A New Life: Jim James

"I learned a while back that you can’t please everybody no matter what you do..."

In well over a decade, My Morning Jacket have established one of the more interesting and rewarding career trajectories in rock, with experimentation and humour never far from their palette. It’s an eclecticism that’s seen them cover all bases from the reverb-heavy country rock of early records, ‘At Dawn’ or ‘It Still Moves’ through to the epic, psychedelic expansiveness of ‘Circuital’ by way of some serious Prince-channeling (‘Evil Urges’), a fashioning of quirky instruments – (that omnichord phase) and a period of excellent on stage cape-wearing.

A central, unmistakable component are singer Jim James’ beautiful and versatile pipes – able to run the gamut from plaintive yodel to rough and ragged. That plaintive quality was most recently evidenced on his 2009 George Harrison tribute EP, released as his solo alter ego, Yim Yames.

Out of his back catalogue, it’s this sound that bears the most resemblance to ‘Regions of Light and Sound of God’, Jim’s first solo record, in which he offers up a sliver (it’s shy of 30 minutes) of quiet wonder and hopeful spirituality. Several of the songs were inspired by God’s Man, a 1929 book of wood engravings by Lynd Ward – we talked with Jim about this unique catalyst, artistic integrity and his ongoing debate with technology and religion as he took a break from rehearsing for his solo tour.

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Tell us about 'God’s Man'
I consider it a wordless novel, I guess you could call it a graphic novel but it’s very different from a comic book. It’s a series of wood engravings and prints. A friend gave it to me as a gift and I was really struck by it. It’s hard to say why certain things speak to you. It was like déjà vu. I felt like I knew it very intimately from the past. We started daydreaming about turning into a film and I started scoring the book, writing music for different scenes.

What were the messages from the story that you could relate to?
It’s about an artist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for this magic paintbrush that will give him powers that will make people like his art. And then the devil comes back and collects his soul at the end. That’s the tale in a nutshell but it’s way beyond that. Each page is a masterpiece. I think anybody can relate to the tale of temptation or being offered career advancement to do something bad.

Did the Faustian tale resonate with you as an artist?
Not really. That’s the confusing part. Exactly, I could have written an album about Faust or whatever but that wasn’t it. For me it’s about the art of this particular thing. I feel personally very good about my career path because I don’t feel that I’ve ever sold my soul. I’ve fucked up a lot and all that but I don’t feel that I’ve sold my soul.

Your output with My Morning Jacket has been pretty experimental.
I learned a while back that you can’t please everybody no matter what you do. I found that really freeing to just enable me to chase whatever I want to chase. So if my head and my heart are telling me to follow one thing I’m not going to not listen to it and try to keep making the same record over and over and hope that it’ll gain me popularity. That’s what I enjoy with artists that I like.

What kind of sound did you try to create on the record?
I wanted it to sound like the past of the future like you’re in the year 4016 and you’re listening to a record that was made in 3990 or something, something that was really futuristic but viewed from a place that was even farther into the future so I wanted it to sound futuristic and progressive but kind of hazy and grainy kind of way I guess.

Is ‘State of the Art’ a critique of modern technology?
I’m not against technology but I feel like we’ve gone way too far way too fast with it. I think we’re going to look back on at the internet as a giant mistake. I don’t know if it’s 50 years from now or 100 years from now. I look at it as a marriage. I feel like humans and the internet – we went on one date and decided to have kids and get married the next date, jump right in. We didn’t take time to get to know the internet and go on a lot of dates and hold hands.

Spirituality is a going concern of yours. What do you feel about organised religion?
I’m religious in a personal way. I think spirituality is a really personal thing and at the core of most religions you’ll find a corporation. At the same thing I couldn’t say I was against it because it’s so personal. That’s just my view on it – if somebody else out there feels great in the religion of their choice that’s fine with me. I think about it a lot because I want to feel peaceful and I don’t really quite feel peaceful. A lot of organised religions promise that’s what you’ll get if you follow their guidelines but I haven’t found that to be true.

Do you find spirituality in making music?
I like to call it ‘the zone’ or Star Wars would call it ‘the force’. Many people have said before that “God is love” and I really believe that, that music is an extension of love. Riding on the tube and listening to your favourite song, you just disappear into time, it’s like the you that’s normally thinking about your problems and concerns is gone and you’re transported. For me, being a musician, when I’m working on music or playing music I’m gone, I’m with God. And love obviously is the biggest gateway to that, romantic love, or if you’re having a great conversation with somebody that you love in your family I really believe that is a big part of God. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m trying to figure it out but I guess I never will and nobody ever will.

Do you find making music that resonates with people is part of that? 
That’s the greatest thing about art, is that it reminds us how connected we are. People think that there are all these differences but when you get down to the core of every living being, whether it’s a tree or a dog or a person, every being just wants life and love whether it’s from the song or the rain or love from your parents.

There’s a real positive trajectory on the record.
I wanted the record to be positive and I think it is. Life is so confusing – I don’t feel like I want for anything but for some reason I don’t feel peaceful. I’m trying to find a positive momentum towards finding that. So I want to listen to music and create music that gives me a feeling of a positive momentum. I think we’re sold a great myth that in order to make great art or it has to be about pain like Nirvana or whatever. I believe it’s not true. People can create art out of joy, out of positivity.

Words by Rebecca Laurence

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'Regions of Light and Sound of God' is out now.

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