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On his debut album, Early in the Morning, James Vincent McMorrow proved he knew his way around folk music and tales of the heart. Now, Post Tropical reveals that the Irish singer-songwriter can command so, so much more.
Delicate yet deliberate, rich in sound while still intimate in personality, the sophomore record showcases McMorrow at his most focused, ambitious, and passionate. Early in the Morning merely tested the waters of possibility; Post Tropical conquers them with creative conviction, born from bold sentiments and an even bolder sonic palette.
There are feathery vocals and keen lyrics to dissect, but the music’s many rich layers of sound—from the hushed crunch to the blossoming brass, the blips of electronica to the fire of soul—might just be the real hero of the record.
McMorrow spoke to Pigeons & Planes on a warm Tuesday morning in Australia, just a few days before his scheduled return to a chilly Dublin. Calm and yet so comprehensive, he talked at length about the meaning behind Post Tropical, the expectations following his debut, his love for At The Drive-In and Fiona Apple, and the intense process of piecing together the album.
How is the album’s artwork related to the meaning behind the title Post Tropical? It seems as though you’re referencing a paradise or an all-new world of sorts.
They are hyper-connected. Everything is very connected on this record. The title I had even before I started working on the record in the sense that people were asking me about the second record and were talking about what it was going to be. Post Tropical was my answer before I had anything on paper, before I had any songs at all. I just kept saying Post Tropical.
We played one song live, maybe a year into the first record cycle, and it was this thing that I came up with on the fly. I loved the rhythm and pattern of it, and it ended up being “Post Tropical,” the song on the record. There was something about it that was different than anything I had ever worked on before. It just had this movement and flow, and the arrangement was different. It was very simplistic, but inherently a step away from anything I had ever done before. I just really loved where it was going.
I find that’s it very hard to create something that doesn’t come across as though you worked very hard to make it. The great works in music and the great things in music that I love, they are not complicated. But the more you listen to them, the more you notice the layers. There’s depth and weight, and the things that you think are happening within it are actually not happening. The more you listen to it, the more it gives you background. That’s what I wanted to create.
That’s the world that I saw and those are the colors I saw, and Post Tropical was the name I heard when I thought about the record. It’s all very tightly linked.
The artwork was related to that in the sense that there were elements within it that don’t belong, but because of the painting and the fact that it’s all somehow unified, those elements don’t become overtly apparent. There’s something quite surreal about both it and the album title. It’s all related and feeds into the fact that the record doesn’t really do what other records do. And I wanted it to have its own world to exist in. That’s the world that I saw and those are the colors I saw, and Post Tropical was the name I heard when I thought about the record. It’s all very tightly linked.
What is the biggest difference between your debut, Early In The Morning, and Post Tropical? Did you approach writing this record differently?
The biggest difference was that with the first record I was just trying to kind of figure out what I could do, what was possible. The first record was not the bare minimum of what’s possible—I’m very proud of it—but I’m more so proud of the fact that it even exists. It didn’t really… it shouldn’t have existed at all because while I was working with it, I had a backdrop of people telling me “You can’t make a record” or “Maybe it’s not possible”. I had gone to London and hoped someone would help me with it, but no one did. There was a backdrop of me wanting to try and will it into existence, to sit in a room and chip away at it every day.
This record, every fiber of it I love. Every fiber of it is me—me at this point in time, in terms of what musically resonates with me and what I wanted to achieve.
With this record, I know what’s possible, I know what I can do. I also understand my responsibility as a musician, having spent four years playing in front of people and seeing people’s reactions. The first record I’m just proud that it exists. This record, every fiber of it I love. Every fiber of it is me—me at this point in time, in terms of what musically resonates with me and what I wanted to achieve.
Given that your debut enabled you to realize what you were capable of, did you feel any extra pressure when writing Post Tropical? Were you nervous? Was there a level expectation that you had set for yourself?
I wasn’t nervous, actually. I was very, very fortunate in the sense that the first record existed under the radar. I think that when people hear how successful Early In The Morning was, it kind of surprises them because the nature of it was so low-key. I mean it started from humble beginnings in Ireland; after a year, barely anyone had heard of it or supported it—both outside Ireland and even within Ireland. It was just a slow and deliberate process. There was no spectacular turning point in its promotion.
At the same time, it meant that I never had to face the cameras, or have that moment where people were like “Here’s a level of expectation you need to reach because you achieved a lot with the first record!” because no one really said that. Nothing about the debut was overt. My face wasn’t on every cover of every magazine. We sold records just by slowly working and creating a really solid foundation.
When creating Post Tropical, I didn’t have those pressuring thoughts like, “Oh well, I’ve sold this many records and this many people come to my shows, therefore I have to create something that reflects that…” I just wanted to make the most beautiful thing I could picture and not think about anything else. And I was able to do that because I wasn’t bound by anything in the way of expectations.
That approach sounds so liberating. It must’ve been great for the creative process.
Yeah, it really was freeing.
You mentioned earlier that Post Tropical is representative of what resonates with you musically. Can you elaborate? What have you been listening to?
