Imagine you’re 19 years old and you just got fired from a dead-end job washing vans. It happened after nine spirit-sapping months and a row with your boss because you had the audacity to turn up ten minutes late. You hated that job. The routine bullying, the turd-polishing drudgery, the general apathy. Though it had, at least, been regular cash. Now you’re broke. Your whole family’s broke, so no help there. You go home and end up rowing with your girlfriend. “I’m 19 and living the life of a 40-year-old,” you complain.
Now imagine that two years later, you’re offered a leading role in a Hollywood film also starring Robin Williams. You met the producers on a trip to LA (your life has perked up since the van-washing gig). You were trying to sell them some songs for the soundtrack. They were so moved by them that they offered you a major part in the film – the romantic lead, no less, playing a musician in love with a girl.
You’re flattered, though nonplussed. You’re a singer, a songwriter, a guitarist – not an actor or a wannabe celeb. You turn them down. Your friends think you’re mad. But even though your job prospects have improved beyond all recognition, you know you’ve done the right thing. You’ve just recorded your debut album, a spellbinding collection of raw, bittersweet, bluesy folk-soul songs. You are 100 per cent focused on music – it’s taken you this far, why dilute it now? Hollywood can wait.
James Morrison isn’t just the owner of probably the most gobsmacking, charismatic, rootsy soul voice to emerge from a white Englishman. He’s got substance to match his style. His lyrics pack an authentic emotional punch. He’s had plenty of hard knocks to draw on. A fractured family; debt burdens; few prospects; people breaking down around him; childhood friends growing up into adult junkies. There’s been love and romance and warmth and laughter too – stuff that kept him going through some very tough years.
“Everybody has it hard growing up,” he says. “I’m not going to say I had it harder than anyone else. But most of the emotion in my singing has come from my upbringing. And the lyrics are heavily involved – I never wanted it to be a case of, oh, nice tune, but the lyrics are crap.”
James was born in Rugby, the middle child of three. Papa was a rolling stone and left when James was young. With mum bedevilled by debts, depression and the strain of three kids, moving house became the norm – a series of fresh starts that never quite were. “The main reason we moved each time was because we were in so much debt. Then suddenly, we were gonna be kicked out of the house, so let’s move.”
They upped sticks to Northampton when James was nine (“It was the same as any other town – people would rip it out of you if you didn’t play football or if you were different”). And James and his family were different. “By [the age of] six or seven, I was ironing my own clothes. My mum was too knackered from work. We were like little adults by the time we were ten. We had to take care of the house, cook dinner, take care of ourselves in the morning, get ourselves to school and back. Mum had issues from her upbringing, which probably led to issues she had with me, my brother and my sister. I’m very close to my brother and sister. We kept each other going.”
One thing their household never lacked was good music. James’ mum, who’d sung in a band herself, had a collection that went from Pink Floyd and Van Morrison to Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Maybe it started there – I just used to love great singers. That feeling of releasing something, that’s what I wanted to get into.”
At 13, his uncle showed him a blues riff on an acoustic guitar. “I was, Whoa! You’ve got to teach me that! Within a week I’d learnt how to play three tunes all the way through.” Every evening from then on, James would play guitar “I’d be so pent up from not going out, cleaning the house, ironing. It was a release.”
Another move, to the beach town of Porth, at 15. “It was only when we moved down there that people were, Hey, go and get your guitar, man. Let’s sit on the beach – I wanna hear you play. I thought, this is weird, nobody ever used to say that in Northampton!”
From there, he started busking locally. “I used to take all my mates with me, and some days there’d be a massive crowd that’d stop and watch. It’s how I got experience of playing in front of people without getting nervous. And I could make good money – 70 quid an hour sometimes. And there would be crowds of teenage girls... I’d get lads heckling because they were jealous!”
By now he’d been playing guitar every night for two years. He’d sit up listening to Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. “I loved the rawness of that stuff – the emotion. That’s what I wanted to learn, how to get emotion across.” He taped his voice, at first copying, then naturally developing his own sound. “I mean, any white English guy that tries to sing exactly like Otis Redding is going to look stupid. So I needed to find my own way of conveying feeling.”
