In the summer of 1990, James Morrison fronted a covers band with a repertoire of classics from the Sixties and Seventies. Playing five nights a week to packed pubs, he raked in a small fortune by the standards of any regular 16-year-old. When he later got a regular job for far less pay, he came to a realisation. “I knew straight away that I could play music, do something I enjoy and make enough money. Or I could do a job I hate and earn fuck all.”
He’d barely even dreamed of making it big, but what he achieved was remarkable. His five Top 10 singles all rank among the biggest of their era, including the breakthrough smashes ‘You Give Me Something’ and ‘Wonderful World’, plus the huge Nelly Furtado collab ‘Broken Strings’. Fans were enraptured by the beauty of his once-in-a-generation voice as well as the honesty of his immediately relatable songwriting. It made for a devoted following which resulted in two chart-topping albums, 7 million record sales and a BRIT Award.
He earned the respect of his own heroes, too. Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John all invited Morrison to join them at shows. He even made a show-stealing appearance at an all-star celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of Stax Records during the 2017 Proms. “It doesn’t get much better than that!” he grins, his memory of performing with Stax legends Eddie Floyd, Booker T and Steve Cropper one that he’ll forever cherish.
After four years away from the limelight, he’s now set to return with the album that he’s always wanted to make. ‘You’re Stronger Than You Know’ is a modern British take on a classic soul and Motown, echoing influences such as Van Morrison, Otis Redding, The Band and Dusty Springfield. The power, tenderness and finesse of his vocal can only come from a man who has experienced everything that he’s singing about.
Morrison talks of the songs being warm, honest and raw. It has its darker moments, but the overriding feeling is that it offers a beacon of positivity in a climate of bad news. You wouldn’t guess that they emerged from such a turbulent time in his life. You wouldn’t guess from speaking to him, either. He’s wide-eyed with enthusiasm: straight-talking, passionate and unguarded.
Everything threatened to collapse around him as he worked on a follow-up to his 2015 set ‘Higher Than Here’. His relationship with his long-term partner Gill hit tough times and he lost his natural songwriting instinct. His previous label was pushing him to write uplifting music when he was in the pits of despair. He also wanted to stand apart from the rush of male singer-songwriters who had followed in his wake.
“I didn’t know that I was going to come out of it,” he admits. “I was dropped from my label and my personal life went to shit. I’ve had to start again and it’s been hard, but I'm stronger and much more positive for having gone through that.”
The turning point came when Morrison wrote the album’s powerful centrepiece ‘Slowly’. Not only do you hear him questioning how to reignite his creativity, but he also tackles his tumultuous upbringing with his parents.
“Trying to escape where you’ve come from is hard,” he sighs. “I was brought up in alcoholism and depression and that stuff is hard to fight against. There are a lot of people in the world who have lost or had difficulties with their parents. Being ultra-personal is quite difficult, but if it can help people I’ll definitely leave it in.”
Other songs celebrate his appreciation and love for Gill. He wrote ‘Power’ when she was feeling vulnerable after the birth of their youngest daughter. “I was like, you’re fucking amazing, I still love you and I still think you’re amazing, but she didn’t see it,” he recalls. “That’s where the title ‘You’re Stronger Than You Know’ came from. I can say that about her. And I can say that about myself too.”
Morrison further pays tribute to her with ‘So Beautiful’, a song that he wrote a decade ago with Gary Barlow but placed on the backburner. What had then seemed like just another song later took on a new context, he admits. “After everything we went through it seemed to say everything I wanted to.”
Throughout, Morrison was writing songs with no particular goal in mind. With the encouragement of producer Mark Taylor and the freedom that comes from a deal with a new label, he realised he had the chance to make the album that he’d always dreamed of making.
Harking back to the Stax and Motown era that he loves, Morrison decided to take the recording process back-to-basics by putting the focus entirely upon the performances. Blending the sheer emotion of his experiences with a new-found maturity, his vocals have never sounded better. Meanwhile his band hit that life-affirming sweet spot between rambunctious energy and tight musicianship.
For the first time in his career, Morrison made the record with one producer, which infuses it with a cohesiveness that’s a hallmark of all of the classic albums. British Grove Studios in London provided the perfect location through its balance between vintage equipment and modern technology. The core of the album was recorded within a week, before a second was spent added the finishing touches – overdubs, backing vocals and horns.
In keeping with his enthusiasm for making a set of contemporary soul, Morrison enlisted Joss Stone to bring the conversational confessional of opening anthem ‘My Love Goes On’ to life. His thinking was simple – he wanted to celebrate the music he loved by collaborating with a like-minded artist who also possesses a world class vocal gift.
After a rollercoaster of emotions, the album signs off in uplifting style with the closing ballad ‘Until The Stars Go Out’. Morrison penned the song to support his eldest daughter when she was bullied in school. “I wanted to write a song to say that things aren’t always easy and there’ll be times where it’s tough. I know what it’s like because I’ve been through that stuff myself. It was important for me as a dad to say, I’ll be there for you when things go wrong, because I never had that.”
Despite all his accomplishments, James Morrison still has the hunger for more. “I feel like I have to prove myself and to keep getting better,” he concludes. “I don’t think that’ll ever end. So many things have come together – my family, the music sounding the way I want it to, and having the freedom that I’ve always wanted. The stars have aligned and this album has given me a new lease of life.”