Jim James: Here in Spirit

Mike Greenhaus on November 4, 2019
Jim James: Here in Spirit

photo credit: Neil Krug

Jim James has never recorded at Electric Lady, yet he can’t help but feel the ghost of Jimi Hendrix when he steps into the guitarist’s famed Greenwich Village studio. “It’s so beautiful—what fails and what succeeds during the course of a recording session or a writing session,” the My Morning Jacket singer says, while surveying the signed LPs that adorn the space’s walls, each of which seems to ooze a different piece of rock-and-roll history. “It’s so beautiful how the music tells you where it wants to go.”

It’s a late October afternoon and James is camped out in New York for some press around The Order of Nature, his third solo album in under two years and first collaborative work with Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra. A day earlier, James, Abrams and some of the symphony’s first chairs presented one of the LP’s tracks on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and, the night before that, they performed the entire suite of music at LPR, an intimate New York venue that hugs the space between spiritual sanctuary and a social club. James has had a busy few hours and, after wrapping up a podcast taping and some fun in a lobby photo booth, he decides to stand throughout this late-afternoon chat.

Though he’s currently based in Los Angeles, James lived in New York for a while and is bummed to hear that one of his old haunts, the decades-old City Bakery, recently closed. The cyclical nature of change is something that he’s experienced in all areas of his life—for better or worse.

“The Louisville Orchestra was pretty much dead, creatively—nobody talked about it, nobody was interested in—and Teddy came and just blew the doors off,” the Kentucky-bred James says, standing in one of Electric Lady’s upstairs studios, dressed in the type of overcoat he has performed in onstage and chewing a piece of gum. “He just reimagined and reinvented it, bringing in all these different genres, all these different performers. He took it to the streets, actually playing out in the street and playing music for immigrants who would come in. It was amazing and inspiring to me—a real invigorating thing for the community.”

Abrams, who is the midst of his sixth season in Louisville, points out that the symphony actually had a wonderful international reputation for commissioning new work from the ‘50s into the ‘80s, during a period where James’ own great aunt happened to be a performer, but had long fallen on hard times when he arrived. “There was a strike and a bankruptcy—and I was tasked with rebuilding things,” he says a few days later when back home. “I really wanted to draw on the orchestra’s history of creating new music. So we used the orchestra as a platform for forging new relationships and rethinking where an orchestra can play.”

James and Abrams first met in late-2014, early in the conductor’s tenure, and quickly hit it off socially. During the summer of 2015, James asked Abrams and members of the Louisville Symphony to join My Morning Jacket onstage during their hometown show at the Forecastle Festival, which opened the door for a more expansive and original collaborative work.

Adrams says that the performance piece that eventually blossomed into The Order of Nature went through a few different iterations, but they honed in on a new suite of music that included fresh takes on some familiar James originals and covers associated with Nina Simone and Leonard Bernstein.

“The narrative had this subtext about nature, how people relate to each other and how people need to be more cognizant of their impact on the planet,” Adrams admits. “Nina Simone was one of the great genre-bending musicians—she really wanted to be a classical pianist but, as an African-American woman at the time, that was hard to do. So she is very representative of the album.”

“We hit it off personally and became friends,” James adds. “Over the years, we talked about wanting to do something together. We want to talk about difficult things but in a way that, hopefully, anybody can engage in.”

In April 2018, James—a few weeks into My Morning Jacket’s year-plus hiatus—debuted his new symphonic suite during a pair of performances with the orchestra. The second night of that stand was recorded and released, without overdubs, as The Order of Nature this past October. Despite writing much of the new material on guitar, James elected to perform the suite live without an instrument, allowing him to avoid, as Abrams points out, the trope of simply using an orchestra to embellish a rock band at the front of a stage.

“One of the things we decided early on was that it would be one entire suite instead of stopping and doing one song and then doing another,” Adams says. “Of course, Jim writes the Jacket material too, but I do think there is a different voice that comes out with his solo material, and one thing I wasn’t expecting is the bigger subtext of the album that came to light. Jim is never preachy about it, but he has a preacher-like quality—he doesn’t tell you how to think but he tells you to think.”

They’ve already revisited the piece at a few different places around the country and plan to present The Order of Nature in other markets in 2020, with the help of some other revered symphonies.

