James Morrison on why he considers his latest album, The Awakening, to be his first

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James Morrison (due tomorrow night at the Fox Theatre) first started performing at open mike nights in England before he hit it big as a singer-songwriter with a crossover appeal between pop, rock and R&B music. Two of his songs, "Broken Strings" and a cover of "Man In The Mirror," earned him a decent following in the United States. After six years of playing music, Morrison is embarking on his first national headlining tour behind his third album, The Awakening. We caught up with him over the weekend in San Diego for a chat about the difference between British and American fans, why he chose to duet with Nelly Furtado and how he chooses which Steve Wonder songs to cover.

Westword: So what have you been up to today?

James Morrison: I've had three full-on days, so I just slept last night. I got an early night and just slept. I walked along the sea-front, got a coffee in the city, bought a T-shirt. Pretty laidback, really. I've got some TV and some radio [promotion] and then I've got the gig to do. I'm just taking it easier really. This is the last day of four days of hard work, so I'm looking forward to a day off tomorrow.

It's a Mexican holiday tonight, so I'm just going to... I've been working hard, man, and that's the trouble. When you're working hard, you can't party. It's really annoying. I got into this job thinking I'd be partying every day, and I did do that in the beginning. I was partying all the time when I was younger, but I've realized you can't perform as good as you want to when you're getting high and pissed and staying out late. I've got a job to do at the end of the day, so I'm trying to do that.

But surely you've got to have some time where you can unwind?

I have little tiny pockets of time, and when I do have them I totally exploit the fact that I can do a lot. Like tonight I'll be getting pretty pissed after the gig, I think; try and do some shit that's just bad for me.

You started as a performer doing open mike nights, right?

Yeah that's right.

How does that time in your life, doing those open mike nights, compare to where you're at now, headlining your own shows?

It's weird. There's a lot actually that's changed, but really, at the same time, not a lot has changed, either. I'm using the same things that I gained in experience doing all that when I'm doing my big shows; it's kind of just things like relaxing in front of a crowd, learning how to handle a crowd, or if someone is lippy at the front -- I don't know, I don't really get people that are lippy -- it's just all the experience I got out of playing open mikes and playing songs off the cuff and covers off the cuff and just diving into live stuff, even though you don't know all of it. It's all that stuff, really.

If something goes wrong live on stage, I don't get all flustered because I've been through all that. Whereas I know people that have made records in their bedrooms and they've got their sounds and stuff, but when it comes to live music, they can't handle the... when it goes wrong, they don't know what to do because they're inexperienced. I did it the other way: I did the live stuff first before I started writing, so I'm quite comfortable with playing live in general just because of those experiences doing those open mike nights.

You mentioned you used to do covers at open mike nights. Are there any covers that you still do live that you first started doing at open mike nights?

That's the thing. I'd been really really lucky when I first started out because I ended up doing what I used to do back in the day. I did a radio thing the other week - a cover of "Gangster's Paradise" and Coolio over the acoustic guitar. I've done covers like "Man In The Mirror." I've done Stevie Wonder covers, Bill Wither covers, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Ray LaMontagne -- just people I like. A lot of the stuff I used to do, that's stuff that I'm still doing.

You're pretty famous for some of your Stevie Wonder covers, too, aren't you?

Yeah, I love Stevie Wonder. I try to be careful with which ones I pick, but I wouldn't do them if I didn't think I could pull them off with my band and stuff. I used to do "Master Blaster"... we used to try loads of bits of different things, a bit of "I Wish" -- we never played that live, but we practiced it, and it sounded sick. But yeah, I just think you have to be careful with covers because you can easily start being a covers band, do you know what I mean? All of my favorite songs are Stevie Wonder, all the ones that people in cover bands play, anyway, so I try to pick obscure ones that are not too, sort of, favorites or whatever. I'm always careful with covers.

Are there any songs that you wish you could cover but don't think you should because you don't want to turn into a cover-band sort of situation?

