"Things are getting really, really fucked up: The world is being destroyed by climate change, and the notion of somebody like Trump becoming president is such a scary thing," says My Morning Jacket's Jim James, detailing the socially conscious themes behind his new solo LP, Eternally Even. "A lot of people, myself included, have maybe been dealing with our own metaphysical dilemmas, loneliness. But now we don't really have the option to not speak out anymore."
Marrying soulful, symphonic grooves with meditations on a violent, war-torn world, James' second solo outing plays like his own psychedelic version of Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic What's Going On – one of James' all-time favorite albums. But these heady tracks came together in a surprisingly haphazard style, with James expanding upon a stash of old, unused improv pieces for an aborted film score.
The singer-songwriter spoke to Rolling Stone about the album's "happy accident" creative process, his progress on My Morning Jacket's next LP and being "super freaked out" about the state of the world.
You've been super busy with My Morning Jacket lately: You put out the band's seventh LP, The Waterfall, last year, and you wrote another full album of material during those same sessions. How did you even have time to write Eternally Even? Do you just have this constantly evolving pile of material that you pick and choose from?
I do kind of have a pile of stuff that I'm constantly collecting and working on, but this album is weird because it all popped out without any intention. I tried to score a few films with this composer Brian Reitzell here in L.A. We made a bunch of music we really loved, but we got fired from the film for being too weird [laughs]. It turned into a happy accident because we had all this music that hadn't been used. We did like 40 minutes of improv jamming with him playing drums and me playing organ, just all instrumental. I always liked it a lot.
I was walking and listening to music on my iPhone on shuffle, and one of these pieces came on that we'd done. I really got into it, and all these lyrics and vocal melodies starting coming out, so I started chopping these film pieces up into songs: recording vocals over them, bass, strings, drums. It was really cool. It kind of all popped out of this strange place where it wasn't really intended. Most of the record was born from that stuff.
Several tracks incorporate samples, a technique that seems to have interested you more and more over time.
There are a few songs that sample. I got really hooked on this riff in the middle of this song called "Minor Miracles," by my friend Eric Johnson from Fruit Bats. I got the tracks for that from him, and that turned into "Here in Spirit." So that was another cool thing: I just had this loop of his for a few years that I loved to listen to – I'd just drive around and listen to this loop. With "Here in Spirit," I was listening to that loop soon after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and I was feeling devastated by that and all the violence that's been going on.
That song just popped out one day while I was listening to that loop thinking about that stuff – how important it is that we all speak out for love, for equality and fairness because there's so much hatred getting so much air time these days. There's so much chaos and trouble in the world right now, and we need to broadcast as much peace and love, too.
Going back to that film project: They just said you were "too weird"? What went wrong?
I don't want to mention the film specifically because I don't want to have any bad blood or anything, but it was one of those things where we were trying to make the film more interesting. We felt it was working great. At the end of the day, I think they were scared to go with it because they ended up going with more conventional music that you'd imagine. If there's a sad scene, there's a sad piano riff; if it's fun, there's a loud, rocking guitar.
They went with more typical shit, and we were trying to make it more interesting. I think they were scared to take a chance on that, but it ended up working out in our favor. There's still tons of more music we made that I love and would love to release some day in some fashion. But that 40 minutes we did turned into the foundation for this record.
I was intrigued by the fact that Blake Mills co-produced the new album. The first thing that popped into my head was your cover of Backstreet Boys "I Want It That Way."
We were already set to work on this even before we did that thing. It was cool, though, because I basically already had the record done in a way. I was talking to my publisher, Jamie Ceretta, who's one of my closest confidants and allies when I'm working on new music. I feel like I can always count on his judgement because he'll tell me if he doesn't like something. It's sometimes hard to get people to tell you if they don't like something [laughs].
