James Morrison: king of the caravan park

James Morrison's back-to-basics songs have made him the people's choice. But he's ditching all the smoothness on his latest album

If James Morrison launched his own aftershave, how would it smell? Sipping a breakfast Coke in a London hotel, Morrison ponders for a full three seconds. "Fusty." You can't accuse this particular pop star of lacking either self-awareness or wit. Morrison, who has risen late after playing a Radio 2 live broadcast the previous night, knows his music isn't to everyone's taste. His preference for what he calls "real instruments and songs" has been derided as retrogressive (thus the "fusty"), though he takes less offence at that than he does to the unending comparisons to James Blunt. So, despite selling 4.5m copies of his three albums and winning the 2007 Brit award for best male, he's developed self-deprecating humour that deflects criticism before it happens.

So what would he call this fusty aftershave? James, perhaps? Jim? "Jimbo. No – J-Mo." He leans back and laughs uproariously. Four days before, on stage at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, he had used the same self-deprecation to lower the expectations of his enthusiastic, mainly female audience. "The gig was going amazingly well, so I had to take the piss out of myself. The girls were going: 'We fucking love you, James!' So I said, 'Well, I'm not very well-endowed.'"

So when everything is hunky-dory, he has to throw a spanner in the works? He nods. "Even when [current album] The Awakening went to No 1, I'll never feel I'm one of them people that people love. There's a lot of people out there who see me as a wet joke." He nearly spits the last word. "I get generalised as this lovey-dovey guy all the girls want to get with – this romantic songwriter."

True enough, but J-Mo has been guilty of filling albums with love ballads (and, to be fair, some exceedingly catchy up-tempo tracks that make the best of his distinctive grainy voice), so he can hardly be surprised fans have taken him at his word. But now he wants to move on and produce something of substance, and he sees the new album as the first step in that direction.

It could be said that, while making The Awakening, Morrison had an actual awakening. His last album, 2008's Songs for You, Truths for Me, was written in haste. He was prodded by his label to duplicate the million-selling pop-soul smoothness of his 2006 debut, Undiscovered, which he did – and did it well enough that it yielded his biggest hit yet, a duet with Nelly Furtado called Broken Strings. Morrison, though, felt he'd sold himself out, and resolved to pour his heart into his next record. Unexpectedly, circumstance provided him with the subject matter.

During the summer of 2010, Morrison's long-term relationship was going through a rough patch, as he and his girlfriend adjusted to becoming first-time parents (their daughter is now three). While they were trying to resolve their problems, his father died of heart failure precipitated by alcoholism. For six weeks, Morrison lay in bed and cried; then he began to transmute his grief into songs. Some, especially the warm, gentle Person I Should Have Been – inspired by one of the last conversations the two men had – are the best things he's done. Even so, he was surprised when The Awakening, which was produced by former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler (who also worked as producer on Duffy's Rockferry), went into the chart at No 1. "I wasn't expecting it at all. I was pleased with the songs, 'cos I thought they were more in the direction I wanted to go, and I had a sense that I was doing what I wanted to again. But I didn't know how it'd do, because apart from Adele and Noah and the Whale, there are very few people doing real music at the moment."

There's also Ed Sheeran, I venture – he's done well this year by working along the same back-to-the-real lines. Morrison lifts an eyebrow at this. It seems he's met Sheeran, who told him he'd been an influence. "He said his dad bought him [Undiscovered] when he was 15, and he cut out this clipping of me saying I'd done 200 gigs before I got anywhere, and he used it as inspiration."

Sheeran, though, also incorporates loops and other digital fillips, which are anathema to Morrison. "I'm old-fashioned in what I like. You need to have a fucking great lyric to make synthy sounds work. It's better with real instruments." That said, he's building a studio in his house in Gloucestershire, and allows that he might yet "play around" with electronics. But if he does, don't expect a Damascene conversion: even as a 1990s child, he was oblivious to the dance music that filled the charts, preferring his parents' Eagles and James Taylor records.

