My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James admits it hasn’t always been easy for him to focus during the COVID pandemic. “My waking self has been in such a state of being perpetually bummed that I haven’t worked on them a lot,” he says of the many ideas he’s had floating around in 2020.
Yet, despite that, the band released The Waterfall II, a collection of previously unheard songs begun in 2013 and finished up last year. And James tells me the band finished a new album in L.A. just prior to the pandemic that the band will release when they can tour behind the record.
The talk of new music was part of a much larger Zoom conversation I had with James about songwriting; his favorite music, including Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which he calls the “cornerstone” of everything he does; why he’s moved away from sad songs and his recent fandom of the late great reggae legend Toots Hibbert.
Steve Baltin: What is coming up for you?
Jim James: We did a new My Morning Jacket record we were finishing right before the pandemic happened. So sometime that’ll come out. I don’t know when, whenever we can tour again. But it’s wild. There is a lot of old stuff I’ve recorded but never mixed or never finished that I’ve been working on. Some of that was The Waterfall II for a while and there are some other things that I have trying to finish. So that’s been fun, to get in touch with some of those older things.
Baltin: Where did you record the My Morning Jacket album?
James: Out in LA. It was really kind of wild. Like the guys flew home literally as that first mid-March wave of the pandemic was starting to come down and people were starting to be like, “Don’t fly.” I think we kind of wrapped up sessions early March and then everything was shut down. And for the first couple of months it was a really welcome distraction for me to be able to take those sessions and finish vocals or editing or whatever I had to do to it. So it’s interesting to have done that before this whole time now and it’ll be interesting once we can tour again or go out and play it what it’ll feel like and how it might change. Cause it might change too. Some of it might not feel good anymore. I don’t really know.
MORE FOR YOU
Baltin: We are talking today about protest songs. How does everything happening in Kentucky tie into what you are doing now?
James: I’ve been thinking about it so much and when I think about the protest songs that I’ve written and then I think about the ones that I love, I think one thing probably all of us writers have in common is we wish the songs were obsolete. We wish there was no need to listen to them, that we had gotten past these points of hatred and these points of division and these points of senseless, pointless destructive human behavior that protest songs are trying to combat. I think most people wish these songs didn’t have to be written to begin with or were like just historical memories or something.
Baltin: What comes up a lot in these are artists just wishing they could appreciate the songs musically cause look at a song like “What’s Going On,” which is going to be 50. It still sounds amazing and as fresh as anything musically today.
James: Oh my god, yeah! That record and that song, that’s my favorite album of all time. I mean more from a lyrical standpoint it’s almost like we wish they would have worked, that “What’s Going On” would have gotten us to a just, a fair society by now. But it hasn’t. It’s helped, I’m not discounting it, or any protest song. Whatever, a lot of us wish we were living in a different world. But I feel like being a musician you just have to, at least the way I feel, speak to things as they’re happening. It’s just something that has to happen.
Baltin: But music has also a healing power and a lot of artists I have talked to have focused on that in 2020.
James: I feel like music is so healing; music is love and god and nature. I feel like the way that we feel when music hits us. Yeah, when f**king “Love Shack” comes on, by the B-52’s, that, to me, feels so healing. And it does, it transports you and it takes you away from what might be grinding on you at the time. But I feel too though, not just artists, I feel like all of us have the responsibility to speak up, especially when things are as f**ked up as they are now. And the main way you can speak up is by voting. If that’s the bare minimum you do, you should do that. But I feel like every person has the responsibility to speak up. And as an artist, as a songwriter, at least for me, a lot of times songs just come out. I don’t even know how it works.
Baltin: Since so much of writing is subconscious have you found that stuff you have written during COVID, and I don’t know if you have written a lot of not, has surprised you?
James: Well, it’s funny cause I’ve been getting a lot of ideas and I’ve been saving them, I always save them on voice memos. And I’ve been getting a lot of songs in dreams and I’ve been getting a lot of things. But my waking self has been in such a state of being perpetually bummed that I haven’t worked on them a lot. I haven’t developed them or taken them into the studio or whatever. So that part is interesting. There’s a lot coming through, but I almost can’t handle it. But I still love it and respect so I save it so I don’t forget it. But yeah, I feel like it’s trying to stay coherent and sane has taken over most days.
