Hard-working Morgan James likes to mix it up for fans

IN CONCERT

What: Morgan James with Elise LeGrow
When: April 5, 8 p.m. (doors at 7)
Where: Elements Casino, 1708 Island Hwy.
Tickets: $32 from the Victoria Jazz Society (977 Alston St., 250-388-4423), the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or online at rmts.bc.ca; $37 at the door

Morgan James doesn’t let much stand in her way when it comes to her song choices. The singer goes for it every time, regardless of musical parameters.

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“I’d say that’s a fair assessment,” James said. “I’m very stubborn.”

James rose to fame as one of the singers for Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, a New York City ensemble that specializes in big-band covers of songs from the unlikeliest places. During her time in the group, James was seen by tens of millions of viewers singing Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass and Maroon 5’s Maps, among other songs.

Given her background as a Juilliard-trained opera singer, pop songs and James made for an unlikely partnership. But she has never been exclusive when it comes to music.

A good song is a good song, she said. “I really can’t cover something that I don’t really love. I always choose songs that are really great songs, so I don’t try and reinvent them. I’m trying to step inside them and pay homage. I’m attracted to soulfulness and great songwriting.”

James, who lives in Harlem, New York City, is knee deep in soul music at the moment. The tour bringing the singer and her band (which includes her guitar-playing husband, Doug Wamble) to Victoria on Friday was designed to give the singer some stage time with the new songs she has written. James will enter a Memphis studio in June to record an “old-school” soul album, with only analogue instruments. The record comes on the heels of her October release, White Album, which saw her cover in full the Beatles album of the same name.

“I like doing different things. I get bored of doing the same thing over and over again. I don’t want to hear the same thing every single time, and I don’t think fans want to hear the same thing every single time.”

Her current tour is called From White to Blue in honour of both her recent Beatles effort and its 2016 predecessor, Blue, her front-to-back cover of the Joni Mitchell recording from 1971. She was born with a voice perfectly suited to handle Mitchell’s jazz-inflected mezzo-soprano, but her extensive training led her to her trademark — a performing personality that she wears like a coat of many colours.

“When you come up going to Juilliard, trying to be a Broadway performer, trying to get a record deal, the amount of rejection I experienced makes you go one of two ways. It either makes you quit or it makes you more tenacious and more stubborn. I see everything as a movable wall, rather than a permanent structure. I always find ways around things.”

The Boise, Idaho, native was a Broadway performer before she embarked on a career as a traditional singer. She made her Broadway debut in 2010 in a musical production of The Addams Family, starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. The following year, she appeared in Godspell, followed by Motown: The Musical.

About the same time, she released her debut album, Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone. The project, which drew acclaim from audiences and critics, set James on a creative streak that would include two albums of original material (Hunter in 2014 and Reckless Abandon in 2017) separated by a full-album cover of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah album in 2015.

The latter effort, which James and Wamble recorded in a single day, was released via YouTube, where she had found considerable previous success. The video-sharing website has become a key part of James’s career, as it exposes new audiences to her independent music, which might otherwise be difficult to find.

“I’m not going to make it the same way that someone would have made it in the ’80s or ’90s, with a classic record deal,” James said. “It’s just not that way anymore. I have to allow for other avenues for people to find me.”

To date, she has encountered her greatest successes singing songs written by men, from Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer to Eric Clapton’s Lay Down Sally, Rag ’n’ Bone Man’s Human and Nirvana’s Lithium.

James likes that when she covers material by male artists, it gives new meaning to the message. “I really like songs that were intended for men, or written by men, and sharing them from my perspective, with my voice. But that’s not my only intention. I want to step inside it.”

It was a risk when James stepped out on her own, away from the industry that immediately embraced her a few years ago. Her career is the better for having branched out, however. Now, she’s her own boss, and reaping the rewards of years of hard work.

“I always say it’s not the most talented people who succeed. It’s the ones who don’t give up.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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