BWW Interview: The Soulful Sound of Morgan James
Most people say that they cant sing, but be honest. You have sung in shower. If not there, I can guarantee you have sung lead to your favorite song on the radio while in the car. You may have even embraced your inner diva, grabbed the mic at karaoke and belted into a song. The joy found in that moment is priceless. The connecting to music brings inspiration and expression, filling your heart. Morgan James is a singer whose voice does just that. She masterfully sings with soulful emotion and powerful skills that touches you to the core.
Videos of her performances on YouTube have gained millions of views. Her songbird skills are often found performing with Postmodern Jukebox. Her new album Reckless Abandon is a sweet, soulful celebration of original material. The album is sure to give you goose bumps and stir up memories of love with soul, blues and straight up R&B. Morgan James delivers yet another stunning album to a rich and dynamic collection.
She has been trailblazing an amazing career perusing her life long dream of being a singer. Morgan is an amazing soul and R&B songstress with classical training and a respectful ear to soul music. Her journey as a singer has charted a path from her childhood karaoke player, to the Julliard School, to Broadway, to producing her own albums. She is currently on an nationwide tour with her new album "Reckless Abandon". I was able to catch up with her in-between shows recently and share a wonderful conversation about her life and career.
What have been some of the challenges you came across that you didn't expect in getting your latest album "Reckless Abandon" put together?
This is my first album as an independent artist. You underestimate how much paperwork, how expensive everything is and the red tape that the label usually handles. That was a huge challenge. But the payoff was that I didn't have to ask anybody's permission for any of my creative desires and ideas. We didn't have to wait for anyone to approve anything. If we as a team loved something we just went full force. That was an incredible part of making this on our own.
Sounds like this was a very freeing experience. How does producing on your own compare to working with a label?
I think I that I really have benefited from experiencing it both ways. Having done the major label thing and now doing it on my own. I think you learn something both ways. I think the fact that I've seen both sides of it makes me a better artist
What has evolved in your creative process from your previous album Hunter to the newest Reckless Abandon?
Definitely I've grown and evolved as a songwriter. Hunter premiered some of the first songs that I ever wrote. I am a fairly new songwriter all things considered. So I think that over the last few years everything I have experienced from with being dropped by the label, everything I've experienced in my personal life as well has contributed to me becoming a stronger writer. Also just doing more of it. Just putting pen to paper every day. Getting in a room with more collaborators. I think Reckless Abandon really shows that. Shows at the very least that I practiced more. (laughs)
On Hunter you wrote nine of the fourteen tracks. On your latest album you have co-written all the twelve songs. How did that come about?
I had different co writers for each one. It was really important to me to write every single song on this album. It is the first album of mine that doesn't have any covers on it. I feel really proud of that. I feel like I have a stake in this album in a serious way because I am all over it. There is a part of me on every single track. I think it is an important part in an evolution of an artist, to discover their voice. Not just my voice as a singer but also my voice as a lyricist and as a writer.
When you sing there are so many wonderful moments when you just dive into the lyrics and into the feelings, becoming lost into the song. What is it like when you tap into all those raw emotions in a song and fully connect with it?
Thank you for those kinds words. It is important for me "I want to take the audience on a journey. When they come to see my live show It's important that I give them best live show that I can. I want them to walk away saying "That's one of the best live shows I've ever seen." I want them to buy an album that sounds like what they heard. I don't want them to buy an album that is one-dimensional. I want it to be a representation of what they heard and take it to a different level. There are songs that I can emotionally bite into, commit to. I hope that people come away from it and say "I feel a part of that, I feel like I've been there too." When people come up to me at the merch table and say this song got me thought this period, this song reminds me of my divorce, or my marriage. Nothing means more to me then connecting to someone.
Reckless Abandon has that solid old school Atlantic R&B soulful sound. You have a killer fat horn section, electric organ and funky bass and guitar. How was it putting all those soul elements together in your songs?
I love those real ingredients. Nothing can replace or compare to those real soul ingredients. No matter how many modern elements you layer with it you always feel that back sound that is the real soul. I have an amazing band. It all starts to come together easily when you have the right people.
How is it to have the legendary founder of Motown Berry Gordy Jr. as a mentor.
Ive been so lucky to have such great influences and people that have helped me along the way. One big thing is Mr. Gordy really encouraged me to write music. He is the one that said singing other peoples music is great. Singing great music is always wonderful, but you have to write. You have to have a stake in the music that's your own.
What are some things that keep your creative drive motivated and keep you moving as a songwriter and singer?
Ever since the album came out I have been taking a tiny bit of a writing break. When I feel likes its time to write again Ill start to get inspired. "I need a song like this" or "I want a song like that", then I start to write lyrics again. Vocally, I always want to get back to the source. I want to be as authentic as possible. So people say she sounds authentically like herself, she doesn't sounds like a facsimile of someone else. She sounds like she knows her history. I always want to get back to the source. I never want my music to be derivative; I don't want it to copy anybody else. I want people to know I listen to the right things and respect the right things. When you are younger you think more is more, and then the older you get you see that less is more. I've really been exploring how can I honor the melodies at the highest levels.
When you are constructing your music, is there a regular routine you go through to put your songs together?
Every co-writer I've written with is completely different. Sometimes the lyrics come first. Sometimes it starts with just a title. Sometimes its starts with a medley I cant get outta my head that I am kind of forced into writing a song. You have to make mistakes and write a lot of things that don't work before a song that might be a success hits home. Sometimes Doug and I will come back to a song years later and say. What about that?" I think we should give that a chance again and we try to re-work it. I don't like to give up on lyrics and melodies. I really try to see them through to the end.
