Man Of God: Jim James Of My Morning Jacket Interviewed

It takes all sorts. A singer in a band can make a solo album for a variety of reasons. Thom Yorke used The Eraser to delve deeper into his tortured psyche, and when Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis released the buoyant Rabbit Fur Coat it was the sound of an artist escaping the stifling poison of a fractured group. Last year, The Charlatan’s Tim Burgess grabbed the opportunity to work with his musical hero Kurt Wagner and the triumphant Oh No I Love You was born.

However, as sources of inspirations go, Jim James – of Kentucky psych-rockers My Morning Jacket – is surely the first musician to be inspired by an 80-year-old wordless book created from woodcarvings. God’s Man is by the American graphic novelist Lynd Ward and it resonated deeply with the singer-songwriter at a particularly difficult time for him. In October 2008, James suffered a serious head injury after falling off stage in Iowa City. In the subsequent months, as his life briefly unravelled, he took solace in Ward’s Art Deco-styled pictures and the concept for the sparkling Regions Of Light And Sound Of God was ignited.

When we speak Jim has a head full of snot, but his Louisville drawl makes every sentence and snuffle sound poetic. He’s in reflective mood about the album’s genesis – in the space of a few minutes we concur that suffering and loss have a transcendental habit of enriching one’s life. Jim then deftly guides me through his childhood musical loves – a list that includes soft-rocker Dan Fogelberg, Neil Young, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and, rather thrillingly, the music from The Muppet Show.

Indeed, during their 15-year career, My Morning Jacket’s eclecticism has allowed them to explore the sonic landscape beyond their Southern rock roots. While the band’s two most recent albums (2008’s Evil Urges and 2011’s Circuital) dabbled in funk and soul, Regions Of Light And Sound Of God is an expert melding of psychedelic rock, analog electronica and warm strings. “I wanted to make an album that sounded futuristic in an old way,” Jim tells me – which is as good a reason as any to make a solo record.

The album was inspired by Lynd Ward’s God’s Man – how did you find out about the book?

Jim James: My friend gave to me as a gift when we were working on the Evil Urges record. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen and it really struck a deep chord in me. I got really sucked into it in a very cinematic way. I would fantasise about making the book into a film at some point. I was obsessed with the book and kind of started scoring it and that’s where a lot of music for this record came from.

What was it that resonated with you so much?

JJ: The book struck deep with me as I had had a couple of things that had happened to me in my life that related to some events in the book. I felt I was almost living part of the book. The main character, who is an artist and down on his luck, unknowingly sells his soul to the Devil. He meets a guy who sells him a magic paintbrush – anything painted with the brush will turn to gold. So, he becomes a success but he learns too late that his life is empty and it had all been a trick. He gets chased out of town, falls off a cliff and is injured. He then meets a woman who nurses him back to health and they have a beautiful life together. But, in the end, the devil comes back for his due.

I remember you had that bad fall during a show in 2008.

JJ: Yes, I had the injury where I fell off stage. I was injured and out for a while – I remember feeling that it was maybe the end of my time on this planet. Although I didn’t really feel like I had sold my soul to the Devil, I related to the themes of temptation and I felt I had trodden a dark path and it had literally turned into me falling off that path. But then, luckily, I met a wonderful person and fell in love and all that jazz. Things turned around in a good way. All this was happening at about the same time I was reading the book. This album is me trying to tell all of this in a concise way.

It seems common that when a person undergoes a terrible tragedy or dark period in their life, their perspective is changed forever.

JJ: I totally agree. That’s almost why these things happen – to teach us some kind of lesson or show us some kind of thing that we couldn’t have seen. Huge events in life inform you in so many ways that you know about and many other ways that you cannot even comprehend. To go through a big experience can have such a profound impact on everything that you do. It’s the common thing that everyone says about a tragedy – it is a really tough thing to happen but it is amazing, and a gift, if you can look at the positive aspects that come out and the friendships that are made from the people that provided help and support.

These new songs are, therefore, very personal. Is that why they became your first solo record and not the next My Morning Jacket album?

JJ: Yes, it was one of those things that I worked on by myself and started to get sucked into by myself. The songs that were coming out dictated that they wanted to be worked on by me only. I was very intense with them. I love working on music with the band, but I also love working on songs by myself. I need both of those things.

