James Vincent McMorrow is nothing if not patient and methodical. A lesser songwriter might be driven crazy by the snail's pace of his writing process: it took McMorrow nearly six months to write his debut Early in the Morning (Vagrant Records). Some days he wrote only a few sentences; on others, just a few words. It would be easy to call this writer's block; after all, if you sit for a whole day and only write five or six sentences, surely your creative spigot is closed.
But this is all part of McMorrow's process, and here's the difference. Any good writer will tell you that their writing process never stops. It's happening when they eat, sleep, talk, stare, read, whatever. The actual pen-to-paper part, the end product, is only a small part of that process. Sure, it's the most gratifying, but it's only one part of many. So it's not that McMorrow writes slowly. (Well, he might, since I've haven't seen the speed of his penmanship.) Instead, he writes deliberately. And he's fine with that.
McMorrow wrote Early in the Morning in a house off the Irish coast, a house so close you can hear the water on the album. He wrote every song, played every instrument, and recorded the entire album himself.
Read my James Vincent McMorrow interview about his songwriting process after the video.
Do you have other creative outlets besides songwriting?
I've always like painting and drawing, but it's never something I was gifted at. A lot of musicians tend to excel at visual arts, I've noticed. I do like to draw. I drew the cover of my EP. But it's been songs for me, though I've really always enjoyed writing words. I used to write a lot of stories, but not so much anymore. I can say, though, that I just love to write.
Any idea why so many artists like to draw?
Just speaking for me, I tend to look at songs in a very visual and physical manner. I map out in my head quite specifically what I want to do. Once all the pieces are there, I can see it without ever even recording it. It might be similar with visual artists. My friends who are visual artists do the same thing: they see a blank piece of paper and know exactly what's going to go there before they even start. I see lyrics, melodies, and even things like banjo parts together before there's any sound.
Do you start your songwriting process with an image, then?
Imagery is key for me. That's the foundation around which most of my songs are built: one key image. Or opening lines that might not present themselves to me until further in the process. I might be working on a song for three or four months and only have the second verse. All of the sudden, the first lyric will present itself to me, and more often than not it comes from a stark image that I can tie everything else together with.
I'm also wondering how writing prose makes you a better songwriter.
I've learned how to write a story, to know how to start it and conclude it in a limited space. Every word has to count. That's why I like short stories; you can't waste lines. And that's the same thing with music, just times twenty. You can't compromise on anything, but you have to think, "Is that word going to work? If I sacrifice it for another word, will the line still make sense in the context of the song?" That's what I did with short story writing. It's a balance between being analytical and being respectful of the spark of creativity as far as where the song comes from.
Writing long form prose requires more discipline as a writer. You probably have to sit down for longer stretches than you would with a song. Has that process made you a more disciplined songwriter?
It informs the way I write songs. You need a lot of patience to be a good writer. I've heard about plenty of songwriters who can write a song from start to finish in one sitting, like in fifteen minutes. It's never been that way for me. Certainly writing short stories has made me much more patient.
Also, I've learned to walk away from something for a healthy amount of time. When I worked on the record, I worked on all eleven songs at the same time. On one day, I might have written only one sentence for each song. And that would be the day's output, though I'd spend the rest of the time thinking about the songs or playing them back. Sometimes only one sentence or even one word would be revealed, then another day I could write a lot more. Songs never come together in a linear fashion for me. It's always very slow and deliberate. It's really all I've ever known.
You sound enormously patient and methodical in your writing. It takes a while. I think it's great, but does the slow process ever frustrate you or make you impatient?
I have a pretty decent understand of how I work, and I'm accepting of it. There's days when frustration kicks in, of course. But what you said earlier is right: the physical act of writing is only a tiny part of my writing process. Having said that, though, that's the most gratifying part for a songwriter: seeing the words on the page. In the six months it took me to make the record, there were days when the last thing I wanted to do was look at a piece of paper or write a song. I've never been able to write songs quickly. How I write is how I write, and I've accepted that. I do get envious sometimes, though. Laughs.
But we all tend to be jealous of other writers because we think that everyone writes faster than we do.
You're absolutely right. It's very subjective.
And what you're describing is what someone with less awareness of their writing process would call writer's block, though it's really not. It's like writing in a slow cooker. So take me through your typical songwriting process.
Melody before anything, usually a core melody that I have. Everything is built off that. Then a chord structure, then I pull all the parts together. I don't think of songs with isolated parts, like a melody, a lyric, and a set of chords. I usually hear a complete picture. Everything comes together at the same time. It can be quite chaotic because sometimes I hear a part, record it, then play it back. And some section won't be good enough because it's the wrong instrument. So if it's not meant to be played on the electric guitar, what is it meant to be played on? It can be a matter of going through all the string instruments to see what works, or going through a variety of drum patterns to see what works.
