Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Processing Grief Through Music with Morgan James
[00:00:04] PF: What’s up, everybody? This is Paula Felps, and you’re listening to On a Positive Note. We know that listening to music offers a soothing emotional experience. But what can it do for the person who writes that song?
Today, I’m joined by Morgan James, a Juilliard-trained singer, whose diverse talent has taken her from performing on Broadway stages, to working with symphony orchestras, to writing and recording soulful R&B music. While working on her latest album, she and Doug Wamble, her husband and co-writer, both were grappling with devastating illnesses of dear friends. They put the tangled emotions of uncertainty, grief, and loss into a song called I’ll Be Holding On, which also has become the album’s video centerpiece.
In this interview, Morgan shares how writing and performing this song has helped her come to terms with grief and how performing music helps her heal. Let’s have a listen.
[00:01:00] PF: Morgan, thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
[00:01:03] MJ: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:01:05] PF: You have an incredible body of work. Just first of all, we’re going to tell our listeners how they can discover all the different types of music that you’ve done because you’ve done some amazing projects. The reason we’re here today is to talk about a song I’ll Be Holding On. This is such a powerful piece of music, and we need to start by letting our listeners know the story behind it. Can you talk about that?
[00:01:27] MJ: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me and for listening to the song, the song I wrote with my husband, Doug Wamble. When we were working on the album, we were going through a pretty traumatic period of time with our respective best friends. My best friend, Richard, was going through a health crisis. Doug’s best friend, Lanie, was also going through a health crisis. We didn’t know if they were going to make it, and we wanted to write something to help ourselves through the feeling of helplessness, of not being able to save them, not being able to help them. We wanted to write something that might reach them and help ourselves at the same time.
I don’t normally write something inspirational, so I really wanted to dig in and write something that felt like it could speak to our friends in our particular stories but also to everyone. What exacerbated the emotion of the song was the fact that Lanie passed away in a very, very tragic way and unexpectedly at the end of this journey. So our kind of worst fears came true that we had to say goodbye to someone we couldn’t bear to say goodbye to.
That was how the song came about. When it came time to make the video to go with the song, my director, Jonah, really wanted to create a detailed story of friendship and love, and tell something that was so specific and so detailed and yet could be universal. I think that he really hit it out of the park.
[00:02:57] PF: Yes, he did. That’s an amazing video, and we are going to talk about that. But I wanted to dig in a little bit about what it was like for you and your husband. You’re already frequent collaborators on songs. But how was it working on something that was so intensely painful and personal? Did it help? Did it sometimes hurt? What was that like?
[00:03:19] MJ: Every time we’ve written something really personal, I’ve written songs about breakups from the past. We’ve written songs about breakups. We’ve written songs about things we’ve gone through with our family, with our parents, things we’ve gone through with friends. Every time that we write something personal, it’s painful because it is the best and most specific tool that we have to process everything in our life is our art.
It feels painful sometimes still to sing things that are deeply personal. But that’s my job. There were a lot of tears because we really wanted to reach them. They both felt very unreachable in these moments, and we felt like we couldn’t save them. So we cried and cried and cried, and we didn’t know another way to try to reach because this is the only thing I know how to do is make music, is make art. It’s incredibly cathartic as well. So it’s painful but it’s also freeing.
[00:04:15] PF: So how did that come about? What made you two look at each other and say, “We need to write a song about this.”? What was that process like, the genesis of that decision?
[00:04:24] MJ: Well, I knew I wanted a song on the album with a choir because I’ve always wanted to record with the Morgan State University Choir. It’s been a dream of mine. Okay, well, we need to write a song for the choir. I hadn’t even written it yet when I secured the choir.
[00:04:37] PF: Really?
[00:04:38] MJ: Yes.
[00:04:38] PF: That’s safe.
[00:04:39] MJ: Yes. I knew that I wanted a song. I wanted a song like Mariah Carey, Anytime You Need a Friend. I love that song, and I think that it’s incredible. The way the choir functions in that song is pretty powerful. That song is very inspirational, and it’s hard to write an inspirational song without being cheesy, without being trite. It’s hard to write something personal that feels real.
We sat down. It was a big challenge, but I said, “What should we write about?” Doug said, “We need to write this about our friends. We need to write this pain that we feel, the fear that we feel. We need to put this in this song.” So we started talking about, okay, well, what would we want to say to them. For instance, with my friend, Richard, sometimes it’s hard for him to accept help, right? So these two people, Richard and Lanie, they’re the ones that are always helping others. They’re always doing something and neglecting themselves sometimes. How do you say that to someone kindly? How do you say to them, “I’m here. Reach out to me. Take my hand.” Accepting help is one of the hardest things to do.
