Jim James is the 34-year-old frontman of My Morning Jacket, and a member of Monsters of Folk, a 'supergroup' featuring Conor Oberst and M. Ward. My Morning Jacket arose from the Kentucky countryside with 1999's harmony-rich The Tennessee Fire, but it was 2001's At Dawn that served as their breakout. Thereafter, through Christmas records, Grammy nominations, and headlining spots at Bonnaroo, My Morning Jacket became one of the most influential acts of the 2000s, with bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses hugely influenced by their trademark 'grain silo sound.' In 2012, James announced the release of his debut solo album, and Regions of Light and Sound of God arrived early in 2013 in a swirl of retrofuturistic, psychedelic soul.
Interview: December 14, 2012
Why make a solo record? What was the real impetus or moment of inspiration behind it?
"I've always made solo recordings, but, usually, they're part of a really intensive demo-ing process, and eventually most of them will lead to a My Morning Jacket record. When we were working on [2008's] Evil Urges, the guy we were working with, Joe Chiccarelli, gave me a great piece of advice: he said never make demos that are too complex, because you'll lose a lot of the emotion when you try and re-make it into the studio, because you've put too much into the demo. That really struck me. Since then, I've built a studio at home, so that when I get ideas, I can just start working on it straight away, with the intensity that I want to work on it with. It's not a demo anymore, it's just a recording. So, I had a bunch of songs coming out of me, and some of them I knew I didn't want to bring to the band, I just wanted to keep on working on them by myself."
What was about the songs that suggested that they were ones you wanted to pursue by yourself?
"I honestly don't know. It's just kind of a feeling that I get. Some songs just say to me they want to be worked on by myself, others want to be worked on by the band. Sometimes, later in the game, they'll change their minds, and jump sides. It feels like they have a mind of their own."
My Morning Jacket seems pretty wide-open to testing out, like, anything. But, were there things you felt you could explore in a solo context that you couldn't with the band?
"My Morning Jacket is definitely free; we can explore whatever the hell we want. With this, I felt like it was more a matter of me wanting to explore the studio, and play instruments that I don't really have to play in My Morning Jacket. When we play it's a thing, and I don't have to play bass and keyboards. But I love playing bass and keyboards! I wanted to do a project where I could play everything myself, for fun. It was this thing for fun."
When did it become something not-just-fun, but the more serious endeavour of making-the-album? When did the LP start to take on an identity of its own?
"They popped into my head with that identity already formed. They knew what they wanted to be. I just had to try and make that a reality. To do the work to make that into an actual thing."
And what was that identity?
"The major inspiration for this record was this book God's Man [by Lynd Ward]. It's basically the story of an artist unknowingly selling his soul to the devil, falling from fame-and-fortune, meeting the love of his life, turning his life back around, and then having to pay back the devil at the end. When I saw the book, I felt like I had known it from another life or something; I had this very powerful sense of déjà vu. And I had had some incidents in my life that had occurred that were very similar to things in the book: I was injured [in a 2008 fall-from-stage in Iowa City], went through a very traumatic injury and subsequent recovery process, and in that process met someone and fell in love, and felt like I had been rescued from that very dark place. That happens in God's Man; where the almost falls from grace and is almost killed, only to be rescued by this woman who turns out to be the love of his life. So, I kind of started scoring the book, writing music for it; because the book is very cinematic. Most of the basis for that album was formed by that experience."
If you were treating it as a pseudo-film-score, what did the text and its themes suggest to you in terms of instrumental approach, or tone, or sound?
"The book came out in 1929, and the copy I got was an original from then, so it suggested to me something very old, but also super-futuristic. That's what just came shootin' outta me. Because the book feels futuristic, somehow. I know that futuristic from 1929 could've been, like, 1969, but to me it felt like it was from a future beyond our time. I wanted to make it sound like it was someone from the future trying to record something that sounds like it was from the past, but you're hearing it even further in the future. If that makes sense."
You mean, say, someone in 2030 trying to recreate 1930?
"More like somebody in 4019 hearing the sound of 3975. [laughs]"
Did making an album wholly by yourself feel like taking on a huge burden? Was it liberating?
"It was just fun. It was just fun. I love playing all those things. I love being in the studio. I didn't really even tell anyone I was making it until I knew I was going to be able to finish this thing. I didn't have any deadlines, no one was breathing down my neck, waiting for me to deliver this thing. It was really just a fun experience. I can't say 'fun' enough."
Is that how it can feel making a My Morning Jacket album: expectations, pressure, deadlines?
"Some records have felt like that, others haven't. Depends on the place that we've been at the time."
Are you touring this record?
"I'm definitely going to tour it. I'm in the process of trying to put a band together. We'll see how it goes, see how the tour goes, and then we'll let it dictate how much we do or don't do."
How do you see this album as relating to the rest of your discography, your body-of-work?
"I just feel really proud of it, first of all, mostly; I gave it everything I could until it was done, and it had to go. Now I'm excited to tour it, and bring it to the world. And I think it fits in really good. I think it has its place in there, definitely, in the canon. Everything that someone makes —whether they're an artist or a musician or a painter or whatever— is totally going to fit into the one continuum, no matter how much it seems like it might be different. What you're effectively saying, when you make anything artistic, is: 'This was me, then. This is what I was, and where I was, in this period of my life.' Hopefully you're also saying: 'and this is the best I could do.' So, in that sense, I feel like any record I've ever made, when I turned it in, I knew that at that time I gave it everything I had. I loved it, I believed in it 100%, and at that moment in time, that was the sound of me, for better or worse."
Does that mean that, if you hear an old album, you are really taken back to that moment in time? Has your life been charted in two-year increments?
"Absolutely. Making albums, it's kind of like you're constantly creating these little time machines, or something. When I hear a record or a song from a different time in my life, it takes me back to then. They're all documents of my life over the past 15 years. Old records are like old photo albums. Live, it's more of a different thing. Sometimes you get the nostalgia of a different time, but not that often. Even when you're playing a song that you've written ten years ago, it's still me now playing it, and interpreting it, so you're kind of naturally bringing it into how you are at the moment. Touring and playing is such a different thing to hearing an old recording; with is a literal document of recorded time from another time. Like, you're hearing the air from 1999, as opposed to just playing that song from 1999 in the here-and-now. When you do that, you're placing the filter of you now, and that makes it different; you're seeing and hearing it as the person you are now."
When you listen to old records, can they ever feel like they were made by a different person?
"Yeah, totally. Sometimes I look at or listen to things I've done and think: 'What the f**k was I thinking? Who was the person who said that? Who made that?' And even that changes over time. Like, for a couple of years I'll hate songs from a record we did, or I'll hate a record, and I won't want to play any of those songs live. Then, a year later, for no reason, I'll really like that record, and I'll want to play the songs again. And I really don't even know why. It's a mystery to me."