Morgan James: Magnetic South

Morgan James has made a great soul album in Memphis. It’s all Chris Wells needed to know.
Pic by Jenny Anderson.

Now here’s a long and thorny question for you.
In the age, post Bailey-Rae, Mvula, Henshaw, Jorja Smith and – perhaps more significantly – Kiwanuka and Yola [especially if the latter wins any of those Grammys she’s just been nominated for], when UK listeners seem to have accepted that black artists can make music without genre restriction and see it top charts and receive widespread acclaim, is it just a coincidence that an increasing proportion of the best soul music being made right now is by white artists? This year alone, outstanding soul [and soul-based] music has been provided by Jo Harman, Katherine Penfold, Kelly Finnigan, Hannah Williams & The Affirmations, Moonchild, various Aussie bands including The Teskey Brothers and 30/70, and more. [And that’s not even to mention that Jarrod Lawson fella.] Perhaps it’s simply one of the positive aspects of this internet age that more artists of all races and origin are able to build careers in any musical sphere of their choosing, now that major record labels don’t have the stranglehold over creativity and marketing that they once had? On the other hand… if such a thing is true, how come America seems so far behind us? Maybe over there the musical segregation is still refusing to budge.

Such thoughts again crossed the mind on hearing the new album by Morgan James. Memphis Magnetic, due for release at the beginning of February, is, quite simply, a wonderful soul album. Recorded, as its title suggests, in one of soul’s home cities, it sounds like something from the late sixties/early seventies – cut in one or two takes, band and singer all in the same room together, onto tape using a bunch of vintage equipment. [Stax, Al Green, Mavis Staples, Aretha and Jean Knight influences abound.] Morgan herself, as you may remember, has quite a history with our music: already a Broadway success, in 2013 she was cast as Teena Marie in Motown: The Musical and was recommended by none other than Berry Gordy himself for her first major record deal [with Epic]. Her first covers album, a year earlier in 2012, had been based around the music of Nina Simone. Around the time of her 2014 album Hunter, she also decided to re-cut D’Angelo’s Black Messiah in its entirety, in stripped down format. And now, a Joni Mitchell covers album [Blue] and one independently released studio set [2017’s Reckless Abandon] later, she’s back on the soul trail.

The likeable Ms. James is well aware of the issues raised.
“I think you are right: I see more white people making soul music than black people making soul music right now. Let’s face it, there are people making shitty albums all over the place, from every colour of person and in every genre. There are people making real soul music too, but it’s hard for anybody making real music, or anything of a classic nature, to break through now. I think more people would do it if they could make money at it. That’s always the case: people go where the money is.
“And if something is part of your lineage, like soul is a part of black American music, often people want to make something that is different, that is outside of that. Maybe those people are not drawn to it the way you and I are drawn to it… sometimes. I have several African-American musician friends who would love to sing folk music or pop music, and yet they find the ‘gatekeepers’ want to keep them in their boxes singing soul music. I have a much easier time of it – like I have an easier time with everything – because I am a privileged white person. I look at some of my friends who are black female singers and it’s so difficult for them to set up a folk band or a rock band here. I don’t know how that’s going to change.
“So much of music here in America is garbage. There might be plenty of people out there wanting to make soul music but they’re not being allowed to or they don’t know how. For my part, I am just making a record that I would still be OK with – that I would still be proud of – even if nobody heard it.”
Morgan pauses and then adds:
“Listen, we could do an entire interview about the racial history of music in America. It’s heartbreaking and fascinating – who gets let in and why. We never talk about it. People only ever see the tip of the iceberg on that subject.”

With regard to Memphis Magnetic, Morgan says she had a desire to pare down her objective on this to a single one: make a soul album she could be really proud of. And with husband and co-producer Doug Wamble’s input, that’s exactly what came about.
“I’m proud of my last couple of albums, The Hunter and Reckless Abandon, and they have a lot of original music on them – but also a lot of different styles of music. This time I wanted my mission to be very clear. I didn’t want anybody to be confused about what this album was. It comes with time and with age and with finding out what kind of singer I really am – and I really am a soul singer.”

So why Memphis, in particular?
“My husband is originally from Memphis. It’s such a big part of the history of soul music, of course, and although it’s not the only place in America where you could go to make a great soul album, seeing as my grandmother is from Memphis too, and my guitar player, we already had some connections. And when we found the studio, it seemed that everything was pointing towards spending two weeks in Memphis and digging in.”

