Catching Up With… My Morning Jacket’s Jim James

Music Features My Morning Jacket

Louisville, Ky. native Jim James has been a diehard music lover since before many fans of his band, My Morning Jacket, were born. Picking up on the spirit of genuine American music surrounding him in Kentucky and growing up with a mother who whole-heartedly supported his artistic leanings, he dove head-long into his passion at the age of three.

Fast forward several years to a batch of tunes recorded in his own loft, the songs on Tribute To, the George Harrison covers EP James released this week under the moniker Yim Yames. The songs remain true to their original spirit yet are bolstered and given a fresh polish by James’ stunning pipes, shimmering acoustic guitar work and eerie banjo flourish.

Paste caught up with James between recording sessions and preparations for some limited live performances of the EP and found a man who, though sometimes perceived as mysterious and highly private, was happy to share his thoughts not only his latest solo effort, but on his childhood, the history of MMJ, the plethora of relevant and pressing current events and issues occupying his mind, and some of the many creative and inspirational projects he’s involved with.

Paste: Tell us about the Harrison tribute. You recorded this in 2001, didn’t you? Was it an immediate artistic reaction to his passing?
Jim James: Yes. For the last few years, before his death, I had been divinely interested in All Things Must Pass. It is one of those holy records, like What’s Going On. I was very saddened to hear of his passing, and so I just sat up there in the studio for a few days and played his songs as a tribute to him, trying to thank him for all the wonderful energy he had given to the world.

Paste: I’m assuming you’re a life-long fan of George and The Beatles in general. What are some of George’s qualities as an artist/guitarist/songwriter that made the biggest impact on you personally and artistically?
James: When you listen to his music, you hear God. You hear the quality of his soul. I obviously did not know him, but I feel he is one of the strongest souls to ever carry the musical flame because he did it in his own peaceful way. He seemed to always work for good, even though there was plenty of darkness in some of his music, he was feeling it, but also warning you about it: “Beware of Darkness.” He is always there for me. His song “Be Here Now” just popped up in my life at the right time after I had discovered the book by the same title and began learning meditation. George is connected to all that matters.

Paste: Tell us about the tracks on Tribute. Why did you choose the songs you did, and what do they mean to you personally? “Sir Frankie Crisp,” for example, was quite an ambitious pick!
James: They were the songs I was just listening to on repeat at the time, over and over. “Long Long Long” has always been one of my favorite recordings, it is so mysterious and quiet and creepy. Jesus, what a recording. “Love You Too” was another one of those recordings, and his vocal delivery just sends shivers. The songs from All Things Must Pass just speak for themselves as a group.

Paste: Though Beatles fans are well aware of George’s genius, I think there might be some casual music fans out there who may not be aware just how much George contributed not only to the Beatles, but to rock ‘n’ roll and the planet in general. Was helping to set that straight one of your concerns when you originally recorded the tribute album?
James: Not particularly. I don’t think of any of the Beatles as starving for attention! [laughs] I think that true fans of music know how important George is and think of how much he has impacted the casual listener as well: “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something,” “My Sweet Lord.” I think he made quite an impact.

Paste: You produced Tribute, didn’t you? Did you have any musical help on the recording at all, or was it an entirely solo project?
James: Yes, it was just me up there in our old studio, though my girlfriend at the time did hit the record button on a few of those takes so I didn’t have to walk back and forth from the control room to the studio. Wasn’t that sweet of her?

Paste: George was well known not only for his guitar playing and songwriting gifts, but also for his work for charity, Concert For Bangladesh, of course, and many other notable causes, and his spirituality. How much of that aspect of George’s persona has inspired you?
James: Absolutely, that has been very inspiring to me. I mean, you watch people time and time again get sucked into all the perils that come with massive fame and attention; it is a difficult path to maneuver. Even though it seemed dark for him sometimes, George seemed time and time again to use his massive fortune and fame to promote the cause of peace, for all beings. That is something we should all look up to, in everything we do.

