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 (and quickly learning she possessed a richly textured voice “a whole lot bigger than I was”), 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 pursuing musical theater. Thanks to her unshakeable dedication and ingenuity, James soon worked her way onto the stage of some of the city’s most legendary clubs—and into prominent roles in Broadway productions like Godspell and Wonderland. Now, with her 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 (an intimate jazz club nestled within New York City’s Lincoln Center), Morgan James Live features James’s stirring renditions of standards 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.”
All throughout Morgan James Live, James infuses her interpretations of Simone’s songs with a comparable purity. Whether tearing through bluesy stompers like “Trouble In Mind” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” or a hushed heartbreaker like the Billie Holiday-penned “Don’t Explain,” James brings both unadulterated emotionalism and seamless musicianship to her performance. Backed by a five-piece band, James also elegantly shifts from sweetly melancholy (“Little Girl Blue”) to joyful and effervescent (“My Baby Just Cares For Me”) to sultry and smoldering (“I Put A Spell On You,” “I Want More And Then Some”) to achingly tender (“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “My Man’s Gone Now”). “I could probably do five double albums full of Nina Simone songs,” says James, who collaborated with music director David Cook in creating the musical arrangements for her two-week stint at Dizzy’s. “But on this one I wanted there to be a few swinging tunes and a lot of blues—I’m so attracted to Nina’s darker side, and I really admire how she never ran away from sadness.”
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. Still, even at her most defeated, James maintained a nervy spirit that helped her land her first moment in the Manhattan spotlight. “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, even though the only song I knew was [Aretha Franklin’s] ‘A Natural Woman.’” 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 in 2010, she went on to perform in Wonderland in 2011 and the first-ever Broadway revival of Godspell in 2011/2012. At the same time, James nurtured her solo singing career by booking regular gigs at famed New York nightspots like Birdland Jazz Club, Le Poisson Rouge, Rockwood Music Hall, Joe’s Pub, Dominion, 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, my instrument,” says James. “And on Broadway you’re in an environment of constant creation, with so much creative energy swirling around—it’s so stimulating and inspiring to me.”
Keeping up that balance between Broadway and her solo work, James will next take the stage in Motown: The Musical and dive into the recording of 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”). But first, with the release of Morgan James Live, James is set 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. “Part of the motivation for this album was that I knew it would just be completely luxurious to do an entire record of Nina’s songs,” says James. “But at the same time I knew it would get right to the heart of what I do as a singer, and also take the listeners on some sort of journey— which to me is one of the most important things an album can do.”