James Morrison: "I'm not always gonna have smash hits, but I'll have songs that people like"

After breaking into the mainstream in 2006, James Morrison’s new Greatest Hits album shows why he’s an artist with staying power. He explains why – 15 years into the game – he’s finally writing the music that he wants to make.

James Morrison wanted to write a new album, but ended up making a Greatest Hits instead, he tells Headliner from his home studio in Gloucestershire. Today the countryside, he adds, “smells like cow poo and possibility”.

At the time of writing, he’s about a week away from starting the UK leg of his Greatest Hits tour, and he’s in a mischievous mood. It’s hard to know what to expect when meeting someone that has been crooning at you from the airwaves since 2006. A sensitive soul-searcher with slightly insipid, auto pilot responses? Perhaps, after over 15 years, a sense that he’s going through the motions? Maybe even a trace of arrogance?

As soon as he lunges into the conversation with, “I know, funny innit?” when Headliner confesses to listening to his debut album, Undiscovered in the car more times than it was healthy when it came out, and then noting how outdated the concept of listening to a CD in a car sounds today, it’s immediately clear that he’s none of these things.

He’s here today to talk about his upcoming tour and new album, and noticeably lights up when talking about performing on stage, connecting with audiences again, and his band – many of whom he’s worked with since 2008. 

The rest of the time, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, is often playful (at one point he suggests Headliner duets with him on Broken Strings – “I’m not too judgy!”), self-deprecating, and occasionally interrupts his own train of thought.

In the early days, I suppose I was doing an impression of music that I liked

The gravely tone one might expect from being familiar with his soulful singing voice is detectable when he speaks (which he attributes to contracting a serious case of whooping cough as a newborn), but he’s not a posh boy; he speaks quickly, although in a manner so relaxed that his words sometimes run together. 

He drops his ‘t’s’, frequently chucks an “it’s good” onto the end of sentences, and has fun blurting out things that pop into his head – on how the rehearsals are going for the tour (or “the preps” as he suggests they’re referred to), he assures Headliner he’s good to go: “I just sort of dance about in my living room looking in the mirror, throwing shapes.”

As for his Greatest Hits album, this sees him revisit some of his most loved songs (with a couple of new tracks thrown in), although they’ve been re-recorded and reimagined with a slightly deeper, more soulful timbre, and are likely more true to the way they’ve been honed over years of live performances. 

Naturally, you’ll find Morrison’s most well known songs on the record, while the refreshed versions of more underrated tracks like Up and Too Late For Lullabies are given room to breathe, which, stripped of poppy production, allow the emotional impact to land.

“I've been singing those songs for a long time,” he nods, “so to get in the studio and make new versions of them…” he trails off, changing tact. 

“I just wanted to make a new album at that point, I didn't really want to have to do a greatest hits. So the fact that I got the opportunity, I thought, ‘I'll turn it around and do something with it that I want to do’ so it's not this feeling of, ‘Ugh, I've done all that already’, and not really being excited about people hearing the same songs they've heard for years. 

"So I thought it's a good time to update them and make them feel more fresh, more lively, more in the room and update the emotion in the songs as well – and just put a new spin on it so there's some life to them again.”

They’re like old friends that are slightly annoying, but you love them… most of the time

His debut single, You Give Me Something was a hit all over the world, swiftly followed by his debut album, Undiscovered, which debuted at the top of the UK Albums Chart, and he’s been singing the most popular tracks from his debut effort (and subsequent albums) ever since, which is something he sometimes still can’t quite wrap his head around.

“I suppose they're like family members in a way,” he muses on his oldest, most well known tunes. “You love them unconditionally, but sometimes you're like, ‘Bloody hell, this is annoying,” he says, launching into a muted Sid James-esque laugh. 

“They’re like old friends that are slightly annoying, but you love them… most of the time. I just appreciate it now. I'm a bit older and I've travelled the world a few times playing these songs, and they become more a part of you. I wrote them when I was young, and I just threw caution to it and tried something. Then 15 years later, they're a massive part of your life and other people's lives. It's quite weird.”

Two of his signature tracks that are firm fan favourites to this day are You Give Me Something and his most commercially successful track, 2008’s Broken Strings, a duet with Nelly Furtado taken from his second studio album, Songs for You, Truths for Me. Morrison says he never planned for You Give Me Something to be his first single, which came out of a writing session that wasn’t going well.