Memphis Magnetic is also the name of the studio she recorded the album in: Morgan named the album after it.
“People do go to Sun and to Royal and Music & Arts… there are several places with history to choose from. We were looking into some of the classic places and my drummer, George, said we should go take a look at his friend Scott McEwen’s place. It didn’t even have a name at that point – it was formerly a pharmacy. We had a couple of conversations with Scott and he was committed to our vision. He was kind and gentle, and the way he led the experience also led to how streamlined and peaceful it all was. He’d brought all this vintage gear over from Nashville: he brought this studio board that was at the Grand Ole Opry; he brought these tape machines that people like Patsy Kline sang through. When we walked in he was still working on the place, but he said he’d always felt a magnetic pull to Memphis, and that’s why he called it Memphis Magnetic. I asked for his blessing to name my album after his studio.”

The city itself also had an atmosphere that contributed to the sound of the album, says Morgan.
“I think that every place has a very different flavour and smell, and feeling. I’m a very ‘Type A’ personality: I have lived in New York for 20 years and want everything immediately. That’s just not the way it is in the South. They run on their own time schedule. You have to go with it. You have to let it go and immerse yourself in that culture. These players have played together for a long time. Of course, we didn’t get the original Memphis Horns, but we got our version of the Memphis Horns.
“I actually interviewed the entire band one by one and asked them what they thought the Memphis sound was, where it came from. Scott said he thought it was the air in Memphis that slowed everything and everybody down – it was very hot – and the air does make horns sound different, it makes strings react differently. There are obviously the historical and racial reasons why Memphis is as it is, and also a history of struggle which led to soul music in the first place. It’s warm, the pace is slow… you just have to take your time.”

Nearly all the studio players were local, except for some added percussion overdubs and background vocals, which were done back home in New York. Says Morgan:
“We used mainly first and second takes, mainly complete takes too. I wanted to capture full performances rather than going back and redoing everything. There’s a different style about recording to tape. It’s more about being prepared on the front end. Back in the day, those Hi guys would rehearse, like, 75 times, and then just go in and cut it once to tape. So you have to be methodical about your preparation before you go into the studio. There arelots of imperfections, but I think it captures the art of live performance more than anything else I have ever done.
“And I’d never done it before. I’d never recorded to tape before, either. I’ve often done overdubs and fixes – I’ve gone in and recorded stuff 20 or 30 times to get it just right. I didn’t do that on this record. I really didn’t want to end up with a ‘Frankenstein’ vocal. I wanted it to be like the band – a complete performance. The only thing I found hard was not to record my own backgrounds. I love doing that. But this way it captures more of what people get when they see me live. I didn’t use to think that way – mostly in the past I would just think about making records… and then I would try to go on tour with a bunch of songs that were hard to do live.”
Not this time.

There are a couple of very good duets on the album. One is with former America’s Got Talent contestant Ryan Shaw, who joins Morgan for a beautifully old-school soul ballad I Don’t Mind Waking Up [To A Love This Good]. The other is her link-up with Marc Broussard on a more gospel-flavoured southern soul tune Love Ain’t Worth Living.
“Ryan’s one of my favourite people in the world,” says Morgan. “We met during the very first Motown musical workshop back in 2011/12. We connected immediately. And we have written a couple of songs before. Actually, I Don’t Mind Waking Up was the first song I wrote for this album, probably two years ago. I went round to his house and told him that my next record was going to be like something that Otis Redding or Sam & Dave might want to sing. So we started singing and harmonizing together, and we decided to write a duet. We wrote at the piano. He’s incredibly soulful and his voice is ridiculous: he played Stevie Wonder in the Motown musical.
“And Marc Broussard is an incredible singer/songwriter from just outside of New Orleans. He’s been at it for a long time. He made it pretty young and has made incredible records. He has a big tour following. We met because I was going along to his show and I asked if he’d do a video for my Youtube channel. We hit it off ‘cause he’s as real as it gets.”
Had she, I wondered, played all her favourite old soul tunes end-to-end to get into the right frame of mind for the sessions? Turns out it was a touch more technical than that.
“We did a ton of preproduction on tour and in New York, so yes,” admits Morgan. “Doug and I really thought about what we wanted – we did a lot of reference tracks. We gave a lot of thought to what the horn lines should sound like and what the strings should sound like. We listened to horn parts in other songs. We’d listen to Aretha and to Ann Peebles and compare how and when the horn parts would come in. We went back and forth on that. We wanted it to be ours, which is why we wrote the songs and avoided covers, but we wanted people to have a feeling of something really classic. So it’s not so much a throwback, but like you have stepped back in time.”

Memphis Magnetic is released February 7, 2020. And it’s excellent.