Don’t hate on Morgan James just because she’s burst out of YouTube as an internet sensation. Or that she’s as sexy and beautiful as Jessica Rabbit (She was, apparently, just born that way). Her killer arrangement of Prince’s “Call My Name” has won more than 610,000 views with two videos in nine months. Covers she’s done with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox have run into millions. Meghan Trainor and Kevin Kadish’s “All About That Bass,” has rung up 4.2 million views and counting; Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” has scored 2.3 million.
James nevertheless intends to work hard and long like a tortoise, she says, and make it the old fashioned way. “Nobody really buys records anymore because the game has changed,” she says. “We just have to figure out what the old fashioned way translates to.” Maybe YouTube is today’s equivalent of driving product around to radio stations.
James writes and sings classic soul songs like she was born to them. She’s drawn comparisons to Amy Winehouse which, she’s the first to say, are a stretch. “I think that people if they hear horns, if they hear real drums, they instantly like to use the word ‘throwback’.” She says. “I don’t think what I’m doing is a throwback, and I actually don’t even think what Amy was doing was a throwback. I don’t sound like Amy. I think it’s just this love for another time of music—for there to be real ingredients.” Comparisons to Teena Marie are more common and more apt.
Something preternaturally honest comes from James’ soul when she sings. You couldn’t autotune it, you wouldn’t want to and she doesn’t. She keeps her dazzling range under absolute control, and, in an era when melisma seems to be the key to pop stardom, she keeps it reigned in service to the song.
These days she’s driving around to venues the old fashioned way, paying her dues. She and her four-piece band are touring behind her November 2014, release, Hunter, co-written, co-arranged and co-produced by Southern jazz master and recording artist Doug Wamble, who also joins her for the tour. James’ set includes, besides the Hunter songs, some material she sings with Postmodern Jukebox and songs from her previous project, a live tribute to Nina Simone she recorded at Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club in New York City.
Like Hunter, that earlier, live-set recording found a home on Sony’s Epic Records, admittedly a lofty point of departure. The leg up was provided by Motown’s Berry Gordy, who introduced her to Sony CEO Doug Morris and Epic honcho L.A. Reid. Morgan met Gordy when she played the role of Teena Marie for a year in the Broadway cast of “Motown the Musical,” based on his life.
“When I met Mr. Gordy, he instantly just said ‘You’re special and don’t let anybody tell me that you’re not’,” Morgan says. “He said, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not a star because a star is a star before anybody knows it.”
Gordy’s endorsement and a voice degree from Juilliard, notwithstanding, Morgan’s drive seems sincerely grounded in humility. “I just have to keep getting better at what I do and just wait for the tipping point,” she says. “Be the tortoise and be slow and steady, and I have to win people one set of ears at a time.”