James Vincent McMorrow: ‘It’s music to believe in. Simple as that’

We hear about the transformative journey of James Vincent McMorrow as he returns to his roots with the folk-inspired album 'Wide Open, Horses', a stark contrast to his mainstream exploits.

James Vincent McMorrow

James Vincent McMorrow has always chased bigness. You might not know it listening to that raw, rugged and stripped-down debut album Early In The Morning but every record that followed saw him pushing things further and striving for more colour. 

Across six studio albums, McMorrow dabbled in everything from pop and R&B to indie and dance, while also featuring on tracks by Drake and Rudimental. In 2022, he found himself playing a prime time slot at Electric Picnic festival, but during the show, he realised just how much he hated it. 

“I didn’t feel like I even needed to be on the stage,” he says, with him and the rest of his band focused on playing along perfectly to the click track that was drowning out the fans. “That audience could have easily just been listening to a playback of my songs,” he continues of his quest for sleek, streaming-friendly pop. 

That feeling of detachment had been slowly building over a number of years, but that performance at Electric Picnic was a turning point. He walked offstage, went home, and asked himself what the point of it all was.

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For a hot second, he considered throwing in the towel completely but instead decided to rebuild his entire approach to music. “If I’m going to keep doing this, then I need it to mean something to me,” he says. “I needed to become the version of me that loves music, and that was the beginning and end of every decision I made.”

The end result is Wide Open, Horses, a lush, enthralling, sweeping record that flirts with loneliness and isolation but finds hope within that. After writing a handful of tracks following that appearance at Electric Picnic, McMorrow announced two work-in-progress gigs at the 1500-capacity National Concert Hall in Dublin, where he played through the songs that would go on to make up his new album in front of an audience that had never heard them, with a band who’d only had a week to turn them from scrappy demos into something more grand.

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“When I started, there used to be real stakes to music. Things could go wrong and there was this sense of drama. That always felt really tangible, and I wanted that energy back,” says McMorrow. After those magical, rejuvenating gigs, he went straight into the studio to record Wide Open, Horses.

“I’m more excited about this album than anything I’ve done in recent years,” McMorrow admits. “When I was a kid, I suffered from bad anxiety, but music always felt like therapy to me,” he continues. He started writing his own songs for the same reason.

 “There’s nothing about me that has ever been pursuing the headline slot at festivals,” McMorrow says. His debut album sold 3000 copies in its first year, and that was enough for him. However, the following year, he sold 70,000 records and the next year, he shifted 200,000. “Everything that I’ve ever achieved in my life has been a surprise,” he admits. “But I was ambitious because I believed in the work.”

“Certainly, up to the fourth album, all of the decisions I made came from a place of need,” he says. “I always wanted the thing that was interesting to me. It was never about levelling up.” However, as music shifted and dubstep became the biggest scene on the planet, McMorrow felt a pressure to follow suit. “If we wanted to go play Coachella, we had to compete with the tent next to us,” he says. “It’s subtle, but that attitude changes everything.”

He signed to Columbia Records in 2020 and released Grapefruit Season the following year. “I had become really insecure and just wanted to make music and not worry about social media or being this forward-facing public figure,” says McMorrow. “I thought they’d take care of that, but instead, they just played down everything I’d built up to that point. It became all about numbers and reach. I didn’t get into music to be a businessman. I didn’t get into music to make money.

“When those things happen, that’s great but it changes the dynamic and very quickly, that’s where all the focus goes. It just ground me down,” he says. “I’ve come to a point where I don’t need to chase the things that I was chasing, because it just led nowhere good for me,” he says of his post-major label approach to music. “My ambition is as big as it ever was but now, I’m just chasing the thing that I used to chase, which is the song.”

Instead of compromising or playing the game, his attitude now is far simpler. “Fuck all that bullshit. People want me to make music that moves them, and if I don’t believe in the song, what am I doing?”

Wide Open, Horses is something of a rebirth. “It definitely has links to my first two records,” says McMorrow, with the songs inspired by the likes of Elliot Smith, Fiona Apple and The National. “Back then, I was so focused on the future, that I never really took in what was happening,” McMorrow continues, with this record a chance for him to revisit that period of his career with the lessons he’s learnt over the past decade. Rather than pure nostalgia though, Wide Open, Horses sees McMorrow “aggressively pushing forward” and he’s already working on a follow-up. 

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“What the fuck are any of really doing here? Do we even exist at all,” asks McMorrow during Wide Open, Horses’ bombastic opening track ‘Never Gone’. It’s a question that sits at the heart of the record, but rather than offer kneejerk answers, the album ends with McMorrow alone in his garden, finding peace in the uncertainty. “I want to offer comfort to people,” he explains. “But I’m never telling them it’s all going to be okay, because it probably isn’t.”

“I’ve dealt with a lot of anxiety and mental health issues in my life and in recent years, everything has felt unsettled and chaotic in the world. I have no fucking clue what the answers are and I’m making it up as I go, but I’ve found comfort in accepting that,” he continues, with songwriting a constant safe haven. “Questions are more important than answers,” he reasons.

Wide Open, Horses is a gorgeous, folk-infused album that sees McMorrow wear his bruised and bloodied heart on his sleeve. It comes at a time when similar records from the likes of Noah Kahan and Zach Bryan have become global hits. “It’s music to believe in,” says McMorrow. “It’s as simple as that.”

His upcoming live show is also more simple than previous tours. There’s still a desire to put on the best show you’ve ever seen, but McMorrow is doing it as a four-piece this time around. “It’s been making me stressed, but in a good way,” he admits shortly after wrapping up rehearsals. 

“If you’re joined by eight other people on stage, you can get away with murder. But for this tour, if I make a mistake, everyone will be able to hear it,” he says, wanting to embrace the vulnerability and drama in everything he does. “That brings out the best in me.”

Photo credit: Rich Gilligan

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