Jim James Interview: My Morning Jacket's 'Waterfall II,' COVID-19 - Rolling Stone
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Jim James on My Morning Jacket’s ‘Waterfall II,’ Live Music After COVID-19

Burned out on touring, the frontman wondered if his band would play again. Then he played four cathartic shows and rediscovered a lost 2015 album

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My Morning Jacket in the studio

Danny Clinch*

Jim James was on a long walk recently near his home in Louisville, Kentucky, listening to iTunes when one of his own songs popped up: “Spinning My Wheels,” a gorgeous, hymn-like ballad that he’d written in 2013. The track was from the scrapped sequel to My Morning Jacket’s 2015 album The Waterfall. The band had planned to release at least two albums from their marathon 2013 recording sessions in Stinson Beach, California, but years of heavy touring caught up to James, and they went on a long break. “I just really remembered how much I love that song,” James says of “Spinning My Wheels.” “And then I remembered, ‘Oh, shit, we still have whole second half of we never have released, and maybe this will be a great way to connect again with our listeners and kind of connect with ourselves as a band again.”

The band released the Waterfall II earlier this month with a surprise listening party for fans. “It was really emotional,” says James. “It’s funny, because it was closing a chapter in one way. But in another way, it was like a new beginning. It really felt like this beautiful way of knowing that the band was back again.”

Waterfall II is such an incredible album. It’s wild that you’ve been sitting on the songs for so long.
Well, it’s funny because when we did the [first] Waterfall, we were going to release all of these songs, and it would be a huge triple album. But that would have been too much and a lot of the songs would have gotten lost. So I try to tell people, it’s not like these songs are like B sides or songs that we didn’t like as much. They are the last half of the album. When we decided not to release them, after all of the Waterfall touring, we decided to take a break from the Jacket for a while, and I worked on solo stuff. And it’s so funny, because I always knew we’d release these songs someday, but I thought maybe 10 or 20 years later we would drop it.

There’s been so much new music that I’ve written that I just kind of forgot about these. I’m just kind of moving on to the next thing. And even with the Jacket, it’s like, once we kind of played together again and fell back in love and got going again, we started working on a new record. So releasing this record was the last thing on our minds because we were just kind of moving on. This record really wouldn’t have come out now if it weren’t for the pandemic. It was almost a way to to deal with this feeling of helplessness. We were so excited and so ready to be a band again and tour again and release a new record, but then, obviously, along with everybody else, the pandemic shut all that down.

How long did you take off from my Morning Jacket after touring?
I’m terrible with time. I don’t know. Several years, two or three years. I just kind of needed some time because the touring was just killing me. So we just kind of stepped back and then it all just kind of came back together. 

What brought you back together?
When we had the chance to do those four shows last year at Red Rocks and Forest Hills. Those just kind of really brought us all back together, and we remembered how much we love playing together. It’s funny, after you’ve been beaten down on the road for so long, you just, like, almost hate the idea of playing another concert. It sounds like it’s gonna kill you. But when you haven’t done it for years and you do it again, you’re just like, “Oh, this is the source of life, this is the fountain of youth, this is what keeps me alive!”

So My Morning Jacket has been in the studio making another new record, in addition to Waterfall II?

How is that going?
It’s awesome, it’s exciting. We did a couple different sessions earlier this year, and the guys were flying home just as the pandemic started to be taken seriously. The guys flew home in early March, so we got all of the recording done. And now, who knows when … We don’t really want to release it until we can tour with it and all that stuff, so, knock on wood, hopefully sometime in 2021.

Do you remember where you were when you wrote “Climbing the Ladder”? I love the melody and also the way the band speeds up and slows down throughout the song. That must be hard to do.
Well, it’s funny, because originally we wrote that song and it was slower, kind of like where it gets slow. The whole thing was kind of slower. And I remember we were knocking it around as a slower song for a while. And then somehow, you know, it just ended up we somehow got to the faster place, and we’re really enjoying that. And then when we were cutting it, I was starting to miss the slower part, and I was like, “Oh, shit, what if we just combine the two and slow it down at the end?”

Were you in a heartbroken place when you were writing these songs?
Yeah. For a lot of The Waterfall, I was dealing with the end of a really big relationship and processing and trying to figure it out. Just trying to stay hopeful, even though I felt so out of control. This thing was ending that I didn’t want to end, but it had to end. I know a lot of people know that feeling of when a relationship ends and you don’t want it to, but it’s in the best interest of everybody that it does, and how hard that is. And just this feeling of helplessness. You’re trying not to fall into the pit of despair, and trying to stay hopeful. I think somehow when I found this music again, I realized that I was feeling that way about life with the pandemic, and a lot of people are feeling that way. It’s almost like the pandemic makes you feel like you’re breaking up with life or something. You can’t do the things you used to do, and you can’t go to places you used to go, and you feel so helpless and so heartbroken — and you’re trying to hold on to hope through it all.

