The reader’s companion to James Moors’ ‘Skyline’Local singer/songwriter James Moors provides track-by-track commentary on his new album, the Ed Ackerson-produced "Skyline."
James Moors’ music career began, earnestly enough, “trying to scream like Kurt Cobain.” He was in a couple of different Twin Cities area groups, like the Strangers and the Wooly Brothers, before the premature death of his drummer brother awoke the Burnsville native’s inner songwriter.
Before relocating to the Northland — he now lives in Superior with his family — he traded in his favored grunge rock for something a little more personal.
“I had written some songs for the Wooly Brothers, but I hadn’t really gotten serious about it,” Moors told the Budgeteer last year during a feature interview. “The first batch of songs that I was really serious about were just all about my brother dying — [his death] threw me into an introspective phase; I’m still waiting to snap out of it.”
After a string of albums released under the guise of Sterling Waters, Moors dropped the moniker in 2008 when he released “Hush” under his own name. The songwriter followed up that album, which included contributions from such Minnesota luminaries as Polara’s Ed Ackerson and the Jayhawks’ Marc Perlman, with “Moors & McCumber.” As its title indicates, it was a collaborative effort with Colorado musician Kort McCumber, the first fellow songwriter he invited in to help him craft his songs.
“It’s really helpful to write with somebody else who’s talented because you can get a lot done,” Moors said of McCumber last year. “It’s like with anything: There’s always all these choices you have to make and, if you have someone who’s willing to make those choices for you, it takes a load off.”
The Budgeteer recently invited Moors back in for another round of questions. But this time we weren’t sitting down for a traditional interview; we brought Moors in for a little track-by-track commentary on his just-released solo album “Skyline,” which, like its predecessor, finds the local troubadour working with a number of outside musicians:
1. “Going Round”
First things first: “Skyline” was produced by Polara’s Ed Ackerson, whom Moors also worked with on “Hush.”
“Ed is wickedly talented in all the ways I respect,” the Superior singer/songwriter said. “So, when I was starting this record, Ed was the first person I called.”
Moors said that this song — one of three on the new album not conceived in 2010 — was inspired by autumn.
“I was just kind of noticing the change of seasons and how some people, friends of friends, were passing away,” he said. “… The one line I really love from this record is: ‘You think you’ve got it all figured out / But you’re back where you began.’ You feel like you’re at a new point in your life and then you realize it’s just a different look to a point you’ve already been at.”
2. “Once in a While”
This track and “Feeling that Way Too” were written with Rick Price, whom you might’ve heard on the radio in the early ’90s if you spent any time in Australia or Asia.
“He’s like Australia’s version of Richard Marx,” Moors said. “And I said that to him, trying to honor his gifts, and he said, ‘Yeah, Rich is a friend of mine.’ So they know each other. [Laughs]”
The two songwriters’ paths crossed in Memphis during the annual Folk Alliance International conference (where, if you’ll remember, recent Budgeteer cover model Mark Olson will be delivering one of the keynote speeches this year).
“The night before I met him I had started ‘Feeling that Way Too,’” Moors said. “I heard him play, and I said, ‘I want to play you this new song I’ve got. I just have this idea that you and I could maybe work [together].’”
Coincidentally, Moors met his first songwriting partner, the aforementioned Kort McCumber, out in Colorado at the annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
“For most of the stuff I’ve done with co-writers, I come to them with a pretty concrete idea of the verse and the chorus and the melody,” he said. “A lot of it is flushing out the arrangement of the song and, more often than not, my co-writers help with the bridges and some lyrics.
“Rich was helpful with the lyrics on these two songs.”
Don’t worry, McCumber fans, Moors had plenty of nice things to say about that Boulder singer/songwriter.
“Kort’s great gift is arrangement,” he offered. “I can be really prolific writing verses and choruses, but, to get to an arrangement that really flows in a three- to four-minute song that takes it from start to finish is a skill in itself, and Kort’s really good at that.”
As previously mentioned, Moors never sought out input from outside sources for the longest time.
“I was never looking for co-writers,” he said about his Sterling Waters year. “As a musician, there’s kind of this punk attitude of ‘I’m doing it my way — people will see my genius at some point.’ But once you open yourself up to other people’s skills and work with them, [your material benefits].”
Before hooking up with McCumber, Moors joked that songwriting had been a “personal battle.”
“Now I realize it’s just a bunch of fun,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there doing what I’m doing, and a lot of them are a lot of fun to hang out with and share ideas with.”
“These lyrics came from a friend of mine in town here, Peter Van Dyken,” Moors said. “Peter writes things once in a while and gives them to me, almost in the form of poetry. … This song really jumped out at me. He had a different notion of it, so I edited it [a little].”
Moors enjoys Van Dyken’s offerings.
“It’s really kind of fun to write that way, because usually the lyrics and the melody come from me,” he said. “But to have the lyric come from outside myself, I could really take it in a different direction. It was kind of liberating that way.”
While we’re on the subject, the day Moors sat down with the Budgeteer, a band from New York proposed something interesting: They would create an album’s worth of music and all he would have to do was come up with the lyrics and sing over the songs.
“I’d be super-excited to do that, just because it would be so freeing,” Moors said. “I wouldn’t have to think about arrangements or whatever.
“It’s fun. When Peter gives me a lyric, I come up with music much quicker than I do with my own stuff.”
