An Irish torchbearer of Americana
James Vincent McMorrow keeps his folk music pure and simple
For a certain kind of fan of folk music, the recent onslaught of bands bearing acoustic guitars and laptops might trigger a sharp longing for the good old days. Lately creaky instruments have been granted the ability to swirl around headphones like CGI effects in summer blockbusters. You can almost never trust the source material - Brooklyn warehouse rats O’Death made one of the best down-home records in ages last year, and groups like Bon Iver to Grizzly Bear have spent the decade twisting hushed harmonies and gentle strumming into veritable orchestras with home studio arsenals. They’re not your parents’ folk records anymore.
“Early in the Morning,’’ the new record from Dublin bard James Vincent McMorrow, who performs at Brighton Music Hall tomorrow night, follows a similar kitchen-sink approach. It’s a wide-eyed and delicate take on the music that once survived on a beat-up guitar and a tip jar. The young singer pokes around scenes from homes on the range and backwoods crimes not only from way across the pond, but with a sweeping, ethereal production with cascading pianos and small choirs in the wind. It’s widescreen Americana that McMorrow focused on before he ever even considered stepping out into the world to play for anyone face to face, and it makes his slightly outsider perspective interesting.
“I think you’re always influenced by what you’re reading or watching or anything else in your surroundings,’’ McMorrow says recently on the phone from Ireland, just days ahead of his third tour of the US this year already.
In McMorrow’s case, his influences include heaps of Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. The self-taught musician and recording engineer has otherwise soaked up everything available. He learned to play drums by playing along to hardcore bands; he learned to record music by listening to hip-hop albums by artists like the Neptunes.
“I sat in a bedroom in my parents’ house in front of a piano for about three or four years and that’s where I learned to sing,’’ he says, coupling it with a long streak of listening to soul singer Donny Hathaway.
“Early in the Morning’’ isn’t bashful about its influences. McMorrow has clearly adopted Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s gruff falsetto nearly lock, stock, and barrel. But he’s got his own direction in mind, setting out for the country with echoing slide guitars settling like dirt clouds in spaghetti Westerns. He hits cities along the way to pick up odd rock and R&B phrasing, excavating what seems like rusted-out Phil Collins mood-rock on “This Old Dark Machine.’’
“So much of music business is digesting it into little sound bites that are easy for people, like calling it ‘folk music’ because I have an acoustic guitar,’’ McMorrow says. “Maybe they need to call me a ‘singer-songwriter’ because I sing and I wrote the songs.’’
Somewhere in all the experimenting, McMorrow stumbled on a flavor of orchestrated soul music that just happens to employ a front porch full of wooden instruments. Switch them out for computers and you might have the next James Blake record. In fact, the more ambitious the recipe, the more successful the song - highly choreographed set pieces like the opener, “If I Had a Boat,’’ sound like steps forward, while more coffee shop fare like “And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop’’ tread water in comparison.
But McMorrow is, for now, still an artist obsessed with taking on those dust-bowl roads and ditches of the countryside, both American and those closer to home. As with the formative years of Bon Iver, McMorrow recorded this debut album in a secluded house, which was apparently stocked with a Nashville guitar shop’s worth of equipment. “Out in the countryside, I think it’s very hard not have it seep into everything you’re doing,’’ he says.
The love for that aesthetic hasn’t stopped there yet, though. McMorrow is putting the finishing touches on what will finally be his full-band debut in this country (he’s wowed audiences with a string of solo shows so far this year). And he’s intrigued by another well-worn yet always evolving trove of myth - the indie-rock tour.
“In my mind, the notion of getting in a van after putting out a record in the US is just so appealing,’’ McMorrow says. “I guess it’s just that romantic notion of it, isn’t it?’’
Matt Parish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.