Paste: You are a seemingly tireless fighter for worthy causes and aren’t afraid to espouse your own spirituality in a respectful but clear manner. Tell us about that side of yourself and about some of the organizations you’re donating time and energy to these days.
James: Oh, I just feel like if you are as fortunate as I have been to be blessed with so many wonderful friends and family members, and also fortunate enough to be able to play your music and make your art for a living, I feel it is only fair to give something back. Watching people like George Harrison and the Indigo Girls and Pearl Jam and Neil Young and other socially conscious artists has been very inspiring to me.

To know that yes, I have to battle some of my own personal shit, we all do, but that we all still have to try to find time to reach out to other people and causes that are important. I learned a lot about how to incorporate it into what I do when I attended an Artists in Activism retreat in New Orleans post-Katrina. It was one of the more profound experiences of my life and made me realize even more than before the importance of trying to promote peace to the earth and everything in it. It is just so wondrous to see the power of music be used to turn people on to good causes. The world needs a lot of help right now, we all do, and we all need to try and do as much as we can to be there for each other, ’cause we all go through dark times.

The Woodstock Farm people are from Louisville originally, and have a great thing going trying to educate people on where their food comes from and how so many animals are so cruelly treated. My sister and her husband run an organic farm too, so I have been becoming more and more schooled on food education and good eating practices, etc.

Two wonderful Kentucky artists, Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, approached me about producing a record with them to help raise awareness about the disastrous effects of mountaintop removal on communities and to try and raise a little money for Appalachian voices as well. We just finished mixing that record and it is awesome! I believe it will come out on Sub Pop this Fall.

Paste: You were born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. What music do you recall striking you the most as a young person, and, especially since you’re a huge supporter of Record Store Day and mom and pop shops, what was the first vinyl album/45 you ever bought and where?
James: The first 45 I remember [buying] was “Leader of the Band” by Dan Fogelberg. I remember being three and loving that song, and my mom took me to the mall and we got the 45 and wore that thing out. Also, shortly after that we checked out Thriller from the library and were forever changed and indebted to Michael and Quincy. I hope Michael is in a peaceful place right now in some alternate dimension.

Paste: Who, in your opinion, is/was Louisville’s most underrated and overlooked musical artist?
James: John Jacob Niles and Wax Fang.

Paste: What were the early days of MMJ like for you, working with your cousin Johnny Quaid and undergoing a series of lineup changes?
James: They were fantastic. John really helped me out there in the beginning with recording and lending an ear and a hand, and then we had so much fun when he joined the band! We are actually working together again on the Removador label and are looking forward to releasing his solo record.

Paste: How would you describe the band’s evolution over the years and do you feel that the current lineup is the ultimate MMJ?
James: We have been lucky over the years to have worked with a lot of really great people. But yeah, sometimes even though people are great, certain situations don’t work out, which can be tough. The MMJ now is absolutely the hardest-hitting MMJ I’ve ever been a part of. It is a thrill to get to share the stage with such kindred spirits who are also extremely talented. We have created a very special world in which we are all sublimely tuned into each other’s frequencies. We have been able to explore music and ideas in a very peaceful way, being able to discuss and work without any altercation or ego becoming involved, which is a very hard thing to do. But somehow we have all been blessed to know each other and experience that type of working friendship.

Paste: Evil Urges saw MMJ sampling a huge variety of different influences and different directions on the playing, writing, recording and even vocal approaches to your music. What events transpired between Z and Evil Urges that opened up that channel for you to allow your funk, R&B and humorous sides to shine through so brilliantly? Is that something you guys were shooting for, or did it just kind of come naturally during the writing/recording process?
James: We try to be an open vessel to any and all kinds of music and life experience. Music is fun

Paste: Would you care to comment on your production work for Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, and tell us a little more about those guys?
James: They are amazing. Ben is one of the best cello players on the planet, and his voice is like a powerful sword piercing your heart. Daniel is one of the kindest and purest souls on the planet. His voice is like snowflakes falling on your brain. Get them together, and it is like sword fighting in a snowstorm. Unreal. They really wanted to do something to raise awareness for the disastrous effects of mountaintop removal on communities and the environment and I was thrilled to help them.