Baltin: Is the stuff you’re writing now more in the healing or fired up vein?
James; Definitely not fired up angry. I feel like I had a lot of that energy as all the stuff was beginning to unfold with this presidency and before. I feel like I had a lot of fired up, angry energy coming out. But now almost like I’m trying to find whatever frequency the nature around me is resonating at and being in that frequency. Maybe all my endorphins are gone but I don’t feel a lot. I’m having a hard time feeling.
Baltin: What do you think that is coming from though?
James: It’s from everything cause at a certain point I think everything is on maximum overdrive.
Baltin: But then you go back to an album like Order Of Nature, which is so beautiful. And obviously even in the anger that is such a healing record.
James: Oh definitely, I always try to turn it to the positive, even if I am angry. There’s so much anger in our discourse right now as a society that I feel like the internet and social media enables this constant anger and for people to turn their anger into aggression and be cruel to each other. So I’m trying to be productive and use my anger or my sadness and be productive with it to hopefully express the emotion I’m feeling and I’m sure other people are feeling. But also hopefully lead it to a better place.
Baltin: Do you hear influence from What’s Going On in your work?
James: Oh absolutely, I feel like that record haunts my dreams. That record, in my mind, is untouchable. So I’m always looking to it as the cornerstone of the building I’m trying to build. It’s not like I’m trying to recreate it or anything, but it’s somehow the foundation of everything.
Baltin: Are there moments in your work where you come closest to that blueprint?
James: Oh yeah, there definitely would be moments I would pick out because to me it shifts all the worlds together in a beautiful way that I don’t think anybody’s done as well before or since. Where it’s like all the worlds are colliding. There’s an orchestral aspect, but you’re also dancing and it’s also protest driven or socially conscious or environmental awareness, lyrically driven, yet it’s also talking about god and none of it’s too heavy handed. There’s something about each shade of the rainbow in that record. It’s perfectly woven together, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. And like whatever, even if I’m playing a f**king scorching rock and roll record or something, even if I’m far away stylistically from What’s Going On, it’s always in the back of my mind as what’s possible.
Baltin: Do you see that healing in your music?
James: I hope so, I hope that goes into my music. I know that’s the one thing I’m consciously trying to do, inject hope into music cause I feel like so much of music is unconscious. But whether musically or lyrically, I’m trying, by the end of the piece or somewhere in the piece, to inject hope into it because, for me, it’s like I don’t want to walk away from a song feeling sadder than I did when I started listening to it. I want to feel comforted somehow. And that’s what so many of my favorite songs do for me, so I try to do that somehow.
Baltin: What is, to you, the ultimate tearjerker song?
James: It’s funny that you ask me that because I love sad music. But I feel like I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to not feel that way anymore. I’ve gotten into gospel music and there are things where I get the hit that I need from the sad song, but I also get the uplift I’m looking for that I don’t get from crying to Joni Mitchell Blue or some Mark Kozelek song or something. I’m not knocking that or anything. But I’ve spent the last half of my life trying to get away from that because I feel like that always left me on the floor with depression. And I struggle with depression, so I need help getting up off the floor. So if I can find something like “What’s Going On,” something that gives me that hit of sadness but then lifts me up, makes me want to get up out of my chair and go out into the world again I feel like that’s kind of what I’m looking for.
Baltin: So what are those songs that make you feel good?
James: Definitely “One Love.” I’ve been listening to a lot of Toots since he passed. He’s got a song “Sweet And Dandy,” when you hear that you just feel happy. That’s one I’ve had on repeat a lot lately. Something about his presence is just so radiant and beautiful and the way that comes out in his voice. His spirit is similar to Curtis Mayfield. I feel like to Curtis a lot too when I want to feel that radiant, beautiful sunshine energy.
Baltin: Do you see the progression then from the sad songs you grew up listening to happier stuff in your music?
James: It’s interesting because I feel like my work, obviously all of our work does, mirrors my musical taste. So I think I’ve written tons of sad songs, but there’s always been something about the release of the dancing to a sad song. When I think about Motown that’s what they were the champions of, was making those crazy minor chords come in and you’re getting hit with this feeling of sadness. But the beat is keeping you going. So even if it was an album I still wanted to inject bits of the beat into their bits of emotion combined with the laying on the floor crying aspects of it.