Words and Photos by Nolan Gawron
Jim James may be best known as the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist from My Morning Jacket, but his Rock ‘n’ Roll resume continues to grow every year.
From his work in New Multitudes, Monsters of Folk, the New Basement Tapes, and a continually growing list of collaborations and compilation contributions, Jim James’ work ethic only seems to grow more prolific, and yet he still manages to find enough time and material for his solo records.
His second, Eternally Even, hits stores November 4. Just in time for some provocative final sentiments before the US goes to the polls for one of the strangest, most crucial and most divisive presidential elections ever, the record shows James at his most politically overt. Eternally Even is grim and moody in its delivery, combining textured electronics and even a surprising departure into organic funk reminiscent of the socially-conscious soul music from the 1970’s. But, in the end, Eternally Even is about the lyrics—no matter how buried or distorted, or how long it takes before they enter the song. Always humanistic in his message, James talks about the dire state of the country, the power of an individual, and seizing the day—both on a personal level as well as worldly one.
We caught up with Jim James in the midst of My Morning Jacket shows and an appearance at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit, where he shared the stage with Roger Waters and Neil himself. The following interview is a discussion on politics, love and a glimpse into the making of Eternally Yours.
So when did this album begin to take shape? Was it something long in the making or did it all happen very recently?
Well, I had done some scoring with Brian Reitzel six-or-seven years ago. We did a lot of improv stuff back then that we loved, but was never used for anything. One day while walking around, one of the pieces came up on shuffle and I really got into it. The words and melodies just started pouring out. There were about 30 minutes of this kind of improv, and that became the centerpiece of this record. It all came out of stuff that was not intended to be. The sample for Here in Spirit came from an Eric Johnson song Minor Miracles, and World’s Smiling came from a loop of It’ll All Be Over from Supreme Jubilees. I had been listening to both these songs on repeat for a few years, then one day, once I had made some changes, it all came rolling out up on a hill in LA with some old tortoises.
Did the message and impetus behind Same Old Lie dictate the way the rest of the album went? Was that the starting point? Was there even a record in progress or did that song and mood set it in motion? Was that song triggered by recent events or did you have it ready and it seemed like the right time to give it to the world?
It was triggered by recent events—by all the killing and hatred in the world, and from our terrible political system. Listening to Trump’s voice on CNN corrodes my brain into toxic sludge. I can’t believe anyone in their right mind would even remotely entertain him as a candidate for anything, much less president! I’m just sick of the lies, sick of the hate, sick of watching good people get lost in the shuffle while hateful bullies like Trump rise to the top. I wish there was some way we could let love back in to help us form a better society and a better way of life around the globe. Govern in the name of peace and equality for all.
You have always been extremely involved in the human condition and a person’s ability to make change. Was this album the culmination of that message? Is this the most overt expression of your humanistic message?
I’m not sure. I think that’s up to whoever is listening. Despite everything that is so terrible in the world now, I still believe in humanity and I still believe we can change. I still believe we can let love in.
Obviously, this album comes just before an important election. Would you consider this a political record? I understand there is more to it, but with elections looming, the current state of animosity and disagreement among Americans (and the world) is obviously magnified and the future of worldly worries seems to be more up for grabs than ever before.
Yes for sure. I want to be a part of the discussion, I feel like we cannot sit back and be silent anymore. I don’t pretend to be a political expert or that I have any answers, other than letting more love into our lives—but that’s pretty basic. I just want to help shine a light on what is so fucked up, in hopes it could be better.
That being said, was there a definite motivation to get this album out before the election?
Yes. Absolutely. I feel like if I convince only one person to vote who might not have otherwise, then it would have been a success.
I understand you are playing these songs out live with the band Twin Limb. How did you link up and find a camaraderie with them?
Well, Kevin Ratterman was musical director of the solo band last time and I really wanted to work with him again. But since that record came out he has joined Twin Limb, who are amazing! So, I proposed the idea of them opening the shows and then playing with me and they were into it and it has been so great! I also have Dave Givan back on drums and Seth Kauffman from Floating Action on bass. It is such a great group of people. We’re laughing a lot and I am honored to play with them.
Whether or not you view this as a “political” record, a lot of hope and humanism lies within the words. So, what happens if Trump wins? Have you thought about how the impending tour will go if there’s that dark spot hanging over us?
If Trump wins we are going to have to get together even more to preach the gospel of peace, love, acceptance, equality and love for our planet and love for each other. We can’t give up. We are going to have to work harder than ever.
