“Very naively, I signed a publishing deal five years ago and thought, ‘oh, this is going to be easy’,” says the County Louth singer-songwriter. “I thought, ‘I’ll fall backwards into a record contract, fall backwards into making an album’.”
After a brief flirtation, EMI Records passed on McMorrow and he found himself living in a one-room flat outside Drogheda, wondering if he had a future in music. But rejection made him stronger. “Nothing in my career has been easily won,” he says. “If that was a problem at the beginning, now I have learned to embrace it. I finished my first album and nobody really cared. The thing is, I never gave up. I think stuff should be difficult. It makes me more ambitious. I don’t believe in limitations.”
After several years as a cult figure, McMorrow is likely to break into the mainstream in 2014. Recorded in a dusty studio near El Paso, Texas, his second long-player, Post Tropical, should make him a star. The record is a sensuous, seductive mash-up of R’n’B, lap-top electronica and folk-pop — somewhere between Justin Timberlake and Bon Iver, with a sprinkling of Celtic soulfulness.
McMorrow is elusive. He has a regulation, Dublin hipster beard and speaks in a flat, vaguely ‘D4’ accent, enlivened by the occasional American twang. Even fighting a cold (he cancels the rest of the day’s press), he seems buttoned-down and in control — so much so, it’s a surprise to hear he gave up drinking in 2012, following one boozy gig too many (he went teetotal after failing to recall a single moment of an apparently triumphant London Festival Hall show).
Supreme confidence has been the making of him. When, despite positive reviews, his debut, Early In The Morning, failed to find an audience, the singer held his nerve. The audience would see the light, eventually, he believed. All he had to do was keep trying. He has been proved correct.
“I was plugging away, seeing very little results. It sounds strange, but that was where I wanted to be. I would play to 20 people here, 25 there. I have always had this unerring belief that if you keep going you are going to connect.
“The public started slowly coming around. And I began getting phone calls from people who had previously turned me down. It was like, ‘remember when we said no? Well, now we are saying yes.”
McMorrow says his working method is attuned to the contemporary record industry, where music is increasingly assembled on laptops rather than in grandiose studios.
“I don’t write songs in the most traditional sense,” he says. “For me, ‘writing’ could mean working on a drum pattern for an hour. If you listen to the new LP, most of the songs are pretty groove-oriented. Everything is based on loops, over which I place a melody. Never in a million years could I sit down and write on a bus — then I couldn’t really ‘write’ anywhere.”
He pauses to cough, then leans into the conversation.
“I learned to produce before I learned how to write. For me, they are intrinsically linked. I can’t go into the studio — I need a laptop.
“If it was even as recently as 1995, I’d be fucked. To go into a studio and have the tape rolling as I wrote — I couldn’t do that.”
McMorrow wrote Post Tropical in Drogheda and started recording it in Dublin. However, the ambiance in the studio didn’t agree with him, so he relocated to Texas, putting the record together just miles from the Mexican border. It was a strange experience, though he says it informed the album’s dislocated sensibility.
“It’s like limbo. Before they built the fence, El Paso was a very dangerous city and Juarez, just across the border in Mexico, was very safe. When the drug flow stopped, it all ended up in Juarez. It just fell to pieces — it is the most violent city in the world, more violent than Johannesburg. And El Paso is now the safest city in America. They are like two parts of the same coin.
“I grew up in Dundalk. However, it’s only when you see a place like El Paso that you realise that, actually, we don’t have any idea what a border is like. It’s a crazy place — a real frontier-town vibe. I react to my surroundings and I think that environment certainly seeped into the album. Whenever an artist creates something, the environment absolutely informs what he is doing.”
McMorrow is openly ambitious. It’s not enough to be big in Ireland — or, for that matter, the UK. America is where he sees his future.
“Every single country has its own unique set of experiences and setbacks. Some countries are easier than others. The US is huge. You have to go back, like, 75 times. Even then, you’re just starting. It’s a daunting prospect. I love a challenge. That’s an aspect I’ve never shied away from. I’ve done US tours where it’s myself and an engineer. We get into a car, drive from San Diego to Seattle. Every ten hours, I’d play somewhere — put myself in front of people with these songs.”