ABOVE: JIM JAMES. PHOTO COURTESY OF NEIL KRUG.
Whether he’s fronting My Morning Jacket, working on one of his many side projects, or producing solo work, Jim James’ soaring voice is easy to recognize. Often punctuated with falsetto, he rarely goes a song without wailing. But on his latest solo record, Eternally Even (released on Friday November 5th via ATO/Capitol Records), James’s trademark vocal freedom is gone, replaced with an at times monotone voice grounded in heavy drums and organs.
The stylistic change is understandable given the album’s political message; James offers commentary on the frightening upcoming election and implores listeners to be vocal about love and acceptance in the face of mounting hatred, anger, and violence. On the album’s single, “Same Old Lie,” James fittingly sings, “If you don’t vote it’s on you not me.”
Despite the contemporary nature of the record, its music was created years ago as a potential film score. “I worked with the composer Brian Reitzell on a couple of films. We got fired for being too weird,” says James over the phone when we speak in mid-October. “I really liked the music we made. There were some improv pieces—maybe 30 or 40 minutes worth—and I always liked those a lot. One of them came up on shuffle on my phone one day when I was walking, and all of a sudden vocal melodies and words started popping out,” he continues.
As for the reason to make a politically charged record now, James says he couldn’t not respond to the times: “None of us have the luxury anymore to not think about and talk about these things.”
ETHAN SAPIENZA: The last time you spoke with Interview you mentioned how influential The Muppet Show was for you.
JIM JAMES: [laughs] Yeah.
SAPIENZA: What were some of the formative musical experiences you had growing up?
JAMES: The Muppet Show was huge. I watched it all the time as a kid and I really loved the way they used music on that. I also remember hearing the radio in the car as a kid, like Stevie Wonder and Simon and Garfunkel. My aunt played upright bass in the Louisville Orchestra and I was always really impressed by her musical ability. I found it really fascinating as a kid that one could play music for a living. When I was maybe three years old, I was obsessed with this song “Leader of the Band” by Dan Fogelberg. My mom took me to the mall and bought me a 45 of it. We would listen to that song all the time.
SAPIENZA: When you’re writing, how do ideas or melodies come to you? Is there something in particular that really stimulates your thought?
JAMES: It’s just the weirdest thing—I don’t know if anybody understands it, if they do I wish they’d tell me—I don’t really understand where it comes from. It’s such a cool thing. I’ll be taking a walk or eating dinner and some melody will pop in my head or a riff or whatever. I’ll just record it into my voice memo and then go work on it later. Sometimes it’ll be a whole song; I’ll pick up the guitar and write a song. With this record it was such a cool experience since it was all born out of music that was not written to be these songs. It was born out of these instrumental pieces of music that then had these other thoughts pop out over the top of them to make them into “songs” with vocals, lyrics, and yadda yadda yadda. It’s a nice little surprise.
SAPIENZA: My Morning Jacket has been lauded for changing its sound and experimenting quite a bit. Do you find that’s necessary or just comes with progression?
JAMES: It’s just fun! That’s something I try to remember when I get stressed out or deep in a tour or worn out and tired. I started this because I love music but also to have fun. I wanted to play in a fucking rock ‘n’ roll band to have a good time. [laughs] I try to remember to have fun with it. For me, changing the sound and listening to new music—that’s just so fun. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re never going to please everybody. If every record I made sounded the same, some people would love that and some people would say that’s stupid. If every record changes some people say that’s stupid. It’s so funny but kind of freeing too. I feel that at the end of the day, I should make what I want to make since somebody is going to hate it and somebody is going to love it too. I can’t control that.
SAPIENZA: Why’d you choose the name Eternally Even?
JAMES: I’m really proud of the song. It means a lot to me. I got this feeling, like when I had dinner with a friend or a loved one and one of you pays for the check and the other says, “I owe you next time.” I like to think that we’re eternally even—that they don’t owe me anything or I don’t owe them anything if you have a connection with somebody or a love with somebody. I like to think that there’s no debt to pay. You love each other and you’re happy to pay for dinner every time.
I was just thinking about that and wishing the world could be more like that, in a literal way with our healthcare system. I wish that as a country we took pride in caring for people and helping people. Imagine if that was a point of pride instead of trying to make money [with] greed such giant things. Imagine how wonderful it would be if people didn’t have to be in terrible doubt or be unable to afford healthcare. Or how wonderful it would be if we were all in on us being even and being together and helping each other.
SAPIENZA: On this album, your voice is far more contained than on your previous solo record or on My Morning Jacket albums. Was that something that was intentional?