“As a kid growing up in Louisville—like a lot of people who are in more outsider circles—the orchestra is there and you have this respect for it because you know it’s powerful, but you’re not really into it because they’re not really speaking to us,” James says. “Some of it is timeless and amazing and eternal, but they’re playing all this music that’s trapped in the past.”

The Order of Nature is a symphonic suite that incorporates new material, some previously recorded solo works and even two covers. Is there a particular thread that connects all this material?

I wanted to have this message of peace, love and equality—just trying to get a conversation started with people about fairness and love and true justice. I’m always trying to promote a message—trying to get people out of this mode of fighting all the time. Teddy and I both want to speak to everybody; we don’t want to just preach to the choir and play for people that agree with us. We wanted to talk about these tough topics, but we wanted to talk about them peacefully. So, for the new songs I wrote, I did imagine the symphony, but I let Teddy be free with what he did. It’s not like I imagined all of the little things that he would do. 

We wanted to have an arc. I knew I wanted “Walking in the Snow” to be first track because that feels like the lead-in, the introduction. It’s setting the tone for a lot of the record’s themes—about hate not being a part of the order. Hate is this extra thing we humans put in, that’s actually going against nature—both environmentally, in terms of our disregard of the planet, and in terms of our disregard of each other and our hatred toward each other. With “Set it to Song,” I placed it at a particular place. I wanted there to be a moment of light—of joy—because there’s so much heavy subject matter going on and so much heavy discussion going on. I wanted it to be a little moment of relief before the ending, so there was a lot of thought put into where things went.

Even before the 2016 Presidential Election, your solo work has tackled that theme of peace, love and equality. How did you select which songs from your back catalog to rework for the orchestra?

At first, it wasn’t going to be a record, it was just going to be a performance, so I also said, “Let’s do a couple of my songs that already exist and that people are, hopefully, excited about—like ‘Here in Spirit’—so people might know them, and then a couple of covers and make it a suite.” Oftentimes, if you play too many new works for

[your audience]

, even if they like them, after a while, they’re like, “OK, when are you gonna play one I know?”

After we had done all of that work, and I listened to his arrangements, I was like, “We gotta record this, just in case.” And we recorded it and just loved it, and decided we wanted to put it out.

During The Order of Nature support shows, you’ve performed the record in its entirety, but when touring as a solo act or with My Morning Jacket, you have a huge catalog to choose from. How do you balance the new material you are excited about and the proven showstoppers when writing your setlists?

One advantage of social media is that you can be clear with what the show is—that’s where it can be helpful. You can say, “Tonight is a show of only new songs” or “This is the album from start to finish.” If fans come expecting the greatest hits with their hands in the air, and you are just standing there playing something new, that’s when people get frustrated. They may or may not be great songs, but you just have to be clear of what your intention is. Like, “This is a night where we’re testing out new songs or where we are playing an album, so come expecting that” or, “This is a career-spanning retrospective where you’ll hear everything.” We’ve all had that concert experience, where you go see Neil Young, Bob Dylan or whomever and you want to hear all of these songs, and they only play these new songs that you don’t know. Though, man, I’m always down with whatever Dylan’s doing.

You touched on one of the benefits of social media, which is a direct line of communication with your fans. Yet, you’ve had mixed feelings about social media over the years and even deleted your various accounts at different times. Do you think that the benefits of social media have started to outweigh the dangers? 

I don’t. I think its bad news. It has its good sides, it has its up sides—it’s a great promotional tool and it’s great for spreading awareness about events that are going on and things that are happening. But I just feel like it’s a terrible drug that we’ve taken advantage of. You can liken it to a million things: You can liken it to tobacco. You can think of the Native American’s respectful usage of tobacco, and then, here, we fucking cram two packs of cigarettes down our throats every day. It’s the same thing.

If it was something we used carefully and respectfully, it could be a really great tool, but instead we’re addicted to it like it is crystal meth. It’s so hard to get off of it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve deleted Instagram and Twitter, and then get back on two weeks later and I’m hooked again. It’s really crazy and, when the history of humanity is written, whenever that is, they’ll look back on this period as a really big mistake.

I agree. One day people will look at early 21st-century pictures, where everyone is on their cellphones, and cringe in the same they do now when they see a picture from the ‘50s or ‘60s where everyone is smoking cigarettes inside.

