As a musician and a man, Jim James views the world through a weird, warped lens.
As frontman for rock gods My Morning Jacket, his career has followed an unpredictable trajectory. James, native of Louisville, Ky., formed his band in 1998, chasing a big-hearted, big-reverb sound inspired by Neil Young and ‘70s guitar-rock. But over the course of the following decade-plus, his songs have grown increasingly bizarre, venturing into electronica, soul and slow-burning psychedelia.
The band’s latest album, 2011’s Circuital, featured the full range of the James spectrum: “Outta My System” is a reflective psych-pop anthem originally written for a Muppets film—one that features the lyric, “They told me not to smoke drugs / But I wouldn’t listen.” Elsewhere, James took an obscure ’70s Thai funk track, re-wrote it with English lyrics, and called it “Holdin’ On to Black Metal.” And on the intimately spiritual acoustic ballad “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” he sings about “goin’ where there ain’t no fear / goin’ where the spirit is near” over a simmering gospel churn.
As fans, we’re as puzzled by James as we are fascinated, and his spirituality is constantly at the center of that fascination. He’s equal parts wacky pastor and headbanging rock god, a “fuck you” and a “God bless you” rolled into one. A self-described “lapsed Catholic,” James constantly references a higher power onstage and in interviews, and his songs have a knack for feeling spiritual, even when he’s singing about black metal or smokin’ drugs. On his debut solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, James has stepped even further into the spiritual unknown, searching for seemingly unknowable answers through sprawling sonic mazes of folk, sample-fueled psych-pop and soul.
“I believe there is a God and that God is love,” James says, “and love is God and the force and the zone all rolled into one, and that God is us and that God is also far beyond us and our wildest imagination.” As a declaration of faith, that’s the kind of spacey, non-linear response you’d expect. But it’s indicative of James’ search on Regions of Light, an album he recorded mostly on his own at his Louisville home studio, writing without the assistance of his trusted My Morning Jacket bandmates, playing almost every instrument himself.
Regions of Light was a chance for James to stretch his legs as a musician: playing bass and drums and keyboards, expanding his palette of sounds, writing and recording in isolation, exploring the studio at a more intimate pace. But the album was clearly more than that—the path to Regions actually begins back in 2008, when James fell off the stage at a My Morning Jacket concert in Iowa City, leading to a hospitalization and canceled tour.
“It was the most horrible thing that has ever happened to me,” James reflects. “But luckily, I’ve been able to overcome it so I can look back on it with gratitude and see it as a learning experience.”
For most of us, a physical injury is a physical injury. For James, it was a pathway toward enlightenment, and it happened for a reason. He describes his life, pre-fall, as heading down a “dark path,” physically, personally and spiritually. But the fall flipped a switch in James, as did a copy of Lynd Ward’s Gods’ Man, a 1929 proto-graphic novel he received from artist friend Gary Burden. For James, the story of Gods’ Man shared an eerie synchronicity with his own life, featuring a character who, chased by an evil spirit, falls off a cliff and is nursed back to health by a beautiful woman.
“Most of these songs started out as score for God’s Man,” James says. “So, musically, they came off the pages that way, but then my life or thoughts began to pour into the songs too. So sentiments were born of my life, but I still tried to make them appropriate to the scene or theme I was working on.”
Regions of Light became James’ road to recovery. After rehabilitating from his injuries, he started crafting the album as a musical counterpart to a film version of the Gods’ Man story. Musically, he took inspiration from the organic warmth of soul music, particularly Marvin Gaye’s 1971 landmark, What’s Going On: “I believe What’s Going On is perhaps the greatest recorded achievement of humankind up until this point,” he says. “It speaks to all aspects of being a human.”
Without his band to lean on, he constructed most of his musical frameworks in solitude, channeling ideas during long walks through a process that resembles artistic osmosis. “It’s like they start as a riff or a melody,” James says. “Like ‘God’s Love to Deliver,’ for example—it starts as a riff in my mind that is repeating over and over, and as I walk, different lyrics come into my mind [“I have a dream, I am the lion, etc, etc.”], and I write them down. And then I’m walking some more, and the riff is still playing, and all the sudden there is a sax playing along with the riff, so I remember that on a voice memo or whatever. And then all of a sudden, drums burst in, and I remember that and then take all these little remembrances back and form them into the real song.”
And the results are as eclectic and thrilling as any album James has been part of—from the raw acoustic ballad “A New Life” to the electro-psych workout “Know Till Now” to “All Is Forgiven,” an eerie, Middle-Eastern-tinged show-stopper that serves as “the Dark Man’s theme for Gods’ Man.”
“I wrote it to appear several different places in the book/film and constructed the end of the song to match the ending of the book/film,” James says. “Lyrically I was thinking then of forgiveness and what might be going through the artist’s mind as he loses his life at the end of the film: praying or hoping that perhaps he could be forgiven and find happiness in the next realm or go around, thinking about that for myself too, that I might someday find forgiveness for things I have done wrong or people I may have hurt.”
If Regions of Light is about moving on to “the next realm,” James has certainly achieved that feat—at least musically. But when asked if he’s learned anything about his spirituality through writing these songs, James only responds with an extended “Hmmmmmmmm.”
For James, spirituality is a life-long quest for truth and enlightenment, and it’s a strange, winding path indeed. For James, God is love is sex is art—all at once.
“Everything you do informs everything else,” he says. “It’s all a big beautiful circle.”