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James Vincent McMorrow on moving to a new sound

By Cole Parker
James Vincent McMorrow fights “diminishing returns” with help from OVO collaborators. Photo: Sarah Doyle

James Vincent McMorrow fights “diminishing returns” with help from OVO collaborators.
Photo: Sarah Doyle

CALGARY — James Vincent McMorrow is an artist whose career has been defined by changes to his sound. His 2010 debut Early in the Morning was almost entirely made up of soft acoustic arrangements, with his guitar playing front and centre. Next came 2014’s Post Tropical, a notable departure away from his indie-folk sounds to lush soundscapes of dreamy reverb and cathartically melancholic arrangements. It was a conscious decision McMorrow made towards becoming the artist he wanted to be. Now in 2016, We Move, his first number one album in his home country of Ireland, is another missing link for the ever-evolving artist.

Gone are the building crescendos, the choral-like background vocals and the wistful nature. Instead on We Move, he opts for a funkier, more R&B-tinged sound with a return of some more tasteful guitar and hip-hop influenced beats. McMorrow is definitive though in his approach to the different stages of his career. “I feel like evolution is necessary.”

While the move from his debut to his sophomore was purely stylistic, We Move is a shift in the songwriting process as well. It’s led to some of McMorrow’s most immediate and ear-grabbing tracks to date. That change is courtesy of OVO family members Nineteen85 and Frankie Dukes, who have songwriting and production credits on a handful of We Move’s tracklist. This created a much different atmosphere for McMorrow, and it was one he actively sought out. “The goal was to bring in people that could do things that I just can’t do myself and people whose minds I could tap into.” Historically an artist that would take his time alone in the studio, McMorrow’s collaborators forced him to have material ready for their focused gazes.

As with any artist whose sound grows and expands the way McMorrow’s does, he’s lost some fans along the way. “They really want you to stay the same, because they want to enjoy those things (you used to do). The reality is if I were to keep mining those things, it would be the law of diminishing returns. Everything I do would be a lesser thing than the thing I did before.” For McMorrow, who’s constantly looking to hone his craft, you get the impression that stagnation would be unacceptable.

For an artist who is so devoted to his craft, it’s kind of unfortunate that to date the highest he’s reached in terms of mainstream acceptance is a cover version of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” He’s glad it came from an organic place, recorded for a charity album with all proceeds of the single going towards that charity, rather than from some attention-seeking stunt. He’s definitely distanced himself from any kind of ‘cover artist’ title however, with “Higher Love” being the only cover he performs live, simply for its emotional connection. “My mother used to play it all the time growing up.”

The live show will also be a different experience for fans of the singer-songwriter. On his previous trip to Calgary, McMorrow performed an extremely stripped-back acoustic set with no one else onstage at Knox United Church. The intimate atmosphere, stained glass-windows and rows of pews seemed to fit the angelic tones of McMorrow’s Post-Tropical Tour. The fuller sound of We Move however comes with a fuller live show with his band coming to perform at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. A few solo sections are promised for the more subdued selections of McMorrow’s setlist.

James Vincent McMorrow plays the Park Theatre in Winnipeg on November 19th, the Winspear Centre in Edmonton on November 21st, the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary on November 22nd, the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on November 24th and the Alix Goolden Hall in Victoria on November 25th.

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