The Core: Jim James on ‘Tribute To 2,’ My Morning Jacket Hiatus, New Friend Joe Russo and More
My Morning Jacket’s frontman channeled his frustrations with the current sociopolitical atmosphere into a solo, stripped-down set of spiritual covers, Tribute To 2.
ALL THINGS MUST PASS
I was at the studio a few days after George Harrison died, feeling his loss, and just sat down and played some of his songs. It was a spur of the moment thing—it wasn’t something I thought about releasing—and we put that out as Tribute To about 10 years later. Tribute To 2 is the same thing. I have a home studio and I’m constantly recording not only my own music, but also songs that inspire me. Somebody had the idea to rerelease Tribute To because it was out of print on vinyl. I had recorded “If Not for You” for that because it was on All Things Must Pass and I thought it was George’s song.
Later, I heard that it was a Bob Dylan song so we didn’t include it back then, but I thought it could be a cool vinyl bonus and that got the idea rolling to release all these covers. Then, I heard Abbey Lincoln’s “The World Is Falling Down” and that resonated with the way the world has been going lately. I based the whole record around that idea, using songs that I’d recorded over the years to create a journey that made sense as an album.
I don’t really believe in rerecording things. There’s something about the original magic that’s so special. That’s one of the reasons I keep a home studio. You can just record all the time; you’re not making a “demo.” Years ago, when we did Evil Urges with Joe Chiccarelli, he gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice anybody’s ever given me: “Don’t make any more demos, just record.” “Demoitis” is when you work so hard on this demo that you love and then, once you get to the studio, it’s so hard to capture the magic again. So I stopped making demos and just started recording.
Usually, it is pretty clear where my songs should land, but sometimes it’s confusing. The solo songs end up being the ones that I just want to work on at home by myself—a construction that I’ll build piece by piece, a studio experiment. The Jacket songs are the ones that I want to play live with our band. There’s a live performance at the heart of those songs. But sometimes those lines shift. There are Jacket songs that are studio architecture-type things and vice versa. It’s weird how the lines blur. The songs just talk to you over time and tell you what they want. It’s the strangest thing. With this covers record, I’ve got a big pile of recordings but, for some reason, these songs got into their own world and formed their own group. They spoke to me.
We all know what a strange time it is. Some of us had this false sense that everything was OK when, under the surface, all this crazy stuff had been boiling. Now, it’s all exploding. As people, citizens of the world, we have a responsibility to each other to try and create as much of a peaceful love as we can for the causes and issues that we believe in. There are forces at work that are striving to rip the world to pieces. When we look back in the history books—instead of being a great tragedy, which a lot of this is—hopefully, it’ll be used as a bucket of water in our faces, opening up the ways we have to stand up for each other. We have to stand up for equality and everything that’s fair. That’s all I can think about anymore, so I wanted to pick songs that resonate with what was going on now [for Tribute To 2]. Obviously, there was a lot of unrest with the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement and everything that was going on when a lot of these songs were written.
We fell asleep for some years or were tricked by capitalism into believing that everything was OK. It was, “Just go out, buy stuff to make yourself happy, and then go home, go to sleep in front of the TV and don’t worry about what’s really going on in the world.” But things have shifted again. It’s easy to feel hopeless and wonder if we’ll ever defeat greed—it’s just so funny that with all the technology and all the wonderful things humans do, we could be looking at a glorious prosperity for everybody. I think people forget that’s the truth. We could be living in a golden age of peace and prosperity, where not one person went hungry, not one person was judged by the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. That’s completely possible although it seems impossible right now.
I JUST WASN’T MADE FOR THESE TIMES
I heard [The Beach Boys’] “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” back in high school. I didn’t really get Pet Sounds at the time, except for that song because I identified with those lyrics so clearly. I always felt out of place. Later on in life, I heard Isaac Hayes’ “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and, in my mind, I would always sing the lyrics to “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” Somewhere down the road, I was lucky enough to get the multitrack stems to Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul album to do a remix for it. So I took those stems and built this version of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” out of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” from Hot Buttered Soul.
Sonny and Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go” is one of those songs that you’ve heard a million times on oldies radio, but you don’t really even know who it is. And that song kept popping up; I’d be at the grocery store and I’d hear that song, or it would just come on the radio. I was feeling some heartache at the time and decided to cover that song because it really hit me that I loved the chords. Their version is much faster and more up-tempo but still has this sad feeling to it. I decided to try to take it down to what I thought it might have been like when they first wrote it.
JOE RUSSO’S MORNING JACKET
I’ve always loved playing acoustically by myself, and in these quieter ways. After 20 years of touring in a loud rock-and-roll band, you still get the urge to play music for people, but want to try and do it differently. It’s just another part of the musical tree that I’ve always enjoyed. In some ways, it’s easier—just you and the guitar—but in other ways, it’s more difficult to feel like you’re really getting through to the audience. [I played Lockn’] this summer, and one of the greatest things about touring is all the new friends you meet and the organic connections you make. Fate and circumstance bring you together at the same festival. Whenever I see Brandi [Carlile], we always try to get together and sing. She’s a force of nature. And Joe Russo’s a new friend—I really love his spirit and his playing. We were talking and he invited me to come do his Almost Dead set. And I was like, “That sounds fun. Do you wanna come do one with me too?”
THE 2018 MMJ HIATUS
Like you’ve seen with a lot of bands over the years, once you tour for so long, you just need a break and need to step back for a while. It’s one of those things where my body and my soul have taken a heavy toll from touring that long. It starts to make you wonder what else is out there in life. Touring is fun, but it’s tough to keep a real life together when you’re always gone. You get this desire to see what it’s like if you actually stopped. But it’s hard for me to stop because I always want to do something, so I end up making another solo record.
So I’ve got some solo material that I’ve recorded, and I want to put that out at some point. It’s just an ongoing process. I always want to be doing something, but it’s just time to take a little break from the band. We’ve got a live [MMJ] album in the can, and we’ve got the second half of the record that we recorded when we made The Waterfall that we want to release. Hopefully, those two things could come out during the break and then we’ll figure out whatever we’re going to do next.
This article originally appears in the March 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.