JAMES: Not really. I didn’t really think about it. It’s weird how we don’t know where music comes from. It’s the same for me in all regards; the song tells me it wants me to sing it in a lower register or a higher register or whatever the song asks for. It was kind of weird, these songs asked to be sung in a lower register. I don’t want to use the word calm since there are intense moments as well, but just a different register than what I had used before.
SAPIENZA: You’ve been very clear about the political messages in the album. Are you afraid of getting any blowback and have you gotten any?
JAMES: No, I’m not afraid of that. I feel like I’m trying to speak in a very loving way or a very nonspecific way. I really just want to talk about peace and love and equality. The fact that anybody couldn’t get behind equality or love—those are things that are their problem. [laughs] I hope they can learn to move past [that]. There’s so much crazy stuff going on. Of course, I’m very upset about Donald Trump, and I hope he is defeated in a landslide. I just feel like it’s all of our duty to speak out and cast our votes. I feel like hate and darkness get so much airtime. We need to give peace and love as much airtime as we can. We need to be teaching our kids that it’s okay to love whoever you want to love, and it’s okay to be who you want to be, and it’s okay to feel that everybody should be treated equally and with respect. [laughs] Such simple things that I don’t know why it’s hard for people to understand.
SAPIENZA: Was there a specific moment when you wanted to make something with political intentions?
JAMES: It just came out. I feel like that’s the world we’re living in. It’s just been a fever pitch in the last year or two—not that there haven’t been problems before. I feel lucky that I even have the luxury to write about feeling lonely or feeling confused. When you think about climate change that means that we won’t have an Earth to be lonely on. God forbid Donald Trump gets elected president; think about how many people are going to get fucked over or how much harder we’re going to have to fight for equality.
SAPIENZA: You wrote “Here in Spirit” in response to the recent Orlando shooting. Is there anything you wanted to accomplish with that song in particular?
JAMES: Just like what I was saying a minute ago, [I want] to encourage people to speak out for peace and love and equality, and [against] the terrible things that have been happening like that—police shootings and all the stuff that’s been happening. I feel like there’s been this tidal wave of negative energy and hatred and anger. I keep wanting people to realize that there needs to be a tidal wave of peace and love. People should be treated with love and respect regardless of the color of their skin or their sexual preference. We need to keep saying that as much as we can and as loud as we can.
SAPIENZA: Did you intentionally plan on releasing the album right before Election Day?
JAMES: Definitely. I wanted to be a part of the discussion. I hoped to be even if the album encouraged just one person to go vote or speak out; if I have done that then that would be accomplishing the goal. … It’s important that we all talk to each other and say, “Hey, we really need everyone to come out and vote this election so we’re not living in some kind of fucked up Donald Trump dictatorship.” We need to get the word out, especially people who don’t normally vote or people who think voting is stupid or their vote doesn’t matter.
SAPIENZA: Do you think you could persuade some Trump supporters?
JAMES: That would be amazing. [laughs] I hope so. I wish we had a more open discourse. It’s just a shame that with our 24-hour news media and the Internet, people have become so fragmented. They only want to support their own worldview, so they’ll watch Fox News or they’ll watch John Oliver. There are so many different sides so I wish there were more opportunities for people to really sit down and talk to each other. I really believe we’re more in the middle than we think. I don’t think it has to be so hard right or so hard left; I think there’s a place in the middle where people can get what they need and get what they want.
I don’t like to think of anybody hating anybody. It kills me when I see a family member supporting Trump. I don’t want to feel bad feelings towards them. I want to be able to sit with them and to have an open, intelligent discussion about this. It’s so weird since I feel like in most other presidential elections in my lifetime—I always have been left—you could at least have a legitimate discussion about John McCain or whoever. Michelle Obama’s speech the other night moved me to tears; I feel like she summed it up the most poetically and the most realistically. It’s not about politics anymore. It’s about respect. It’s about human decency and kindness. It’s gone too far.
SAPIENZA: So you’ve encountered Trump supporters back home or in your family?
JAMES: Definitely. It’s tough. It’s disappointing. You know with family members that they’re good people and they love their family, but they’re just confused. I think a lot of people vote in fear. People like Donald Trump are good at casting this shadow of fear over people, making them believe if they don’t vote for him then the terrorists are going to get them or whatever. All his ways are to scare people to vote for him. It’s so sad. I really hope that people can listen to someone like Michelle Obama just saying, “Come on!”
SAPIENZA: Obama even told Trump, “Stop whining.”
JAMES: I watched that right before we talked. That was amazing. [laughs] I’m going to miss him.
ETERNALLY EVEN (ATO/CAPITOL RECORDS) IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON JIM JAMES, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.