Morgan James (morganjamesonline.com)(IG:@morganajames) Let’s start with the voice, an instrument through which you can communicate anything. A gift bestowed on her that she has expertly trained, meticulously nurtured, and passionately driven into action by the urge to make real music. Next, the stories, and she has them in spades. They are full of truth and beauty, heartbreak and thoughtfulness. They reveal colors we didn’t expect to see. They make us close our eyes and relate. And finally, the soul: the emotional and intellectual energy through which these parts are fed. That special something that led The Wall Street Journal to herald her as “the most promising young female vocalist of this century.” That young vocalist is Morgan James. And Morgan James is a soul singer.
Armed with her dedication to creating authentic soul music, James and her husband Doug Wamble, her producer, co-writer and arranger, spent months writing twelve new songs in New York City. “Doug and I have always wanted to make a classic record like this,” she says. “Doug is originally from Memphis and we are both very inspired by the roots of classic soul music. Being barricaded in a place like that really informs everything you do there.” So instead of recording in New York, she went straight to the source and booked a week at a new music studio in Memphis, at the recommendation of drummer George Sluppick.
He immediately connected with the space: Memphis Magnetic, a renovated former bank transformed into a classic recording studio, adorned with owner Scott McEwen’s collection of vintage Nashville gear. The space exemplified exactly what James wanted his album to be: something new through the prism of something old. She and Wamble assembled a group of local musicians, including Sluppick, organist Al Gamble, bassist Landon Moore, and pianist Alvie Givhan. They tapped legendary Memphis musicians Reverend Charles Hodges and Leroy Hodges, who were the backbone of the Hi Records rhythm section, which played with Al Green and Ann Peebles, to contribute two tracks. And finally, the team was rounded out by a classic Memphis horn section, plus the amazing Memphis String Quartet.
“What I’ve learned over the years is to hire great people and let them do what they do best,” says James. “We came in with all the music recorded and ready, and left room for people to be themselves and put their own magic into it. I really wanted everyone involved with the album to be from Memphis and channel the great albums that I admire so much. From all ends of the spectrum, in every department, it felt like the right people.”
The entire album was recorded on analog tape, a first for James. She wanted to be less valuable about the process in general and capture the same energized feeling as his live performances. Much of the album comes from single, full-length takes, giving it a vibrant, in-the-moment sensibility. The songs on the album vary in tone, but there is a hopeful, life-affirming feeling that runs through the tracks. The playful “I Wish You Would” takes inspiration from “Mr. Big Stuff”, while “All I Ever Gave You” recalls the loss of someone after countless sacrifices. The album also features two duets, another first for James, with Marc Broussard and three-time Grammy nominee Ryan Shaw. The collaboration with Shaw, “I Don’t Mind Waking Up (To A Love This Good)” is the first single and a song that James calls one of his favorites that he has ever written. And a standout moment comes on the closing track “Who is going to listen to you? (When You’re Crying Now)”, a song James and Wamble wrote to the words of a poem by Spin Doctors lead singer Chris Barron. It creates a poignant and heartbreaking final note for the album, a collection of genuine and satisfying songs that encompass the best of American songwriting. The experience was so inspiring and affirming that James ended up naming the album Memphis Magnetic after the studio where it was made (an homage to Jimi Hendrix and his Electric Ladyland).
For James, Memphis Magnetic is the culmination of a long love affair with music. She grew up listening to everyone from Joni Mitchell to Paul Simon to Prince to Aretha Franklin and cultivated an insatiable love for strong songwriters. After graduating from The Juilliard School with a degree in classical music and performing in the original companies of four Broadway productions, James began writing and recording his own music. Meeting her mentor Berry Gordy, Jr. led to a record deal at Epic Records, where she recorded and released her solo album Hunter in 2014. In addition to her studio albums, James recorded and released a full cover of the seminal Blue album by Joni Mitchell as well as The Beatles White Album in 2018 to celebrate the 50th anniversary. Throughout her unique and varied career, there have been many ups and downs, but James cites her failures as more important than her successes in shaping the artist she is today.
After his stint at Epic Records, he also took charge of his career from a business standpoint. She cultivated a new world of fans with her viral YouTube videos, and as she connected with them on social media and at her live shows, she found the support and strength to push through as an independent artist. In recent years, James has built his own empire and established himself as a touring powerhouse, allowing him to raise funds to create his own albums and make all the decisions from scratch.
“This album feels so liberated from the burden of someone or something. All the songs were written for this project. They were recorded the same way, in the same room. It is a moment in time captured. I felt like it was part of the lineage of soul music. My driving force throughout the record was ‘What would Aretha say? What would Otis say? It’s not a retro album or a throwback in any way. This album is me: classical elements, timeless melodies and lyrics from my soul and experience. We need that right now. We need real music now more than ever.”