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Nine Songs
James Morrison

Taking in music passed down through his family, an emotional connection with singing and the perfect summer jam, James Morrison talks Ed Nash through the songs that define him.

26 November 2021, 07:00 | Words by Ed Nash

To say that James Morrison likes singing is something of an understatement. He really loves to sing. And he’s rather good at it.

A discussion about the pivotal songs in his life is a joy to be part of. It’s part conversation, part performance, where the visceral joy he gets from singing is best explained through belting out incredible renditions of songs by the artists he loves. And for the record, Morrison does a mean take on Stevie Wonder’s vocal inflections.

Morrison’s debut single "You Give Me Something" propelled him into the mainstream and his first album Undiscovered went to Number 1 in the UK charts. The following year he won the Brit Award for Best British Male Artist. When I ask how he feels about his breakthrough now with the benefit of hindsight, he bursts into the first of a series of laughter. “It's depressing on one hand, because 15 years have gone by, and that's a long time. But on the other hand, it’s good because I'm not 21 anymore. I didn’t like being that age when I came out with my album. I felt I wasn't ready for it, but now I'm older I can enjoy it more.”

Before he signed his record deal, Morrison was playing open mic nights and building up his confidence as a performer and a songwriter but he quickly found himself in a whirlwind of recording, touring and promotion. “I was going to London and doing the meetings with the labels. Before I knew it, my album came out and it went to Number 1. It was a crazy time” he explains, “I didn't have the time to let it soak in. I was in survival mode. I was trying to survive and not look a knob in front of people. I was so insecure back then; it was like being in a hurricane.”

When I ask him what it’s like now, he laughs again and says “It’s so much better! I love it now. I’m so blessed that I do this for a living. It picks you up, it's like free therapy. Music helps everyone in the audience as well, it’s a transaction. You’re laying all your emotions on the line and you’re there for the criticism. It's a nice risk to put yourself out there. If it works, you connect with people and find something special. Or they just don't get it, and that's fine.”

Morrison’s upcoming Greatest Hits sees him revisiting some of his most loved songs and reimaging them with a deeper, more soulful timbre, starting with “You Give Me Something (Refreshed)”, that will be accompanied by a tour that will take in an evening at the London Palladium. As he sings and plays some of his Nine Songs choices on the guitar, I mention it’s clear that he can’t wait to get back on the road.

“I love having my band on tour. I love singing the songs. That’s what I did when I started, I loved playing live, and I always loved singing. When you’ve put all the work in, and you've been in the studio for years, when you finally bring out some music, you get to enjoy it."

Morrison initially sent through 10 songs, and when I tell him he has to drop one of them he laughs and says “Oh no! That’s hard!” As he reviews his picks, he decides that Radiohead’s “Karma Police” is the song that won’t make the cut, explaining “That’s an old one, although most of the others are old as well!”

His Nine Songs choices zone in on the power of singing and the sense of connection that songs can bring. From his late father’s love of Toots and the Maytals “54-46 That’s My Number”, which became the soundtrack to the birth of Morrison’s first child, to his love of Stevie Wonder, who Morrison reveres to the extent that he picks not one, but two of his songs, and the summer party jams of Nas and The Isley Brothers.

“I picked songs that have affected me in a big way throughout my life. Some are more immediate to talk about. The Toots and the Maytals song is always going to be with me, because there's so many times in my life where it's popped up. I could have sat there for three days making this list. I love singers that hit certain notes, where it only happens in certain songs. All of these songs have those things in them, that makes me get goosepimples and I love that.”

“Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson

“That song affected me in a massive way as a young kid. I was four or five and I used to watch Moonwalker every day, there was a clip of him singing “Man in the Mirror” at a concert where everyone's lighters are out and that was a massive moment in my life. Something clicked in my head, which was ‘I want to do that, I want to sing.’ Not that I ever thought it would happen, but it gave me something to think about. It planted the seed.

“When I hear it on the radio now it still puts me in that place as soon as I hear it, of being a kid, being in wonder, watching the telly thinking ‘This is one of the best things I’ve ever seen.’ It was the first time I'd ever seen what a song and what a voice can do to that many people, and that was the first time I put those two things together as a kid.