[00:05:44] PF: So as you were working on it, was it different than your usual collaboration? Was there a different vibe to it? Or how was that?
[00:05:51] MJ: I think it’s a different vibe of a song than I’ve ever written. I really went out on a limb and tried to write something a little different and challenged myself. It felt vulnerable. It felt a little scary. I think that we were – so often with songs, especially because they’re from my album, sometimes Doug will defer to certain things that I want from my album. I think this really felt like we both had something we wanted to accomplish emotionally. Yes, I definitely think that it was extremely difficult and cathartic process writing the song.
[00:06:24] PF: It’s interesting because on this show, we talk a lot about how music heals and soothes us as listeners. But we have never really tackled it from the aspect of how it heals and soothes the songwriter.
[00:06:37] MJ: The writer.
[00:06:38] PF: Yes. So can you talk about how does it change the experience for you as you’re able to write about it? Then after that, let’s talk. You said that sometimes it’s still painful to sing these songs. So I’d love to explore that a little bit more as well.
[00:06:53] MJ: I think that every single song, there have been times that I’ve been writing something that I won’t be able to get to the end of it in therapy or in my own process. Sometimes, a song gets me to the end of it. There are songs that I write that I’m trying to express something I can’t tell a person, whether it’s my mother or my father or my friends or someone in my life that has hurt me or someone I’ve hurt. Sometimes, the only way to get through it is in a song because songs are so unique because they’re poetry, they’re a journal entry, and they’re also a painting. I read a great quote about paintings are how we decorate space, and music is how we decorate time.
[00:07:37] PF: Ooh, I love that.
[00:07:39] MJ: Music is – sometimes, a song will come on, and we’ll start weeping because it will take us to a moment that no words could ever describe. It will take us to our eighth-grade dance. It will take us to a funeral. It’ll take us to a wedding. It will take us to a memory. It’s transformative. So when I’m writing songs, I don’t always hit them out of the park, but they’re always about something real. I don’t write songs about nothing.
When I’ve gone on co-writes, let’s say in Nashville or Los Angeles, sometimes people will want me to write songs about nothing, just to get a song done. It’s just not how my mind works. It has to be about something that I have seen or known or experienced. How lucky am I that I get to process my memories that way.
[00:08:22] PF: Right. Does it change the way you see those memories sometimes?
[00:08:27] MJ: It does. Sometimes, when I sing songs, I have a song about someone who left me, right? Now, the hurt is gone, but I have put in a capsule the way it felt to be there. So I’ll always remember. Even though my memories of it have softened, it’s almost like it marks time. Songs mark time.
There have been a few songs that have been so cathartic to me that they actually – I get over them. I get over the hurt or over the pain because the song takes me over the hump. The song helps me heal in a way that other things could never help me heal. Just talking about something could never help me heal the way a song could help me heal.
[00:09:10] PF: Do you have that moment where you kind of look back at it and say, “Oh, my gosh. I completely changed the way that that feels within me.”?
[00:09:19] MJ: Yes. I think it’s over time. It’s a process where all of a sudden you look back, and you’re further along than you thought you were, these moments of healing. There’s a couple songs that I’m very proud of that that I look at them and I say I was able to capture exactly what I wanted to say in that.
That’s the hardest thing about songwriting. Sometimes, you miss. You miss a lot. You write a lot of bad songs, songs that don’t really hit the nail on the head. Then there are a couple that you are able to say, “I said exactly what I wanted to say, and I was able to satisfy myself and others.” I mean, that’s really hard. You want to write something so specific that it is in turn universal. Like the best songs everyone can relate to, and yet they’re specific to the writer. That’s the biggest challenge of songwriting I think.
[00:10:08] PF: Oh, yes. At what point in your life did you start using songwriting as an outlet? When did you realize just how much power it had for you and that that was what you wanted to do?
[00:10:19] MJ: Oh, my gosh. I came to it so late. I came to it so late. I still consider myself a new songwriter because John Lennon said, “You can’t call yourself a songwriter until you’ve written 100 songs.” I came to it very, very late. I didn’t know that I was going to be a songwriter until I was in my 30s.
[00:10:36] PF: Really?
[00:10:36] MJ: I probably didn’t write my first song until my late 20s. Even at that, I was tiptoeing because I was very intimidated because I am in awe of songwriters. I thought that it was such a difficult task and such a high art. So I think that what has helped me is writing a ton of songs and understanding that it’s okay that a lot of them will be bad or won’t fit somewhere. It’s okay if they remain orphans or if they don’t find a home because the art of it is actually the doing.
