Over a decade ago, before George Ezra, Lewis Capaldi, Ed Sheeran and an army of other earnest young men equipped with guitars began battling their way to the top of the charts, James Morrison forged a similar chart-topping path with a series of slickly produced hits from the internationally acclaimed Broken Strings to You Give Me Something and Wonderful World.
However, after his fourth studio album, Higher Than Here, released in 2015, he was dropped by his label, at a time when he was still reeling from the deaths of his father, brother and nephew. More recently, Morrison (34) and his partner of almost two decades, Gill, also endured two miscarriages before a difficult pregnancy that resulted in the traumatic premature birth of their second daughter Ada-Rose at just 27 weeks just over a year ago. Life has, he admits, been “pretty tough”, particularly these past four years.
Having emerged from the ashes, however, Morrison is a changed man. It’s reflected in his new album, You’re Stronger Than You Know, a collection of searingly personal songs penned during, and about, those difficult times, and others, which is by times utterly heartbreaking, and yet optimistic and uplifting. Released on his label Stanley Park Records and recorded in just one week, it’s a more raw, pared back offering in comparison to his earlier work; just artist and band, no track, a less ‘full on’ version of his live show. It’s the album, he says, that he always wanted to make.
Among the stand-out tracks are ‘Slowly’, in which he addresses his difficult upbringing, his relationship wtih his mother, and his father’s death, and ‘Power’, which was written for Gill when she was struggling following Ada-Rose’s birth. ‘Glorious’, even though it has not yet been released, is such a belter it already has his fans singing along with him at shows already as he traverses the UK, Europe and Ireland (he has just played The Olympia theatre and more shows will be announced shortly). But it’s ‘Slowly’ that resonates with him most emotionally.
“I love ‘Slowly’. And a lot of people say they get the goose pimples when I play it live,” he says. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a long time, to get the hairs on people’s necks to stand up. When I get that right that’s what I can do. And when I don’t get it right people just have a good night!”
While the subject matter may be on the heavy side, each song is ultimately positive. It’s something he needed, he says, during the writing process.
“Life has been pretty tough for me the last four years so I needed to hear something positive to get through it, to convince myself that it’s going to be fine, especially that song ‘Power’ – I wrote that for me and my other half when she was feeling down after we had the baby,” he reveals.
“She was like, ‘I’m feeling a bit down. I’m just a mum and I haven’t done anything with my career’, and I was like, ‘But you’re a f***ing amazing mum’ and I just wanted to write her a song that reminded her [that] what she makes me feel is pretty powerful and to not forget that. So when she hears it it does cheer her up. She was playing it in the car and she was crying going, ‘It really did make me feel really good’ and I was like, ‘Wicked!’. It’s like, you’re not 17 anymore but f*** it you’re a woman now, you’re stronger than ever. It’s a positive message to have.”
Channelling all that emotion for each and every show has got to be taxing, but he says that’s the point of songwriting for him.
“The lyrics aren’t really obvious but I know certain lines in certain songs will trigger something in me that gets an emotion. That’s the whole point of songwriting for me, that’s when you know you’ve written a good tune, if when you sing it every time it makes you feel emotional, you’ve captured the essence of what you’re trying to say,” he explains.
Morrison has been open about his and Gill’s experiences with miscarriage and Ada-Rose’s birth. It’s something they discussed before he began doing press.
“She said, ‘I think it’s important to talk about it, because it’s real and a lot of other people go through it’ and she said, ‘If it helps other people then you’ve got to talk about it’ so that’s what I did,” he says. “I think there’s not many artists who will talk about that sort of stuff. They keep it all about their ego and their tunes and how many records they’ve sold and where they’re touring and all that and it’s just quite kind of vacuous, you know?
“I like keeping it quite real with the chat, reinforcing that I am a real person and that’s what gives the song that extra power when they listen to the lyrics – they know it’s about something real.”
However, he counters this with the statement that they’re “just songs”. It’s clear he’s not a fan of navel gazing for navel gazing’s sake. “On the one hand they’re just songs I wrote that gently summarize what I’ve been through without really going into it on a specific level. But on the other hand they are really relevant to me, you know, and I put all my effort into making the songs the best they can be. I do care about it but they are just a collection of songs.”
His experiences of the past four years have given him a slightly different perspective on his music and career, and the path he wants to tread.
“It made me see music as fun, not like stress. I was stressing about it before, my career and how people view me and all that s***. Now I couldn’t give a toss. I’m just happy making music for a living,” he says.
He is still acutely aware of how people view him, and he’s okay with it. He explains, “I went to a guitar shop and the guy was like, ‘Just so you know, my wife loves your stuff but I’m not into it’. I was like, ‘there was no need for that mate, why can’t you just tell me your wife likes it?’ and then he was like, ‘Can I get a picture?’ and I was like, ‘Oh you want a picture now do you?’ I know everyone’s not going to be into my stuff. Some people see me as some f***ing kind of cheesy romantic guy who sings ballads, other people see me as a proper soul singer, so you’re not going to win everyone over.
“But how I feel about it and what’s carrying me forward with confidence is I made [the album] for the right reasons. I made it because I love music and I love singing. I haven’t made it to a get a gold record. I just wanted to make an album other musicians would listen to and go, ‘Yeah, I get where he’s coming from’ rather than I’ve to try and compete with myself and sales and all that s***.”
While You’re Stronger than You Know may not have thus far reached the dizzying chart heights of his debut Undiscovered or 2008’s Songs for You, Truths for Me (combined they’ve sold 4.5 million copies), it is, he says, “going alright” considering it was recorded for a mere £12,000, a cool ten per cent, according to Morrison, of the cost of his first album.
“That’s what I’m proud of,” he says. “It cost f*** all to make and it still sounds really good and it’s live, and everything I wanted to have in an album that I didn’t get right in the first one. The first one was live but it was a bit too raucous and over-produced so I wanted to strip it back and still keep the live element.”
“I feel really smug!” he laughs, adding of his previous label, “Hopefully they’ll see all the all the sales going well and they’re like, ‘f***’!”
You’re Stronger Than You Know is out now.
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