For Morgan James, honing in on the ideal use for her stunningly powerful vocals took years of soul-searching and discovery. After joining a choir in junior high, James left her Northern California home at age 18 to study opera at the Juilliard School. While the rigorous conservatory training went a long way in refining her vocals and building her remarkable range, James ultimately abandoned opera and devoted her initial post-Juilliard years to working her way onto the stages of some of the city’s most legendary clubs—and into prominent roles on Broadway. Now, with her Epic debut album Morgan James Live, James offers up a selection of songs that show off her extraordinary voice and exquisite gift for merging soul, jazz, and R&B in a fresh and thrilling new way.
Recorded at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Morgan James Live features James’s stirring renditions from the repertoire of Nina Simone. Not only embracing Simone’s raw, heady passion, James channels the sparkling eclecticism that made the High Priestess of Soul a key influence in cultivating her own singing style. “For a long time I wasn’t sure what to do with the fact that I’ve got this gigantic voice that doesn’t quite match how I look, so I ended up trying out lots of different things to find my way,” says James. And in that ceaseless experimentation, she adds, James drew great inspiration from Simone’s unwavering artistic integrity. “Nina refused to be pigeon-holed into any one genre, and she wasn’t setting out to impress anyone,” says James. “That sort of purity and lack of showboating means so much to me as a musician.”
For James, it took weathering her first few years as a struggling musician in New York City to tune into the sorrow that instills so much of Simone’s work. “Honestly, I didn’t realize I could sing this way until I was lonely, jobless, and listening to a lot of incredibly sad music all the time,” she says. “I figured that since I wasn’t making money from my music yet, I should at least work in places where other people were playing music—places like Cafe Wha? and Prohibition,” recalls James. “After a while I started asking if I could sit in with the bands. Floored by her vocal chops, James’s impromptu collaborators encouraged her to broaden her body of music. “I started out by learning all the licks that Aretha and Nina did, but pretty soon I was on my way to developing my own style,” she says.
As she continued to advance her artistry and expand her vocal versatility, James eventually found her way to Broadway. Making her debut in The Addams Family, she went on to perform in Wonderland, the first-ever Broadway revival of Godspell and most recently in Motown: The Musical playing Teena Marie. At the same time, James nurtured her solo singing career by playing to sellout crowds at famed New York nightspots like Birdland Jazz Club, Le Poisson Rouge, Rockwood Music Hall, Joe’s Pub, 54 Below and Dizzy’s. “It’s pretty grueling, working all day and all night, but it’s really taught me the importance of stamina and taking care of my body and my instrument,” says James.
James is currently working on her first full-length studio effort (an album she envisions as “a more contemporary, pop/R&B record, but with its roots in blues and old-school soul”). James will continue to bring her astonishing vocals beyond the stages of New York City and turn a wider audience on to her enchanting sensibility as a musical interpreter.
What Other People Have Been Saying...
“…a phenomenal talent whose feel for classic soul music bone deep…this woman is on fire.” - The New York Times