Paste: You contributed a track to America’s 2007 album Here And Now. Have you always been an America fan, and what was it like working with those fellows?
James: We never met those guys, but yes, I was honored they covered our song. That session was hilarious: Patrick and I went in there and cut the track in one take and walked back out the door. It was awesome. I used to lay on my bedroom floor in high school coming down from acid with my fingers stuck in a Dairy Queen ice cream cake with Life cereal poured into it like a real bowl of cereal and just cry my eyes out while listening to “Tin Man” or “Lonely People.” There was a phase in my life where I was exploring the more psychedelic side of life, and man, the nighttime would be filled with wild whipping metal music and pure-grain fruit punch and chaos and metal jaw-biting, spine-tingling mental confusion, and I remember so very clearly one morning laying in some shitty hotel room bed covered in applesauce, and the sun was starting to come up and I felt like I had just killed a baby seal…and I had lobsters crawling all over me and laying their eggs in my intestines…and somebody put on a mixtape that had “Tin Man” and “All the Lonely People” and then went into “Harvest” by Neil Young and I remember all the lobsters stopped laying their eggs and they sat up and looked at me and I looked at them and we all went “ahhhhhhh” and breathed a big sigh of relief…and crawled off the bed to lay on the floor next to the stereo to hear that pure, pure sound even purer in our ear holes…and that’s when I knew I dug the folk rock.

Paste: You worked with Calexico on the soundtrack for I’m Not There. Are you close to those guys, Howe Gelb, etc.? Has their output influenced you at all over the years?
James: I love those guys! That was a thrill. We were up in rural Canada shooting that film, and this crazy storm came and blew all the power out of our hotel. We try to play that song together whenever we are in the same town. Those guys are the best!

Paste: You recently went to New Orleans to record live with the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That recording is another benefit-type release, with proceeds going to help raise money for the Hall. Tell us a bit about that experience, and your thoughts on jazz in general and New Orleans jazz in particular.
James: Man, what a thrill! Those guys were amazing, and the hall is just jam packed with good vibes and great musical memories. What a thrill! We did it old-school: all live with no electricity, and the garbage trucks even played along! I sang through [late, legendary New Orleans pianist/chanteuse] Sweet Emma’s old paper bullhorn. What a thrill. I had a deep dream the night before the session that she breathed her soul into my mouth through a hole in the floor, and I unknowingly carried it with me through the night and the morning, and when I got her old bullhorn up to my mouth again, it felt just like old times, and I blew her soul back out of my body and into her proper habitat there inside the preservation hall. Unreal! New Orleans is unstoppable. The people and the power there is just unreal.

Paste: Can you fill us in real quick about Removador Records and Solutions? What role will you and/or MMJ play in that deal?
James: It is a label I have started to just try and bring out music that I believe in. [I’m working with] my cousin John, who was in MMJ is also sharing the label duties with me, and it’s nice to get to work with him again. We will be putting out his project, called The Ravena Colt, as well as local band Follow The Train, as well as some of my own stuff, etc., and are looking for and working on other things as well, such as 3D printer technologies and web-based accounting solutions.

Paste: You’ve gotten loads of compliments on your recent Austin City Limits performances. What was that like for you, and will those gigs eventually be released by New West Records as a part of their ACL collection?
James: Yes, we have been honored and thrilled to have done ACL two times now, and we would love to someday release the best of both on one of those fine, fine New West DVDs. Man, I love those!

Paste: One more for you: What is your favorite record/song of all time to hear in a social/party setting, and what’s your fave to hear when you’re chilling at home alone or with friends/loved ones?
James: I’d have to say my favorite for both of those is “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, played in its entirety. It is the greatest recording made by human beings to date, and is perfect for any and all settings.

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