Everything! But this is how I am… see, I grew up sort of listening to a bunch of different records at any given time. Like, four songs off a record, then two songs off another record, and doing that over and over. Then, someone gave me an iPod and I could listen to everything I’d ever loved right there in my hand as I’d walk around. I’m a demon for shuffle! And so now, instead of pulling out record after record, I just listen on my iPod. I just delve into everything and listen to as much as I can. I love people like D’Angelo, Fiona Apple, Marvin Gaye, and just old soul music.
I grew up with things like post-hardcore. I don’t listen to that anymore, but the rhythms and patterns of At The Drive-In and Tool still move me.
It also all combines with my own storied musical background. I grew up with things like post-hardcore. I don’t listen to that anymore, but the rhythms and patterns of At The Drive-In and Tool still move me. I have a guy that plays with me and he’s an incredibly studied, amazing musician. He hears things in my songs that I don’t even see because I don’t have that technical ability, I just do what feels right. He tries to tell me, “Oh, that bar is 9/8, the next one is 5/4 and that’s crazy.” And all of that comes from the fact that I listened to Tool records and At The Drive-In, and they were using those chord and structural changes and variances of math-rock. All those things play a part in what I’m doing, but in the most non-deliberate way possible. They’ll just randomly show up in my music.
It’s funny how that works, right? When music you listened to decades ago somehow pops up or influences you without you even consciously realizing it.
It really just becomes ingrained. I don’t listen to much of what I used to back in the day, but that music still plays a part. But not in a knowing sense, which is really brilliant. I love that part about music. I can’t remember poems that I recited in school or had to learn for an exam, even ones that I’d read a thousand times in order to memorize. As soon as I left the exam hall, I’d immediately forget because they didn’t resonate with me much. [Laughs] But I can recite the lyrics of God knows how many songs from over 10 years ago! That’s the strength and mark of a good song — the brilliance of it finds a way into your brain and then you have it and retain it even though you don’t know it.
I was a fan of Early In The Morning, but this record just sounds so much more robust, like a real leap forward in terms of musicianship and technicality. There are so many new details here and there, each of them displaying different characteristics and textures. Can you talk about all these layers and the process behind putting them together?
Yeah, absolutely. First, that was a really lovely thing to say, thank you. I think with this record there were certain things that resonated with me back when I was touring. The idea of musicians and their interactions during all the various parts of a song live… it just stayed with me. Usually, we tend to just play big, broad sounds in order to add weight to a live show. For example, a piano player plays a big chord, a guitarist plays a big chord, and a drummer plays a really heavy backbeat, etc. This sort of playing and interacting has been the understood thing musically for such a long period of time. But I’ve learned to approach it differently.
I love the idea of creating 70 or 80 really tiny, really specific parts and then spending a huge amount of time putting them together. On their own and in isolation, they’d be incredibly weak and quite brittle. But together they form a structure that’s really strong and cohesive.
That was the basis of almost everything on the record. Every piece fits together incredibly specifically, and if you take that one piece out, then it doesn’t work. It’s like micro-science. But it’s these tiny things that I love because, after all, my heart began in production. I wanted all of Post Tropical to have structure and be very deliberately built. Altogether it would be a strong piece of music, but if you heard each and every element of the songs in isolation, you’d see that they were incredibly small and detailed, not big, broad movements. There are no strumming chords on the record. Even if I wanted one, I’d probably get 15 different guitars, play them all individually, and put those sounds together. [Laughs] I’d often have something very specific in my head that I’d later have to somehow find a way to make for myself.
It sounds as though you toyed with a bunch of fascinating sounds and instruments. Did you have any favorites during the Post Tropical sessions?
I think there’s something to be said about the magic of discovering new instruments, because it creates a new excitement for a musician. If you give someone something new, like instruments to musicians, nine times out of 10, they’ll quickly write a new song on it because they have such an exploratory mindset. It’s like having a new set of aesthetics and sounds to work with.
There was a computer synthesizer based on this old French synth from the ‘70s. It made these really bizarre, washy, low-end synth sounds that were impossible to read. It was rather difficult figuring out what they were going to do because they were based on an emulation that was completely chaotic. They were doing all these strange things and would resonate in the weirdest places, and you’d literally spend weeks and weeks just trying to isolate different parts in them. But these parts—and the whole process of figuring them out—were so important. They were the missing links, the missing pieces for me. If you listen to “Cavalier”, the first track on the album, it starts with an electric piano followed by this wavy feel that comes up in the second half of the first verse. That’s the synthesizer! That’s the sound I had been chasing, but didn’t realize I was chasing until I had actually heard it.
There’s a couple more of those bits on the record, like specific keyboards that were brought in and such. My favorite thing of all about Post Tropical is there are working elements that are not what they seem. For example, there are parts on the record where people are like “I love that one horn section in the song”. But we didn’t have any live horn players on the album. I built all of those horn sounds out of old and little synthesizers from the ‘80s because those were the sounds that made sense to me. Like, when I first heard the sound of a tuba, I tried to replicate it by bringing in a live tuba. But then it didn’t sound like what I wanted it to! So, I used a keyboard and tried out various settings until I had what I pictured in my mind.
There are all these things that are not what they seem and I really love that. Hopefully it also means people will keep coming back in order to figure out the details in the same way I had to figure them out for myself.
Post Tropical is out now. Buy it here.