An interview with singer/songwriter and Broadway actress Morgan James
If you haven’t heard Morgan James sing, then you don’t know what you’re missing. A white girl from Idaho with the voice of a black gospel choir soloist, James has careers on Broadway (Motown: The Musical, The Addams Family, and more) and as a singer/songwriter (her debut studio album came out in 2014). More recently, she released an EP and completed a new studio disc of original songs. She can also be seen performing Joni Mitchell’s Blue in its entirety on her YouTube channel (Youtube.com/user/morganjamesonline). In fact, if they’re still looking to cast the movie version of Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, about Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon, James would make a far better Joni than Taylor Swift. I spoke with Morgan in advance of her 2017 concert tour.
Gregg Shapiro: Morgan, we are speaking a couple of days after the Jesus Christ Superstar concert performance that you did with Shoshana Bean. What was the experience like for you?
Morgan James: I’m still reeling about it. I haven’t fully recovered [laughs]. I had basically been working on it for the last year. I enlisted some incredible people to help me make it possible. I produced the whole thing with a couple of my good friends. I reached out to a dozen or so of the most talented people I know and a couple of people I didn’t know very well. Everybody said yes! It was this incredible coming together of all these amazing women. It was an all-female band as well. It was a powerful experience. Of course, I’m a perfectionist, so I want to do it again and do it better. I would love to further develop the project.
GS: That sounds fantastic. Do you have a favorite song from that show?
MJ: There are so many good ones! I love “Heaven on their Minds.” I love “Judas’s Death” and “Gethsemane.” I grew up on the score. I’m a total Jesus Christ Superstar junkie. I love that show.
GS: While we’re on the subject of musicals, you have performed on Broadway in Motown: The Musical, The Addams Family, Godspell, and Wonderland. Do you have a favorite among those shows?
MJ: I don’t know that I could pick a favorite. Every time you do an original show and you get to be in an original company, there are so many firsts and special things about it. You get to create your own track. The Broadway cast experience is a community unlike any other. I could never pick a favorite. The Addams Family has a soft spot in my heart because it was my first Broadway show. I had always wanted to perform on Broadway. When I got to achieve that, it felt really special.
GS: You are about to hit the road in what you are calling your Reckless Abandon Tour. What makes it so?
MJ: That’s the name of the last song on the (new) album. I don’t think the tour is reckless [laughs], but that’s one of the key songs on the album. I’m so excited because this will be the first album where I’ve co-written every single song. There are no covers on the album. I’m really proud of this project. I can’t wait for the fans to hear it. I’m also excited to be playing so many great venues and to be touring for so long. I think it’s going to be an incredible spring.
GS: Did you co-write again with your husband Doug Wamble, who also produced your major-label debut studio album Hunter?
MJ: Yes, Doug and I wrote eight of the songs. I also wrote a song with Frequency who did “Heart Shake” on my last album. I did a song with a producer in Nashville, a couple in L.A., and a producer named Justin Fisher. I’ve got a lot of different influences. We brought together all of the soul elements that I love, horns and tons of backgrounds. Even though there are lots of electronic and modern elements, I always want to keep that soul heartbeat at the root.
GS: What can you tell me about your songwriting process?
MJ: It’s different with each person you write with. Whenever you sit down with a new potential co-writer or collaborator, it’s like a date, like speed-dating. You have to find out a lot about each other and get to the core of what you want to write about quickly. Sometimes you sit down with someone and a song is written in two hours. Sometimes you spend days and days and nothing comes of it. It has a lot to do with the chemistry and trust you have with that person. Obviously, Doug and I have a shorthand because we’re married [laughs]. We write easily and well together. But there’s also something valuable about writing with strangers because they might see something in you that may not come out with someone who knows you well.
GS: You learn about each other as you go along.
MJ: Right! They have a whole set of experiences and musical language and knowledge that you don’t have. I wrote so many songs this year. A lot of them didn’t make the album. I just learned from them. I probably wrote four albums’ worth of songs and then got it down to 12 songs.
GS: You can be heard singing lead on “Maps,” a cover of the Maroon 5 song on the 2016 Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox album The Essentials. How did you come to be affiliated with the PMJ?
MJ: “Maps” was the first video I ever did with PMJ. Scott and I have a lot of mutual friends, and we have the same agent. Our managers said the we should meet each other. They were surprised we hadn’t met. We got together and did the video and the rest is history. He kept inviting me back to do more videos. I did ten videos and four different tours with them. It’s been an incredible way to build my fan-base and to meet new fans.
GS: In December 2016, you released a marvelous cover album of Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Of all of Joni’s albums, why did you choose Blue?
It was the 45th anniversary of Blue. I grew up on that album and wanted to celebrate the anniversary. My mom brought me up on her record collection and Joni’s always been very special to me. Two years before that I did (D’Angelo’s) Black Messiah in its entirety and I did John Mayer’s Continuum for the 10th anniversary of that album. I think taking an artist’s work in its entirety, in an era when everybody buys a song at a time… I love to celebrate whole albums because that’s how the artist wanted them to be heard. Blue is such a special one. I think Roy, my pianist, did a tremendous job in turning so many of those guitar and dulcimer songs into piano songs.
GS: Yes, he did. Your new EP also contains covers of songs by Sam Smith, Paramore, Simon & Garfunkel, and Peter Gabriel. How much of the material that you cover is a reflection of your own personal tastes?
MJ: It is 100% a reflection of my personal tastes. It’s very hard for me to cover something I don’t like [laughs]. It’s hard for me to put my stamp on or even learn something if I don’t love it. Thankfully my team of people is supportive of me doing things I love to do. Nobody’s forcing me to do something I don’t want to. Maybe I would have been successful earlier or more successful than this if I had done things other people wanted me to do. But I like singing what I like to sing. I like writing about things I know about. I like coming up with different kinds of themes for my YouTube channel. If you look at whose songs I choose to sing on my channel, you can learn a lot about me [laughs].
GS: Being both a Broadway veteran and a chanteuse of the highest order increases your chances of establishing an LGBT following. Is that something of which you are aware?
MJ: Oh, yeah! It’s one of the things I’m most proud about my career. The people that come with it. That community is so close to my heart. It’s such a huge part of singer/ songwriters and the Broadway community. Equality and justice are so important to me and I’m not willing to sacrifice speaking up about these things. My audience is so diverse, which I love. The PMJ following looks a certain way and then there’s the following who know me from “Call My Name” on the radio and from the Broadway community. They’re all very loyal. Richard (Amelius), who I call “my best gay,” directed Jesus Christ Superstar. He got ordained and married me (and Doug). He’s my brother! These are my brothers and my sisters.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.
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