Interview: Jim James From My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket frontman, Jim James, opens up to Louder Than War about the recording of new album The Waterfall.
My Morning Jacket released their seventh studio album last week and you can read our review here. This much-anticipated release followed a four year hiatus since their previous offering, Circuital, which made a number of lists for best album of 2011, including Uncut and Rolling Stone.
Formed in Louisville, Kentucky in 1998, My Morning Jacket released their debut album, Tennessee Fire followed by At Dawn and then what is often seen as their ‘breakthrough’ album 2003’s It Still Moves. My Morning Jacket have drawn a range of comparisons during their career, probably most often with Neil Young, but in truth their blend of heartbreak and spiritual searching rock-blues fused alt-country is pretty ground-breaking and is probably best filed in that most desired of categories – ‘original’.
The afore-mentioned Circuital sits alongside Z as being considered the band’s finest. However, any offering from My Morning Jacket is characterised by yearning melodies and imaginative arrangements that immediately drag the listener into Jim James’s consideration of the nature of life.
On the eve of the release of The Waterfall, Jim James took time out to talk to Louder Than War about the recording of the new album and future plans of My Morning Jacket.
LTW: You’ve spoken about the impact of the location of California’s Stinson Beach, on the writing and recording of The Waterfall. Can you describe it for us and how it comes through on the album?
Jim James: Yes it is like being on the moon it is like all of nature is enhanced. It is so incredible being right next to the ocean, seeing the ocean while you sing and play and live. We had never had the ocean that close before and it was a big force on the record. Stinson beach- the curve of the bay is so beautiful, Muir woods is right there, sunsets on Mt Tam are so epic. It is a truly amazing place.
You already had a number of songs written but were inspired to write more by Stinson Beach. That probably adds up to a lot – how hard was it to select for The Waterfall and can we expect another release soon (did you consider a double album)?
Yes we recorded quite a few songs. But in the end just these felt right for The Waterfall. We have many more that we really like that will be included on the next album, but it is not like a part one and part two type of thing- just two different albums. Hard to know what the future will hold.
Opener ‘Believe (Nobody Knows) seems to capture one of the album’s themes of a sort of individual spirituality. Religious issues at present are a thorny issue but you seem to be saying that no one can really decry anyone else’s belief. How important are these issues to you?
Yes I think it’s very important that we all be allowed to practice whatever makes sense to us spiritually, as long as it is not harming others…I think that is one of the most disturbing things about humans – how we use things that are supposed to be “good” like religion etc to repress and harm others. I think people should be left alone to believe what they want to believe and love who they want to love cuz at the end of the day no one can prove anything…nobody really knows what is right and what is wrong so it should be a personal journey of what feels right to you.
On the other hand, Get the Point is a beautiful song, but pretty hard hitting in the message it conveys. Do you need personal experience for that sort of song or can you get ‘into role’?
It’s always different for me – some songs come from personal experience but others are abstract word puzzles I enjoy putting together. Even if something does come from personal experience I try to write it in a way that does not give too much personal detail – because I am a private person and I want privacy for the people in my life as well. Plus I think the less specific detail the more relevant and useful it will be to someone else.
When you are writing songs, how far are you simply expressing yourself or do you think about reaching out to (and maybe even helping) the people who will hear the song?
It’s kind of both. I try to express myself and fulfil the voices I hear in my head – creating a landscape that I enjoy, but also of course I hope that someone else outside enjoys the song and gets something positive out of the experience.
You’ve said that you have accepted an inability to explain any of the big spiritual questions – does The Waterfall represent a sort of acceptance of that for you and did it help in the writing process?
Yes, that’s kind of what ‘Believe’ is about – that nobody really knows the answer to any of these questions…there are lots of theories…and I will keep searching because I am a seeker and spirituality is very important to me…but really I feel like we must accept that there are some things we will never know…and yes that definitely is a deeper part of all of these songs.
How far do you feel The Waterfall will take the audience in a new direction and how important is that to you?
I hope people feel surprised and happy when they listen to the album. I like that feeling of putting on a record and feeling slightly confused by it…in a good way. Almost as if you think you may have gotten the wrong record. I always hope people have that experience – but then ultimately it becomes an enjoyable experience and something familiar that they love and go back to time and time again.
Listening to the album I hear a band at the height of their powers – are you in a situation where you work together so well that the creative process is almost instinctive?
We are very blessed to be able to work together in a peaceful way. When we get together it is with a pleasure that comes with seeing old friend s- because perhaps it has been some time since we last were all together. And we know it may be some time until we are together again – so we try to really value our time together and not waste it and hopefully be a force of good.
There is a real sense of maturity and reflection about the album – could you envisage writing something like this when you first set out?
Thank you. Well I feel like we all change so much from year to year – so the me that exists now is so different from the me that first started writing music, both musically and personally, so I think that one of the coolest things about making records is that you are leaving behind these little time capsules that reflect how much life has changed – both for you and for the listener who will hear the time capsule from 10 years ago and reflect on how their life was back then and hopefully how they can make it better now and in the future.
The Waterfall has the same production team as Circuital, the first time you’ve worked with someone twice. What does Tucker Martine bring to the process?
Tucker has a heart of gold and ears of gold. He is able to be a good policeman and tell us when we are messing up and need to do better – but he also fits right into the group as one of us and we have lots of laughs like we have known each other since the dawn of time. I know what I want and Tucker helps us get there.
I wouldn’t try to put influences or reference points on The Waterfall as it sounds very fresh/individual to me, but do you have any that you feel may (consciously or unconsciously) be important?
I think that anything we may have listened to from birth until now is an influence. everything you hear is an influence – be it positive or negative – you hear something you like and it gets filed away subconsciously in the positive drawer that you’d like to expand upon, or you hear something you don’t like and it gets filed away in the “try and stay away from that!” drawer! Or you hear the birds chirping and the breeze blowing and the waterfall flowing and all that gets stored away somewhere too and comes back out in what you do.
Looking back to Circuital and the critical acclaim it received; was that something that interests you and did you feel any pressure to follow up with something similar?
Everything is relative. I don’t feel like Circuital received universal acclaim. Some groups liked it some did not. I feel like it’s that way with all of our records, so there is really no pressure other than the pressure we put on ourselves to make something that we enjoy and hope is great. Because at the end of the day someone is always going to hate it and hopefully someone will love it. That feels very freeing to me.
You took some time off after touring Circuital, can you tell us about your solo project and any future plans you may have in that area?
Yes it just comes from really enjoying creating music and working alone. I love creating with the band but I also really love spending time in the studio alone and just working on things…seeing what happens. Building musical structures out of thin air not really knowing where they will go. The solo record is just born from that slow process…working on things without any real goal or deadline.
You will be touring The Waterfall soon, is that something you look forward to still?
Touring is a mixed bag. it can be incredibly fun and I do look forward to the time spent onstage with the guys and with the fans. I really feel like that experience is such an important shared experience that cannot be completed without the circle of people watching and people performing so much so that everyone becomes the same.
What sort of setlist can we expect?
We are going to do the spontaneous curation series again where fans can request songs they want to hear and that will help us change the setlist up from night to night.
What would be the plans for the next year or so?
To try and become a more peaceful person to try and learn from my mistakes and grow. To try and enjoy each moment as it happens and be grateful for it. And also tour a lot. And then hopefully settle back down and make more music.