“I love the lyrics, “If you want to make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” Not many people want to look at themselves and make changes, because everyone's quite happy to go on as they are, and ‘it’s the world that needs to change’. It's one of those lyrics that pops into my head every now and again and it's a fucking wicked lyric. It’s still poignant, and with the energy in it, even though the production is slightly dated, it sounds like it could have been made yesterday.

“I love the key change when it modulates. I still get goose pimples all over my body when that happens. Every time I hear it, I whack it up and wait for that modulation. Michael Jackson was my first love singing wise and “Man in the Mirror” was my favourite song. It was where my love of gospel and voices came from. I heard that song before I knew anything about any proper soul singers. I just knew Michael Jackson and I knew “Man in the Mirror”. That song was a big thing for me, and it still is.”

“Love the One You’re With” by The Isley Brothers

“My dad introduced me to this song, but it’s only over the last few years that I've come back around to it. Whenever I heard “Love the One You’re With” I kept asking people ‘Who’s this again?’ Someone said, ‘It’s The Isley Brothers’, and then I remembered my dad saying ‘This is The Isley Brothers’ when I was a kid, so I came full circle to it.

“It’s one of those songs like “Man in the Mirror”, that when it comes on I’m immediately ‘Yes!’ It sounds like a mix between Creedence Clearwater Revival, with the folky aspect to it and a soulful vocal and I love those two elements together. The band are cooking and the height on his voice is amazing - he rips it, it's beautiful but hard at the same time.

“But it's how it makes me feel more than anything else. It makes me feel like its summer when I hear it. If it's good weather and I've got loads of people over I always put that song on, because it puts everyone in a good mood. It makes me do stank face when I’m listening to it and any song that makes me do that, it’s because it's fucking good.

“I go a lot on what a song makes me feel, and that's how I base my decisions in music. Sometimes you get it wrong, and you end up coming out with something that people don't really like. But at the time you’re ‘Well, it felt good, and it felt like the right thing.’ And that's all you can do with music, trust your instincts.”

“Love’s in Need of Love Today” by Stevie Wonder

“Fucking hell, where do I start with this song? It reminds me of a certain time before I met my girlfriend, who I've been with for nearly 20 years. I was having a bit of a rough time, I’d just finished school, I didn't have a lot of money and I was working in these crappy hotels trying to earn money. Then I met my girlfriend and I remember playing that song a lot on the guitar and trying to impress her. That and “My Girl”, anytime she walked in, I'd be like (sings) “I got sunshine…”

“The harmonies at the start are still one of my favourite pieces of music to listen to, the way that he does all those little (sings) ‘Mmm’s…’, all that stuff is so good. Even if it didn't have that amazing vocal intro, the chords alone are a headfuck to get your head round. They’re some of the most complex chords I've ever learned and the way that they work is amazing. He takes it out of key a few different times. It’s mad.

“Then there's that bit in the end when he goes to so many weird notes. His songs took me so long to learn to sing, because I'd never heard notes like that before. I was used to The Beatles and The Beatles have got really complex chords in their songs, but not like Stevie Wonder's.

“I love Stevie’s harmonies; he's got that extra special gift in his hearing that allows him to sing notes that you don't normally hear next to each other. That's what I love about Stevie, he brings an element of proper wonder, but without the pun! He brings a magical thing to it. I've always reacted Stevie Wonder in that way, especially with that song, it's such a beautiful piece of music and a beautiful piece of harmony singing.”

“Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison

MORRISON: “Into the Mystic” is similar to all the songs I've picked so far; big songs that I remember being in my life from an early age, that bring back really nice memories.

“I remember listening to his music a lot growing up and it reminds me of when my mum was in a really good mood and she'd be spring-cleaning the house, going mad with the hoover and she’d put on Van Morrison. She loved him from when she was growing up. I’d always ask her ‘Who’s Van the Man?’ and she’d say, ‘He’s a singer and he's got the best voice ever.’ When it’s a sunny day and I’m pottering about, I'll put “Into the Mystic” on because it sounds so good.

