One voice is all it takes. The right vocalist can make you fall in love at first listen, elicit tears, or bring you back to a different era altogether. A microphone and a stage remain the only necessities. That holds true for New York-based singer and songwriter Morgan James. On her full-length debut for Epic Records, Hunter, she casts an unbreakable spell with a powerhouse voice equally inspired by smoky soul, swaggering R&B, theatrical swing, and a virtuosic classical poise.
The Idaho native discovered her passion for music early on and pursued it wholeheartedly at the prestigious Juilliard School. While in the midst of the institution’s rigorous academic program, she soon realized that her path would diverge from the classical world.
“I didn’t want a career in opera, but Juilliard still shaped me,” she confesses. “The traditional training really made me a disciplined singer. I carry that with me to this day.”
After graduating, Morgan spent the next few years facing the proverbial struggles of being a young artist in New York. Low on money, she bounced back and forth between bartending and restaurant gigs while fighting to survive. Immersed in classic sixties and seventies soul records, she concurrently experienced a pivotal revelation.
“Out of that frustration came this other voice,” she says. “It was my true voice, and I feel like I discovered it in the middle of so much hardship just trying to be heard. I embraced who I was at that very moment.”
Soon, she would be heard in a big way. In 2008, Morgan booked her first Broadway show—appearing in The Addams Family alongside Nathan Lane, as well as in prominent and leading roles in Wonderland, Godspell (Turn Back, O Man), and Berry Gordy’s Motown The Musical as Teena Marie. The latter set the stage for her to properly launch her solo career. Gordy recognized the vocalist’s immense talent, and introduced her to Doug Morris and L.A. Reid, opening the door for a deal with Epic Records in 2012.
Around the same time, Morgan booked a landmark show at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where she paid tribute to Nina Simone with a set of songs that were closely associated with the legendary artist. The incendiary show was recorded and released as the critically acclaimed Morgan James Live on Epic Records. It also proved to be the perfect segue for her first studio album which will be released in June of 2014.
“I always knew to make a neo-soul pop record,” Morgan says. “The foundation is all real ingredients, and those roots of soul and R&B are pretty strong. It’s the culmination of my musical life up to this point. The painful songs are straight out of a bad relationship with someone from my past. The joyful moments are wonderful memories. It’s all coming from me. I’ve lived every one of these stories, and I love the genres I’m representing. It’s one point-of-view—mine.”
The first single “I Want You” tempers electronic elements with her overpoweringly soulful delivery. “It incorporates that classic spirit with a modern framework,” she goes on. “It’s a fresh take on writing a love song. Lyrically, I really wanted to capture what it’s like to fall for someone and not be able to live without them.”
The title track and album opener “Hunter” boasts a seductive hook with cinematic noir flair. Flaunting the singer’s immense delivery and dynamic presence, it’s an undeniable and classy come-on that proves as animalistic as it does magnetic. “From a woman’s perspective, it’s such an empowering and sexy song,” she smiles. “It totally makes me feel like a warrior! Music is so sensual and life-affirming. That’s what I look for. You don’t often see a girl take this position, and that’s what I love about it!”
Morgan assumed co-writing duties on eight of the collection’s eleven tracks and even performed all of her own background vocals and harmonies. From the empowering farewell of “Fed Up On You” to the mournful rumination of “You Never Lied”, she continually bares it all—both emotionally and musically.
“I sing like I’m never going to sing ever again,” Morgan affirms. “I wanted to capture that power and passion every time. At some moments, it might sound flawless; at others, it might sound like it’s going to break. I’m revealing something about myself with every song. You’ve got to do that. My favorite artists, whether Joni Mitchell or Michael Jackson, are and were, always honest.”
There’s a unique structure to the album. The first five songs boast electronic elements, while the last six don’t have any. “There’s a gradient of the record that goes down,” she says. “By the time you get to the last song, it’s just piano and voice. It starts with a song about power and ego, and it ends on one about surrender and selflessness. I have all of that in me. Maybe we all do.”
Ultimately, her honesty permeates everything that Morgan James does, and it’s why you’ll always remember her voice. “I want people to walk away from this album feeling fulfilled. That’s the way it used to be. Often, I think I’m from another time,” she says, her voice trailing off. “I just want to bring back the power of the singular legacy voice.”
What Other People Have Been Saying...
“…a phenomenal talent whose feel for classic soul music is bone deep…this woman is on fire.” – The New York Times