Jim-E Stack, Pop Music’s Secret Weapon, Branches Out on His Own
Los Angeles-based producer and songwriter Jim-E Stack is no stranger to collaboration. His second solo LP, EPHEMERA, released at the end of 2020, featured a running list of Stack’s collaboratoes—Ant Clemons, Bon Iver, and Empress Of, among them. Indeed, since the 2014 release of his first LP, Tell Me I Belong, Stack has made a name for himself as a zelig-like musical virtuoso, racking up credits on tracks as diverse as Haim’s electro-folksy “Want You Back” and Diplo’s downtempo R&B groove “New Shapes,” featuring Octavian. All that is to say, Stack, who was born James Harmon Stack, is an artist of many talents, but one who, self-admittedly, has found a new sense of freedom with EPHEMERA. Here, he speaks with long-time collaborator and partner, the musician Kacy Hill, discussing his creative process, the revelations made during the making of EPHEMERA, and a dream he had starring Kanye West.—JOSEPH AKEL
KACY HILL: I’m thrilled to see you. How are you today?
JIM-E STACK: I’m fine. I should probably get out of my pajamas soon.
HILL: Yeah, it’s a pajama type of day. Sorry if Mochi [Hill’s cat] jumps up, she’s right behind the computer. So, what do you think makes a Jim-E Stack song different from a song you might make for someone else’s project?
STACK: What makes it different is that it probably relies a little less on the vocal than a song would for another person’s project. I think a good chunk of my album, if not most of the songs, are basically only half-vocaled. And then, other parts just show off the instrumentation a bit more — like acoustics, guitar riffs, or that kind of stuff. But more than anything else, a song that’s my project, is all about realizing my vision and having it be something I want to listen to. I’m the only decider for how it should come out. It’s completely self-indulgent in that way, whereas if it’s for your album or for someone like Justin [Vernon’s] stuff or Lorely I’m following their lead, so this is my one opportunity to do my thing exclusively.
HILL: Totally. Do you enjoy that level of control? Because, when you’re making someone else’s album, even though it’s collaborative, you’re obviously in service of someone else’s vision.
HILL: Do you feel like this is liberating to be able to call the shots and not rely on someone else’s vision?
STACK: That part of it is nice, but I honestly don’t know if it’s liberating because it puts more pressure on me. Whereas, when I’m working on someone else’s stuff and there are decisions to be made in the production and writing of which I’m unsure, I can always defer to the person whose song it is to make that decision, and I don’t have to make a big call. That’s why my album ended up being pretty short and sweet and to the point, because each song is entirely up to me. Every little thing that’s done is my decision and I can be, as you know, someone who often takes a while to settle on deciding something, one way or another.
HILL: I love this album because well, number one, I’ve seen you from start to finish with it and heard a lot of [the songs] in their demo state. I think it’s such a good capsule for how you’ve defined your sound over the last three or four years. It feels like there’s such a distinct Jim-E Stack sound now. This album is just the perfect sampling of that.
STACK: I’m glad you think that because I think it’s turning into a big thing for me. Looking back maybe three years ago, I felt I was lacking in my own music a sense, I guess, of freedom. Or the looseness that comes with making music with a lot of players, guitarists, keyboard players, and whatever. And that came from me being a laptop producer or musician. I had just found I was like, “Oh, my god I can’t. How do I get to that level of freedom in the music where it feels like meandering in a great way?” That’s something you obviously do super well. The song “Told Me” on your album [Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again] and obviously Justin’s stuff is like that. That was something I was really craving in my own music, and I was fortunate enough to collaborate with people like Justin [Vernon], and you, and Lorely on this album. It let me, for the first time, really get to that place of my music really feeling free, and human, and unencumbered.
HILL: Totally. That’s probably the gift of collaboration, right? Is that you’re ideally either learning something or utilizing someone’s skills who does some things so much better than you do. Neither of us are musicians or a good player, so to work with someone who genuinely is, brings it to another level. What do you think makes a successful collaboration for you? What’s the best feeling for you to come out of the studio with someone and be like, “Wow, I got this from that”?