I was playing him [Eternally Even] and thinking about it, like, "What else could happen?" I thought I had it at about 80 percent. And he agreed. He's like, "God, I love it so much. But something else could happen." And he just happened to be talking to Blake about another project. And I've hung with Blake over the years some and always really liked him. And Jamie said, "Have you ever thought about working with Blake?" Blake and I met, and I played him the record as it stood, and he really liked it and had a lot of great ideas to help make the record even better.
The album has a really earthy, low-fi feel at times. Did you self-record it?
Most of it I self-recorded at home in Louisville, and some of it was at this crazy Airbnb in L.A. where these two tortoises live. There's like this crazy storage container on a hill where it feels like you're on Mars looking back on Earth – you can see downtown L.A. Brian and I recorded all the film stuff super pro – he has great gear, and I had all the multi-track sessions from that stuff, so I'd open those sessions and record vocals or strings or bass. It was a really interesting process because most of the record was born from me taking walks, listening to this music that had not been recorded with the intention of being a "solo record."
How did you start whittling these improv pieces into finished songs?
The main riff from "Same Old Lie" was this minute-long part that happened in this 10-minute jam, one of those improv pieces. I got really hooked on this part, so I took it out and looped it, recorded new drums over it. "We Ain't Getting Any Younger" is probably the best example: Part One is basically just still an improv piece that Brian and I did, but Blake and I refined it and edited it and added strings and synths to it. That's cool because Part One goes into Part Two, and that's exactly how the improv piece was. But all these vocal ideas started popping out. "Eternally Even" is also one of those pieces we did.
One of the reasons I do solo records is because I love being in the studio. When I'm not on tour or writing, I'm always recording at home because I love that process of fucking with stuff and trying to find new ways to make things sound weird. That was such a fun part of this record. I wanted to make another solo record sometime, but I didn't really have a plan until I stumbled upon this process, and it all just came out. It's like I pressed some button in my brain that made it all flow out once it started. I think it took about a year.
I love the production quality of "True Nature" – it's like this warped, faded jazz-fusion track. Did you and Blake experiment a lot sonically, or did you have a pretty clear idea of what you wanted?
There's just something about being in the studio that I love so much. It's like, how can you make something sound as fucked up as possible? How many times do you run something across a piece of shitty tape to degrade it? There's a bunch of friends I talk to who record, and [we talk about how] our technology of now makes things sound so clean. Sometimes that's really great, but a lot of times you want something to sound so terrible and so dirty. You go to all these extremes like running it through a tape cassette, throwing the cassette in dirt and playing it back. Just trying to make it sound fucked up.
When I interviewed you a few years ago, you said, "I believe [Marvin Gaye's] What’s Going On is perhaps the greatest recorded achievement of humankind up until this point. It speaks to all aspects of being a human." Eternally Even really feels like your What's Going On — it has so many of the same elements: the philosophical side, the open-ended spirituality, the protest song side. And it's so soulful and funky. Were you channeling that album?
Thanks for saying that. That album means so much to me. I don't think I was deliberately trying to make an album like What's Going On. But that album is always a reference in my mind because I think it's a pinnacle of the achievement of what's possible with music – not only technically and sonically and musically but also from a social-conscience standpoint and for protesting what needs to be protested. There's so much bad shit going on in the world right now, so much tough stuff that people are dealing with. And I just want to be hopefully a part of the conversation of talking about these things, broadcasting as much peace and love and equality as possible.
It's such a shame there's a person like Donald Trump who could even remotely be president – someone who could be so cruel. We have to keep talking and demanding peace and love and equality – especially the younger generation as they come up. We are all equal; we are all the same. It doesn't matter what your skin color is or your religious preference or your sexual preference. The only thing that matters is love. What's Going On says that so beautifully, and that's something I always want to try to say.
Many of these songs have political themes, most obviously "Same Old Lie," which directly references gun violence and the importance of voting. Did you feel that, with the stakes of a Trump presidency on the line, you wanted to be more direct and plainspoken with your lyrics?
Things are getting really, really fucked up: The world is being destroyed by climate change, and the notion of somebody like Trump becoming president is such a scary thing. A lot of people, myself included, have maybe been dealing with our own metaphysical dilemmas, loneliness. But now we don't really have the option to not speak out anymore.