Sonically, what were you aiming for on your solo album and how important was it to sound ‘different’ to My Morning Jacket?

JJ: I definitely wanted it to sound different, but I always want My Morning Jacket records to sound different from each other – that’s the fun of making albums. With this I wanted it to sound like the past of the future – almost looking back on something from a farther place than now. God’s Man is, to me, very futuristic and that whole period of Art Deco-style of art and architecture was years ahead of its time – if you think about Fritz Lang’s Metropolis vision. But, I didn’t want to make a record that sounded like the 1920s, as that would be a retro thing, and I also didn’t want to make it super-futuristic as it may have got lost in a ‘techno’ way.

Has making this album moved you into a new place – will it influence how the next My Morning Jacket album will sound?

JJ: This one will definitely inform the next My Morning Jacket record. I feel like the beautiful part of ageing is having all those years of experience to draw from and having all these new tools to use. One thing about My Morning Jacket is that we all encourage each other to experience as many different things as we can. We always come back to the band with new thoughts, new ideas and new inspirations. It wouldn’t happen if we forced ourselves to stay in this one band. I’m always hoping and trying to learn new things and change. That’s the spice of life.

How has the way you create music changed over the last 15 years?

JJ: Well, I used to always work on demos that would turn into My Morning Jacket songs but I got some really great advice from Joe Chiccarelli when he produced Evil Urges. He told me to stop doing demos. He said that you can waste a lot of first time magic in demos that might be hard to recreate in the ‘real’ recordings. That resonated with me and ever since then I’ve put songs into two categories – those I want to work on by myself and then any songs that I think might be for My Morning Jacket. For the latter I just record the idea really quickly on my cell phone and don’t make a really complex demo. I leave that until we all get together. Some songs will take more refining and we may do more versions of them but you need to save some sort of beautiful beginner’s magic – if you work it to death that can get lost.

How does the experience of making this record compare to working with the band?

JJ: It has been similar but a lot different too. My Morning Jacket is a really special unit. We have our own thing with the sound we create when we are together. This has been a cool thing to do, as it has made me realise I kind of have the best of both worlds. I love being by myself, holing up and working on something – almost like a puzzle I have to solve my myself – but there is a circle created when My Morning Jacket get together. That circle is something I cannot create by myself.

Will there be another solo album in the future?

JJ: Oh yeah – I mean who knows what the future holds but I would like to.

The album is sonically very eclectic and My Morning Jacket have always been keen to explore their ‘sound’. What fuels this? What sort of stuff did you hear as a child?

JJ: My mom and I would like to just flip through the radio and we liked everything that spoke to us. We loved Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Art Garfunkel and Dan Fogelberg – just different things that we connected to. I remember seeing Neil Young on Saturday Night Live playing Harvest Moon and we really liked it. My mom went out to buy it and got Harvest instead by mistake, which was super-cool.

Did I read that you also loved the music from The Muppet Show?

JJ: Absolutely. The Muppets have always appealed to me. Jim Henson spoke to children and adults and everybody under the rainbow regardless of race or colour in such a deep way. I think it is a beautiful form of entertainment when you can do that. He wanted to connect with everybody and I think a lot of children’s entertainment is super-stupid and dumbed down and results in giving kids less credit in thinking that they couldn’t understand something. The Muppet Show spoke to kids in a fun way but in a very adult way too.

What connects Neil Young, Dan Fogelberg and The Muppets? Have you worked out the common theme?

JJ: Well, I think there are lots of things that people think are so different but they’re not. People think there is a huge difference between hip hop and country music, but there is really not when you start looking into themes and what people are struggling with or celebrating. When you break it down to the chords and the beats it is all the same. Personally, I am obsessed with music as it is a limitless tunnel that you can explore.

Finally, what are the plans for the next My Morning Jacket record?

JJ: We have plans and windows to get together. I have tons of ideas and things churning. We are putting a schedule together and getting the time worked out. So, an album is in the works and it might come out before the end of the year, but it depends where the songs want to go. I start with all these grand ideas but you never know until you start going down the path, whether they will be rejected or embraced.

Regions Of Light And Sound Of God is out on February 4 via V2

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