“Run It” has such a classic feel to it.
Thanks. Everybody knows that desire of wanting to be near water. You know, because we’re made of water. So we like to go to the river, and it just kind of calms you and helps you think. So that song is really just kind of an ode to that feeling, and when we were making the record, we liked to go to the [Ohio] River and Stinson Beach [in Marin County, California]. The water and the natural environments played such a big role in shaping that record.

How does the idea of the waterfall tie in with all of this in your mind?
Well, it’s really just that force of nature. Because nature is so alive and so surreal. And so much more than I think our modern world gives it credit for, you know? It’s like people don’t really give trees the credit they deserve, and people don’t really give water the credit it deserves. It’s, like, trees are creating our air and keeping us alive, doing so much for us that we don’t even understand. And waterfalls to me kept popping up during the making of that record and during the mixing. When we were in Oregon mixing the record going out to Multnomah Falls — and there’s some really beautiful waterfalls out near Portland, Oregon — I just kind of got obsessed with finding waterfalls, and then finding old pictures of waterfalls. I felt like just that emotion of a waterfall kept coming up, and I always get this feeling when I’m in front of a waterfall that I want to pause it, you know, like stop it. And then, also, when you look at it long enough, you can start feeling like you’re you’re setting it reverse. I felt like a waterfall does all these cool things to your brain when you stand in front of one, and just kind of let nature almost clean your hard drive in a good way. I feel like if you stand in front of a waterfall long enough, it can help you erase a lot of stuff you don’t need. 

I came to Louisville for the first Waterfall record. You had a lot of pictures of waterfalls at the time.
Oh, yeah. I was just collecting as many waterfall pictures as I could. Postcards, yeah. I was just kind of obsessed with waterfalls for a while there.

Where’s your favorite waterfall, if you had to pick one?
Gosh, that’s tough, there’s so many great ones. Of course there’s the gigantic, crazy ones like Snoqualmie Falls — or Cumberland Falls, if you’re here in Kentucky, is really cool. Those are cool, but also when you just find small ones in nature, you just are out on a hike and you see a beautiful little waterfall, there’s just something about them. I don’t think I’m alone in that I think it happens to most people, that you’re just kind of enchanted by it. It just kind of stops you in your tracks when you see one. You sit there, listen to it. It’s such a cool place because a waterfall always indicates life, because that’s where the animals drink and that’s where people come to gaze and wonder and swim at the bottom of the waterfall. To me, it’s like a portable ocean.

I love the line in “Still Thinkin’” about “a lone soul hangin’ off the corner of the edge of the world.”
Thanks. I just felt like that so much in my life. I was really feeling that when that relationship ended. I just felt like so helpless, like, “Goddammit. Here’s another relationship I haven’t made work.” You know, you’re sitting alone again at 3 a.m., and I get this visceral feeling like “I’m gonna fall off the world.” It just almost feels like I feel the gravity, like I’m literally upside down about to fall off.

What are your favorite memories from the studio?
It was just such a magical time. We took so much of nature into the studio with us at the time, and we would go on a walk or we would go on a hike or go to Muir Woods [in Marin County]. I’d write a song, we’d be working on “Feel You,” or whatever, or we’d go for a hike — and as you’re working on a song, it’s kind of always playing in your head. And then through the hike, a little riff would pop up that didn’t exist before. That’s my favorite memory of that time. It’s just, like, how much nature allowed us to kind of open our minds and enjoy, not only our relationship with each other, but I feel like it really opened up my internal landscape.

What songs are you most proud of?
It’s funny, with any song I’ve ever written, I can go through phases where one year I love it and then the next, for whatever reason, it falls out of favor. I just feel really proud of these, because it was surprising to me, once I found them all again, how quickly I figured out the sequence that felt so good, and they all just kind of sank into this sequence and really felt like they belonged together. It made a cool journey. I really like the way that they all come together. 

What was the experience like when you guys released the album?
It was so emotional. It was so funny because we all were kind of texting. I teared up several times, just remembering how much fun I have with everybody. It was really emotional. It’s funny because it was closing a chapter in one way. But in another way, it was like a new beginning. It really felt like this beautiful way of knowing that the band was back again. It was wild how it was simultaneously new and old at the same time. You know, here’s new music people haven’t heard, but this music is old. It’s like closing the book on The Waterfall, which was a book that was open and probably would have been open forever. I don’t think we would have thought about putting it out for a long time.

