying ‘famous’. Err… Someone that people know,” he settles on, in preference.
Not the money or the adulation of fame; more:
“I felt like I had a place.
“But then I needed to connect myself, as a child and a person, to the new lifestyle that I had. And the only way I could do that was to go back to those feelings; back to my childhood in my mind, and try and see what was good about it. And, actually, without the way that it went, I wouldn’t be the person that I am. I’m glad that it was hard because I feel so much stronger now; I feel like life can only get better.”
Yes, I see that.
I don’t have the time – or the inclination (in a respectful way) – to ask him to detail those hard times; but there are things you can piece together from comments; from self-penned lyrics. His father, whose demons came in the form of drink, left when James was four; his mum struggled emotionally and financially. I read somewhere that, one childhood Christmas, his gifts were a packet of felt-tips and a clementine.
But I’m more interested in how he reinvented himself. Saved himself, if you like. Boy-from-tough-Derby-council-estate could so easily have become man-who-can’t-voice-feelings. Yet, the opposite is true. How did he find that emotion?
“I dunno. Difficult to pinpoint it. I suppose I never really had a voice when I was growing up - in terms of being listened to or my problems being primary concern to my parents.
“But, whenever I sang when I was a kid, it always felt like I was releasing something I needed to release. It was a natural thing.”
His family was into music. Blues and rockabilly and Elvis for his mum. “And I remember her singing that Sweet Baby James to me by James Taylor, when I was a little baby. I remember that song before I even knew what music was.
“The first tune I got really excited about was T Rex, We love to boogie. I kind of liked Fats Domino and Chuck Berry; rock and roll was the first stuff I really liked. And I loved Michael Jackson for f***ing ages. I didn’t listen to anything else. And then I found soul – Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke. And Van Morrison, Cat Stevens. Just good songwriters.”
With Higher Than Here, he’s gone right back to the principles of good song-writing. Challenged himself. Pushed himself.
“When I started writing [for the album], I was doing stuff that I felt comfortable with and it was just boring; second-rate versions of what I’d done before. So every time I tried to write a song, I’d do something that would put me out of my comfort-zone. Like in Higher Than Here, it’s so high at the back end of the song that I was shitting myself that I would make the notes; but it creates the tension it needed.
“Or Demons: I’ve never really written songs about dark stuff so that was kind of me out of my comfort-zone as well.
“I think if you’re shitting yourself, it helps you realise that you care about it and you want it to be good.”
So there’s a lesson for the 21st century. If you’re going to be simplistic, then by all means look at failure and hardship as bad things. (Even that distinctively raspy voice is the result of whooping cough as a baby.)
He laughs. “I don’t think you should remind yourself that you feel shit about yourself; but, at the same time, I always try to see the positive out of the negative. ‘I can fly by learning to fall’ is how I was brought up. You learn a lot quicker from learning how not to do things.
“But you’ve always got other options; different ways to think about things. I try to remind myself that you can change yourself as you go along; you’re not stuck. A lot of the time, you can change yourself.”
So here he is, living in the Cotswolds; the boy with a packet of felt-tips; the man with everything.
“Yeah. I mean, there is a slight conflict – me trying to adjust to the new situation. There’s definitely a part of me that wants to have everything I’ve never had; but, at the same time, I don’t want to forget where I’ve come from. I suppose that’s the conflict.”
And what about Elsie, his seven-year-old, whose childhood is so different from his own?
“I’m really aware that she’s a very lucky girl, you know. She’s got so many things that I never had, and opportunities I never had. But I’m pretty good at keeping her level- headed; making sure she knows the value of things.
“We had nothing growing up; every penny counted. But I don’t just buy stuff for the sake of it. She has to be good to get good stuff!”
I ask him a different question but the phone-line has faded out again. When he comes back, a while later, he’s still talking about it; about the material side of life. Clearly, this is an important subject.
“In the beginning, when she was a baby, I definitely went a bit overboard, buying her toys and stuff. But then I realised, quite quickly, it didn’t really matter; stuff doesn’t matter. It’s about the time you spend with them. And that’s kind of why I took the time off, so I could get that bond; get the values built.”
He thinks for a moment.
“The other end of the scale, where you have a spoiled kid, is worse than having nothing… I’m OK and I had nothing. It served me OK.”
Stroud also works well. It’s not just the space afforded by a magnanimous countryside. “I like Stroud because there’s no nonsense. It’s out of the way. There’s no bullshit like there is in London or bigger cities. People are chatty and friendly and open. They’ve got time instead of rushing around.”
And there’s Cornbury, too, which is almost like performing on home territory. “It’s not a massive festival but it’s got clout; a nice, chilled festival, where people appreciate music.
“I’d go to it, if I wasn’t singing on stage.”
So here he is; James Morrison, touring again. Dashing about Europe after a long spell of taking Elsie to school in the mornings. Chilling with Gill. Going to the gym. Getting his head back into a good place.
“I love touring. It’s hard work but, at the same time, that’s the whole reason why I got into music in the first place.”
When he was 21, he released his debut album and life changed forever.
“But, at 21, I was shitting myself all the time. I was just scared that… I dunno… That it would get taken away from me and that I would only have one song and then be forgotten. I didn’t want that to happen. I was just surviving when I was 21.”
“Whereas, now, I’m feeling like I’m opening my wings; a little bit more confident. I’m 31 now – 10 years later – and I finally feel like I’m enjoying it.”
• For more on James Morrison, visit www.jamesmorrisonmusic.com