Many would say that people don’t rally around political music the way they used to, would you agree? If so, do you think there’s a reason for that? Did that bother you or motivate you when you were creating this? Was there a goal to return to that time where there was a record that spoke about the issues at hand?
It’s not about politics; it’s about love. It’s about decency. It’s about equality. None of us can stand by and say nothing if all of our brothers and sisters are not being treated with respect regardless of race, sex, or creed. We really need to be speaking out for love. Love is love and we gotta embrace it in all of its wonderful forms. I’m not sure how many times history will force us to learn that hatred does not work. Fear does not work. Building walls does not work. Only love. Only acceptance. Only open arms. Imagine if we were a world that prided itself on taking care of each other—not one person uninsured, not one person living on the streets out of their mind in pain, not one family torn apart by medical bills because of some uncontrollable disease. It all seems so simple to me and to lots of people, but it keeps getting corrupted by lobbyists and greed. Then you get crooks and villains bullying their way into office like Trump and you just wanna scream and say, “I give up!” But we can’t give up. We have to speak out for love, for each other, and even for healing with people we don’t see eye-to-eye with.
What are some of your favorite political albums of all time?
My faves are ones that are not overtly political, but speak to issues of equality and love—or at least question and shine a light on what’s fucked up, like, What’s Going On [Marvin Gaye] and There’s a Riot Going On [Sly and the Family Stone], or the classic protest songs of Guthrie and Dylan.
Often people who make albums with a worldly message are appealing to an audience with the same ideology, would you agree with that? How effective do you see music as a platform for change?
I am trying to appeal to anyone who wants more love in their life, and in the world. You cannot fight hatred with hatred. Only love. I think we all need to talk to each other with peace and healing in our hearts. I think there are many sensible Republicans and I wish some of them would run for president, or we could get to some new sort of system when it’s not all so black and white—because I really feel like most of us are in the middle. It would be so refreshing to see candidates who did not bad mouth each other, and who sat around and talked, exchanged ideas peacefully, and then let us decide. Can you imagine a race where we are trying to decide between two or three amazing candidates?! And you can’t choose ‘cos they are just all so amazing! But it always gets corrupted by the lobbyists and corporate greed, and then we are left with what we have now, which is almost nothing at all.
You participated in the 30 days/ 30 songs for a Trump Free America, both on your own and with Andrew Bird. What are your thoughts on the project?
I love Dave Eggers. He is always finding amazing new ways to work for creativity, education, peace and love. He is always using his platform for good. We were chatting about needing this kind of energy right now and then he invited me to be a part of it.
I was recently thinking, you rarely hear about artists rallying together for the other side. Usually, as far as music goes, you just hear a campaign song taken out of context, oftentimes used against the artists will. What do you think it would be like if there was a mixtape from the other side?
That would be very dark! I think it speaks volumes about how wrong the other side is and I think we are seeing that now, with the cancer that is Trump eating away at the party. Time is proving that most of their ideology is fear-based, and therefore wrong. It comes from repressed feelings or issues they have not dealt with in their own past or personal lives, that then come out in the form of fear and trying to repress other people to make themselves feel in control. It’s classic psychology, I think if most extreme right-wing thinking people went to therapy for a year or two we would definitely see the end of all this fear-based thinking! I think most artists want love and equality, which is the exact opposite of fear, so we are speaking out and singing for the side that we believe can bring the most peace and love and fairness to the people.
Your first single had a video where you made sure the words were showcased as the most important part of the song. Would you say the words on this record are the most important element?
It’s all important.
The instrumentation has some electronic elements to it, but in the end the sound resides in a world of retro 70’s funk/soul. It’s incredible and probably not what anyone would have assumed, did you have a specific sound in mind? What made you go in that direction?
Everything just kind of happens. I try not to think about it too much.
Your album seems to call for “humanism” more than anything. What are some closing thoughts you’d like to mention on this topic about people’s power for change both in their lives and part of the greater good?
I think it’s really just a matter of people speaking out and standing up for each other. I think at the end of the day most people on earth just want peace and love, not only for themselves and their families, but for everyone on earth. But then there are the bullies like Trump or ISIS who use fear to get into the minds of good people and make them live and act out of fear instead of love, and everything starts to go haywire and collapse. That’s why people can’t sit silent. They need to vote. They need to get up off the couch and say that they believe in love and peace and that they put their money and their vote where their mouth is so that we can actually have peace and love. I believe this is possible if we all work together.