Writing The Awakening was therapeutic, but the loss of his father is still raw. "There's never going to be closure for me. It'll never heal." He locks his gaze on his drink, one of the few times during the 90-minute interview that he doesn't make unwavering eye-contact. Though he's previously said the father/son relationship was fractious – his dad left the family when Morrison was four, and the singer apparently spent years trying to persuade him to dry out – he now maintains they had settled their differences. "I was always friends with my dad. It's been written that we had a strained relationship, but I talked to him about everything."

Now 27, he barely drinks himself. "I'm just such a lightweight. I get pissed really easily, and I don't like the feeling. It just makes you say what you feel, and I do that anyway." His vice is cigarettes, which are a particular hazard for him because of a bout of whooping cough shortly after birth that left lasting health problems. "I've always had a husky voice, and I've never been good at sport – I'm very clumsy. One thing I shouldn't be doing is smoking, but I do it as a fuck-you."

But the voice, with its natural grit and Stevie Wonderish timbre, turned out to be the golden ticket that took him from washing vans in Derby to a deal with Polydor, who saw in him an earthier answer to James Blunt. The picture he paints of life prior to being picked up by Polydor is melancholy. He nearly died when he was a few days old, after catching whooping cough from his sister: "The doctor said I'd be a vegetable, 'cos I stopped breathing four times. They wanted to turn off the ventilator, but my parents wouldn't let them."

Growing up, he was intensely shy, and fearful of giving offence. "I was always too conscious of pushing myself on people, always cautious about overstepping the mark. Being a musician and meeting people and having to be less shy opens your confidence. Having a kid helps, too – it makes me worry less about what people think." Nonetheless, he's still uncomfortable at times. "It's awkward when you're meeting people you've never met in your life when you're working your record on the other side of the world. It's hard when they say: 'This is so-and-so, they work in marketing.' I don't give a shit what they work in. It can be cringey. I prefer meeting fans."

It's interesting that someone who feels shy and clumsy, and refuses to get with the modern-pop programme, has become one of the UK's most successful male solo artists. Dozens of other hopefuls who were also launched in the mid-noughties now litter record-company deficit sheets – does anyone remember Stephen Fretwell, Jack MacManus or Ross Copperman? They, too, were expected to be the new James Blunt, so why is J-Mo rather than, say, Fretwell sitting in this sumptuous hotel restaurant? It can't be just because he's a highly pleasant, good-looking individual (though his looks have certainly been exploited – each of his album covers uses a similar softly-lit three-quarter-profile shotthat screams "lovey-dovey romantic songwriter"). Why did he make it when the others didn't? "I think … I guess it's that I try to have a quality that people [relate to]. I sing with real emotions and try to sound individual. I try not to think about why."

Perhaps it really is that simple – Morrison genuinely is a pop singer of the people, to the point where he recently took a holiday at a Haven caravan park because he couldn't abide the idea of going to a rock-star resort. More than that, though, his music is engineered to appeal to listeners who respond to honest emotions, honestly expressed. His new single, a duet with Jessie J titled Up, handily illustrates the gap between the way Morrison sees himself and the way detractors see him. The latter will hear it as the convenient merger of two big pop brands, while he says he asked her to sing because the song is about his dad, and he felt the lyric so deeply ("I watch your spirit break as it shatters into a million pieces") that he couldn't face doing it on his own. "I'd never do a duet for [mercenary] reasons. With Up, with me alone on it it would've been too personal, but with her it was more neutral."

Whatever criticism it attracts, he's ready for it. "Me being James Morrison, commercially successful, I sell enough records that critics hate me." None of it matters to an artist who's still slightly gobsmacked that he's managed to get this far: "I come from humble beginnings. I never thought I'd sing with Nelly or Jessie J."

Up is out on 4 December on Island.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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