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Through The Other Side: James Morrison Confronts His Demons On 'Higher Than Here'

Tuesday, 03 November 2015 Written by Katie Territt

The music world is awash with male singer-songwriters. Acoustic guitars and raspy vocals are part of the staple diet of just about every radio station you’d care to mention, with the charts holding up a mirror to their dominance of the airwaves.

Cast your minds back to 2006 and it was a slightly different story. James Morrison was riding high with his debut, ‘Undiscovered’, but we had yet to reach acoustic-toting saturation. With album number four, ‘Higher Than Here’, newly minted, he’s back and eager to wrest back a share of the limelight with a collection of songs that are honest and bold.

“It’s exciting, but it’s nerve-racking as well,” he said. “You know, once you put the album out, that’s it. Not that I’ve been bullshitting people, but you can’t hide behind anything anymore once it’s out. It is what it is. Either people are gonna like it or they’re not. But I suppose that’s a relief. There’s no more waiting around. I spent a year and a half writing this album, so I’m just glad it’s out and people can listen to it. Mentally, I can move on a little bit now.”

‘Higher Than Here’ represents a change in approach. On his last turn about the place, ‘The Awakening’, Morrison was coming to terms with the loss of his father and occupied a reflective space. Its follow up is more pointed in its delivery.

“I wanted it to sound darker and a bit more aggressive, I guess,” he said. “Not aggressive in a nasty way, but assertive and more strong. I didn’t want to be like [sings], “You make it real…”, I wanted to be like [shouts], “Yeah, I’m fucking back!” My last album, even though there’s some nice songs on the album and that, I didn’t have the energy to sing it out full-on.

“It was only after I lived with the album, after about six months of playing it live, I realised I should’ve sang it a bit harder. So this time, one of the things I wanted to do was come back strong in my voice and make the songs a little bit more edgy. Not in terms of fresh production, but in what I’m saying and the vibe. A little bit darker and less sweet, less string arrangements.”

With three albums already in the bank, making album number four could have been an easy task. But wanting to move in a different direction gave Morrison a tough job in kick starting the writing process, which ended up stretching to almost interminable length until he broke through.

“In the beginning it was hell, I just hated the whole experience,” he said. “I was working my arse off and not getting any results. I was trying to do different things. I started off with production in mind and thought about the writing after that, and I couldn’t come up with anything that felt heartfelt or remotely human. It just felt shit. I think I tried to forget about me playing guitar. I thought if I stuck to beats and production I might write different kinds of songs, but it just made the songs shitter.

“So I scrapped all of that after six months and got out my guitar out and would come up with a melody or some kind of lyric and that’s how all the songs on the album came to be, really. Just me fucking about on the guitar, getting a rough idea of a melody or words and taking it in. Nearly all the songs on the album have come out of that process, just finding something that feels good and going with it. The less I thought about it, the more chance I had of having a hit. If it wasn’t good, I was quite happy to just leave it and go: ‘You know what? I’ve had a good run.’ But right towards the end, I just relaxed and it all sort of came out. It’s the hardest album I’ve ever written, out of all four of them.”

The first single to emerge from the album, Demons, is certainly an indication of that new sound. A personal song, it’s a tribute to the blood, sweat and tears he’s put into making an album to please himself, not just his fans. The lyrical focus made it an easy choice to lead the record in.

“I just thought that the message was perfect for what I was trying to say the whole way through the album,” he said. “I’ve been through some shit and I’m a bit messed up, but I’m getting there. I knew people would be like: 'Where have you been?' So it was my answer to come back with something like: ‘Yeah, I’ve been sorting out my demons, but I just needed a little time to work them out.’ That’s why I liked that, that lyric really. I resonated with that, I felt like it summed up a lot of the anguish in the other songs that I didn’t really nail with a phrase, you know?

“‘I got demons’ just summed it up in a really broad but personal way. It’s the most spiritual pop song I’ve written, really. We wrote that song in like three hours, it just wrote itself. It just came together quite quickly, and I’ve always trusted in when something creative comes together quickly, because it’s usually because it’s good. I knew it wouldn’t win everyone over, because it’s a little bit different and it’s got that vocal sample in it, but I’d rather take a risk and do something I love rather than try and please everyone else and do a ballad first.”

The song also helped Morrison bite back after some lingering frustrations surrounding the release of I Won’t Let You Go as the first single from ‘The Awakening’.

“I wanted Slave To The Music to be the first single,” he said. “I was like: ‘For fuck’s sake.’ I was trying to get out of the ballad thing and they wouldn’t fucking let me, it was doing my head in. I had this other stuff that I was good at, but no one was giving me a chance, so I thought: ‘Fuck it, I’ll take a risk and put out Demons.' If no one likes it, fuck it. I’d rather take that risk. Luckily, I think people have liked it enough to take it on board, so I think they’ll love everything else.”

Being away from the music industry for so long left Morrison a little anxious at the prospect of returning to a landscape crowded with artists who could be said to share many of his qualities.

“I felt like everyone might have moved on, I didn’t know what the lay of the land was gonna be,” he said. “To be honest I wasn’t expecting loads of fans to still be there. You know, there was a good chance my fan base had been soaked up by all the other male singer-songwriters, but I’m pleasantly surprised that there’s still people that like my music and there’s still enough room for me to be making music. Nothing’s a given in this business, but I think if you look at it that way, it’s a way of not getting disappointed. Try and hope for the best and expect the worst.

“There’s only one of John Newman, one of James Bay, one of me, one of Paolo [Nutini], one of Hozier. As long as you’re all doing something slightly different, there’s always gonna be room. It did make me nervous in the beginning, because all these guys that have come out are great singers but it makes you up your game and I like the competition. I feel privileged to be a part of it, and the fact that they’ve cited me as one of their inspirations is quite weird, but great. They’ve all been really sound, and likewise I’ve been complimentary about them. I might’ve given up if there wasn’t so much good stuff coming out from singer-songwriters. I thought: ‘Shit, I need to chip in here a little bit.’”

Next year is the 10th anniversary of Morrison’s debut. After years of highs and lows, changes in his personal life and a raft of hit singles, he’s ticked off plenty of ambitions and is pretty content. 

“I can’t be happier to be honest, I never thought I’d get to this place,” he said. “I remember saying 10 years ago: ‘If I can get to make another album and have my own studio, maybe buy a nice house in the countryside, have a kid…’ I’ve done all of that. So I’ve achieved everything I set out to achieve back in 2006. I’m stoked.

“I was brought up in a council flat with no money and no prospects. I’m doing something I enjoy for a living, and that’s the main thing I feel proud of, more than any of the blips or the success or the bollocks that comes with it. I’m more proud that I’m doing something I enjoy for a living and that was always my goal in the beginning. So straight from the word go, I’ve achieved more than I ever thought I would and I’m proud of that.”

'Higher Than Here' is out now.

James Morrison Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon November 16 2015 - EDINBURGH Queens Hall Edinburgh
Tue November 17 2015 - MANCHESTER Albert Hall
Thu November 19 2015 - SHEFFIELD Leadmill
Fri November 20 2015 - LIVERPOOL O2 Academy Liverpool
Sat November 21 2015 - CARDIFF St Davids Hall
Mon November 23 2015 - BOURNEMOUTH O2 Academy Bournemouth
Tue November 24 2015 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire
Wed November 25 2015 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute

Click here to compare & buy James Morrison Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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