James studied opera at the Julliard School, but her big break was on Broadway. Her debut in a 2010 production of “The Addams Family,” starring Nathan Lane, was followed by appearances in “Godspell” and “Motown: The Musical.” But even while she was enjoying Broadway success, James was moonlighting as a soul singer in New York clubs. In 2012, she recorded “Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone.” In 2013, James left Broadway to pursue a solo singing career.
In 2014, James recorded “Hunter,” her first album of original songs. Her solo career was bolstered by a stint with Postmodern Jukebox. The brainchild of Scott Bradlee, Postmodern Jukebox is known for its Youtube videos of popular songs redone in the musical styles of the early-to-mid 20th century. The group’s 1970s soul version of Maroon 5’s “Maps,” featuring James on lead vocals, has racked up almost 6.7 million views.
The singer brings her tour to the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre Sunday. City Pulse talked to James about her musical journey and what’s next for her.
What can people expect from your show Sunday?
I call myself a soul singer. If you like soul from the ‘60s and ‘70s and if you like storytelling, my show would be for you. I talk about why songs mean something, and I tell jokes, and my band is absolutely incredible. If you’re looking for a bunch of backup dancers and lights and fire, that’s not my show. I sing long and hard. Putting on a live show is so important to me, I think that’s truly my calling.
There won’t be any Broadway stuff. I’m going to be mostly singing from my album, “Hunter,” and I’ll be premiering some brand new music. We’ll do four or five of our favorite covers as well.
Your debut album was a collection of Nina Simone covers. How has her music influenced your approach now that you are writing your own music?
Nina Simone is such a passion of mine, and I’m so influenced by these mentors who came before me and did it so well. Nina, Aretha (Franklin), Donny Hathaway, D’Angelo, Prince, those are such big influences. They really taught me how to be an interpreter of songs.
So when it came time to write music and create an album of my own, I wanted to really make an album of personal songs, of story songs with rich textures, lots of different instrumentation — a lot of variety, because those are the kind of albums that I love. And writing music is such a challenge and it’s such a daunting task. It was such an incredible experience to write my first album of original music and put together my first studio album. You hear all the influences of the people that really shaped me, but I really feel like my own voice comes out.
What was it like working with Postmodern Jukebox?
The first video we did was “Maps,” and (Bradlee) really let me take a creative role in that. He always lets his band and his collaborators have a hand in the arrangements. With all the songs I did, I had something in my mind that I wanted to do and then he shaped it and made the arrangement for the band. It was very collaborative. But it’s very thrown together. The videos are nerve-wracking because you get together, you arrange a song, and an hour later the process is done. It’s very fast. I think I’ve done eight videos with Scott, and I did three tours with him. It was a blast.
You graduated from the Julliard School in 2003, but your Broadway debut was in 2008. What were you doing during those five years?
That was a very dark period. That was unemployment, trying to find my way, trying to find my voice, not getting any work, waiting tables. I couldn’t find my path. I was doing some regional theater, but I couldn’t seem to get on Broadway.
The theater audition world is just so brutal. And being poor in New York is also very brutal. I think that those years are really what shape you to be the person you’re going to be, and that’s what decides whether you want to stick with it, whether you want to stay in New York — whether you even want to continue to make music. Because if you can survive those dark times, you know that you can survive anything. That’s what those years were.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to Broadway?
Life is long. Right now I can’t do them both — logistically I can’t do them both at the same time. Right now I’m just focused on what I want to do now, which is continuing to write the next album, continuing to tour and just honing all the music in with my band, and I’m having such a great time doing that. But I would love the opportunity, if one presented itself, to go back to Broadway. That’s my roots.
With special guest Celisse Henderson 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6 $45 Pasant Theatre Wharton Center, 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing. (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com