Jim James traces the origins of his solo debut, Regions of Light and Sound of God, back to a nasty fall he took off a stage when My Morning Jacket played Iowa City in 2008. “I was miserable,” says the MMJ singer, who suffered serious injuries to his torso. “I thought it was the end of my life.” While he was laid up, James became obsessed with Gods’ Man, an obscure 1929 proto-graphic novel about an artist forced to choose between success and salvation. Over the next few years, he squirreled away an album’s worth of songs loosely inspired by the book – heady spiritual musings backed by swirling psychedelic instrumentation. “I’ll never be satisfied, ’cause I always want to keep making music,” says the singer, settling into an overstuffed couch in his manager’s Manhattan office. “It’s an endless goal.”
When did you tell the other guys in the Jacket that you had a side thing going?
Pretty early into it. We’ve been really lucky – it’s like a healthy open relationship. The more we allow ourselves to do, the better it feels to come back to it. We’re hopefully going to record a new Jacket album later this year, in the fall.
You talk a lot about God on this album – are you religious? Or more spiritual?
I call myself a recovering Catholic. I’m very spiritual, but I don’t subscribe to any god. To me, God is the place that you go when you’re lost outside of your normal thinking self – it’s this beautiful experience when you’re in love or making love or having a great conversation with somebody that you love.
What do you think of the role that religion plays in public life?
Well, I think we can all agree that organized religion has done more harm than good. Most organized religion is big business, and that’s a very sad and evil thing.
I did hear you recently converted to the church of Bruce Springsteen.
Yeah, he played Louisville, and it was probably one of my top three concerts ever. It made me feel so great that somebody who’s been going for so long still cares, you know? It’s refreshing. He doesn’t hold his fame like a sword over people’s heads or something. It felt like every person in that place was his best friend. I need to get some pointers from him.
Both My Morning Jacket and your new record go to majorly psychedelic places – are drugs part of your process?
I’ve done my fair share of drugs! But I feel like drugs are a tool – like the way Native Americans used tobacco as this beautiful ceremonial thing, and we turn it into something you fuckin’ shove into your mouth every five minutes. We ruin things. And I’ve been guilty of that in my life. But I think most people could benefit from an acid trip or smoking weed in a beautiful way with somebody that they trust.
You were in I’m Not There, and MMJ have opened for Bob Dylan – ever meet him?
No. We opened for him four times and never met him, never seen him, never smelled him. Never caught a trace of him. I’ve been lucky to meet so many people I respect, but somebody like Dylan is a mystery. And the mystery is pretty cool.
You sing about being wary of technology on the new song “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.).” Do you have a smartphone?
I mean, I use technology just as much as everybody else. But we all jumped right in bed with the Internet. We didn’t take time to date or hold hands or kiss. And I think we’re going to look back on the Internet as a big mistake. It’s like a drug that we’re superaddicted to, and we’ve got this drug in our pocket all the time. It’s going to eat up the world.
You’ve been playing consistently awe-inspiring concerts with the Jacket for more than a decade. Do you have a favorite show you’ve been to?
I got to see James Brown when I was in high school, when he played on the Belvedere, which is the waterfront in Louisville. It was insane. I mean, talk about melting pot –every person from every walk of life was there, every color of the rainbow, harmoniously enjoying the music.
Would you say it was a life-changing experience?
Well, I was working at Target at the time, and I called in sick so I could go to the show. Then I got filmed break-dancing, and it was on the local news, and then I got fired from Target.
Was it worth it?
Oh, God. Absolutely. I was gonna quit anyway.
This story is from the February 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.