James Vincent McMorrow

Certain artists have the ability to both set and inhabit their own vivid landscapes: Joni Mitchell in her Blue album, Bob Dylan in Blonde on Blonde, Tom Waits in Closing Time. Riveting Irish folk artist James Vincent McMorrow possesses this coveted gift, wielding lyrics and sound like paint and brush, enticing his listeners into an undiscovered and freshly created world.

“A record is the perfect template for me,” offers McMorrow, who toured with The Civil Wars this summer and is quickly becoming the folk sensation of 2011. “Every song is a chapter in itself.” McMorrow doesn’t set his mind on a theme before the writing begins but says he prefers to let each piece reveal itself as it comes together. Only when looking back does he find that there is perhaps a common thread binding the whole work.

The gentle Dublin native wrote and recorded his debut album, Early In The Morning (Jan 2011), in complete monk-like isolation in a house by the sea over a span of five months. An unabashed introvert, McMorrow’s music reflects a depth of perception and raw searching that stands out in an ocean of often overproduced records.

Early In the Morning is a soundscape that ebbs and flows just like the sea near which it was written. The aesthetic of this record’s birthplace is clearly evidenced through the lyrics, music and emotion mingling throughout. References to the ocean, mountains and trees flow in and out of lines reflecting on relationships lost and a quest for spiritual meaning, as if the tracks themselves were riding the rhythm of the tide.

Perhaps the record’s most poignant and memorable song, “We Don’t Eat,” utters:

I moved to the coast, under a mountain
Swam in the ocean, slept on my own
At dawn I would watch the sun cut ribbons through the bay
I’d remember all the things my mother wrote

That we don’t eat until your father’s at the table
We don’t drink until the devil’s turned to dust
Never once has any man I met been able to love
So if I were you, I’d have a little trust

McMorrow’s most unique gift seems to be his ability to fill his listener with intrigue but never fully answer their questions. Asked for some explanation, McMorrow chooses not to taint the elusive elements of his songs by definitively solving their equations for us.

“To be honest, I’m not in the habit of discussing the meaning behind songs, partly because I’m not 100 percent sure myself what they mean, what they’re about—lyric writing is this really vague and unknowing thing to me,” he says, “and partly because I think it’s good to keep certain elements of music unexplained.

“My favorite songs are all ones whose meanings I don’t completely understand, and depending on the day, I can interpret them in completely different ways. I hope that doesn’t sound too obscure, but I really think it’s way more important what feeling the song evokes in you without knowing my intention behind it. If I was to specifically say what each and every song was about, then I think it would change how people hear them.”

The visceral elements of McMorrow’s music jump from soft to bold melodies, giving shape to a nostalgic space and filling it with yearning. McMorrow knows how to set a scene with astounding color and accuracy.

An extremely well read individual, McMorrow absorbed the literary works of Roald Dahl, John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald early on in life. He says he’ll read pretty much anything that comes his way, though he admits to not necessarily having the attention span to embark on writing a novel himself.

Early In The Morning is the kind of album that one could envision Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau writing after a ramble through the woods. Similar to Thoreau’s aim in “Walden,” a book about his somewhat secluded life in a cabin by Walden Pond, McMorrow lived in the uncertain place of isolation for a while.

“The great thing about literature—like Steinbeck—is that he wasn’t writing about what you read into it,” McMorrow says. This is the same approach he takes to his own writing: Art is subjective, and listeners can hear whatever lyric or melody speaks to their own personal experience.

McMorrow says he chose to record his first album in this seclusion because he wanted to craft something that was inherently his, a work free from the complications of a big studio and the confusion brought on by the varying opinions of producers, labels and other musicians.

Beyond his literary heroes, McMorrow says Neil Young tops his list of influences, though he reiterates the importance of only creating music that, like literature, is ingested rather than copied or mirrored.

“I could listen to Bob Dylan all day, but then what’s the point in making a record that sounds just like Bob Dylan?” he insists. He says he has an appreciation for music of all kinds, though his own finds its home in the folksy singer-songwriter realm. Bon Iver comparisons aside, the record is at points ethereal, as if recorded in a chapel with high echoing ceilings, and then at other points passionate and wandering.

When McMorrow played South By Southwest in April, he generated a ripple of fans that followed him through all four shows at the high-intensity, fever-pitched festival. Though he is more likely to venture into solitude than into a pack of charged-up music fans, McMorrow says he genuinely enjoyed SXSW.

Touring can become an equally exhausting experience for even the most extroverted musician, but McMorrow says he’s thankful for the transcontinental craze. “Playing these songs to new people every night, it’s exciting,” he says. “If you believe in a song once, you always believe in it.”

When he’s touring in the UK, McMorrow can count on the company of five other musicians joining him onstage. In the States, however, he’s a one-man act left to recreate the songs on his own, just as they were recorded. McMorrow’s tour with The Civil Wars came to be when the band heard his music and contacted him personally.

“I was going to bed one night, and I got a Facebook comment from them,” he remembers. “They said they had heard some of my music, and we wrote back and forth and sent each other our records. It was perfect that it wasn’t a corporate moment, but just, ‘I really like your music. Let’s do some shows together.’” The Civil Wars opened for McMorrow when they toured in the UK, and then the acts switched places for their US tour, which ended June 22.

When The Civil Wars initiated an online auction to raise support for Alabama’s tornado victims, McMorrow was among the musicians who donated items.

“I think any musician worth their salt should care about things beyond their own field of vision,” he says. “It can be real easy as an artist to become totally focused on yourself and your own private world, but it’s important to remember that we are in a position to help when it comes to things like this, so we absolutely should.”

As he looks to the future, McMorrow says he will continue to play shows and let people unpack his message, and he’s starting to think toward his next record, always careful not to repeat himself musically. Even with a new fanbase rallying around his name, he says he’ll resist the temptation to bring on a big-name producer for his next project. Above all else, he has to be true to himself because, in his words, “Simple is always best.”

With such strong conviction about the process of creating and the power of story, McMorrow does leave me to disagree with him on one front:  I believe he does have a novel in him, just waiting to flow from his pen. Whatever the sound or feel of the next record, however, one can be certain that it will be a pure reflection of James Vincent McMorrow and how he views (perhaps subconsciously, even) the landscape surrounding and flowing from within him.