“I had a little idea when I was writing it, and it was quite sweet. It was more like, ‘Will you stay with me in the morning? Will you hold me when I sleep?’ [Later changed to ‘You want to stay with me in the morning / You only hold me when I sleep’]. It was more insipidly sweet and we changed it so it was a little bit more truthful, like the first buds of love when it's a bit scary and you don't know what's going to happen and you've got feelings for each other. 

"It came together really quick, then we parked it for a bit and came back to it, put horns on it and then it became what it is. But it's funny, I never really thought it'd be my first single out. I just liked it enough to go, ‘Yeah, that's alright, I like the chord movements’, but I’m still singing it 15 years later. I think it's more my trademark tune than Broken Strings or any of the other ones, but I just like it,” he shrugs.

I've managed to figure out how to do something I love for a living and not worry about all the shit I had to worry about when I was a kid

He may not have had a grand plan for his earlier songs, but now aged 37 and a father of two, he’s more certain about the types of music he wants to release, evidenced by new track Don’t Mess With Love, which moves away from the romantic ballad and strays more in the direction of a classic soul or R&B tune. 

He was immersed in his parents' record collection as a child, and cites his major influences as Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Al Green, Van Morrison, James Brown and Toots and the Maytals.

“It reminds me of old school stuff I used to like when I was a kid listening to the radio, or old school summer jams or something,” he nods. “It is slightly R&B but with a pop chorus. It sounded like one of those old school classics to me. 

'I quite like the title – it's tongue in cheek. It's just like, ‘If it's really good, then you don't need to mess around with it or start putting pressure on it’, and all that sort of stuff. There's some quite good life lesson lines in there.”

After moving from his hometown of Rugby to Cornwall, a teenage Morrison honed his craft by busking, despite feeling self conscious at the time about his husky tone. He later followed his girlfriend (and now wife) to Derby, where he was discovered by “a random guy in a pub” while playing an open mic night one evening. He went on to become his manager, and a few weeks later Morrison was having meetings with several record labels. In a short time he went from washing vans and cleaning run-down hotel rooms to signing a deal with Polydor.

“I've got a better understanding of how to get what I want now,” he says, reflecting on his pre-record deal days. “At the start, I had my voice and I sang a lot of different songs at open mics and busking – I only just started writing when I got my deal. So even though I'm 15 years into the game, I'm still finding my way with writing and finding how to make the music that I want to make, rather than doing…” he trails off. 

“In the early days, I suppose I was doing an impression of music that I liked, and now I know how to get it a little bit more on the nose, you know? I dunno actually, that's what I say to myself. Whether that's the truth is another thing, but I'm more invested in it. 

"When you get a bit older, you just want to write about stuff that's real and not so poppy – more about stuff that feels good, and I'm getting to understand how to get that. That's satisfying for me as an artist, and I'm getting played on the radio,” which he says never gets old. “Yeah I'm still buzzing! I never take it for granted. It still feels like such a magical thing.”

I'm not always gonna have smash hits, but I'll have songs that people like; that's more important to me than having number one singles

Morrison is aware he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that his repertoire of mainly romantic ballads perhaps aren’t considered ‘cool’, but he’s worked hard over the years to not care what others think. He’s made no secret about suffering from a bad case of imposter syndrome in the past and has admitted that he thought that people saw him as “a wet joke”, but he’s built a solid (and fiercely loyal) fanbase and is happy with where he’s at. 

He even made a video poking fun at ways to try to stay relevant in today’s music industry in which he repeatedly leaves voicemails for Furtado: “You might remember me? We did a song today a few years back? I was hoping you could maybe retweet one of my tweets?”, meanwhile his management tries to convince him that cat remixes and six second songs are the way to break the internet. One wonders how an artist adapts to the shift from being a Radio 1 to a Radio 2 artist, but Morrison says he’s at peace with it.

“I'm not always gonna have smash hits, but I'll have songs that people like that they take into their life and they play, and that's more important to me than having number one hit singles,” he says. 

“It's taken me a long time to get it in my head that if they're there [to see me play live], they're there because they want to be there. ‘Coz I used to play open mics and not necessarily everyone there is gonna like you, I always have that frame of mind when I'm going on stage – there’s probably people there that don't like me or haven't bought tickets especially for me, but they're there. That’s where the fire comes from, and I'll just try and sing the best I can to get them on board so they know I'm doing it for the right reasons. And normally by the end, I’ve got 'em,” he grins.

