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“I don’t wanna be misunderstood,” sings James Morrison. “I’ve got to take this chance and make it into something good.”
There’s a sense of urgency the 22-year-old U.K. singer/songwriter brings to the music on his debut Interscope Records album Undiscovered that suggests he won’t remain that way for long.
No less a legend than Atlantic Records producer and co-founder Jerry Wexler said Morrison has a voice “with its own thumbprint. Hear it once and you’ll forever recognize it.” (As a baby, he had a terrible whooping cough, which may have left him with scarred vocal chords).
That’s no small praise for a man who’s worked with soul greats Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, who knows a great set of pipes when he hears them, and Morrison’s voice hits you instantly, a harsh, yet soothing plaint that recalls both Rod Stewart in his Gasoline Alley prime and Joe Cocker in the aptly titled “Under the Influence,” the romantic Stevie Wonder on “You Give Me Something,” the Bob Seger of “Night Moves” in “Undiscovered,” John Lennon in the violent, gnarled “(I Want You) She’s So Heavy” blues of “Call the Police,” and Charles himself on the confessional “If the Rain Must Fall.” Throw in a dash of Chris Martin’s shaggy good looks and James Blunt’s boyish sex appeal and you have the whole package.
Indeed, Morrison has more than been discovered in his native Britain and Europe; he’s a conquering hero. His album debuted at #1 on the U.K. charts, remaining there for several weeks, selling over 600,000 copies (and over 1 million worldwide) on the strength of a pair of Top 5 hits in the first single, “You Give Me Something” and “Wonderful World,” an ear-opening dark yin to the yang of Louis Armstrong’s original, in which Morrison reveals: “And I know that it’s a wonderful world/But I can’t feel it right now.”
You’ll excuse him if Morrison takes his current success with a grain of salt after a poverty-stricken upbringing as the middle son of a single mother, who struggled with her own demons to keep a shelter over her children’s head and food in their mouths. Morrison taps his troubled childhood in several of the songs, including the moving “This Boy,” where he tries to “forgive and forget” telling his mom to “know that my arms are wide open.”
And while his background was harsh, Morrison was surrounded by music from an early age, whether it was listening to his mum’s collection, which included Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, to being turned on to guitar at 13 by an uncle, immersing himself in Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
“Everybody has it hard growing up,” he says. “I’m not saying I had it any worse than anybody else. But most of the emotion in my singing has come from my upbringing.”
“Please give me something,” he sings in his first hit single. “ïCause someday I might call you from my heart.”
“If you don’t feel it in here,” he says, hand over his chest, about writing and performing music. “Then don’t go with it.”
Morrison has had to survive odd jobs as a chambermaid and washing vans, interspersed with busking gigs where he’d perform before crowds of teenage girls, and their jealous boyfriends, for up to 70 quid an hour, to fulfill his ambitions.
“It’s how I got experience playing in front of people without getting nervous,” he says.
“Once you’ve had a taste of it, there’s no going back,” he sings in “Under the Influence,” with its psychedelic Traffic blues vibe, an apt description of how he discovered his musical talent even if it refers to an addictive romance. A demo CD he recorded with some borrowed music equipment fell into the hands of a one-time A/R man, who promptly got him a deal with Polydor U.K. (Interscope’s sister label) Morrison entered a West London studio with producer Martin Terefe (KT Tunstall, Ron Sexsmith, Ed Harcourt) and the rest is U.K. chart history.
And while Morrison is excited about his breakthrough, he’s not willing to give up his dream, either. Hollywood producers wanted to use his song “The Pieces Don’t Fit Anymore,” which he wrote after the break-up of a longtime love affair, for a major studio motion picture (August Rush) with Robin Williams, then tried to persuade Morrison to co-star in the movie, an opportunity he turned down because he believes in his music.
“Dreams can come true,” sings Morrison on “If the Rain Must Fall,” “If you know inside you really want them to.”
James Morrison’s Undiscovered offers conclusive proof of that.