Gather 'round the Jim James campfire: "I have this weird apocalyptic vision of once the power goes out"

Salon talks to the My Morning Jacket frontman about his new solo album "Eternally Even" and why peace and love rule

Published November 4, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

Jim James   (Danny Clinch)
Jim James (Danny Clinch)

Jim James is worried about the state of the world.

He makes that clear on his newest album, "Eternally Even." A meditation on war, mortality and greed might not read like a must-have listening pleasure but the record is also a masterful conjuring of hopefulness. Being released at the height of election fever — on Nov. 4 by ATO/Capitol Records — makes it incredibly timely. The album is stamped by James’ signature sound, using elements of rock, funk, blues, country and soul to deliver a balm for hard times, as well as a warning call that we have to be part of changing what’s wrong. "Eternally Even" fairly bursts with layers of drums, saxophone, strings, organs and much more. James is at the height of his vocal powers here and showcases it on tightly written songs that already have NPR calling the album the work of a “consummate singer-songwriter.”

At 38, James has built a rock-solid reputation as one of rock’s true artists. He serves as the frontman for My Morning Jacket, the Louisville, Kentucky-based band that enjoys perennial popularity. Their following is especially buoyed by their excellent live performances and has steadily increased over the years. 2015’s "The Waterfall" debuted at #11 on the Billboard 200 and garnered a Grammy nomination. Simultaneously, James has collaborated with everyone from Roger Waters to Brittany Howard (a thrilling reimagining of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it that Way”) to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and appeared in the super-groups Monsters of Folk and The New Basement Tapes. Lately James has started making a name for himself as a nuanced, details-oriented producer who has overseen acclaimed efforts by folks like Ray LaMontagne ("Ouroboros," 2016), Basia Bulat ("Good Advice," 2016) and Daniel Martin Moore (co-producer, "Golden Age," 2015).

He’s known in the industry for his willingness to collaborate, but fans have been especially drawn to his intimate solo projects. Those include "Tribute To," a 2009 EP that was made up of George Harrison covers. James had recorded the songs eight years earlier, just after Harrison’s death, on a borrowed eight-track reel-to-reel. In 2013 he released his first full-length solo album, "Regions of Light and Sound of God," inspired by a 1929 graphic novel.

"Regions . . ." was as tender and elegiac as "Eternally Even" is gritty and aggressive. But the two are joined by supreme musicianship and an aching spirituality.

"Eternally Even" is a testament to the fact that songs of protest can lead to complex art, transcending the issues and speaking to not only our brains, but even more to our ears.

In person, James is sweet and soft-spoken, quietly strolling the streets of his beloved Louisville. When we enter a crowded Mexican restaurant in his neighborhood most of the people there look up, elbow their neighbor to alert them that James is there, but don’t bother him. Over dinner he becomes rhapsodic when finding out that I have never heard Washington Phillips, a haunting gospel-blues singer of the late 1920s who played unique arrangements on zither-like instruments. James is so intent on spreading the word about the power of great music that he sends me a copy of the record the very next day.

As our conversation proves, James is very concerned with what’s going on in the world, and perhaps even more with the importance of art, which he believes cannot only heal us, but maybe even save us.

"Eternally Even" has some pretty profound themes, calling out what’s wrong in the world without losing sight of hope. That’s what it says to me. But what’s it about to you?

It's hard to say what an album is about — because each one is usually about a lot of things to me, but then I hope it also can mean a lot of different things to someone else. That's the beautiful thing about music. I know I have been feeling very frustrated with the world as of late . . . with all of the killing and injustice and inequality and environmental problems, and of course the ridiculous election. It just seems like we’re moving farther and farther away from what I know in my heart we can be, which is a just and loving world that takes care of its citizens regardless of race, class or creed. It could be and it should be so easy. So long story short, I have been thinking about all of this — amongst other personal stuff, of course — and just wanting to be a part of the discussion and hopefully raise some awareness of the fact that peace and love for all is possible.

What keeps it from being possible for us?

Greed keeps getting in the way. I think it really all boils down to greed, time and time again. We have been raised to think in terms of greed and getting as much as you can for you at any costs. Imagine if we prided ourselves on taking care of one another? Imagine if the greatest place one could hold in society was that of the caretaker and nurturer?

One of the songs, “Same Old Lie,” seems especially relevant right now. It’s about a lot of things, but particularly about the way politicians pit us against one another for their own gain and how we might be able to live together in harmony if they weren’t always dividing us. Fair interpretation?  

Yes. Just so sick of politics and this election. Enough is enough. The rules need to change so the good people don't keep getting buried while the liars with the most money and ruthlessness rise to the top. I still have hope but I don't think the lobbyists and powers-that-be will ever be able to let go of their greed and let people live in peace.

