For the lion's share of her career to date, vocalist Morgan James has been known as a skilled and nuanced interpreter of other people's material. She has applied her smoky, soulful and supple voice and her inherent ability to inhabit a song to the work of Nina Simone, the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Prince and many others on her various recordings, a series of YouTube videos, on Broadway experiences and during a two-year stint with Scott Bradlee's renowned Postmodern Jukebox.
This year marked a significant shift in James' career path. Back in April, James released Reckless Abandon, her first album of all original songs co-written by herself and a cast of composers, including her husband Doug Wamble. The same general format was in place on James' debut studio album, The Hunter, but a handful of covers dotted the set list. For James, the transition to original material has been fairly effortless.
“What I have been very thankful for is that my fans go with me,” says James via e-mail from the European leg of her world tour. “They may find me through Broadway, or PMJ or other videos, but they usually come with me on (my) journey as an original artist. And that’s the goal.”
For her upcoming New Year's Eve appearance with the Cincinnati Pops, James will take a break from her original set to return to an evening of largely hand-picked covers (she will be performing one original tune, the title track to The Hunter), including selections from Duke Ellington, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Burt Bacharach, Leonard Bernstein and Otis Redding, among others. James is well versed in the format and looking forward to her Cincinnati Pops debut.
“I’ve performed with dozens of major orchestras all over the world. It never gets old,” says James. “I worked with Sam (Strater, director of artistic administration) at the Pops to come up with a unique and fun program that we both loved.”
James' love of Soul, R&B, Jazz and Pop began with her Idaho childhood. Like most kids, she rummaged through her parents' albums and found the magic that would ultimately shape her musical destiny.
“I found Soul music by way of my parents' record collection, and one great artist led to another,” she says. “And all you need is one gateway artist to lead you down the path of Soul music.”
Although she had hopes of being a veterinarian, her lack of science skills ended that dream. The arrival of a karaoke machine when James was 11 revealed a voice that was mature beyond its years and so naturally powerful that her grandmother, who sadly passed away earlier this year, offered to pay for her vocal training through high school.
Three years into that training, James decided she wanted to attend the Juilliard School, which her family thought was a quaint teenage dream. Her vocal coach, however, recognized her potential and encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. James applied to the prestigious school and was rejected, but eventually cajoled her way into admission with a barrage of phone calls, letters and audition tapes.
After Juilliard, James went into post-college survival mode (“Unemployment. Finding an agent. Waiting tables. Auditioning endlessly,” she notes), and then began pursuing another long-simmering dream — to perform on Broadway.
“I always wanted to be on Broadway and pursued it right out of college,” says James. “I made my Broadway debut in The Addams Family. I also started my first band during my first Broadway show, and started dipping my toe in the water of writing music around 2010. My mentor Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown, encouraged me to write music.”
The past seven years have been a whirlwind of activity for James. Gordy introduced her to Sony Music Entertainment executive Doug Morris, which led to her Epic Records contract and her first two albums, 2012's live Nina Simone tribute album and 2014's The Hunter. James' manager and agent introduced her to Scott Bradlee shortly after The Hunter's release and she joined PMJ for three tours in 2015-16. She also recorded 11 videos for the group.
James and co-writer/producer Wamble married in 2016 and last December they began working on Reckless Abandon, her sophomore album and debut as an independent artist. This year has clearly been the most important year in James' career, given the success she's enjoyed on her current tour and the reception to Reckless Abandon.
“I am about to finish my world tour with my band. That’s 95 shows this year!” she says. “And the album's been great. Most importantly, my fans love it, which makes me happy.”
MORGAN JAMES performs with the Cincinnati Pops at 8 a.m. on New Year’s Eve. Tickets/more info: cincinnatisymphony.org/pops