James Vincent McMorrow Is Living Proof That You Should Never Underestimate an Irishman

And that hip-hop is a great distraction from sorrow.

Jul 12 2014, 1:00pm

It's drizzling in Ireland, the way it rains in places that are used to this weather, in patches and with a dreary insistence. But the rain has finally stopped dripping on James Vincent McMorrow, who's hunkering under a makeshift tent on the grounds of Bushmills' distillery. In about an hour, the Dublin-born musician will take the stage to play the distillery's private music festival, Bushmills Live. But this stop is just one of many for McMorrow, who has been on international tour for his sophomore album Post Tropical since it came out this January.

McMorrow's debut, Early In The Morning, seemed hewn from the past; his impossibly high voice stretched against the margins of story-songwriting and acoustic accompaniment. Diverging from all things that might be dubbed "folk," Post Tropical dabbles in R&B and electronic production. The music is stupefying, poking holes in the antiquated idea of genre classification. It's the depth of emotion in McMorrow's songwriting that pushed Early In The Morning to such great heights, and that depth remains in his second album.

Sitting in the rain, we talk about the sadness in Ireland's history which he infuses in his songwriting. But James is also full of surprises, and brings up his love for Drake and Pusha T, and his stint as a drummer in a metal band. That's when I realize I should never underestimate an Irishman.

I've been a fan of you for ages. I first saw you open for The Civil Wars in LA, back in 2011.
James: That was a cool show! The Civil Wars are good friends of mine, especially Joy [Williams]. John Paul [White] is kind of in his own world. Great people. I remember that show specifically because I went off the microphone at the end. Everyone was very quiet and it was really special for people to be so quiet. In the beginning of my career I had never played live, so my first shows before that were a disaster.

Oh really? What happened?
I'm just glad it was five or six years ago, before everybody had every kind of camera. Thank god because some of it was really bad, but that's the part and parcel of it. I'm always prepared to fail. That's been the way with me. I've made mistakes and I've done things the hard way but it's made me the person and the musician that I am. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Nerves aside, you have this incredible, honeyed voice that feels effortless. Did you always know you wanted to sing?
No, the opposite! People would tell me I was too loud. I wasn't the singer I am now, I think it's something I developed over time. I started as someone that just liked being around music. I played drums—that was my first musical venture–at 16 or 17. All my friends played and we were all really big into hard rock and metal and there's a not a lot of singing involved in that.

So you weren't sitting around listening to singer-songwriters, or around some sort of folk scene?
When I started listening to those people is when I was like 'Okay, I'd like to learn to sing.' I wasn't sitting around listening to Pentangle records! But I own the entire Neil Young back catalogue and I own most of the Bob Dylan back catalogue. Does that make me a folk musician? Dylan started with a guitar, and then went electric, and then had his '80s parade and his '90s parade, he's just a musician that followed the path he was following. I just wanted to add things. So I learned guitar, played piano and started singing.

As far as your new album Post Tropical, "Gold" and "We Don't Eat" are very different. Was that intentional?
When we were on tour with Early in the Morning people would ask me what I was working on. I would talk about the idea of a Jenga puzzle: all these tiny things connecting up to make a solid structure—[but] if you took one of those things out the structure falls. Becuase this album has a lot of production, rhythmic and melodic things that I hadn't done before. Fundamentally I was saying it sounded post-tropical because that's what it sounded like to me. I think anybody that has paid attention to my career has seen that people have at times attributed the genre of folk music to me, because I have a guitar.

And because your songs are very lyrical.
And I understand certain attributes to it and I question others.

You're not acoustic at all.
And I never was! If you listen to "We Don't Eat" as being a lyrical song and not having a folk overtone to it, the song is drums and piano and that's it. It's like a dance song.

Do you know about the amazing dance remix of it?
Yeah, the Adventure Club remix of it! That was something that we talked about at the time and set up. It freaked people out at the time. I would hope that at this stage any ideas of attributing a genre or a silo to me have been dispelled. I think that's how it should be.

Your music feels sad, but in a way that is enjoyable. The more that I'm here the more that people have talked about the Irish heritage that is filled with sadness.
Yes absolutely. There's certainly an element of our songwriting and storytelling sense in our work historically that's based on sad events. That's definitely part of our DNA, musically speaking. That's the nation that we are–we've been overrun by people, we've fought people, we've moved abroad and we've had famine. Things have happened to this island. I've gotten to grow up in Ireland in the most peaceful time it's ever known. It's a beautiful place to grow up and I love this country. But historically, there's so sorrowful richness, if that makes any sense in an oxymoronic way. Not that we revel in the sadness but it's part of us and part of our culture. I'm not a sad guy, anyone that knows me knows that I'm not a sad guy at all. I sit around most of the day listening to pretty loud hip-hop in my house and my car.

Who are your favorite rappers?
My world these days revolves around Drake. I'm a huge Drake fan. Drake is a funny one. I was a huge Clipse fan when I was a kid so I love Pusha T. Those two were my favorite records of last year. Obviously Kendrick Lamar and I'm a big ScHoolboy Q fan as well. It's rare that a rapper kind of grabs me and holds me, like Kendrick Lamar, but I just love Drake.

I grew up loving hip-hop production. My world was always about hip-hop production and layered sounds. When I first heard The Neptunes, Timbaland or Mannie Fresh, I wanted to know what they did! So I examined it and deconstructed it. On Post Tropical I included more overt elements from it. There's trap rhythms on songs like "Glacier" but I also wanted to back them up against quite musical and lyrical stuff.

What specifically do you appreciate about Drake?
I think that Drake kind of ticks every box for me as a musician. When I first heard and saw him I was like 'I don't know about this guy.' It's like, 'What's he doing: Is he singing is he rapping?' [But] when I heard "Marvin's Room," it just blew my mind. He's a singer-songwriter—it's confessional. He's talking about things that connect with people who come from a hip-hop background but also people that come from a songwriter background. It's rare these days.

Since you come from a metal background, would you ever incorporate metal into your future records?
I would never incorporate metal in an overt sense because, for the most part, it's not something I listen to and think 'Yes!' I listened to it mostly because I was a sad angry teenager. But the great stuff stays with me like Tool and At the Drive-In, bands that are lyrically thoughtful and sonically profound.

You've toured internationally over the past few years, but is Ireland still your favorite place to play?
Ireland is my home country so playing here is like a party. I went abroad to find success. I didn't find a lot of success in Ireland during my first year of releasing Early in the Morning. We did okay I could go to Dublin and play in front of six or seven hundred people, but that was where it was staying. Then I went to the UK and the U.S. and that was where it really started to go well for me, and that fed back in. Then everyone really caught on which was amazing because it felt like [I was] a returning hero. That sounds really narcissistic–like a returning Irish person who has succeeded abroad.

Are the Irish loyal to Irish artists who succeed abroad?
Yes! When I’m home people are high-fiving me in the street. Just absurd things! Because they're happy for me to be here and they're happy that I succeeded. I think I went about it in the right way; I never expected it. I worked and hoped for it but I never expected it. I hope that resonates with people. I've never neglected it. I'm not like, 'Okay I juse played two nights in New York so I can hang out in the US all the time.' I love the U.S., but I love being home. I still live in Dublin and have a house there–it's where I call home.

Caitlin is now back in the US, daydreaming of her next trip to Ireland. She's on Twitter - " target="_blank">@harmonicait.


Want more Irishmen you shouldn't underestimate? Check these out:

I Went to Northern Ireland and Did the Most Irish Things Ever: Drank Whiskey and Listened to Folk Music

The #1s Don't Have a #1 Yet but "heartsmash," Streaming Now, Should Be Yours