- 17 Nov 20
Following the release of his acclaimed new single ‘Gone’, James Vincent McMorrow discusses the state of America, his vision for the future of Irish hip-hop, and learning to “give less fucks” than he used to.
Embracing the chaos is the resounding message at the heart of James Vincent McMorrow’s genre-blurring new single ‘Gone’ – an outlook that’s proved timely, and has undoubtedly been tested, over the course of the last year.
“As someone who has been called a control freak in the past, the idea of giving up an amount of that control this year was obviously jarring,” the Irish artist reflects. “But I do think that in some weird, subversive way, there’s something really gratifying in just giving up on all that shit.”
He may be one of the country’s most prominent musical success stories of recent memory, with a recent slot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and over 750 million streams across his discography – but James reveals that he’s felt the negative pressure of judgement and criticism for much of his decade-long career.
“I’ve made music through the prism of social media for my entire life,” he explains. “Everything about the music that I’ve made has always been judged or rated – going back to putting up demos on MySpace when I was a kid. People would say ‘This is really good!’ And you get this sense of gratification, and you ride this wave. But then someone says, ‘No, this is shit’. And you’re right back down to zero again. That’s been my entire career."
He notes that "putting music in a position where it's constantly judged is a fucked up, weird thing."
“It plays with your mind, and your levels of control – because you start trying to make music in order to control the conversation, and that can be horrible," he says. "Two years ago, that was a really toxic situation I was in. I was thinking about making music from this weird perspective – thinking of how well it will be received, and what people will think of it.
"I’ve been obsessed with what people think of me my entire life," he admits. "And that’s not just something that applies to me. That applies to you, and it applies to everybody – anyone that has a fucking Instagram account! You’re putting out your life, for people to see and make judgements – hopefully positive judgements. I just feel like I’ve been obsessed with that for so long, I’m never not going to be obsessed with it. But I care a little bit less now."
With his recent singles 'Gone' and 'I Should Go', and a highly anticipated new album arriving in 2021, James is making a conscious effort to step away from that pressure.
"I’ve always loved the music that I’ve made, but I’ve contorted myself quite a lot, to make music that makes me happy, while also making other people happy," he says. "Now I’m just trying to make myself happy! That’s a much freer place for me to be in, and it seems to be working – because not only am I much prouder of this music than other records I’ve made, but also, people seem to understand it."
Despite his major success overseas, James also set himself another goal over lockdown: "to dip into the Irish music scene more meaningfully."
"I wanted to acknowledge the privileged position that I'm in, and call myself out, to a certain degree," he elaborates. "I wanted to try to offer the potential to elevate people’s ideas, through my privilege."
The result was the collaborative single 'Out The Gaff', released back in September – knocking down the boundaries between genres with appearances from Denise Chaila, Sorcha Richardson, God Knows and MuRli. The track was written and recorded during a session hosted by James, that also including Mark Prendergast of Kodaline, Conor Adams of All Tvvins and producer Cormac Butler.
"I had been a fan of Denise, MuRli and God Knows for a long time, and I’ve known Sorcha Richardson for years – she’s a good friend of mine, and I think she’s one of the best songwriters in the country," James remarks. "I thought it would be amazing to get all these people into the same room. At first it was just an idea, but then I thought, ‘Fuck it. If nothing comes of it, then at least I made these connections, and made people feel a little bit more of what’s possible’. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in rooms in other countries, and write songs on big albums. I’ve seen how it works, and I know that it’s possible here.
"But the Irish music scene is really fragmented, and really competitive – and not in a very healthy way," he adds. "There are scenes and pockets, but fundamentally, there’s no real connectivity across the top of it. So to put those people in rooms, and see them connect with these people that they might not have otherwise worked with, was amazing. I have plans to do a lot more of this. I’ve set up a publishing company with the intent of trying to bring in more songwriting and production in Ireland – because I think it’s needed."
Of course, as an artist who has previously explored elements of hip-hop in his music, and has contributed vocals to Drake's Views, James is hugely inspired by the current state of the genre on these shores.
"When I first heard Denise's record 'Chaila', it felt specifically relatable to an Irish experience – but also, sonically, I felt like it could compete," he states. "That’s something that has been lacking in Irish music, and not just in Irish hip-hop – that ability to compete with other countries. We have talent, we just need to think about things a little bigger. The second I met Denise, and talked to her, I knew she was a star.
"I really like the Nealo record, and the Citrus Fresh stuff that I’ve heard," he continues. "All it takes is one of two songs to break through on an international level, and then you start thinking about it differently, and you start understanding that you can compete with everybody else. There’s no difference – we’re just talking about Irish experiences."
Although he's clearly been embracing homegrown music over the last few months, James admits that there was also a time in his life when he couldn't connect with what he interpreted as 'Irish music'.
"I was obsessed with the idea of music outside of Ireland – because I wrongly thought that Irish music was representative of something I didn’t want to be part of," he reflects. "I thought that for a long time. I almost didn’t think of myself as an Irish musician. And then I realised that what I was doing was quintessentially Irish – and to be an Irish musician in the world is far more interesting, rather than being an international fucking nomad."
Like many young artists, James found himself infatuated with the idea of 'making it in America' in those early years.
"America is this obsessive dream for every musician," he notes. "There’s still this romantic idea of America, and what it can be. Even when I was playing to 400 or 500 people a night, touring in a van, I have all of these memories that are seared into my brain. Jumping out of the van in the middle of Wyoming, in a cornfield, to drunkenly go to the bathroom at four in the morning – because we couldn’t find anywhere to stop. All these crazy things."
Now, however, he finds that the concept of the American Dream has been "laid bare" – with Trump's presidency exposing "this side of America that was always there, but is just so in your face now."
"Even though we’re coming from a country with its fair share of political issues, I still think Irish people can pride themselves on being pretty good at calling out a decent amount of bullshit," he reasons. "We don’t tolerate fucking eejits very well. If someone in politics here gets a bit above their station, we’re pretty good at pulling them back down.
"But the thing about Donald Trump is that he can just wilfully say whatever he wants, and he's never called to account for his entire life – and then he’s elevated to the highest level of office. As a reasonable person, it’s hard to understand how that can happen. And it’s hard to watch a country you love go through that."
James' extensive time spent in the US includes two months recording Post Tropical at Sonic Ranch – located in the border town of Tornillo, Texas.
"That was really eye-opening for us, as pretty sheltered Irish people," he recalls. "You throw a rock there, and it lands in Mexico. The border fence ran through the property that we were making the album on. And then it would stop, and there’d be a ditch – and you’re in Mexico. It obviously became this hot button topic over the last four years – of people coming to steal the American Dream, or whatever – but I didn’t see that. I saw earnest, hard working people just trying to buy into that American Dream."
Indeed, America continues to influence James: "I still went to LA, to make a huge chunk of this new album, because I still have this American Dream."
"I had this idea of going there and driving around the canyons, and making this quintessentially LA album – and that didn’t really happen," he reflects. "The reality of America had been changed for me over the years. Being there for that sustained amount of time, you kind of go, 'This isn't what I wanted it to be'.
"So in a way, that shaped the album – it added to that underlying sense of chaotic dread that’s in some of the music that I make these days."
James Vincent McMorrow plays Leisureland, Galway (March 16); Live At The Big Top, Limerick (March 18); The Telegraph Building, Belfast (March 19) and The Olympia Theatre, Dublin (April 17 & 18).