My Morning Jacket's Jim James on What You Can Learn From a Tortoise

Singer-songwriter on Pilates, playing with Bob Dylan and cultivating "organic music"

My Morning Jacket's Jim James discusses Pilates, the joy of meditation and what you can learn from a tortoise. Credit: Illustration by Mark Summers

Jim James is a busy man. When he's not touring (or backing Roger Waters) with My Morning Jacket, he has been working on a solo album and producing artists like Ray LaMontagne on the side. But through it all, he manages to maintain a cool, calm demeanor and a philosophical attitude. How does he do it? In an eclectic conversation with Rolling Stone, the singer-guitarist cites a 1936 children's book, daily meditation sessions and life with two giant tortoises as key factors in his healthy outlook.

You're from Louisville, Kentucky, but lately you've been living in Los Angeles. What's that like?
There are so many people here trying to make their dreams come true, and it's incredibly inspiring. I'm renting an Airbnb from an artist who kinda built the place. There are two 40-year-old giant desert tortoises that live here, and they've been amazing to live with. They don't need you, but they also enjoy being around you. They're so content to do very little, and I'm trying to learn from them: "You're just gonna climb out of your hole and sit in the sun?" "Yeah, that's all I'm gonna do today."

You were homebound for two months after back surgery last year. How do you feel now?
I feel younger than I've ever felt. I exercise all the time, every morning, and then I do music in the afternoon. I walk two to three miles a day, and do Pilates twice a week. Pilates is amazing. It makes you conscious of how you have been doing something incorrectly for so long, even something as simple as just standing there.

Other than Pilates, what do you do to relax?
After I wake up, I always meditate. I stumbled upon Transcendental Meditation about eight years ago. It's better than jumping up and immediately opening your computer or checking your e-mail. I feel like the sky in my mind is bigger when I meditate. It helps you fight the classic battles we're all fighting: trying to find love, trying to find satisfaction in your career. Most of us can be incredibly mean to ourselves. But TM teaches you that even if you hear that cruel voice, you don't have to listen to it. That voice comes into my head with trying to find love. You can't force yourself to go out and fall in love next Wednesday night.

What's the most Louisvillian thing about you?
Northerners always think we're Southern, but we're not. Southerners think we're Northern, and we're not. The state is really conservative, but Louisville isn't. There's a lot of really progressive people who want fairness and justice, and there's a cool restaurant and arts scene. It doesn't really have a prior identity and isn't really known for anything. I'm really fortunate to come from there.

What possession means the most to you?
I'm trying to get rid of everything I don't absolutely need. I do keep all my old notes and old letters people have written, even if it was just like, "Hey, I ran to the grocery, I'll be back in an hour." Those notes remind me of the person and the way they might've said something in another circumstance.


"Music is like food. Nothing is sustainably raised, everything is ground out in horrible factories."

What book did you like as a kid?
The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf. It's from 1936, and it's about a bull that doesn't wanna fight in bullfights 'cause he'd rather sit and smell the flowers. It's got such a beautiful way of telling you to follow your heart, even though there is constant pressure to do what other people think you should do. We're scared to gamble, but I think most people should be bigger gamblers.

My Morning Jacket have a devoted following, but mainstream success has always eluded you.
We've never had a hit single or sold millions of records, but we've had enough success. So much of music is a product. People don't realize what goes on behind the scenes. It's like some big evil computer spitting all this shit out. Music is like food. Nothing is sustainably raised, everything is ground out in horrible factories. Why can't record companies reference Dark Side of the Moon or the Beatles? We could grow organic music again that would feed people forever.

Bob Dylan invited you onstage when you toured together in 2013. What did you get out of the experience?
People think that he's phoning it in sometimes. But to be that close to him and see how lost he was in the music was pretty fucking amazing. You could see him going to his place. He wasn't in the room; he was some place millions of miles away. To me, that's the idea of transcending, or the idea of what God might be.

You've fronted My Morning Jacket for almost 20 years. What have you learned about leading a band?
The biggest part, as cliché as it sounds, is just being honest and never carrying a debt with anybody. If someone makes you mad, tell them. Work it out. Don't carry it around like a burden. The same with love. If someone makes you happy, let them know how awesome they are. You can never say "I love you" enough.