The pins on Morgan James’ map to a music career mark some highly random stops, and she’s run into eclectic visitors along the way. Idaho. Modesto. Juilliard. Broadway. Nina Simone and John Mayer. Berry Gordy. Prince. And, yes, even Maroon 5’s “Maps” has been part of the journey.
Where did she end up? James is a successful singer-songwriter who trained in classical opera voice at Juilliard, performed on Broadway, then started a band and solo recording career as a soul and R&B artist. She’s known for her powerful voice (she can belt) and original music, along with covers of songs by artists like Simone, Jeff Buckley and, for her latest tribute, The Beatles’ entire White Album.
She’s currently on her From White to Blue Tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the White Album and Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday, in honor of Mitchell’s groundbreaking album Blue. James will perform songs from those albums, as well as her own music, on Saturday, March 30, at The Canyon in Agoura Hills.
At heart, James is “a soul singer,” she said. “Even with my classical training and Broadway, what unites it all is my soulful voice. The music I write is soul music. All the music I am influenced by and cover has an element of soulfulness. I am in love with the roots of the blues, and that’s where I’m best.”
James, who was born in Idaho and moved around a lot as a kid, found her musical soul at age 11 when her grandparents gave her a karaoke machine.
“I sounded like an opera singer; I had this great, big adult voice coming out of a small person,” she said. Her grandparents were impressed and began paying for singing lessons.
James moved to Modesto when she was in junior high and got involved in choir and theater programs. Modesto, you might be surprised to hear, has a thriving school arts scene.
“There’s a huge emphasis on music and theater there, with a lot of opportunities to get training,” she said.
At age 14, James decided she wanted to go to the Juilliard School.
“I wanted to be the next Barbara Cook, and in my mind that was the path,” James recalled.
How she got into Juilliard is a refreshing story of perseverance in light of the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal. James said she was No. 1 on the wait list at Juilliard, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She kept sending the admissions office letters, recommendations and other materials, until they agreed to add one more slot to the vocal program for her.
Ironically, she ended up not liking Juilliard. She studied opera, which wasn’t really her thing; she couldn’t get the hang of foreign languages, or how seriously opera singers took themselves. After graduating, she decided to try musical theater, for which she had no training (she auditioned anyway), and worked nonmusical jobs in New York City until she landed a role in 2010 on Broadway in The Addams Family. Additional Broadway stints included Godspell and Motown: The Musical.
The Broadway routine reinforced her already-strong work ethic.
“It’s the ultimate training ground,” she said. “Eight shows a week, with one day off, you must use your time wisely, and be in peak mental, physical and vocal shape. It’s how I’m able to tour with such intensity now.”
While on Broadway, she decided to start her own band and played in clubs around New York City. She met record executive Berry Gordy Jr. while working in Motown: The Musical, and he became a mentor, introducing her to Doug Morris and L.A. Reid, which led to a record deal with Sony’s Epic Records.
In 2014 she released her debut album, Hunter. The album included a cover of Prince’s “Call My Name,” endorsed and approved by Prince himself, that picked up radio play. James also developed a huge following when she started singing in videos by Postmodern Jukebox, the musical collective known for its retro covers of popular songs posted on YouTube as high-quality videos. As a solo artist, she also has a strong presence on YouTube, with more than 141,000 subscribers.
In 2017 she released Reckless Abandon, her first studio album as an independent artist.
James said that although she’s partial to performing her own songs, “I mostly just love singing great music. A lot of people will cover songs they don’t like and make them better. I never try to make the song better. I step inside it and pay homage. I rely on my voice and pick a way to honor the melody.”
She works closely with her husband, singer-songwriter and guitarist Doug Wamble, who has produced and played on her albums and travels with her on tour. She said they plan to go to Memphis in June to record her next album.
“It’s one of the big cities for soul and blues music,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do something there.”
One more pin to add to the musical map.
Morgan James performs on Saturday, March 30, at 9 p.m. at The Canyon, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. For tickets and more information, call 888-645-5006 or visit wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com/canyon-agoura-hills.