I'd love to play anything reggae [laughs]. I just fucking love reggae music. It's quite difficult to pull off reggae when you're white. "Superstition" is one that I'd love to do, but it's just been done to death by so many cover bands. It's one of those things that you save for parties and for home and stuff. And it's funny, too, because a lot of Stevie Wonder songs tend to be staples for those live singing competitions like X Factor or American Idol or anything like that, and you don't want to go down that route.

No, not at all. I don't want to seem like I'm trying to pull something off that I can't. If I'm going to do something, I want to own it. I'm not going to do it unless I make it my own or do an interpretation of it that's effortless. You're just going to be disappointed because it's Stevie Wonder. I mean, I love Stevie Wonder -- every little inflection he does on the melody I can try and imitate that to the best of my ability but even for me it's quite hard to. You have to be careful.

While we're talking about live music, I do want to talk about "Broken Strings." One of the things that always fascinated me, when you were performing that song live in the U.K., was that you always had a new person that you were performing with. What was that like?

It was fun. It was fun to be able to mix it up with different singers and get different interpretations of what they think it should be. That's the whole point of it being a duet for me, really. It's more about working with someone else that adds a different take on the song; everyone does it a bit different. It was fun for me to be able to use that song as a platform for me to work with them.

I worked with Keisha [Buchanan] from the Sugababes; she's a really good singer. I've done it with a few X Factor finalists in Germany and Italy and stuff. But the main person that I really liked doing it with was Nelly [Furtado]. That's kind of why I picked her, just because she's got such a recognizable voice. She's different in style.

How did the collaboration with Nelly Furtado and even the song you did with Jessie J for The Awakening, "Up," happen?

By accident, really. They build up their own momentum. I mean, even "Broken Strings" in the beginning was never going to be a duet. When it did become a duet, it was just an off-the-cuff idea. Someone was just like, "Oh, have you ever thought about doing a duet?" And I was like, "Not really." I kind of thought duets were quite cheesy, just not very cool. But then once the idea came out to do it, they were like, "Who would you pick?"

Of course, I wanted Nelly Furtado -- she had "Maneater" out at the time, I think. So I just said, "Yeah, Nelly Furtado's got a voice you can recognize, and she's different, and she's got a clean voice." I just thought it would work. Even when I got to the studio, I didn't know it was going to work until she laid it down and we listened to it. I just love working with different people because it mixes it up for me, and it keeps it interesting for me, and opens the song up to interpretation and makes it even more meaningful - and opens it up to a new fan-base.

And there's a new energy there, too, because you're working with someone else as opposed to just by yourself?

Yeah, exactly. And it's a good thing for my ego [laughs] working with people like Nelly Furtado and Jessie J and stuff. I haven't got an ego, but it's nice to perform with people like this who want to work with you.

Okay, here's a question: Of all the duets that you could do as a cover, which song would you do, and who would you do it with?

Shit. I've always loved that one with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" [laughs].

A cheesy choice, a classic, but I like it.

I'm struggling with duets. I can't think of any more. There's like, what, I don't know... whether it's a chorus or a rap, that's a different thing. There is one that Sublime did with Gwen Stefani, "Saw Red," that is pretty cool.

Any songs that you wish would be duets?

I'm not sure, man. It all depends on the vibe and the moment. The more brain work you have to do to make something work, the less good it is. I'd rather either write something with someone in the room or... I'm feeling kind of like I'm done with duets. It's good fun, but it's quite hard to nail down the person that you're going to work with and get them to do it. It can be quite complicated to sort it all out.

But yeah, I've done two duets, and they've worked well. I'm pleased with what I've done. At the same time, I'm more interested in trying to develop myself as a songwriter. I do like the idea of doing something with a good super group or something, you know - like a few singers or guitar players.

Let's talk about your new album, The Awakening. I was reading this interview you did with Music Week and you were talking about how you consider The Awakening your first album, as if the other two were practice. Could you explain that?

