It’s Irish singer/songwriter James Vincent McMorrow’s first time playing songs from second album “Post Tropical” in the United States, and he can’t stop apologizing for them. He’s just made the transition from earnest alt-folkie to alt-R&B auteur, and knows his fans (including several loud Irish expats) who’ve shown up to see him won’t be fully aware of that change until the album arrives Jan. 14 on Vagrant. “Sorry—I promise they’ll sound a lot different the next time I see you,” he tells the crowd at New York’s Joe’s Pub, where he’s performing the new album’s dense, electronic songs in acoustic form by himself on keyboard and guitar.?
Demand for seats to the sold-out show is so high that McMorrow hits the stage 15 minutes late, explaining he was helping out fans who had mistakenly bought counterfeit tickets on Craigslist and StubHub—some of which were being sold for as much as $175, seven times the original $25 ticket price. It’s a sign of just how hands-on he’s been in the making of Post Tropical, the result of a nearly 18-month creative process following his acclaimed 2011 debut, “Early in the Morning.” The 30-year-old singer self-produced the album, played all the instruments on the collection (except for a clarinet) and painstakingly rerecorded the project in a studio in Texas earlier this year after laying down the original demos in his native Dublin.?
“The first album was me and a microphone—it was sonically nothing. I could mix it in a day,” he says of “Early in the Morning,” which reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums in 2011. “It was so simplistic, but it was supposed to be simplistic. It needed to do something and say something with these textures and sounds. And this record needed to do and say something different.”
?What McMorrow actually says in the verses of “Post Tropical” is almost an afterthought. He’s garnered the most attention for his starkly intimate, piercing falsetto—a voice that brings to mind the more emotive parts of Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” paired with the experimental noodlings of James Blake. It’s a voice so distinct that when he released a haunting cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” for the Irish charity Headstrong, it became a U.K. hit and had a halo effect on sales of his debut album and 2012 EP “We Don’t Eat.” He also scored a slot on last year’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2” soundtrack with an updated version of “Early in the Morning” bonus cut “Ghosts,” while another cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” landed a synch on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” in August.?
“There’s this sense of discovery every time people hear his voice that goes above and beyond what the song is or what we can even do as a label,” Vagrant GM Daniel Gill says. “When you’ve got an artist like him, it’s about finding unique ways of getting that music out.”?
McMorrow has long been inspired by hip-hop producers like the Neptunes, Travi$ Scott and Kanye West, building his beats first and densely layering the music until it’s perfect—some songs on “Post Tropical” have more than 200 recorded tracks. “I sing melodies and scratch vocals on my demos and then lyrics come out of them,” he says. “It’s the last musical moment every single time. There’s never anything I want to say, but then they always tend to have a cohesiveness to them.”
A video for lead single “Cavalier” premiered in October on NPR Music, the first in a planned series of visuals that tell different chapters of a unified story. Gill notes that noncommercial radio has shown early interest in the song, and hopes to push “Cavalier” to triple A in early 2014. “We want to take this thing in baby steps and let the record live in the world it needs to live in,” he says.?
McMorrow readily admits he doesn’t quite know what world that is: “Post Tropical” bears its name from both the chilly climate that’s referenced throughout the album and its lack of an easily categorized sound. “Whenever someone asks what style it is, I just say ‘post-tropical.’ It got me out of trying to define things, like, ‘Is folk music just a guy with a beard?’” he says. “Once people hear it they’ll understand it. Maybe it’ll be on the 51st listen, or maybe it’ll be the first one.”