When touring was off the table around the release of Morgan James’ third album Memphis Magnetic in 2020, the pandemic hit in 2020, Morgan James switched gears into something more seasonal. Still, in a very magnetic state, James started revisiting Christmas classics she loved and wrote several holiday originals for her first-holiday album A Very Magnetic Christmas.
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A Very Magnetic Christmas is an enchanting trip through the thrills and chills of a long-awaited holiday season with James’ soulful, jazzy, and gospel shuffle takes on classics like “Merry Christmas Baby,” “White Christmas,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and “O Holy Night,” with some rarely covered picks like the 1969 Clarence Carter-penned “Back Door Santa” and the cozier close of “Warm in December.”
Along with her husband and collaborator Doug Wamble, James also wrote three original seasonal songs—“Long As I Got You,” “Why Am I Lonely Tonight,” and “I Wanna Know”—for the album.
James spoke to American Songwriter about writing new music after Magnetic Memphis, the importance of the 2021 holiday season, and what it’s like recording Christmas songs in the middle of summer.
American Songwriter: It seems like A Very Magnetic Christmas was just this natural continuation of Memphis Magnetic. Why did you want to start piecing together a holiday album of all things during the pandemic?
Morgan James: I’ve always wanted to make a Christmas album because I am one of those Christmas music fanatics. I wanted to wait until the right time, and when the pandemic hit, we weren’t able to really tour, and we weren’t able to celebrate Memphis Magnetic, and I was initially really sad. Then I thought, maybe we could make a continuation of that music and that experience. It was the first time getting back into a big room of musicians, and it really did feel celebratory. It felt like the right time, and it also feels like a real companion piece to Memphis Magnetic. It closes out that project for me and puts a nice bow on it.
AS: We all know a holiday album is usually recorded “off-season,” and months in advance. Was it difficult getting into the Christmas spirit inside a Memphis studio during the summer?
MJ: To get in the spirit, in February [of 2021] Doug and I rented a house upstate [New York], and there happened to be a huge snowstorm, so it really put us in the mood. And that’s where we wrote the three new songs that we put on the album. So we lit a fire and had wine and really got into the Christmas spirit, and also planned out what else we want on the album. In terms of recording, Christmas albums are always made in the summer, and we were in Memphis, Tennessee, and it was 100 degrees, which is so funny. Thankfully, inside the studios are notoriously freezing cold and pumped with air conditioning, so we all welcomed our Christmas sweaters.
AS: Writing original holiday songs and putting a spin on the classics is a brave feat. What inspired the three new songs on A Very Magnetic Christmas?
MJ: I wanted there to be a lot of options on the record for people who don’t celebrate Christmas, or Hanukkah, or anything with more celebratory songs about the winter season. The three original songs are “Long As I Got You,” which is it’s not about Christmas, but more about the winter season. I wanted it to feel like something fun and romantic. It’s really a romantic song about how winter is the perfect time to get cozy with the one you love. When everyone else is complaining about the weather, me and my baby got other plans and we’re sitting by the fire. Then we wrote a big R&B ballad, “Why Am I Lonely Tonight” about being alone at the holidays, and a gospel shuffle “I Want To Know.” It’s got that traditional gospel-blues form, and it’s got horns, and the girls are shouting with me, and it’s just straight-up fun. I wanted to be really careful with the classics that I chose and make sure that some were straight-up traditional and satisfied what we really want to hear during the holidays. Then I wanted to pick a few that maybe people didn’t know as well like “Warm in December” and “Back Door Santa.” I don’t really hear people cover those very often.
AS: Why did these specific 10 songs work together on the album?
MJ: A unifying force in everything I do is soulfulness, like connecting something really traditional like “O Holy Night” with a gospel shuffle. The through-line is the arrangements and the instrumentation and the soulfulness. I really wanted the album to have a certain shape. And the reason “Warm in December” is at the end is I want you to put the record on from the first track, and pour yourself a cocktail. By the end of the 10th track, it’s just voice and piano and just trickles away so that the very last bit of your ice cubes are melted. I didn’t want it to be 14, 16, or 20 tracks. I wanted it to be like an old-school record where you just sit with a drink and your fire is dying down. There are moments like “O Holy Night,’ and “Why Am I Lonely Tonight,” that are epic and huge, and then there are other moments that are soft and quiet and reflective like “White Christmas” and “Warm in December.”
AS: Do you feel like songs still come together for you in the same way?
MJ: I’m not a person who writes every day. I really go in spurts connected to something I want to create. I began writing my next album, which is going to be an R&B record, and already started thinking about the instrumentation, the vibe we want in the band, where we want to create it, and even how I want to look, all before I’ve even wrote any of the songs. When I get in a spurt, I’ll write 30 songs and then I won’t write again for a year. I really get inspired by going somewhere else. I think we’re going to take a couple of retreats in the winter, so I can take myself out of my home life and my routine. That is usually very inspiring for me to write.
AS: A Very Magnetic Christmas brought you back out on the road for the first time in nearly two years since releasing Memphis Magnetic. How does it feel to be back on stage?
MJ: I am so excited to be back on the road again. I’m a little bit nervous because it’s obviously been two years. I even asked myself, “do I remember how to do it?” It’s not going to be entirely a holiday. I want the shows to be something for everybody, so we’re going to sing some songs from Memphis Magnetic. I think that I have a different perspective on touring after this long of a break. I have a different appreciation. It’s all about celebration now, especially this season.
Photo: Courtesy of Ashley White PR