I just feel like I was quite young when I started out with my first album -- with the industry, the whole experience, how it works, what you have to do and how hard you have to work, what you have to put into it and a whole lot of stuff. By the time I came out with my second album [Songs for You, Truths for Me], I just felt like I had learned a lot about life, about what I thought would work live and didn't or what does work live and I didn't expect it to work live -- you just can't find a link between what works on an album and what works live. I wanted to make a live album, so I had more experience making it an all, sort of controlled live album, more than the first one.

[On my first album, Undiscovered], it was quite raw; my singing was quite out there. It was my first album and stuff... I don't know. I just feel like I gained enough experience to enjoy the whole process. I was at a time in my life where what I wanted to write about was a little bit more personal than the first two. In my eyes and my mind and stuff, it just felt like it was my first album, because, again, I didn't know what I knew then when I was doing my first albums.

I think there's a difference in the level of confidence on The Awakening versus, especially, Undiscovered, where, there you were, 22, then you do this album, six years later, and there's been this huge change in who you are.

I just felt like I'd grown up. When you're 21, there's only so many things you can... I always wanted to write about things I knew, what I felt. At that time, it was just about my relationship and getting the confidence to go out into the big world and be an artist. It was all sort of a part of it, really. It was all intertwined in the lyrics. Undiscovered and that whole thing was just about me putting myself out there. Whereas now, I didn't feel like I needed to stick to a certain formula, I didn't feel like I needed to explore any new territory either. I just felt like I could be what I wanted to be -- the way I've always tried to do it -- but with more confidence and experience.

I was 26 when I started writing the album. I had a kid two years before that. I lost my dad. Everything in general was put in perspective. It was easier to do what I wanted to do without compromise. If I didn't get that, it wouldn't be worth doing it. I just had the confidence to say, "This is what I want to do and I'm doing it." On the first album and second album, I was still finding my way and proving myself, getting a fan base and all that stuff; I was a bit insecure because I was younger.

Everything that's out on the radio and everything that's doing really well isn't like what I'm doing -- now, I see it as a positive, whereas before I saw it as a negative. I thought I had to be some kind of radio-friendly thing. Whereas now, I've got that, but I didn't try to get it too much.

Because of your fan base being so big and the success you've seen thus far, there's an added confidence you have that can encourage you to experiment in other ways?

That's why I'm so looking forward to the next album already. I'm just really excited to get back into the studio and start it again. I really enjoy the tour and playing these songs, it's been amazing so far seeing people's reactions to them and stuff, but, yeah, it's given me more confidence in what I'm doing (laughs).

How do United States fans compare to the British fans you have and the fans you have around the world?

American fans are a bit more full-on. I got cheered for talking the other day, which is amazing -- did I really get cheered for chatting? It seems like they're more enthusiastic. I think in general the confidence thing in America is much more prevalent than in England. People are allowed to be confident in America. People are allowed to tell you why they like you. Whereas in England, you don't really want to tell people they're really good in England. You just want to say, "It was good, but you ought to work harder to do better."

I think, in general, the people are a lot more outspoken with compliment-filled comments. "We love you, James!" -- you get that between songs. There's not really loads of differences, but some of the differences are they're more loud and they're more enthusiastic, especially because you've come from another country; you've come a long way to come out here.

Right, and you've really come a long way in the past year in terms of locations but also in terms of your career. I think it's a good time for you to be in the United States because you do have that confidence level, and sometimes, if you don't have the confidence, it's hard to make it here.

Totally. You have to have that inner confidence. If people think you don't know what you're doing or you lack confidence in what you're doing, then why are they going to believe in you? I did believe in myself back then, but I just hope the music would carry over my nerves and people would see what I'm trying to do. Whereas now it is good to be here. I'm 27. I'm not getting any younger. It's like, "Conquer America, play some good gigs, make some good fans" -- hopefully that's what's going to happen.

So far, the reaction's been really good. They're not massive shows, but they're big enough for people to come along. I feel good about it. I've got a lot of work to do. I'm not naive about how much work it's going to take to crack America, but slowly slowly. Hopefully with this album, it will make a little bit of a dent, you know, in my notoriety or whatever.

James Morrison, with Honeyhoney, 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 8, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, $20-$23, 303-443-3399.

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