I've developed a real patience in songwriting: I know it will get there. But it's a slow and steady process. The lyrics come last, after the song is relatively set in stone. I tend to write a lot as I record. But while the lyrics might be last, they always make perfect sense to me and they drop into place. It's very late in the day before I even think about the lyrics.
Do you ever approach songwriting with a specific topic in mind?
I can categorically say that I've never approached songwriting by saying I want to write a song about a certain topic. Lyric writing is vaguely unknown to me; it comes from a part of me that I don't examine that often. I just know that I feel relief when it's done. I've never said, "This happened to me, so I'm going write a song about it."
Does the music bring the lyrics out, almost from a subconscious place ?
It definitely does. If a song has a feel or intent behind it, that can directly inform the lyrics. But there's a song on the album called "Sparrow and a Wolf." It's probably the most uptempo song I've ever written. It's got quite a rolling rhythm, but the lyric is probably the darkest thing I've even written as far as the tone. That juxtaposition really intrigued me. It was a not a conscious decision, but when I got halfway through it, I realized how different it was. That's why I don't think about lyrics until the song is done. I don't want one to be influenced by the other. I like the notion of tackling things separately.
How do you know when you have a good melody?
That's an interesting question. A melody will often change as I work on a song. At the core of things, I'm a singer. I make decisions musically based on that. If it flows, and I can sing it in a way that sounds right to me when I sing it, it works. If it doesn't work, I can feel it in my jaw as I'm opening my mouth because I'm forcing something that's not meant to be.
How important is the environment in which you write?
I made my record in a specific place, and the record is a direct result of that place. It would have been wildly different had I made it somewhere else. I tried making it in the studio, and I do know that I respond best to a certain aesthetic. Certain triggers put me in a good position to write.
I wrote this album in the same place every day, right beside the sea. It started out very cold and bleak and dark; after all, it was Ireland in January. But I finished in June, when it was stunning. If I lay the album out chronologically as to when the songs were written, I would be able to hear the pace of the songs change as the days got longer and brighter.
A few months ago, I interviewed Scott Hutchinson of Frightened Rabbit. He wrote their last album next to the water, and he told me that some of the songs matched the cadence of the waves he heard that day.
What they do is far more rhythmical than what I do. For me it was the sound of the sea. It was ever present. If you listen to the record, the hiss and noise you hear is the sea. It's ingrained in the album. After a while, it would disappear, then all of the sudden the din would return. I rarely listen to the record anymore, but when I do, that's my favorite part: just listening to the sea.
This year will be interesting as far as writing for the next record. I'll be traveling a lot and writing. I see these things as challenges. On the first record, I wanted to see what would happen if no one was influencing my musical decisions, no one was telling me what I should do. I was able to play a mandolin line, then just sit and think about it for as long as I wanted. But I don't see the need to repeat that. I want to try something different. I don't want to fall into the trap of saying, "It's time to make a record. Let's go to a really compelling environment." I'm going to see lots of places, write, and see what comes out of that at the end of the year.
I achieved what I wanted to achieve for the first record, to remove outside voices and document what came out of that place. That's what my motivation is when I write: what do I want this record to be, in a general sense. It's possible I might do it in a big studio with a producer, but I know this much: I'll do as much as I can myself. I know that writing and building songs by myself makes me feel the happiest. If a song doesn't work and it's by my hand, I can live with that. But if there's someone else there, I can always blame them, and I don't like that.
How active are you when it comes to seeking inspiration? Do you go get it, or do you wait for it to come?
I never sit down and read books or watch movies with the purpose of getting inspired. I read books and watch movies on a daily basis anyway. If I have hit a wall, I don't try to spark it. I leave it alone. That's the good thing about working alone. If the lyrics just aren't coming, I can think about something else for a day, like a bass line. And by the time the day is up, the the well of inspiration will have filled.
You have such a strong awareness of your writing process. That really is the key to good writing. If you know yourself, and you know what works and what doesn't for you as a writer, you can put yourself in situations to be productive.
It helps me sleep at night, knowing that. Of course, in the end, what comes out is what matters. But if I didn't know about my process, I'd be sitting here like a bundle of nerves, worrying about how I would ever be able to repeat what works for me. I just know that if I'm patient, it arrives.
Do you write lyrics with pen and paper or on a computer?
I'm actually a pencil and notepad guy. I've always liked writing with a pencil and feeling the lead wear down. It feels like I am inscribing something.
Who do you like to read?
I read The Grapes of Wrath a lot when I was making the record. I probably read it three or four times. I read it in school and actually rediscovered Steinbeck while listening to Springsteen's "The Ballad of Tom Joad." And I love F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Jazz Age is something that I've become intrigued by. The way the authors from that era construct characters is something I've always been drawn to.
So much of today's literature, unfortunately, is all about compelling chapters and what happens next. Four page chapters, and every one is a cliffhanger. That's not what people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald did. And that's why they were so good.
*photo by Julie Ling
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