Interview: Morgan James
Tue, 11 Dec 2012 08:19:06
Morgan James has got one of those voices that resounds through the ages.
On Morgan James Live, she pays homage to Nina Simone, bringing the legend's music to life on stage at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. James brings her own sense of soul to the performances though, and that's what makes the album so utterly undeniable. She delivers each note with palpable passion and power. However, this only a precursor to what's bound to be one of 2013's best debuts, her first full-length studio offering.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Morgan James talks Morgan James Live and so much more.
How did you choose the set list for this show?
Well, the thing I love about the record is we actually never intended it to be a record. We planned it to be the best possible set list for the room. I worked on crafting the pattern and the arrangements. I've been doing a few of the arrangements for years so they're in my bones, while we did a few specifically for the show. We had four sets in total at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Doug Morris [C.E.O. Sony Music Entertainment] came to the very first set. Afterwards, he said, "I feel like this should be a record. I want to listen to that again". I was totally blown away. It feels like it was made to be a live show that serviced that audience, that room, and Nina Simone's spirit. I'm really glad about that. In terms of picking songs, I've been listening to Nina for years and years, and there are songs that stick out. I knew I wanted to do "Save Me" because I couldn't stop thinking about the arrangement. That's how all of the tunes came to be.
When did you first hear Nina Simone?
I was thinking about that today. Her voice was a voice that had been familiar to me for years, but I didn't know it. When I was younger, I was more in the business of listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Natalie Cole, and Nat King Cole. I stumbled across the Verve Remixed, and it had a couple of Nina's tunes on it. I love remixes in general because I love to hear what someone else does. I think it's just like arranging. I said, "Whoa, wait a minute! That's the voice I've been hearing all of these years. I need to hear everything she's done". That's when I became a little obsessed with her. I came to know her as such an incredible interpreter of songs.
Do you have a favorite song on the record?
It's funny because which songs I like to do the most live surprise me. you can really hear the nuances of the duet stuff I do with sax. I didn't really realize until I listened back. I have these super intuitive and sensitive musicians. When I was listening back, I was really moved by how much they play with me and how much we all become instruments. That was really fun for me. I listened back to "Don't Explain", and I loved the interplay between the sax and me. I felt really a part of the band. I think my favorite song to sing live is "Save Me" though.
Was "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" a special one for you? Did you know that would close the record?
I don't do anything haphazard or accidentally. On the heels of me signing with Epic, it's important to remember there were many years where I was on my own. All of the doors kept closing. Not only were the doors closing, I couldn't even find them. It's important to remember when you're up on high swing how fleeting that can be. It's good to remain humble and keep a sense of humor about it. That song exemplifies that.
It seems like Morgan James Live is best way to get to know you as an artist?
I agree. I couldn't believe they actually released it! It's very rare to release a live album first. The thing about an album like this is there are no vocal fixes. There can't be. Imperfections and all, I'm very proud that is the way I'll sound. My studio record will come out next year, and I'm sure I'll use all of my vocal gymnastics.
How far along are you on your debut?
For a first record like this where we're still finding a direction and a sound, it takes a lot of demos before you pick what's eventually going to be on the record. I had to take a pause to finish the live record. We're going to continue working through the winter and spring.
What artists really shaped you?
My musical taste kept opening up, broadening, and evolving. Musical influences are cumulative. My parents taught me early on there's no music after the '60s and '70s. I'm also a product of listening to all of the pop music of when I was growing up. I draw a lot of influence from Joni Mitchell and the singer-songwriter revolution as well as Prince, D'Angelo, and the untraditional songwriting they brought in the world. I draw a huge influence from Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey too. Nothing could get in the way of how powerful their voices are. I have such a wide range of music I listen to. Back in the day, I went to school for opera, and I listened to Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, and I was totally devoted to them and what they do with songs. It all goes into the pot of this stew I'm cooking. I'm a huge fan of Paul Simon and David Gray. I loved Barbra Streisand when I was younger. I took in everything she recorded. I love very prolific artists. Nina had 40 records, and you listen to her sound from the first record to the last and there's a life in there.
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