[00:11:07] PF: Right.
[00:11:07] MJ: Yes. I came to it very late in life.
[00:11:09] PF: So what brought you into it? At what point did you say, “Okay, I’m going to try this.”?
[00:11:14] MJ: Well, when I started my first band, I started playing shows out in New York, and I got a music manager, and I started trying to get a record deal. A lot of people around me were like, “You need to have a stake in your music. You need to sing something that’s from your heart that’s original. You need to have original music. I think that’s the way that you’re going to break through.”
I’ve always sung covers, and I always will. But I started being encouraged by my management to write. So they would send me on co-writing dates, which is like speed dating, which is hilarious, where you sit down with a stranger and try to write something from your deepest depths. I started just trying it.
I think a real breakthrough for me was my manager sent me to Nashville for a writing week, and I did two writing sessions a day for a week. So I did 14 writing sessions with 14 different collaborators. I realized, okay, I can do this every day. Also, I was always kind of intimidated. They’re an experienced songwriter. I’m not. But then I realized, oh, I know more about this. I’m better than I think. I should be confident. I should lean in. I should celebrate my ideas more. That was really liberating.
[00:12:29] PF: Oh, that’s amazing. So if – your music, do you usually know, hey, this is a great one, and this one’s not as good? Or is it they all feel the same or they’re all your babies? How does that work for you?
[00:12:42] MJ: Doug and I have been writing together for 10 years, and we know if a song doesn’t come together and kind of get finished within an hour or two. We give up and walk away and start again another day. So I think that a good song will show itself to you really quickly. We’ll write in in a couple hours, and then like we have the general sculpture, and then we’ll chisel away at the details.
I tend to think if it’s taking too long, it’s not right. If you’re on hour 7, 8, 9, 10 and you still don’t have a song, something is not right. Some songs just don’t – I have a couple songs I love that just never fit anywhere, never found a home. I call them like the orphan songs.
[00:13:22] PF: You can do the orphan album one day.
[00:13:24] MJ: Exactly, like the B-sides, like we used to do B-sides. So, yes, some songs I love and other people don’t respond to. Then some songs I think are fine and other people love. So the longer I write and the older I get, I get more picky and scrutinizing with my lyrics to really fine boil things down to the finest point. Doug can play anything. So our problem is narrowing down and getting very, very specific because I can sing most things. He can play most things. So we have to use our critical thinking and really get hard on ourselves. Is that good enough, right? Is what you played good enough? Is what you sang good enough? Is that lyric good enough? That’s a really fun part of the puzzle.
[00:14:06] PF: So at what point did you know I’ll Be Holding On was good to go, like that’s what we wanted to say, and it’s ready? Did it take a lot of polishing? Or did you pretty much put it out there together, and it came together quickly?
[00:14:18] MJ: Usually, when we write, we’ll write a song, and then we’ll step away from it. Within a few days of writing, it will make a demo. We’ll sit with it and see if it feels cooked. When we started putting together the instrumentation, we recorded it with just vocals and the whole band. Then when we took it to – there were lots of layers that we started adding. But the chorus, to me, I think we had to work a lot longer on the verses than the – the chorus, to me, felt right right away. We wrote the chorus first, and then we had to go back and through and write the verses. I think that you kind of feel when a song is cooked. Then adding the choir just felt like that was the final glaze.
[00:15:01] PF: Yes. So the video, we got to talk about this because I can’t even call it a video. It’s a film. It’s a short film and incredibly well done. How did that come about? Was that your vision? Was it Jonah’s vision? Was it a combination?
[00:15:16] MJ: So when I sent the entire album to Jonah, I said, “Let’s make a video together. Pick a song, any song.” He picks the longest, most dramatic song on the entire album, and I’m like, “Wow, okay.” He goes, “Tell me what it’s about,” because he just listened to the song and didn’t know the story. I told him the story, and he was like, “Well, now, I really want to do this.’ He sent me a screenplay. He sent me a full –
[00:15:38] PF: Wow. I’m going to interrupt real quick because we should tell people. I know who Jonah is, and you know who Jonah is. Why don’t you tell our listeners who Jonah is?
[00:15:47] MJ: Jonah Z. Helms is my friend, my incredible filmmaker friend. He also directed my video for Give You Up, which was totally different vibe, completely inane and wacky and fun. He’s an incredible empath, like one of the most heartful, thoughtful people I’ve ever known. I really trusted him to tell this story. He wanted to tell a story of taking a friend, a terminally ill friend, on a road trip to see the ocean one last time.
