James Morrison on making his new LP: I wanted something that just goes 'bam'
Following adversity in his personal life, James Morrison is back on track. Ahead of an Irish gig next month, the gravel-voiced troubadour speaks to Alex Green about finding his feet again and his new album, You're Stronger Than You Know
IT HAS been a dramatic few years for James Morrison – first he lost his record label and then he almost lost a child.
Born 13 weeks premature, his daughter almost did not make it. But now, Ada-Rose has turned one and Morrison has an album out, one he says truly reflects his passions.
"There's a sparkle in the air," he says, a grin passing across his face. "There's a tension of, 'he's back and it sounds wicked'. I feel like this record has a good shot at being a classic."
As we speak in the wood-panelled restaurant of a glitzy central London hotel, Morrison shifts constantly in his seat, stocky in a white T-shirt. It is a location at odds with his light-hearted manner.
He is a ball of energy, charming and candid, clearly buoyed by the enthusiasm of promoting a work he truly believes is great.
"A lot of it is deeply personal relationship stuff, which is kind of what I have always written about," he explains. "But it's more prevalent on this album because we've been through so much. I got dropped and I didn't really know if I was going to come through on this album. But it's exactly what I wanted it to be."
"Having another baby. That was difficult, with the pregnancy. But it's allowed me a little bit of space between me and the music."
The 34-year-old singer-songwriter's fifth album comes after years of turmoil. He suffered heartache in 2010 when his father died of liver disease after 20 years of alcoholism.
After his 2015 album Higher Than Here, he was dropped and then, alongside his partner Gill, he went through the trauma of their daughter's premature birth.
On his most recent record, a slick soulful affair that references Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Booker T and the legendary Stax label, he has the outlet to express that pain. But there was also joy.
"It was so serious that by the time it came to making the album I was like: 'This is fun as f***.' It was just me, going to London and recording some music."
The album bursts out of the traps with a duet, of the kind that rocketed him to fame alongside Nelly Furtado, with the now ubiquitous Broken Strings.
"I wanted something that was strong, strident and just goes 'bam'," he says as he slaps the palm of his hand against the table.
Morrison has a fizzing energy to him – constantly imitating other musicians, wise-cracking and showing off a knack for self-deprecation. His imitates the Alabama twang of soul legend Eddie Floyd, and it sounds exactly as one would expect coming from the mouth of a Warwickshire-born Englishman.
"I felt a responsibility to myself and to Gill to write some songs that tackled everything we went though. There's songs on there that deal with the baby but it's from the soul."
He continues: "I don't want to sit here and moan about it. I want to say, 'It was s*** but we've come through.' That's what's amazing. The songs reflect the end result of all that."
The album might be Morrison's finest yet, offering a well-crafted and at times freewheeling series of songs that feel like they were taped inside some dingy soul venue.
Morrison has sold seven million records since he shot to fame in 2006 with his triple-platinum debut Undiscovered. He scored three more top 10 albums, and won the Brit Award for best British male in 2007. But a question mark hangs over whether he remains commercially viable.
Do people still want to hear Morrison's music? It is of a time, namely the noughties, when a man with a guitar could have ruled the world. There might be exceptions (see Ed Sheeran, Tom Walker) but an artist who refuses to put a dance beat behind his chords tempts fate.
"How are we going to market you? You're 34, maybe get you on a feature. Let's put a dance track to it," he drawls as he imitates the record executives he has clashed with in the past.
"I was like, 'No, I ain't doing that'. Start from scratch, write a load of songs, and we got a band in a room, playing it in a way that feels vibey. That's it."
When he turns to Higher Than Here, the album that saw him left without a label, his voice drops and instead of anger there's sadness.
"I still don't know why," he says. "I don't care – I couldn't give a s*** anymore, really."
"All I really know is they tried to push me in a lane I didn't want to go in. I tried to fulfil it, even though I said I didn't think it was right. I just didn't get listened to. No-one listened to me."
If he regrets anything, it's that it has taken this long to get it right. His first album, he admits, had some of that raw soul. But it came too soon.
"I was unruly. I was 21. I'd never made a record before, and when I listen back to it, I can hear that I'm on the edge."
On the sticky issue of playing his old songs, Morrison is candid.
"I still like the songs in the way that when I sing them live they still feel good. But I can't listen to the records. It just bums me out. I feel like I did a s*** job. I just hear all the mistakes.
"I can hear that I'm young, I can hear that it's overproduced. I just p***es me off that I didn't nail it first time."
It is not clear whether his comeback will be the success he longs for. A midweek reading of the charts suggests he is in for a top 10 album. But the troubadour is resigned. He has already achieved what he set out to do.
"I'm making real music, my morals are good and I'm rock and roll enough to not be boring while not being a stereotype that just sh**s birds and trashes hotel rooms.
"I feel great and even if the album doesn't reach a single person, I'd still be proud of it."
:: James Morrison plays The Olympia theatre, Dublin, on April 4 (ticketmaster.ie); You're Stronger Than You Know is out now.