True blue: An interview with singer/songwriter Morgan James

By Gregg Shapiro, Contributing writer

If you haven’t heard Morgan James sing, then you don’t know what you’re missing. James has a career both on Broadway (Motown: The Musical, The Addams Family and more) and as a singer/songwriter.

More recently, she released an EP and completed a new studio disc of original songs. James also can be seen performing Joni Mitchell’s Blue in its entirety on her YouTube channel. In fact, if they’re still looking to cast the movie version of Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us — about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon, James would make a far better Joni than Taylor Swift.

I spoke with James before she embarked on her spring concert tour.

WiG: Morgan, we are speaking a couple of days after the Jesus Christ Superstar concert performance that you did with Shoshana Bean. What was the experience like for you?

Morgan James: I’m still reeling from it. I haven’t fully recovered (laughs). I had basically been working on it for the last year. I enlisted some incredible people to help me make it possible. I produced the whole thing with a couple of my good friends. I reached out to a dozen or so of the most talented people I know and a couple of people I didn’t know very well. Everybody said yes! It was this incredible coming together of all these amazing women. It was an all-female band as well. It was a powerful experience. Of course, I’m a perfectionist, so I want to do it again and do it better. I would love to further develop the project.

While we’re on the subject of musicals, you have performed on Broadway in Motown: The Musical, The Addams Family, Godspell and Wonderland. Do you have a favorite among those shows?

I don’t know that I could pick a favorite. Every time you do an original show and you get to be in an original company, there are so many firsts and special things about it. You get to create your own track. The Broadway cast experience is a community unlike any other. I could never pick a favorite. The Addams Family has a soft spot in my heart because it was my first Broadway show. I had always wanted to perform on Broadway. When I got to achieve that, it felt really special.

You are about to hit the road in what you are calling your Reckless Abandon Tour. What makes it so?

That’s the name of the last song on the (new) album. I don’t think the tour is reckless (laughs), but that’s one of the key songs on the album. I’m so excited because this will be the first album where I’ve co-written every single song. There are no covers on the album. I’m really proud of this project. I can’t wait for the fans to hear it. I’m also excited to be playing so many great venues and to be touring for so long. I think it’s going to be an incredible spring.

Did you co-write again with your husband Doug Wamble, who also produced your major-label debut studio album Hunter?

Yes, Doug and I wrote eight of the songs. I also wrote a song with Frequency who did “Heart Shake” on my last album. I did a song with a producer in Nashville, a couple in L.A., and a producer named Justin Fisher. I’ve got a lot of different influences. We brought together all of the soul elements that I love, horns and tons of backgrounds. Even though there are lots of electronic and modern elements, I always want to keep that soul heartbeat at the root.

What can you tell me about your songwriting process?

It’s different with each person you write with. Whenever you sit down with a new potential co-writer or collaborator, it’s like a date, like speed-dating. You have to find out a lot about each other and get to the core of what you want to write about quickly. Sometimes you sit down with someone and a song is written in two hours. Sometimes you spend days and days and nothing comes of it. It has a lot to do with the chemistry and trust you have with that person. Obviously, Doug and I have a shorthand because we’re married (laughs). We write easily and well together. But there’s also something valuable about writing with strangers because they might see something in you that may not come out with someone who knows you well.

In December, you released a marvelous cover album of Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Of all of Joni’s albums, why did you choose Blue?

It was the 45th anniversary of Blue. I grew up on that album and wanted to celebrate the anniversary. My mom brought me up on her record collection and Joni’s always been very special to me.

On stage

Morgan James performs April 20 at Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee and April 21 at High Noon Saloon in Madison. For more about the Milwaukee show, go online to pabsttheater.org. For more about the Madison show, go online to high-noon.com.