James Vincent McMorrow On How Music Has The Power To Reimagine Ireland

Ahead of a very special London show...

The question of 'Irishness' has always been difficult to define.

In the modern era, the partition of the island itself into two states has physically manifested a dual identity, but in truth it goes deeper than this.

The past decade has seen a gold rush of superb musicians on both sides of the border, asking profound questions about identity, and the island's future.

James Vincent McMorrow has been part of this, a musician of real subtlety whose catalogue is marked by his softly inquisitive nature.

On May 26th he'll spearhead a special show in London's Barbican venue, with a hand-picked bill representing new voices from Ireland.

The show is called Imagining Ireland, and it will feature performances from Aby Couilbaly, Sorcha Richardson, Niamh Regan and The Scratch.

Ahead of this, Clash invited James Vincent McMorrow to write on Irishness, and how music has the power to re-imagine identity.

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The term 'Irish Music' is pretty evocative. How many countries, especially small ones, have had their national music and creative output travel as far and wide, and become as objectively huge, as Ireland’s? Not many. It's a rare and privileged thing to be an Irish musician. You get to go pretty much anywhere on the planet and people are ready to receive the thing you have to offer because their expectation is that it will be worth their time.

It also historically comes with a fair amount of baggage attached. There was definitely a moment in my life when I felt that. When I made my second record it was met by a lot of people asking me where my acoustic guitar had gone, as though I'd had it surgically removed and set on fire. That was only in 2014. But even then it felt niche, and I guess to some people unacceptable, to be doing anything beyond the interpretation they might have of what it meant to make "Irish" music.

If you're reading that and thinking "what the f**k is he talking about?", then fair enough. I guess to be part of it is to understand it, and my experience is my own and is unique. And the truth is it's really only in the last 10 years that the walls that separated the idea of genres have properly disappeared. To make something that exists fluidly between the lines isn't niche anymore, it's the norm. And that opens up the idea of Irish music so far beyond what it might have been before.  

You can see that in the group of musicians that are going to be at this show in the Barbican. Sorcha Richardson could go toe to toe with any songwriter on the planet in my opinion. Niamh Regan is exploring the more traditional ideas around Irish folk music but totally subverting them. Aby Coulibaly is the same but in her case, it's the notion of what it means to make Irish R&B records. The Scratch make something that literally you have to see to believe, it taps into the essence of Irishness but not in that twee bulls**t way that I think would have been expected of a group like that not that long ago.

It's all vivid and fresh, four groups of musicians doing really different things. What it all shares in common is it all comes from Irish musicians, it all stems from a place of Irishness. And in 2022 what that is, is incredibly open and broad. and only getting more so. I'm fiercely proud of my heritage and where I come from, as no doubt we all are. But it's about pushing stuff forward and not resting and it feels pretty incredible to be surrounded by other artists and musicians who believe that and live that.

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Imagining Ireland takes place on May 26th at the Barbican, London – tickets.

James Vincent McMorrow's new album 'The Less I Knew' is out on June 24th.

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