BEST FIT: He’s been in the headlines over the last year more for his views on lockdown than his music.

MORRISON: “I think people are finding this whole thing difficult to handle. It’s such a weird time. I have my own views on things, but I try to stay neutral. I'd rather let the music do the talking. I don't like to shout about things unless I know what I’m talking about. He's the sort of character that would do that though. He wrote so many amazing songs, some protest songs and things that he believes in, so that's kind of what I'd expect from Van Morrison, to stick up for what he believes in, to the point of ostracising a lot of people from his music.”

“Get Down” by Nas

“I discovered this through my brother. I've been listening to “The Boss” by James Brown for years and my brother said, ‘Have you heard the Nas version? Check this out,’ and I was like ‘Woah’. I love the rap in it, his flow is so amazing. James Brown always sounds good, but this version of his song “The Boss” is even better with a rap on it. It's even more exciting. It brings it up to date and it’s the best backing track to have if you’re a rapper, because it's so good.

“I love the groove in it, it's a badass groove. If I was going to walk into a party with a theme tune, I’d totally put this on! It’s without fail one of my go to tunes. Even people who aren’t really into hip hop will be like ‘This is so good.’ I always put that tune on every time I have a house party.

“I love people who are wordsmiths, whether that's rappers, poets or folk singers that tell a story. I like lyrics, I like rhyme, and I like rhythm. Nas added a new dimension to it and the rapping keeps you in, bouncing on that beat. Anytime there's a get together I'll put it on and it never fails, people always start moving to it.”

“54-46 That’s My Number” by Toots and the Maytals

“I associate this song with so many different things that are all positive. It was my daughter's first song, but it's been there throughout my life and it's helped me through.

“I associate it with spending time with my dad, he’s been gone for about 10 years now. When I was a kid, I’d listen to reggae with him. He’d put Toots on, it'd be a nice sunny day, he would be blasting that song out and I’d be blown away by it every time. I put it on when my dad died, and I probably played it over 3,000 times. It still sounded good, it still picked me up and it still put me in a nice place.

“I associate it with summertime and being with my friends at festivals. And then I associate it with when my daughter Elsie was born. When my wife Gill was pregnant, anytime we used to play it in the car Elsie would kick to the beat of it, she loved it. So when she was born I put it on and she smiled and was nodding her head to it, she was only a baby.

“I love Toots. I've always loved his vibe, his voice and the fact that he’s slightly left of centre. But I really love Toots because he brings so much soul to reggae. “54-46 That’s My Number” in particular is so cool. Toots is always rough, but he's always in the pocket. And his tone is fucking great. He makes you feel good.

“I remember trying to learn the intro when I was a kid and I was so stoked when I learnt it, because it's quite difficult to sing, especially the bit in the middle. (Sings the vocal medley) It’s so complicated but it's so good, it's such a fun thing to sing. The backing vocals are so out as well. I love it for its mistakes and its roughness.

“It's the one of the best intros to a song as a vocalist, to come in going (sings) “Stick it up, mister!” He just throws it all around and he’s literally having the best time of his life doing that intro. And when it finally comes in, he's sings “I said yeah!” If I was playing an open mic bar I’d always pull that tune out of the bank, because you can get people instantly. You just have to go “Stick it up, mister!” and you’ve got them, it's amazing.”

“Where is my Mind?” by Kings of Leon

“I think I heard this on a Live Lounge thing that Kings of Leon did. It's one of those songs that I didn't really get when I was a kid. I loved the vibe, but I could never hear what the hell he was singing, but over time it's one of those tunes. I liked the Pixies version, but when I heard Kings of Leon's version I was ‘Wow, fucking hell’. I love that sort of rocky music. Even though I haven't made a tonne of it myself, I do love bands that can dig in like them and his voice is amazing, it's got so much character to it. He's not always on point with the notes, but it doesn't matter, he's just fucking good.

“I think he sings it's so much stronger than the guy from the Pixies, but he still brings out an element of roughness to it, so it doesn't get too polished. It's doesn’t sound like a big, pristine, top-notch band are doing a version of it - even though they are that - but they're doing it in a way that’s like they own it, it's professional but it’s still got grit to it. It’s a nice tune to put on when you want to blow the dust out of the windowsills.

