Butting heads with James Vincent McMorrow

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Butting heads with James Vincent McMorrow

James Vincent McMorrow
Words by David James Young

Irish singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer James Vincent McMorrow has now officially released seven studio albums.

The trick for listeners, however, is gauging which James Vincent McMorrow is going to show up when they press play. Will it be the rustic, folksy James Vincent McMorrow with an acoustic guitar at the ready? Will it be the poppy, neon-tinged James Vincent McMorrow with the glass-breaking falsetto and a spaceship of synthesizers? What of the indie-rock James Vincent McMorrow, electric guitar plugged in and finding the middle ground between the two immediate extremes of his musical spectrum?

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“The other day, someone called the way I approach music as ‘chaotic’,” McMorrow says with a laugh, Zooming in to Mixdown on a drizzly Dublin morning. “Genre has always felt very arbitrary for me – I listen to everything from Deerhoof to Deftones. To make music that doesn’t reflect my entire sonic tapestry would make no sense to me. It’s all very natural – certain songs will call for a certain motifs, and then a collection of songs will present a certain symmetry. It all feels congruent, even if it does come off as chaotic.”

On his freshly-released Wide open, horses, McMorrow has created something that encapsulates a lot of key elements of his prior six albums – an all-rounder rather than an expert in a singular field, so to speak. Even while mining his past, however, JVM is still looking towards what the future of his sound will encompass. “I’ll always try and bring in new elements when I get to the studio,” he says. “For instance, I have this old Hagstrom guitar that I’ve had around the house forever. It’s pretty beat up – it’s from the 60s, and I got it second-hand at a guitar shop in Dublin. Its sound changes a lot depending on the pickup switches – if you push it all the way there, it can actually sound like a very present Stratocaster; if you push it all the way back, it feels quite emo.”

“It’s a fun guitar, but I’d never written on it before this record. That changed when I discovered this pedal company called Old Blood Noise. They have this pedal called the Beam Splitter – and basically, it’s one input with three outputs. You can put your guitar in and take a mono out, but the mono has this deviate function that separates the output into three and micro-delays them – so you’re effectively beefing up your guitar sound and making it sound like three. It also has this incredible chorus effect and all these other effects, so it made the Hagstrom a really interesting guitar to write on. Then, when I put a synth through that pedal, specifically my Poly Evolver? Game over!”

In addition to writing, arranging and playing the lion’s share of instruments across his studio albums, McMorrow has also had a hand in production in all seven – either as the sole producer or in a co-production role. He’s learned a lot about being behind the boards over the 14 years since his debut album, Late in the Evening, came out – and one of these key lessons was put into action while recording a standout track from Wide open, horses entitled “look up!!”

“Sonically, it felt quite similar to “Breaking Hearts” from my first record,” McMorrow explains.

“When I made that song, I was doing all sorts of busy shit to try and get the drums and everything to really click. I felt like there was too much space on the song. When I listened back to it in retrospect, I didn’t feel like I got it right. When I listened back to ‘look up!!’, however, it was like, ‘Well, there’s that question answered.’ On that first album, I’m really aggressively bumping against the ceiling of my abilities. I was ambitious, but I was also just making an album in my house. In making this album, I really got to the heart of something I’ve been looking to get to since those early days: Trying to build a story out of just a drum part, or a synth or guitar part. That’s kind of the whole point of music, right? It’s a journey.”

McMorrow’s studio experience has not only had him manning the boards of his own albums, but for other artists as well – from as obscure as Dublin duo All Tvvins to as mainstream as One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson. In that context, McMorrow has found himself taking after one of his heroes, Jimmy Iovine: fighting with the act he’s recording. OK, maybe fighting is a strong word. “I like butting heads and having shootouts,” he laughs. 

“They might want to use a [Neumann] U47, and I’ll come back and say the U47 is a great mic but the ELA M 25[1E] is too. They might want to settle on a room sound, and then I’ll do something really bizarre like take the drums outside and send the reverb to a silly level. It might only add 5% to a song, but it feels worthwhile if it gets it to 100%.”

With Wide open, horses out in the world, McMorrow is getting ready to hit the road. He wants to emphasise that, when you’re seeing him live, it is in a direct and literal sense. “There’s no clicks and no ear monitors on this tour,” he says. “I’m on wedges for the first time in about 10 years, because I want to get the feel of the room. You’ll hear a representation of my records live, but not an exact replica – the songs are more like jumping off points this time around.”

Listen to Wide open, horses here.