I did that yesterday. We were at Fallon rehearsing and, at a late-night taping, there are periods where you’re just standing there waiting. I looked around the room and, literally, everybody was on their phone. It was this surreal moment so I took a picture.

We’ve all been that person. I’ve been that person, too. Sometimes it’s nice, like when you’re at the airport and you can just disappear into your phone and make the time go by. But they say it kills creativity and I believe that. I keep trying to go back to a flip phone or something, but there’s always this reason of why I can’t. Even if I never got on social media again, I do love having all my music with me. I do really need the maps because I find myself in a different town every day on tour and think to myself, “Where’s the coffee shop? Where’s this or that?”  It’s such a tough thing.

Most of new material on The Order of Nature was written around the time you were gearing up to release your solo album Uniform Distortion, which felt like a return to your early, garage-rock days. Despite their obvious sonic differences, do the two albums share the same message?

For me, with half the songs I write, I am always thinking, “How can I spread information about equality and about speaking out, and staying informed.” And the other half are always about whatever I’m dealing with personally, at the moment, that I’m trying to figure out—whether that’s falling in love or falling out of love. There have just been so many cycles that have come and gone, it’s almost hard to remember. I try not to think too much about things

Most of [the new songs on The Order of Nature] were written right after Uniform Distortion or right in there, though Uniform Distortion had a couple songs that were older than some others [like “Throwback” and “No Use in Waiting,” both of which have been in James’ setlists since 2017, and MMJ even played “The First Time” once]. The songs from this record are probably three years old or so.

Between Uniform Distortion and The Order of Nature, you also released The Uniform Clarity, which featured stripped-down versions of the songs on Uniform Distortion.

It was cool because it was reversed. The Uniform Clarity isn’t a [collection of] demos, they’re just acoustic versions of those songs. I did Uniform Distortion first and I wasn’t even going to do Uniform Clarity for a while. We approached it as somebody living in the early 1900s would make a record, where you just came in the room and played your guitar or horn, and it went onto the cylinder or the wire and that was it. There was no mixing—or anything. That’s also how we did Uniform Distortion. Like, “Let’s not over analyze this—it goes C, D, G. Let’s do it.” With Uniform Clarity, I just stood in a room for three days and played every song I know how to play—I played tons of Jacket songs, tons of covers. We laughed because I felt like I was putting on this concert for one person. It was fun—we have a ton of stuff from that session we can release.

It seems like, at this point in your career, you are interested in what message your songs can reveal when you mix up their arrangements.

Everything just rotates around. I love music so much, and I love it all. As a listener, it’s classic flooding and absence. I love hip-hop so I’ll flood myself with hip-hop, and then I’m sick of hip-hop. Then I’m like, “Aww, the Stones sound so good again,” and then I’ll flood myself with rock-and-roll again, and then I’m like, “I’m sick of it, I need some quiet stuff.” It just keeps going around—it’s not even dictated by me. You’ll hear a song in the supermarket and be like, “Fuck, I haven’t thought about Simon & Garfunkel in years” and off down that wormhole you go. Or you see a great film and you Shazam a song in the film, and you’re like, “Holy shit.” That’s why I feel like it’s so cool that most of the things I listen to, I don’t really even consciously decide to listen to.

You still regularly perform songs you wrote over 20 years ago, and My Morning Jacket recently ran through the band’s debut album The Tennessee Fire in its entirety. When you listen back to your lyrics on those albums, do you still recognize the narrator?

It’s crazy. I feel like I’m so many different people right now, on a day-to-day basis. When we do those old songs, sometimes I’m just like, “Who the fuck is this person and what was he trying to say?” Other times, I really enjoy it and I do feel connected to it. For me, it’s almost a day-by-day or hour-by-hour thing. It’s weird.

My Morning Jacket regrouped for their first shows in almost a year and a half—your longest break—this past summer. How did it feel to get the band back together?

They were my favorite Jacket shows ever. They were transcendent for me. They were the first Jacket shows, maybe ever, that I played without sunglasses or without hiding behind some kind of cape or my hair. I felt like a new person; I felt like a free person.

I’ve often felt caged and trapped, but I felt so free. And a lot of that is because we’ve made a lot of peace as friends in the band. We’ve had some good talks and said some difficult things to each other, and we just dealt with the truth, and that’s translated into a really special thing.