You once said "Julliard breaks you down so you can learn to put yourself back together." What were some things that helped you put yourself back together at Julliard and currently in your career?
Something that has helped me is technique. Having a technique outside of school that wasn't related to classical music and wasn't related to Julliard. I had so many stigmas about Julliard and I had baggage. When I was younger at Julliard there was so much fear involved. I think that really built me back up to become a fearless singer. Having great people around builds you back up. I have this inner sanctum of humans that are amazing. I have my dog and I have my family. I have things that are nurturing and joyful. They just don't let me down and they don't let me fall. I feel fearless vocally because I somebody always has my back and that my technique has my back. Its not going to let me down as long as I put the things into my body and treat my voice well. I feel that my technique is not going to fail me.
New York beats you down too, and I love it. New York will destroy you and that a part of the charm of it. I love living in a place that destroys you because Diamonds are made between rocks. It really makes your great. You have to surround yourself and feed yourself with good things or you will be destroyed by it. When I look back on Julliard I am really thankful because it really contributed to the person and singer that I am today. As tough as it was, trying to get on Broadway almost broke me. Being on Broadway was one of the hardest things ever. Trying to get on Broadway was the hardest, and you get on Broadway and it is even harder. Every kind of thing I have endeavored to do has been so difficult. When you get a little space from it, you look back and say that made me a better person. That made me stronger, I don't know how I survived it. You have even more respect for all the other people that are around you doing it. Constantly being surrounded by the best and the people that are just as good as you and better than you that don't make it. Its very, very humbling.
Your Broadway credits include The Addams Family, Godspell, Wonderland, and Motown: The Musical. Can you share one of your "Oh my God , I'm on Broadway" moments?
Definitely in my first Broadway show (Addams Family) being on stage with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neworth. The whole thing was pretty magical. Their are moments when you say, "You wanted this, you got it!" You have to take that moment to be really thankful. Its all fun and games until you're doing shows eight shows a week and its incredibly crazy. (laughs) "and then your like "I dint know it was going to be like this I didn't know it was going be hard. I thought this was gonna be fun and glamorous."
In songwriting, what are some elements that make a great song?
I love traditional forms. I love songs with verses cords, bridges and a great melody. A lot of times when I would go to an LA songwriting session I would say, "oh it needs to have a bridge" and they would say no it doesn't!" (Laughs) I am very old school. I am all about traditional songwriting. "I love a big horn line, key changes I love a big payoff. Lyrically I love analogies and imagery. There are certain songwriters that I really love. Joni Mitchell, Prince, D'Angelo, Paul Simon, David Grey. They are each very different songwriters that have something in common. They can write specific, very personal lyrics, and yet they feel universal and they don't seem strange. They are talking about something in full sentences. Talking about something with personal attachment. You don't need to write something in general about it in order for the world to connect with it. I think the opposite is true.
Have you encountered any discrimination or racial preconceptions of you being a soul singer because you are not black?
When I released Black Messiah. I tried to avoid YouTube comments, for there were lots and lots of comments about racial appropriation. But anyone who took a moment to listen and learn anything about me didn't feel that way. I try to devote my life to know what came before me. Doing some facsimile of what an artist already did is the last thing I would want anyone to think of me. I think that I devoting a lot of my life to black American music. That's what the blues and soul music are. I don't think any discrimination that I could ever endure can even be brought to light. Everyone has a right to be protective of their legacy. I can understand how somebody could maybe be on a hair trigger and jump to say I'm trying to steal to part of the culture. But anyone that really knows me and what I am about doesn't feel that. When Call My Name was on urban radio, I got an amazing response and felt like people understood where I was coming from and that I was honoring that. There's always reason to err on the side of respect and the side of caution. There still are so many examples of white people taking things from black culture and not giving credit where credit is due. I totally understand I say it on stage that Id be nothing without Aretha, without Nina, without Mariah. Id be nothing without these people. I make music because these people made it better first.
In your performances there are some quick moments where you are a complete cut -up. Have you ever tried your hand at doing comedy?
MJ: I think I have the best sense of humor. It's a huge part of what I do. When I first started doing shows I tried to be really serious on stage. Then the people I have around me were like "why dont you just be your weirdo self." So I just started going with it. I love, love comedy, I don't devote my life to it. I aim to do other things and there are only so many hours in a day. (laughs) Although you wouldn't know that by looking at Beyoncé. I have friends that tell me "You know Beyoncé has the same amount of hours in a day as you!" (laughs)
Who and what are some things that keep Morgan James grounded?
My band keeps me grounded. They are really my family. I have my husband, my dog on the road. There's nothing more grounding than picking up crap after a show.
Wait, are you talking about the band or your dog? (We both laugh)
Hey if you ever been on a tour bus, yah know how it goes sometimes. (Laughs) It's very humbling. We are at a level of touring where it is a huge haul. We have to work really hard and make it work. We are hauling our gear. I set up my own merch table. When I do get home to New York I make sure to see all my friends. They keep me humble. Having good people I think is important. Going back to my lessons when I'm home.
If you could write a musical about your life. What would be it's title?
(Pause) The title,.. oh gosh I don't know. I have never even thought of that. I thought you were gonna ask like who would play you? (laughs) You know, I need to come back to you on that. Maybe you can think of a good one.
Later that night, after the interview was over, I did think of one. Hopefully we will see in bright lights on a Broadway marquee - "That Girl Can "Sang": The Morgan James Musical"
You can get info on Morgan's Reckless Abandon tour and get her music at morganjamesonline.com