4. “Feeling that Way Too”
Sorry, Journey fans, this isn’t a cover.
“I was in Memphis, and I was just watching the sun go down over the Mississippi and the melody just popped into my head,” Moors said. “That was the same night that I met Rick Price.”
Because he has two kids, Moors said he actually prefers writing while he’s away from home.
“I probably write most of my stuff when I travel,” he said. “I just like getting on the road and being behind the wheel; my mind goes numb and the ideas just blossom. So driving time is a good time.”
He’s actually had to pull his car over a couple times and whip out his guitar so he wouldn’t lose the feeling.
Unfortunately, he’s unable to turn off the creativity when it might become somewhat of an inconvenience. Even when he’s on an airplane, he can’t just ignore a song idea floating around in his head.
“One time when I was flying I had to go into the bathroom with my iPhone and sing into its microphone to record a melody,” Moors admitted, laughing. “… You never know if a melody is going to be strong or not, so it’s best to capture it any way you can.”
“This is about a friend who keeps coming and going,” Moors said, “and it’s frustrating to the people around her.”
Perhaps as to not get too down on this woman, he flipped the narrative and wrote it like a love story.
“Virginia” is one of the oldest tracks on “Skyline”; it originally appeared on the “Moors & McCumber” record.
“The production here is more in line with how I imagined it,” he said.
6. “Tossing and Turning”
Going back to Moors’ ability to write any way, anyhow and anywhere, this was written in Salt Lake City on a tour bus. (He was on tour with McCumber at the time.)
“One morning after a late-night gig at a bar in Salt Lake, this is what was on my mind — just the idea of, you know, you’re pulled in so many different directions, and it just gets thin, you know?” he said. “You get tired, but everybody’s in it. I don’t really have an answer to that conundrum — I was just kind of announcing that I was feeling it. [Laughs]”
Like not being able to write at home as much, touring is another aspect of the process that has changed as Moors has matured.
“When I was younger, when I first started to do this, touring was just a lot of fun. I’d go places and, if
I had three or four days off, I’d go hiking or experience a town,” he said. “But now it’s pretty much I want to work every day. If I can do a radio interview before the gig, it’s even better. I just always want to be making that time worthwhile because I just feel like I’m taking away from family time.”
Don’t be mistaken; there are a couple advantages to life away from home.
“Absence definitely makes the heart grow stronger,” Moors said, “and it makes time at home more valuable too.”
Indeed, Moors and his wife, Anne, will be celebrating their seventh anniversary in October.
7. “No Ordinary Girl”
Speaking of his wife, Moors said the character in this song is modeled after her.
“It was initially just about our girls in general, but it mostly became about Anne,” he said.
8. “Waiting for the Real Thing”
“This was an idea I had quite a while back, and I just had that opening line (‘I’m the king of my suitcase / Full of T-shirts and blue jeans’) because I’m always traveling and something I’m always plagued by is I just get home then I turn around and re-pack everything again,” Moors explained. “I’ve had this idea for a couple years that I should have two of everything and just have a suitcase already packed so I’m ready to go. That would be so much easier.”
This track was flushed out in Nashville with McCumber. The two were preparing to pitch songs to Sugar Hill Records’ A&R guy when they got inspired.
“We were supposed to meet him at 8 or 9 in the morning and we stayed up until 3 or whatever, writing this song and jumping up and down about how we had just written it,” Moors said with a chuckle. “The way Kort and I write is, I’ll play him something he’s never heard and he’ll get really excited about it, and that, then, really re-excites me about the idea.”
Moors then explained that, for a lot of songwriters, their favorite song is the one they last wrote. And that’s what happened in Nashville with “Waiting for the Real Thing.”
“Unfortunately, you don’t have enough perspective to realize what it really means compared to your other work, so we just boldly walked in there the next morning and played this,” he said. “I don’t know how it affected [the A&R guy], but there were no contracts being offered or anything. [Laughs]”
9. “Everybody’s Hungry”
“I find myself saying ‘everybody’s hungry’ a lot these days when people do desperate things, or are reaching out in ways that are beyond them,” Moors said. “Everybody wants something that they don’t have, and it seems to be a part of the human makeup that part of what we do is long for things that we don’t have.
“I think it’s kind of a misconception that if we get those things we’ll be happy.”
Moors added that, like the Grand Canyon, “there’s this huge hole that’s inside of us that we can never fill.”
“You could never fill up your needs and desires,” he continued. “At some point you just have to recognize that you have that desire or want and that’s just part of who you are. It makes you stronger if you just realize that that exists and you’re vulnerable to needs and desires, so get over it.”
Despite its misleading title, this is actually one of the least-materialistic songs ever written: “The sidewalk waits outside the gates / The dewdrops flash like paparazzi / It all takes your breath away / As it did when you were younger.”
Moors explains: “It was my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, and this song is about her walk out the door to this new chapter in her life, and just kind of ruminating on the idea that we all go off to work and spend a lot of time away from home,” he said. “It’s so nice to be at home; we all want to be at home, but we all go and do this other stuff.”
NEWS TO USE
James Moors has two scheduled CD release shows for “Skyline” in the Twin Ports: He will play at 8 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Red Mug in Superior. Cost is $10. He will also perform at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at Peace Church, 1111 N. 11th Ave. E. Cost is $12.
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