There’s also quite a bit about war and destruction. The election cycle certainly had an impact on your songwriting.

Yep. It just seems so easy to me, like here is the answer: love. Right in front of us the entire time. And we are killing and fighting and dying. How anyone ever believes that violence is the answer when time and time again that has proven to be wrong. It's like Donald Trump with his fucking talk of the wall: Walls don't work! How many times do we have to see this play out in history?

The album manages to not be all gloom and doom because you do focus on love throughout. In songs like "The World’s Smiling Now" and "Here in Spirit" you seem to be celebrating the idea of love — not so much a romantic notion, more about the essential thing that holds us all together as people. To me, they’re songs about love in its purest form. Right?

Yes and no. I'd say they are each about both. But mainly, yes, that essential thing: love. The most innocent and precious and wonderful of gifts on this earth and people are fighting and killing each other about it over such superficial reasons. It's insane. I mean come on, people. It's not that hard. Love is love, let’s take it any way we can get it. But again it comes back to greed and big religion and fear-based brainwashing. Big religion was started with one goal in mind: to make money. And I'm not knocking anyone's faith because I think there are a lot of good values to be found in any faith. But when any faith starts to get in the way of love that's where you can tell that greed and fear have stepped in and that those things come from man.

Mortality is a thread that goes throughout the same album. It shows up in several songs [such as “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger (Parts 1 & 2)," "Hide In Plain Sight"]. The word “eternally” is even in the album title. Why is this on your mind so much these days?

I guess times have just been dark in a lot of ways. I think it's hard for all of us to not think of mortality with the police shootings and ISIS and the thought of Trump plunging us into some kind of crazy abyss of death, destruction and hatred. I just have felt the intense feeling of really trying to enjoy life to the fullest while you can ’cause who knows how long we may get.

Another theme that arises on the album is making one’s voice heard. In at least three songs the narrative voice is encouraging someone else to speak out, to “let it be known.”

I just think bad vibes and hate and Trump are getting so much airtime we need to speak out loud for peace and equality and fairness and make sure we all know that there are a lot of us out here in the world that just want love. We want everyone to be able to live and love as they see fit and take care of their families in safety and comfort and peace. We really all need to be saying this as loudly and as calmly as we can because if we don't we could stand to lose everything. No one can afford to stay silent. This is not about politics. It's about peace and love, pure and simple.

There are lots of questions being asked on this album. Songs ask questions like “Is this love?”, “Are you waiting just for me?”, “Did you think you could hide in plain sight?”, “Are you wiling to forget that this ever happened?” and so on. Was that intentional, that this would be a record that would be asking questions of the listener or some unknown entity?

I feel like that's pretty much my entire lyrical output, me questioning everything! I feel like it's so hard for me to accept why shit has to be so tough on this earth. Why is it so hard to find lasting love? Why is it so hard to eat right? Why is it so hard to be able to pay for healthcare for one’s self and one’s family? Why do people hate like they do and judge people they know nothing about blindly in the name of religion? But through all these questions and challenges I still feel rays of hope shine in, and I still have many good days and enjoy life a great deal and I hope that comes through in my music as well — that perhaps we may never find the answers, but we must try as hard as we can to enjoy the searching, to enjoy the ride.

Let’s talk about the sound of the record. What were you going for sonically?

I wanted it to sound like shit, but in a really beautiful way.

On a song like “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger, Part One,” we start out with this synthesizer and then the bass line comes in and the drums and it all builds and builds in this heartbeat rhythm that carries the listener for a kind of six-minute intro to part two of the song.

I still think about albums as journeys and songs as journeys, and intros and outros and sequencing. I feel like building an album is like building a little world that someone gets to live in. I understand our society has become single-based and that music has become so disposable. Our labels have sold us down the river for nothing to the Spotifys and YouTubes and streaming services and we literally get nothing from our music and we try and fight but it's like the healthcare battle, and greed wins time and time again. But you know what? Who. Fucking. Cares. Because the people who love music are still going to keep making music the way we want and we don't care if you fucking buy it or steal it as long as you enjoy it. Would I like for people to pay for my music the same as they would pay for a meal in a restaurant or an electrician coming over to fix the power? Of course. Is that going to happen again in my lifetime? Probably not. So fuck it. I’m going to focus on the music and hope that maybe someone in power will stand up and fix the business end of it.

Right. The music is what matters. That’s the part that lasts.

I have this weird apocalyptic vision of once the power goes out and we are all huddled around campfires playing acoustic guitars and living in small communities off the grid that there will be people who ride around in horse-pulled wagons filled with lots of records and Victrola-type machines that play them, so you can still listen to recorded music without power. And maybe then, hundreds of years from now, someone will have found one of my records and people will take the journey then, and sit around the campfire and bathe in music the way we wish people would now. They will be enriched and not be checking their phones or have the music playing out of their laptop speakers while they check email and Facebook. They will take the journey unplugged from the world. Perhaps they will plug in to the beauty and power of music and how if you let it, it can really change your life from the inside out.

