When Morgan James was signed by Epic Records in 2012, she was signed as a singer, not a songwriter. That made sense. At that point, she was mostly known for her roles in Broadway musicals; she had already performed in The Addams Family and Godspell and was about to take on the role of Teena Marie in Motown: The Musical. At that point in her life, James had only written four songs of her own.
And yet, James was determined to find her own creative voice. Most of the singers she had admired growing up — Joni Mitchell, Prince and The Beatles — had written their own songs. That was what she wanted to do, but she was unsure how to go about it. She eventually wrote nine of the dozen songs on this year’s impressive old-school soul album, Memphis Magnetic, but it was a “long and winding road” to get there.
Soon after signing with Epic, James organized and starred in a tribute show at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Epic’s Doug Morris was so taken by the show that he released a live recording of the show as the first album under her name: Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone. It not only showcased James’s powerful soprano and canny R&B instincts, but it also introduced her to the man who would make her songwriting dreams come true.
“For that Nina Simone show,” James recalls, “this guy Doug Wamble was hired sight unseen to play slide guitar. He crushed it as a guitarist, but he wasn’t my ‘type,’ so I didn’t think about him like that at all. At the end of the gig, he said, ‘Hey, do you ever write music?’ I said, ‘Not really.’ He said, ‘I love writing songs; if you ever change your mind, give me a call.’ He sent me some of his albums, and I loved them. So I thought I’d give it a try.”
Those early songwriting sessions yielded not only a romantic breakthrough but a creative one as well. When James hesitated about suggesting a lyric or melody until she felt it was just right, Wamble told her not to worry so much. There’s nothing precious about the first draft of a song; just get something down on paper so you can see what you’ve got. Look at it again tomorrow. If it’s not that good, throw it out — no great loss. If it’s pretty good, edit it. The important thing is to keep exercising those songwriting muscles, so they get stronger and stronger.
“I’ve been a perfectionist my whole life,” James confesses, “an overachiever all my life — that’s been leveled at me as both a compliment and an insult. As a young person, being a perfectionist leads to good grades, but then when you’re in the big wide world, being a perfectionist can cripple you when you fail.”
That first studio album was 2014’s Hunter, which didn’t do well enough for Epic to give her another shot. She released 2017’s Reckless Abandon, which also featured mostly James-Wamble songs, on their own Hedonist Records label. For this new project, they wanted to tighten the focus on James’s musical identity. As a former Broadway star, Juilliard graduate and wedding singer, she can handle any genre, but what is the core of her creative personality?
“People always ask, ‘What kind of singer are you?’” James explains, “and I’ve always said, ‘I’m a soul singer, no matter what the material is.’ So for this record, I wanted to get out of New York and go to one of the birthplaces of great soul music. I wanted to connect to that great tradition, but I wanted to do it with original material. Doug’s from Memphis; my drummer George Sluppick is from Memphis, so we made that album there and stayed with my mother-in-law.”
To prepare for the sessions, James and Wamble wrote a bushel of songs, including the Stax-inspired, clipped-guitar rave-up “Give You Up,” the “My Girl” inspired “All I Ever Gave You,” and “You Know My Name,” a song so deep in the Al Green pocket that they hired Green’s keyboardist and bassist to play on it. The album’s first single is “I Don’t Mind Waking Up (To A Love This Good),” which James co-wrote with fellow retro-soul singer Ryan Shaw.
“I went over to his house,” James remembers, “and he said, ‘What do you want to write?’ I said, ‘I’d like to do a big, old-fashioned Sam Cooke kind of song. Let’s write it as a duet for us to sing.’ He asked what it should be about, and I said, ‘I want to write something about waking up and feeling good about being with the person.’ I said, ‘Let’s give it one of those really long titles with parentheses like they used to use.’”
If you dig Morgan James, check out her tunes and consider a purchase from her site.