STACK: Probably first and foremost, if it’s something that we—whether it’s two of us in the studio, or five of us—all want to then listen to once we’ve left the studio. I think more than anything, what’s excited me the most is just doing stuff that really takes me out of my comfort zone, that I feel only because of the collaboration, did we each step into a world that we’d maybe hadn’t before. I feel that’s something that I’ve looked for more in the past years, whether it’s with Justin doing a folky thing or Dominic [Fike] doing his rock thing. All this stuff where I could never on my own do that kind of thing. It takes whoever I’m working with and myself coming together to make this thing that is like new territory for us both. That’s what to me is always the most exciting.
HILL: What do you think is the best advice you’ve been given in music or in life?
STACK: I don’t know if I could pinpoint a moment where I was explicitly given some advice. Like “Do this,” or “Don’t do this,” but I’ve accumulated learned advice and I would say, the person who’s had the most impact on me at least recently is definitely Justin Vernon. He’s never even said like, “Oh, you should do this or don’t do this or whatever.” I’ve just learned through working with him and BJ [Burton] and that you get the best shit when you just don’t care, when you just start doing it for yourself and doing it for the moment. Don’t go into a session working with someone to try and get a song. Go in to have a good time and hang out. Even the other day with you and Ethan [Gruska], we basically just hung out for four hours and made some of my favorite for your next album. I’d never met Ethan before then, but we were literally just hanging out, messing around, talking, having fun. It’s no coincidence that’s what birthed some really dope song ideas.
HILL: It’s interesting because I feel like it’s the opposite of a lot of the business side of music, of what we’re taught.
HILL: And it’s like unlearning those things and being like, “Oh, sure you can produce a good song from that.” But you also have to enjoy it. And some people are not built for that machine, you know?
STACK: Totally. I have had instances where I’ve volunteered myself to be in that kind of position. I can work twice as hard and I make something that’s like half as good. It’s so counterintuitive but I’ve just realized the more you let go and just do it to do it, the easier it is, the better it’s going to be.
HILL: That’s such a good metaphor for so many things in life. The more you let go and let the stress roll off, you’re just so much better at doing almost anything. Do you have any dream collaborations on your list or lifetime goal type things?
STACK: I don’t have any hard list or anything. There are maybe some people that I feel would really take me out of my comfort zone therefore we’d make something great or maybe terrible. I have Rosalía as one because I would have no idea what to do with her. And that’s maybe why we would do something cool. The same thing with André 3000. I also would love to work with Kanye just for the experience. With literally no expectations other than to be yelled at or told some crazy shit. What a good life experience to have under my belt.
HILL: Yeah, all the Kanye interactions I’ve had very much stick with me.
STACK: Last night I had a dream that I was in a department store and someone tapped me on my shoulder. And I turned and it was Kanye, and he was like, “Hey, what’s up?”
HILL: That’s so funny. My friend used to work at an American Apparel and Kanye came in. My friend was playing Daft Punk, and Kanye was like, “This is sick, what is this?” He was like, “It’s Daft Punk.” And then he made “Stronger.” He was like, “Did I introduce Kanye to Daft Punk?”
STACK: Wow. Probably.
HILL: Do you have a proudest accomplishment thus far?
STACK: I feel like my album is that to some degree, but bigger than that, I really think it’s been this year. And as awful as this year has been for the world, and as you know for both of us respectively, it has definitely been a difficult year personally, this has been the year where so much of the music I’ve been working on, be it for myself or for other people in the last two or three years, this is the year where it’s all happened to land and come out. I’m just so proud to be able to share that with the world. If you go from everything that’s come out from January all the way up into until the end of the year, it pretty accurately tells a story of where I’ve been the last couple years and what I’ve been up to. It says a lot about me and what I’m doing to express myself and how I’m doing it. I feel like all that has just been encapsulated in a fucking crazy-ass year.