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James Morrison looks back: ‘I was paranoid everyone was laughing at me behind my back’ | Pop and rock

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James Morrison in 1992 and 2022

Husky-voiced soul singer James Morrison rose to fame in the mid-noughties, with his debut single, You Give Me Something, put him at the vanguard of a generation of male singer-songwriters. Raised in Rugby, Derby and Cornwall, he released his chart-topping album Undiscovered in 2006; it went on to sell 1.5m copies, and won him a Brit award. He has since released four more albums, and has two daughters with his partner, Gill. He tours his Greatest Hits album next month.

This was taken in Leicester at my cool older cousin’s house. He was looking after me and my brother and sister for the day, and as well as driving us around in his Mk1 Golf, his plan was to “get sweets, crisps and watch some films”. He sat us down in front of Alien; I loved it. I was seven! My mum would never have let me watch it.

That day was fun, but life was tough when I was little. My mum and dad split up when I was four, and I lived in Rugby, which was one of the worst places I’ve ever been. There are a lot of mental health, alcohol and drug issues in my family, and from a young age I thought that was what life was. We struggled to pay the bills; Mum was always going on about the mortgage not being paid, and we never had food in the fridge. I’d often miss breakfast and lunch, and just have dinner when I got home from school. A lot of kids in the 80s and 90s had that kind of upbringing – it’s not as if I had it harder than anyone else from a single-parent family, but it wasn’t easy.

When I got to about 10, I remember asking Mum, “What job do I need to do to get out of poverty?” She said I should get into graphic design, because I was good at drawing. I tried it for a bit but as soon as I picked up a guitar I binned off the art. Music was more expressive and allowed me to have an outlet for all my emotional shit. I’d actually had a guitar when I was five, but I’d smashed it up because my sister told me I was crap.

This was the same sister who gave me whooping cough when I was a newborn. I am grateful for it now, because it gave me my voice, but I remember when I first started singing I hated that I sounded so husky.

Mum loved music and used to be in a band. She was very bohemian and would have been a hippy if my dad had been around more to help. Instead, she had to be a bit more authoritarian, and I don’t think she liked that. I was super quiet and insecure at school, and probably a bit irritating to my mum. I reminded her of the same qualities that people held against her growing up. I was forgetful and disorganised with my thoughts, a bit of a dreamer. In the end, being a dreamer was the thing that saved me.

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When I was starting out, reality TV would have been the easy route to become a musician. I watched an episode of Fame Academy and thought I could sing as good as some of the contestants, so I sent a tape in. A few weeks later, the producers wrote me a letter saying they weren’t interested. “Please don’t contact us,” that sort of thing. I carried on playing gigs but I could easily have given up and got trapped in my van-cleaning job. I was a good worker, but it was disgusting tidying up after builders. I used to find a lot of horrible old pasties on the floor. Eventually I met a random guy in a pub who went on to become my manager. In a few weeks he’d got me meetings with loads of record labels.

When I released my first album, the only singer-songwriters around were me, James Blunt and Paolo Nutini. It was a big time for bands like Keane, Razorlight, Snow Patrol and Scissor Sisters, and mainstream pop. I signed to Polydor, a pop label, and I worried it wasn’t the right place for my music. But I thought: screw it, I’ll go with whatever is on the table. I had to sell 100,000 albums to get my next contract to make another record. I thought: if I can do that, then I’ve made it. It went on to sell over 1m, which was pretty incredible.

It was life-changing to go from having no money to having lots. It allowed me to ease the pressure off for a minute, although it still took me a while to get my confidence, and I had terrible impostor syndrome. If I went into a photoshoot, I had this paranoia that everyone would be laughing about me behind my back, saying, “Who is this lad? Who gives a fuck?” I would look at all the other musicians who had more of an attitude and for a few years I worried that people thought I was too “normal”. I didn’t have to always be so friendly all the time. It took effort.

I’m quite real and make sure I never get above my station. Sometimes it does my head in to see how other people in the music industry act. I was on Jools Holland once and the singer Ray LaMontagne was performing on it, too; I was a huge fan and went up to him and told him how much I loved his voice. He looked up at me, then looked away. I was gutted. Then after I performed he came up to me and said, “You nailed it, man.” I thought: why couldn’t you have acknowledged me before then? I won’t say who it was, but I once approached a singer backstage and asked for an autograph for my daughter, and her security jumped in and said, “Not now! She’s just come off stage.” I was like… so? I don’t know what’s wrong with people. They want power and fame and don’t care how they get it. I love singing, but as soon as I get anywhere near super-confident, I’m like, nah, pull it back a bit. My girlfriend Gill is really grounded, too – if I ever come home from a gig like Bobby Big Bollocks, she’s like: never mind that, take the bins out.

After my dad died [in 2010, from liver disease relating to alcoholism], it changed my brain. It made me realise that life can go by really quickly. I moved to the countryside and bought a big house with a pool in the Cotswolds, and we’ve been there ever since. I just need to be outside in order to drown out all the bullshit. When I lived in London, it was there all the time: what you look like, your followers on social media. Nature makes me forget about all that and levels me out. Apparently Kate Moss, Jamie Dornan, Sade and Lily Allen live nearby, too, but I don’t ever see them, which is a relief. I always get embarrassed when I have to meet other celebrities – just because we are both on the telly, it doesn’t mean we’ll get on.

It’s taken me a long time to enjoy my job and to get out of survival mode. I’ve built my strength up, so it’s impenetrable now. Before, I wanted adulation, but now I make music for the love of being able to express myself. Singing is my superpower, and if I can make music that people will still listen to in 20 years, and they remember I wasn’t a dick – then job done.

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