James Morrison: a soulman out of time 

We talk with the English singer

With a singing voice sandpapered to a fine rasp, James Morrison fits in quite nicely with fellow Englishmen like Paul Rodgers and Rod Stewart.

But Morrison, 24, who attributes his rough-hewn pipes to a severe bout of whooping cough as a baby, never wanted to be like those rock and rollers. Growing up, he favored the mellifluous grace of soulmen like Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding.

"There's that extra passion in their voices that just jumps out at me," says Morrison by phone, on the eve of his Coachella debut. "I love that translation of emotion you get when you listen to it. It made me feel what they were feeling. I've always wanted to be like that."

It was an appreciation that somewhat alienated him from his peers.

"I was a bit of a loner when it came to music at school," Morrison says. "Everyone kind of liked hardcore house and Helter Skelter and that sort of stuff. So I was quite embarrassed to admit what music I liked, because nobody knew what I was talking about."

By age 9, Morrison was trying out his own voice. At 13 he picked up the guitar.

"It was never serious," he says of the beginning. "The moment I realized this is definitely what I want to do was when I was 16 and gigging a lot with my band. That was the time I really felt like, 'Yeah, I can do this.' This is what I enjoy more than anything else."

But even Morrison never imagined it would go as far as it has. Busking and performing regularly in pubs built him a following after a couple of years. That was enough to get him a record deal with Polydor. His debut single, "You Give Me Something," was a top 10 hit in the U.K., which led to sales of his debut full-length, 2006's Undiscovered, making him the top-selling solo male artist in the U.K. that year.

"I always wanted to do music as a career," Morrison says. "I just never thought it would happen on the scale it did. I never thought I'd get signed. Obviously I would've aimed for that at some point. But as long as I was playing music and earning a living at it, that was my goal."

Such early success made the writing process for his follow-up even more stressful.

"It was a different kind of pressure really," Morrison says. "It was the pressure to follow success that got to me. I didn't want to do something totally different just for the sake of being different. It was finding the balance between being something I felt good about and being something that would work. It just took time for me to get there."

The result, Songs For You, Truths For Me, blends blue-eyed R&B with AM gold and even some party-starting accents like horns. Ultimately, Morrison trusted his instinct that he was going in the right direction.

"That's all you can trust, really," he says. "There's times when it gets blurred. But as long as the initial feeling is honest - something you can believe in and relate to, and it feels natural - then that's always the way to go. I'd rather trust that than always stick with what's working at the time."

Even so, Morrison originally wanted to leave "Broken Strings" off the album. But he rewrote the song, which details a difficult relationship, three times and still didn't like it. Finally, Mark Taylor, one of the record's producers, offered to take a stab at it. What you hear now is the result he came up with a week later. Morrison knew then it was something he could work with, just like everything else he's summoned from his heartfelt depths. The track, a duet with Nelly Furtado, became his fourth top 10 hit.

"I've always been well-connected to what I feel," he says. "If it feels good, then that's the way to go. If I get goose bumps when I'm singing [a song], that means it's going to be all right."


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