He wrote this beautiful screenplay with like so much detail and so much thoughtful ideas. Everything in the video, from the car, everything in the car, it was set dressed. Everything that you – the crowns. His partner made the crowns that we wear. Every detail was so thoughtfully executed, and the ideas were so clear and beautiful. I don’t have that visual storytelling mind. I just think it’s genius. I wish I had it. But when you are around someone who’s that’s their gift, it’s just so amazing.
We did it on a shoestring budget over three days in the desert. We actually did a road trip. We drove that ‘72 Bronco, the two of us, and they filmed it.
[00:17:06] PF: First of all, where did you all even find that Bronco? Because that was like, “Oh, my God.”
[00:17:11] MJ: Oh, my God. It’s a character in the little film.
[00:17:14] PF: It is.
[00:17:15] MJ: He found it. He rented it from a place that rents exotic or interesting cars. He rented it in LA. We filmed in Southern California. Then we drove up to Pismo Beach to go on the dunes. Yes, we filmed for three days straight in the desert with a very, very small crew. I think there were only six of us, including Pearl and myself, a very small crew. What we got done in the time that we had, I mean. We also shot so many other scenes that we couldn’t include. So it was incredible.
[00:17:48] PF: So when he gave you that vision, were you immediately like, “This is everything.”? How did that land with you?
[00:17:54] MJ: We got on Zoom, actually. Pearl, Jonah, myself got on Zoom and went through every single scene and talked about every portion of it, just like we would. We had like a rehearsal, just like we would for a film and all the beats, everything. The second I read it, I sent it to Doug to read, and he just fell apart crying, just reading it. That’s how I knew it was right is that it was really important to me to capture because Doug lost his best friend. It was really important for me to capture that deep love that you have in a friendship that is inexplicable. I wanted to capture the helplessness, and I wanted it to be cathartic for him to watch.
[00:18:35] PF: It is. It’s so tender. It’s joyous, but it’s also heart-wrenching. As I was watching it for like the fourth time, I was wondering how it was for you to film that because you’re not just an actress. You have lived this, and this is part of your story.
[00:18:53] MJ: It was so painful. I cried for three days straight. I mean, the tears are, obviously, real. Pearl and I bonded so much in the filming and in the road trip that we shared things that we had never shared with anyone else before. So the grief is also her grief. It’s mine. We were like channeling things that we needed to process in a deep way, and we had this vehicle, which was – it was also exhausting. The day on the dunes, like we were physically exhausted, and he was pushing us to our physical limits. It was one of the most fascinating and challenging experiences of my career, and I just needed to cry for three days. We just ended up filming those three days of crying.
[00:19:42] PF: So what kind of response have you had since its release, the song and the video?
[00:19:47] MJ: I’ve had a pretty amazing response to the video. A lot of people sending me selfies of themselves crying, which I think like really touches my heart. I mean, the biggest compliment I could ever receive is that someone is moved by something I create. I think it’s also people aren’t watching it saying, “Oh, I’m sad for you,” or, “Oh, what an interesting story.” They’re watching it and saying that felt like I was there. It felt like I felt my mother, my sister, my father, my friend. I remembered a moment with my best friend. I remembered a moment with my sister. People are feeling connected to it for their own personal life, and that is the goal. That’s the goal.
[00:20:27] PF: Yes. It’s beautifully done. It does give a voice to something we’ve all felt at one time or another. I think that’s why it just pulls us in and makes it our own story. So it’s just incredibly well done. What do you hope it accomplishes?
[00:20:42] MJ: We recorded a few versions where I’m lip-syncing like a traditional music video. In the end, we didn’t use any of those, and I’m so glad because it’s a powerful story with no words, right? It shows the power of our imagination and our eyes and our minds and what we can say without speaking. I hope that people watch it, and it puts voice to something that they have not been able to articulate in their own grieving. I think that so often, it’s just so hard to explain how we feel. It just feels so painful, and it feels locked up inside of our throat or our heart. I want this to speak to that.
[00:21:22] PF: So it’s beautiful. It’s so well done. Morgan, thank you for coming on and talking about this. We’re going to tell our listeners where they can find the video, where they can find you, see more about the music that you’re doing, and just get to know you a little bit better.
[00:21:36] MJ: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having this conversation about something that’s important to me, and it means so much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:21:47] PF: That was Morgan James, talking about how songwriting has helped her manage loss and grief. If you’d like to learn more about Morgan, listen to her music, or follow her on social media, just visit livehappy.com and click on the podcast link. While you’re there, be sure to check out our very cool perfect-for-summer tie-dye Live Happy Now t-shirt in the Live Happy Store. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of On a Positive Note, and I look forward to joining you again next time. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.