During the long hiatus, were there moments when you thought that My Morning Jacket might not play again?
Well, I didn’t know really, because I just couldn’t figure out how to manage the touring. A My Morning Jacket show just takes a certain amount of energy from from me that at times feels impossible, because it’s like I have to summon up all of these older versions of myself and bring them to light. And a lot of times, you don’t want to do that. Like, there’s a lot of nights where I don’t want to summon the pain of the 20-year-old me and try and sing it to y’all as the 42-year-old me. But other times, it all makes sense. I really have so much respect for so many people that have kept their careers going for so long. We look at artists that have been around for 50 years, or whatever. And you’re like, “How do you continuously summon that energy?” I think I finally figured out it’s just about balance. If I can keep the touring schedule balanced with enough time that I don’t kill myself physically, then I feel like it can all start to make sense. There were times there when I just didn’t know if I ever wanted to tour again, because it was just killing me. 

Are you booking dates at all for 2021? Are you just waiting to see what happens?
Yeah, we’re trying to figure it out. Because we did have some things we were going to do this year, you know, obviously, that we could do. So a lot of those things are getting transferred, pushed a year back, or whatever we’re seeing with a lot of festivals and stuff. And so I think everybody’s just trying to figure out what they’re going to do. Because for me, too, one of the things we all have to think about is, how do we address the people whose lives have been ruined by this pandemic? And the people who don’t have any money? You know, they can’t afford health care, they can’t afford to pay their rent. Like, I want to make sure that, when we come back, everybody who wants to come can come. So I don’t know what that means. But that might mean having to make, you know, half the show a $5 ticket, or asking people, “Hey, if you can afford to buy a ticket, would you consider buying a ticket for somebody who can’t, who doesn’t have the money?” We’re gonna have to try and figure that out. I think the most important thing when live music comes back is, how do we make it healing for everybody, especially people who have been hit so hard and financially to make sure that they can get into the shows too?

My Morning Jacket performs at the Capitol Theater in August 2019.

My Morning Jacket perform at the Capitol Theatre in August 2019.

Peter Wallace*

I haven’t heard anybody even mention that.
Yeah, because it’s like, how can you ask somebody? How can we go back on tour, full price, and ask somebody to pay full-price ticket when their whole entire being has just been crushed? Especially everybody in the people business, from restaurants and anybody who’s a waiter, or who hasn’t made any income in forever. So many people are going to need relief. I think this is a good moment for us to really challenge the structure of our capitalist society and start trying to care about each other again, you know, because everybody’s got to make a living. We’ve all got to do what we got to do to put food on the table and keep the bills paid. But it’s like we also need to look out for each other. And that’s gonna be a complex thing, you know, and also like, which venues are going to be open? How many small venues are going to have to have closed? You know, it’s gonna be a crazy landscape whenever it is that we can all get back out there.

Is it tough for you with the road crew and everything?
Yeah, it’s been tough for everybody here because there’s no — it’s just like, for me, I just keep thinking about mercy. Our society needs more mercy, especially government assistance to people who are struggling. How can you expect somebody to pay their rent if their job has been gone for months? The world needs more mercy for people, because this time has been incredibly difficult for so many people.

I think it’s really important we show mercy to our fans and friends who are struggling and don’t have any money. The last thing I want is somebody who really wants to see us but [whose] life has been wrecked by this pandemic not be able to come have some fun and get some kind of healing from music again. That’s the whole problem in a nutshell with America. America has been gutted by ruthless capitalism. It’s time in so many ways for us to try and change that. 

But by the time we play again, the bands you love won’t have made any money in in a year or more. So it’s gonna be this crazy convergence of bands needing to make money to feed their crew and themselves and their families and all that stuff, but it’s going to be in an environment where every band is back. So you’re like, “OK, what concert am I gonna go to this week? Every fucking band is coming through town, and I haven’t had a job in six months, and I don’t have any money! What the fuck do we do?” You almost wish that somebody like Jeff Bezos would come out of the woodwork and say, “Hey, I’m a big music fan. Here’s a bajillion dollars to revitalize concert industry.” I keep thinking of this concept of mercy. Can’t some of these people who own all the wealth have some mercy in their hearts to fix some of these problems? That’s the part I keep getting kind of wrecked by, that we’re all going to do our best to figure out the solution to these problems, but it’s just so sad that so few hold so much of the financial power in this society.

Let’s imagine it’s 2021 or 2022. And everybody can play shows again. What do we do to make it fair for everybody? Can we get assistance? Is there some billionaire we’ve forgotten about that loves music or something? Like, how do we make this work?

It’s going to be hard because a lot of bands are so greedy. Some of them don’t even go on the road unless they charge $500 for a ticket. Are they going to give their fans a break?
I’ll just say the Eagles, for fun, because they’re notoriously known for charging tons of money for tickets. I think you’ll see pretty quickly that people don’t have that kind of money. I think it may take a couple of failed tours for people to see the Eagles go on tour and the stadium is only half full, and they’re like, “Why is it half full?” And you’re like, “Dudes, people haven’t had jobs in a fucking year. They can’t afford a $50 ticket, much less a $500 ticket.”

In This Article: Jim James, My Morning Jacket


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