So many people are terrified of what a Trump presidency could look like, of the hatred that could spread. You project so much optimism with your music, but how freaked out are you deep down?
I am super freaked out about the way the world's going. I'm super scared. Not only of the possibility of Trump but also climate change. That's the scariest thing of all. If we don't even have a place to live, we can't even care about Trump [laughs]. That part scares me most of all. But I really do feel hopeful, and I do feel there's this thing at the core of life – whatever it is, nobody knows exactly what to call it: the soul, the spirit, the root of consciousness, the root of love, or God – I feel like we really, truly are all the same. We all come from the same source. We're all individually beautiful, but underneath all our flesh and bone, we're all the same.
But people have been brainwashed or have had terrible lives. Who knows what Donald Trump's life was like to create the man we see today. But deep down inside everybody, I feel like there's a connection we should realize and embrace. Even if he does get elected, that's even more reason not to give up or stop speaking out for equality and peace and love. We'll need it more than ever.
"Eternally Even" is one of the most poignant songs you've ever written. Where did that "Eternally Even" concept – of the good and bad balancing out – come from for you? What were you drawing from?
That track is weird for me. I remember the day all those words popped out. I was in Portland, walking down the park blocks down by the [Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall]. There's this tree-lined parkway by the art museum that I like to walk when I'm there. It was the most beautiful day, and I was walking down that promenade listening to the improv piece that Brian and I played that became "Eternally Even." The sun was shining so beautifully, and it was the perfect temperature, but I was feeling kind of sad. And all the words and melodies started popping out, so I'd stop to write in the notepad on my phone.
All these things came out – this feeling of how good it feels to move past heartbreak with somebody. When you've been in a breakup, it can be so tough for so long. And it's so nice when you reach that point – even if it's a year or two years down the line – to see your ex and they've fallen in love again or moved on, and it's so great to see them happy. Maybe you're happy too, and it's nice to wish them a wonderful life and know the sun's out and you don't have to worry about the rain anymore.
And also the idea of "Eternally Even" – that at the center of it all, we are all truly even. We all give to each other and receive from each other, and we don't owe each other anything. There's no debt because we're all cosmically even. No matter what race you are – all these things are illusions that people get hung up on. And at the end of it, that day I also felt like I was losing my mind [laughs]. That I didn't know anything at all. That was such a cool day where all that stuff popped out.
What's the status on the next My Morning Jacket album? The last time you talked to Rolling Stone, you mentioned that you planned to write more material to supplement the previous stuff you amassed around The Waterfall.
I'm on kind of a completely different path now for the next Jacket record. I pretty much have it written, but we just need to record it, which we're gonna do in the spring. A lot of the stuff we did at the same time as The Waterfall – there's still stuff I want to work on, but for some reason, my mind has shifted.
After all the terrible shootings and stuff that happened, I wrote this song called "Magic Bullet," which was something we did during The Waterfall that we released a few months back as this kind of violence-awareness, "stop the violence" song. There's a song called "The First Time" that we recorded – I ended up working with that for the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's show Roadies. A couple of those things have seen the light of day. There's so much music these days, and it's easy for things to fall through the cracks. For the next album, we just have to get down to actually doing it, which we'll do in March or April. I think we'll probably do it in L.A., but I'm trying to figure all those things out.
You say your creative mindset has changed. What exactly do you mean?
I don't really even know. It's so weird. It's kinda similar to the solo thing. With this record, all these songs popped out together – they joined hands and jumped out of the airplane together. I don't even know why. I was writing other songs, and all these songs of a certain type jumped out and said they wanted to be the core of the next Jacket record. There's something propulsive or rock & roll about them.
That's how it feels now. But as I know from past records, I can't even say that's how it'll end up. You'll walk in with these rock & roll songs, and you'll walk out with a record of the saddest, dreamiest ballads. You never know what's actually gonna happen when you get down to recording, and that's one of the most fun things about it.