Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

The Sound of Songwriting: with James Vincent McMorrow

5 min read

The Sound of Songwriting: With James Vincent McMorrow (SXSW Edition)

James Vincent McMorrow’s debut album “Early in the Morning” was entirely self-recorded during a period of five month off the Irish coast. According to McMorrow, he does his best writing in situations where he is cut off from the outside world. 

McMorrow describes songwriting as if it was a zen meditation: “It’s probably quite like sculpting, you have a chisel, you know what’s waiting for you inside the stone, all that’s left is to chip away the pieces and reveal it.”

During this process he admits that he can be overly protective about the creative process: he believes that a song must be one-hundred percent complete before sharing it with anyone. In our conversation McMorrow explained this process in detail, “I like the idea of something being yours, and people either liking it or not. If I show my music before it’s done, or let people into the process it tends to change the outcome. And I don’t like that notion.”

 ‘Early in the Morning’ is a balance of light and dark songs. The opening track ‘If I Had A Boat’ (with its five part falsetto harmonies and soft catchy chorus) being on the lighter. McMorrow elaborates, “I always knew when I wrote that song that it would open the album. The lyric is very much about transition, about change. And so out of that transition comes the darker side of the album, “This Old Dark Machine” (a song about an automobile accident that McMorrow uses to symbol a worn relationship) and “From the Woods” (a song marked by McMorrow’s blood curdling howl. At the climax his voice erupts like a gunshot, “From the woods! From the wood! They are coming from the wood!”).

I found McMorrow wandering the Convention Center at this year’s SXSW conference. It was St. Patrick’s day, and just moments after McMorrow had finished his set on the KCRW Radio Day Stage (his first SXSW performance ever). After some searching we were able to find a relatively quiet nook and chat a bit about songwriting:

Can you tell me a little bit about how you start writing a song?

It’s usually just the seed of an idea. I’m not a linear songwriter. I sit down with a guitar and if I hear something I sort of follow it. I tend to have a small idea that I repeat over and over again to myself and I put it aside. Then if I’m still thinking about it and if it’s worth looking into I’ll come back to it. Everything comes together in such a fragmented way for me. And it takes a little while to piece it all together. It’s slightly mind bending – you have to take pieces from everywhere and trust that it comes together.

It sounds like you have a batch of verses lying around, and a separate batch of choruses, and then you piece them together like a puzzle?

It sort of happens a different way every time. It’s the same process, but sometimes I might have a verse from something else that I just realize is not working and suddenly it occurs to me that it works for something else. Sometimes I can see the whole thing, but that’s a rarity.

Is there a song that you can think of where it really came together all at once?

‘Down the Burning Ropes’ is the only thing I’ve ever written that I sat down and did start to finish. I wrote the lyrics really quickly, on just a scoff of paper. Which is probably why it’s a simplistic song on the face of it. It’s very much just driven by just three or four chords and quite repetitious. I kind of just wrote a verse-chorus-verse and then I had my middle section. It’s the one and only time, and I remember later after I wrote it, I sat down with my guitar and though, ‘Ok let’s do this again.’ [shakes head and sighs] …and it never did happen again.

Who is the first person you will show a new song? Is there someone in particular you trust with that responsibility?

No, I don’t trust anybody. [laughs] I don’t play anything for anybody, until it’s at a level where it’s worthy of being heard. Because of the nature of how I write, sometimes I can be really sure something is right, and then the next day realize I’m completely wrong. And that’s happened to me too many times.

When I was learning how to to write, I’d come up with an idea and I’d be incredibly excited about it and I’d play it for somebody – a friend, or parent or [anyone] – and then the next day I’d come back to it and realize I didn’t like it. And I’d change it again, and some people start going, “I really like what you did there”. Your mind gets a little bit cloudy [shakes head in confusion]. That’s why I make music [the way I do] – because at the end of the day once something is finished in my mind it’s finished. And if people like it then they like it, if they don’t that’s fine, whatever. But there’s none of that element of, ‘I could have done this differently.’

Is that why you’re a solo artist? Because you can’t get along with other people and their opinions?

To be frankly honest, yeah. The reason I never played in bands was because the ideas were slightly more interesting than the physical act of playing in a band. A lot of musicians have other ideas, of course – a band’s supposed to be a democracy, but I don’t work well in a democracy. 

It’s not that I have a dictatorial drive to go in one direction, it’s just that every time I’ve ever played in a band there’s a lot of sitting around and talking about stuff. It would just go a different direction. I’d try to make suggestions and it was a frustrating process. It comes back to again, this notion that if it’s just me, I can live and die by it, I’ll stand by it to the end. But if there’s somebody else involved then it’s not quite what you want it to be, then it’s just a frustrating thing.

But it can also be frustrating writing only by yourself? You have no one else to rely on.

I mean, what are the odds of finding one other like-minded soul in the world, let alone three or four to make a band. So I’m completely in awe of bands. And that’s why I listen to bands, perhaps, far more than I listen to singer-songwriters or solo artists.

Like The National, I just saw them in December, and watching these musicians in sync with each other making the sounds they made. It’s a rare thing.

I’m going to name a few of your songs and if you can give me your first reaction.

We Don’t Eat

It was an idea that I had for a while. It was quite strummy and slow. Something in the middle of the album. It’s kick-starts and it goes. Like, sonically I had an idea for a song to just kick and move along the whole time.

There’s this great line in ‘We Don’t Eat’: ‘We Don’t Eat Until Our Father’s At the Table’

Yeah, that’s just something I had written in a notebook. And sort of skitted out one day. I was playing the piano and I just sang it and it made sense. What appealed to me about that particular phrase was that if I play it slower, with the guitar, it almost sort of takes on this very sort of countryish feel. You can play it pretty slow. But then playing the way it is on the record it’s a different thing, and I just liked the way it could flow in any given direction.

In “This Old Dark Machine,” there’s this lyric, “If they should touch the hem of your dress.” How does that fit into what you’re trying to say with the song?

The lyrics are sort of a vague and annoying thing to me. I don’t have a sort of set agenda or a plan when I’m writing a song. I tend to have the first lyric and that guides me. So I had the first lyric ‘Spring It Came Upon Us / Every Insect filled the air.’ I write lyrics the same way I write music, very sort of abstract and out of context, and then I pull it all together.

 It’s sounds kind of ridiculous to say that I don’t really understand the lyrics that I write, but I don’t really examine them so hard. I look back at what I’ve done and I see what I’m saying, I think, but I’m never 100% sure. That lyric could mean innumerable things.”

I don’t think you’re the only songwriter that does that. I think sometimes we look really deep into what certain lyrics mean. It’s kind of interesting to see your thought process.

And I think that’s maybe the point as well. I kind of like when people have opinions on songs. And I certainly would never ever give someone what a song was about, if I knew, because I think that sort of defeats the purpose.

My favorite songs are the ones that constantly keep me wondering. I don’t understand my favorite music at all. And I think that’s a good thing.

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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.