by John Carucci
NEW YORK (AP) — Covering the music of the late Nina Simone seemed like a natural choice for Morgan James. From an early age, the Broadway actress says she’s had an old soul that felt a connection to the legendary singer. Her first solo album, “Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone,” captures James live at the New York jazz club Dizzy’s paying tribute to Simone.
Now that album is out of the way, James is turning her attention to another soul project, “Motown: The Musical.” Set to open on Broadway in April, it tells the story of the record label’s founder, Berry Gordy Jr. James last starred on Broadway in the 2011 revival of “Godspell.” Recently, she sat down with The Associated Press to talk about the album, her next musical, and her childhood ambition.
AP: You call Nina Simone your idol; what are your similarities?
James: My sound and my singing has evolved since I’ve been in New York. I came to New York to go to The Juilliard School to study music. And so did Nina. So that’s one of the reason I feel a kindred spirit to Nina.
AP: What makes you two kindred spirits?
James: I’ve been very, very focused on what I want and what I have to say. I’ve been very connected for as long as I can remember to African-American culture and music. So I feel like Nina and I are more connected than we appear to be.
AP: Now that the album is out, it’s back to Broadway?
James: I’m about to do my fourth Broadway show which is ‘Motown: The Musical,’ which is a musical about Berry Gordy’s life and Berry is one of my mentors and he has been incredible for me in terms of his belief in me as an artist, as a singer, as a woman and he always jokes you know they joke everybody in the cast says well, ‘Morgan’s not white, she’s light-skinned.’ I think that’s just on the outside. I think my connection to the culture, my connection to Nina goes beyond that.
AP: Tell us about “Motown: The Musical.” Who are you playing?
James: I play all the White people (laughs) sot here’s that. There weren’t very many. I play Tina Marie. I play Doris Day. And I play various other white women (laughs). It is such an incredible cast and it’s so amazing to be with Berry every single day, to meet Smokey (Robinson), to meet some of these incredibly iconic people. Not everybody gets to sit and listen to Berry tell these stories first-hand. So, yeah, when I went in to audition for ‘Motown’ I remember vividly that the description for the audition said, ‘Needs to look like Doris Day and sound like Tina Marie’ and I walked in and I said, ‘This is me’ (laughs.) Talk about confidence. I said, ‘If I don’t get this I don’t know what to tell you’ (laughs.) I felt like it was really I was meant to be there.”
AP: Who inspired you to sing?
James: I went through different stages. At the beginning it was Joan Sutherland and Barbara Cook and Leontyne Price. Then it was Barbra Streisand and Linda Eder and Curly Carmelo. Then Joni Mitchell. I went through so many phases of the people who inspire me, and so many of them inspire me still.
AP: You’re such an old soul, what’s your guilty pleasure, metal?
James: No heavy metal for me. No, no, no. I love hip-hop, though, and I love R&B. I know a guilty pleasure, I love D’Angelo. I love Maxwell, D’Angelo, Prince. I would love it if it were ’92 and I could make a D’Angelo record.
AP: With so much singing, how do you take care of your voice?
James: One of my secret things is oregano oil. I go with it everywhere, and that’s a natural antibiotic. If I were to feel under the weather, I would put four drops of oregano oil in water. I do a lot of juices. I also love straight honey, or honey and hot water.
AP: Is performing what little Morgan always dreamed of doing?
James: Baby Morgan wanted to be a vet so (laughs) I think this is bigger and better than I ever could have imagined.
John Carucci covers entertainment for The Associated Press. Follow him at http:/www.twitter.com/jcarucci_ap