“If you're a Pixies fan you're probably going to love the original version, but I like it when artists pick up a song, interpret it in their own way and it becomes its own thing. I think they managed to do that with this song, it's sort of punky but it’s wide and it sounds big. It’s a cool little track.”

“Cay’s Crays” by Fat Freddy’s Drop

“I didn’t know about Fat Freddy’s Drop until I went to New Zealand when I was probably 22. I was doing promo for the first album and someone said, ‘You’ve got a really soulful voice, you should check out Fat Freddy’s Drop.’ And I thought, ‘I don't know what the hell that is!’ He's a jazz musician and a really good singer. They're all into reggae and soul and with those elements all mixed together, they're a really cool band.

“I haven't see them live yet but they’re one of those bands I'd like to go and see. They're a great festival band, if you’d had a few rums at a festival and they came by you'd be, ‘I'm gonna go see that.’ He's got such a great, deep, bluesy, soulful voice and he’s got that jazz element in there as well. They're a really subtle reggae soul band that you can put on any time.

“I love the build-up. It takes about two or three minutes for the tune to kick in. The start is this quite sad, ominous reggae piano that goes on for ages and it has these really long horn lines, that reminds me of Inception. The way the track builds is wicked and when the drums kick in you’re gagging to hear a drum beat so bad that when it does, you’re in it, it’s brilliant.

“I play “Cay’s Crays” a lot, it's one of those tunes that I always come back to. Like all the other tunes I’ve picked, I put it on regularly because every time I hear it, it never fails to give me that feeling and that spirit.”

“Heaven Help Us All” by Stevie Wonder

BEST FIT: What made you keep in a second Stevie Wonder song rather than “Karma Police” by Radiohead?

MORRISSON: “It’s hard to just pick one Stevie Wonder song. It's like The Beatles or Bob Marley, anyone who’s so prolific and so on point that there isn’t one song that does everything to encapsulate them as an artist. Stevie Wonder has got so much to give. “Superstition” is definitely one of my favourite tunes of his, and “Master Blaster”, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” but especially “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Heaven Help Us All.”

“He hits notes I've never heard someone hit. I keep trying to do that note but it’s so high. I love how delicate he is in the verses but how big and wide he goes in the choruses. He reminds me of Aretha Franklin with that gospel attack on the vocals. Then it has that modulation at the end, where the key goes up to the next one and takes it up to another level. And it makes you go ‘Oh, fucking hell, something’s happening!’ I’m not normally a massive fan of modulations, a lot of people associate them with Westlife getting off their stools. I only like those moments in old school tunes, before the era of Simon Cowell modulations were kind of cool but no, not anymore. They ruined it!

“Like Michael Jackson, he's always been an artist who has affected me in a big way. What I learned from Stevie is the way he chucks around phrasings and puts a lot of syllables into one line. He can make an ‘Oh’ into about 10 syllables and I’ve always found that a cool tool to have as a singer, when you can add notes into the melody and make it your own, and he does that so beautifully.

“That’s what I've tried to take from him, a feeling that he has when he sings about emotion, but he’s singing from a real place. He can bend the notes to his will and do whatever he wants, not that I can do that, but I've tried to take a little bit of that, the way he ad-libs approaches to vocals, but his ad-libs aren’t him having a dick about, they’re such a strong part of the song. I find it fascinating how he does that, and I love how he does that with his singing voice.

“I chose “Heaven Help Us All” because of the spiritual aspects of it. It’s one of the most epic songs I’ve ever heard. It’s like “Man in the Mirror” in the way it feels like a spiritual cleanse. I love the lyrics and when I've been going through shit times in my life, I always put that song on.

“When I'm feeling weak, I like hearing spiritually uplifting songs. I'm not Christian, but I do believe in God, and I like listening to songs that make me feel there is this God of some sort. And if you don't believe in God after listening to Stevie Wonder sing and play when he’s blind, then I don’t know what there is for you!”

"You Give Me Something (Refreshed)" is out today. James Morrison's Greatest Hits is relased 11 February 2022
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