The song “World’s Smiling” has a Bill Withers kind of feel to it. And even though “In the Moment” has that funk going on in the background there is a country structure to the song. Yet it all has the signature sound of Jim James all over it. So what are your major influences and how do you achieve that signature sound that stamps everything you do?

I'm not sure. There are so many influences. I was lucky enough to meet Bill at a tribute concert to him and he was one of the most gracious and humble people I have ever met. So real. I know it has been said about him time and time again but he really was so real. Same with Neil Young. You meet a guy like that, a true hero, and they live up to the legend. Or you meet a person like Dylan and you meet a ghost. There is no one there to meet except the mystery they choose to present you with, which is also so beautiful. Then there are the true ghosts like Nina and Etta and Duke and Miles and Harrison and Orbison. You meet them in your mind with your eyes closed and you see them like you want to see them and I guess they are all in there somewhere in my music, though there is no conscious intention on my part to make any one thing sound like any other thing.

I would love to produce a duet record with Neil Young and Bill Withers. I think the earth just might end if you got those two in a studio.

You recently told Rolling Stone that “Music is God and God is love.”

Well, it's really so simple and so many have said it for so long. Love is the zone, that space you get into when all time and thought disappears and you are just you at your most pure and beautiful level and at that level we are all the same and we all disappear — when you are making love or playing a great game or having a great conversation or of course making music or art or writing — there is that place where we cease to exist and we become love itself, we become God and we have no race, no creed, there is only the force. There is only pure love and that is the reason I believe we are all truly the same and that love is the only answer.

The concept of God or some kind of force in the universe is something you’ve often talked about, and that sort of spirituality is present in much of your music. Did you grow up in a pretty religious family?

I’m a recovering Catholic. Again, I’m not judging anyone else's faith and I think there are wonderful things to be found in every faith. But I also think we cannot be sheep and we need to think for ourselves and take the things that make sense to us from all the faiths and weave them into our own beautiful faith and respect that everyone's faith is going to be a little different but that's okay, it's theirs.

You’ve said that all the music industry cares about is moving units. Yet you’re a major-label artist who seems to have had real autonomy over your own work. How have you struck that balance?

It’s been a battle. I’ve had to fight for everything I've had because we [My Morning Jacket] have never been a hugely successful artist in a monetary sense. We have never had a hit single. We have just steadily done what we have done and we’ve had a great team around us of management and legal and booking, a fantastic team that really works and fights for us. I owe them so much thanks for allowing me to be able to create what I want to create.

Why do you believe so strongly in the importance of walking or being in motion to foster that creative energy of yours?

I just see it quite literally as moving the blood, moving the energy. Energy is real. Everyone knows stale energy is bad. Whether that's in a relationship or a job or just sitting too long and feeling lazy you need to go take a walk and clear your mind. Especially if I’m working long hours on a project and in the studio sitting with no windows . . . I'm just like “Fuck it, I need to get out in the sun and take a walk.” It really helps.

In 2008 you took a much-seen and much-talked-about tumble off a stage and later said that “it was meant to happen” to you. Why? And what did you learn from that experience?

I feel like we live the way we do. And if we live with eyes closed eventually we are going to fall off something or drive into something or drown in something. I think for me it was a wake-up call to try and be more conscious and take more chances and take things more seriously ’cause there is a clock ticking and time is running out and we can't sleep, we need to get up and live. It's funny, though, how we can survive these traumatic things and still make the same mistakes sometimes but hopefully even the awareness that we are making the same mistakes is a step forward from total blindness. I think that's where meditation comes in and helps as well . . . just brings more awareness to life so you can see what is really happening. Really see the mistakes you make and hope you can actually learn from them and grow and move on to the next challenge.

Anyone who’s seen you perform knows what a mesmerizing experience it is. It seems as if you go into a really centered, focused place while you’re on stage. Does it feel that way to you?

It's just a separate reality. I’m a different person onstage. Sometimes it feels like I literally am physically, as well, and maybe I am. I try not to think about it too much.

In the past year you’ve produced beautiful albums for both Ray LaMontagne and Basia Bulat.

I’ve been so lucky to produce music with so many great folks. I love it because it allows me to work on and have fun with music but it's not about me. It's about someone else's thoughts and feelings on the world and it gives me a chance to see it all through someone else's eyes. That’s such a beautiful experience that brings so much new joy to my own work and once again reminds me how connected we all are.

By Silas House

Silas House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels. His latest, "Southernmost," will be released in paperback on June 4.

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