He’s not wrong. A week later Headliner zooms down to Folkestone’s Leas Cliff Hall on a Friday night. It’s rammed with a highly excitable – and mostly female – audience, many rowdy after a few wines who bellow, “Go on, James!” as he takes the stage. There are men there too though, and whether they’ve been dragged along by their other halves or not, even the ones keen to show they’re there ironically by shouting, “Go on, James Blunt” more times than is funny, are loudly singing along before long. Morrison’s love of performing on stage is so evident (especially factoring in the two year hiatus), that you can’t help but enjoy every second of it with him.

“I do though. I love it! I love being in the moment on stage, hearing a crowd sing back and they're giving it some and they've got good energy. You're all in it together. I love that sense of community, especially these days when everything's so sort of… [he searches for the word] separate. Everyone's in different groups, and it's nice when you get a crowd of people and they're all in it as one.”

I'm a nobody from a nowhere town. I had no prospects, it was all against me

His childhood in Rugby was tough, and he doesn’t take it for granted that his childrens’ upbringing is very different from his. His parents divorced when he was young and his father battled with alcoholism until he passed away in 2010. Morrison’s mother struggled to make ends meet and he and his siblings often went hungry.

“I'm a nobody from a nowhere town. I had no prospects, it was all against me,” he says without any self pity, “but I've managed to figure out how to do something I love for a living, make money, be able to feed my kids and not worry about all the shit I had to worry about when I was a kid. That is just massively winning to me,” he brightens, his words tumbling out all in one breath now, “and every time I step on stage and I sing, I just love it. I love it for the purity of it. I love just singing because it moves people. I just fucking love it!” he laughs.

On the songs that made the cut on the Greatest Hits album, he has a couple of favourites he likes to perform:

“There's a few; every time you play them they're like little rockets and you can just go straight through the tune and it's big and it sounds exciting. Wonderful World is good for that and Nothing Ever Hurt Like You, and I'm actually really enjoying The Pieces Don't Fit Anymore at the minute because it kicks off way more than it ever used to at the end. I think it suits the song, it's good. It's tragic, but it's rocky at the same time. Whereas it used to just be tragic. 

"I like the sad mixed with a bit of venom in there. I like it when you get both angles in the song – the bitter side of rejection as well as just the rejection,” he says, over emphasising the last word for effect. “I've got some sunny songs as well,” he insists, “so even if I'm writing about something that's slightly sad, I'll try and dress it up so it makes you feel good at least. I don't like too much misery."

Even though I'm 15 years into the game, I'm still finding my way with writing

He tells Headliner one song he has to keep in his set, or incur the wrath of the crowd, is Broken Strings.

I tried taking it out of the tour and people would just cheer it at the end of the set, like, ‘You've got to sing it!’ I try to please fans and play what they want to hear because I've been to gigs where they don't play the song you want to hear and it is annoying. I 100% want to hear them singing along. They're so good at singing that one.”

And they are. At The Leas Cliff, it’s one of the highlights of the evening; Morrison can’t suppress his smile as the audience gives it their all the moment they twig the intro, (although from watching back some grainy gig phone footage, Headliner’s harmonies need a bit more work before committing to a duet). Morrison is beaming at the end; “Yes, that was sick!” he says, and smiles in anticipation before uttering the first line of You Give Me Something, where he’s almost drowned out. 

On stage, he sounds phenomenal, touches hands with fans (if they’re patient they stand an excellent chance of meeting him after the show where he’ll chat and pose for selfies by the tour bus), and radiates with pure joy. He really does fucking love it.

The European leg of his Greatest Hits tour picks up again in September, and in the meantime he’s got plenty of UK summer festival gigs to keep him busy, including A Perfect Day festival at Powderham Castle in Exeter in July.

That reminds Morrison of the last time he performed there:

It's an amazing day out. Last time I was enjoying myself so much that I forgot I was playing the gig,” he laughs. “I was drinking beers with my mates and then my tour manager was like, ‘James, the gig?’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ I've learnt my lesson now,” he protests, holding up his hands. 

“I wasn't drunk. But I was just enjoying myself so much that I completely forgot about the gig. I just love playing live music. I did three gigs about four months ago and I was buzzing for about two weeks afterwards. Even being at a gig is exciting; when I've got a drink in my hand and I'm watching a band I know I'm gonna love play live, it's such a good feeling. As long as I'm not drunk and everyone else is, it's fine,” he grins.

Photo credits: Parri Thomas (all but second to last)

Second to last: Oliver Halfin