Things were developing less well at school. “I did music A-level and I didn’t even get a grade, I was that bad. It was all technical crap – you know, listen to the oboe, write down that part…. I could hear everything that was going on. Everything. I could hear a note and then play it on a piano, and get it right every time. But I was crap at the technical side.”
He was in a school band, playing rock and soul covers, got a few gigs in pubs, even made it on to local TV. But it fizzled out, and after school James ended up working as a hotel room cleaner to make ends meet. He started seeing a girl, who had lived with his family as a lodger for a while, and when she decided to return to her native Derby James went too. But the only job he could find there was the van-washing. “It’s one of those jobs where anyone can do it. Because I was the youngest they’d give me so much shit. I’d mostly bite my tongue – though you had to stick up for yourself. I couldn’t even play my guitar because I was so tired.”
After getting fired, James trawled the town to get gigs, but the pubs all wanted karaoke. He was about to sack it all, head back to Porth, when a guitarist he’d met at an open-mic session, who had some music equipment, offered to help, invited him to record a demo CD. Ex-A&R man, Spencer Wells, who’d worked in the past with Beverley Knight and David Gray, heard it and got in touch.
“He shuffles in, this skinny white kid in a donkey jacket and a beanie hat with a guitar on his back and I thought, this can’t be the same kid on the CD,” Spencer recalls. “He said ‘d’you want me to sing?’, and within two bars he had me. His voice is just unbelievable – but he’s such a modest lad he doesn’t even realise himself what he’s got.”
After a bunch of different offers he decided to take a deal with Polydor Records who introduced him to producer Martin Terefe (Ron Sexsmith, KT Tunstall, and Ed Harcort) and soon he was in a west London studio making his debut album with a group of string players from Nashville. He quickly realised that there was no point trying to sing about stuff that didn’t mean anything to him, or stuff written by other people. “I have to think of something close to me for me to sing properly.”
So he poured his life into his songs. Undiscovered is inspired by a friend he has known since he was three – “He’s into hard drugs now, in a big way. He’s lost, doesn’t know where he’s going, or what he wants to be. He makes me think, there’s a lot of people out there who could be absolutely amazing at something, but they just haven’t had the opportunity, or been able to tap into what they’re good at.”
One Last Chance is based on a lad who had lodged with James’s family. “His mum had been really bad to him. She was a dealer, used to send him out to get her coke when he was eight or nine. He was a really nice lad, though, used to help out at the youth centre, teaching kids to skate. Then he started going out and taking pills, and he changed into a totally different, totally selfish person. I was thinking about him fucking up, and having one last chance to get his life together.”
Then there’s the intensely moving Wonderful World – riffing on the theme of Louie Armstrong’s classic, but with none of its blind optimism. “I’m saying, it may be a wonderful world – but it doesn’t feel like that right now. It’s about being on the outside and nobody wanting to let you in. I got inspired by this deaf guy on a bus, an Asian guy. He was drunk and all over the place, smiling at everyone, giving people the thumbs-up. He wasn’t doing any harm, you could see he was all right. Then he put his arm around a girl – not in a lechy way, just being friendly. But she turned around and said, ‘Sorry, but what the hell are you doing – get off me you freak!’
“I suppose that I just try to see the good side of people.”
There’s a song for his mum, This Boy. “My mum didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm. She wasn’t happy most of the time. You think it’s normal as a kid. It was only as I got older I’d think, that was a bit weird. I got quite angry about it, then I realised that wasn’t going to solve anything. So I wrote this song to tell her how I feel – you messed me up, but I’m not going to hold that against you. I’m still here for you. I’m not going to hold it against you.”
James Morrison’s brand of soulfulness isn’t about trying to pastiche black America’s past. But it is about unvarnished honesty, passion and letting your emotions go. As he says, “If you don’t feel it in here [thumps his heart], then don’t go with it.”
James’s album has now gone on to sell almost 3 million records worldwide – of those he’s sold over 1.3 million albums here in the UK. James also received a Brit award in 2007 for Best British Male.