Track By Track: My Morning Jacket: ‘The Waterfall II’
photo credit: Danny Clinch
“One thing that musicians are really missing right now is that feeling of being together,” My Morning Jacket’s Jim James explains, while discussing the origins of The Waterfall II, which presents additional material from the sessions that yielded the group’s critically heralded 2015 album, The Waterfall. “So one thing that is cool about this album is that it is a way for us to still be together as a band, virtually. We want to be playing and are all excited to be a band again and to tour again. But, because of the pandemic, we can’t. So this is a way to still connect with each other, with the music and with our listeners.”
James acknowledges he had actually forgotten about the songs that appear on The Waterfall II, until a serendipitous moment occurred while he was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. The MMJ frontman and his bandmates— drummer Patrick Hallahan, bassist Tom Blankenship, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster—had initially intended to release a second album drawn from the recordings that originated at Panoramic House, a studio that overlooks the water in Stinson Beach, Calif. But those plans had fallen by the wayside, until James recalls, “I was just out on this sad walk one day, three weeks into the pandemic. That’s when ‘Spinning My Wheels’ came on shuffle and I was like, ‘Oh, we have this whole other record.’ I listened to it all again and I was surprised how much I liked it and that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes when I go back and listen to an older record or an older song that we’ve done to remember it for a live show, I’m like, ‘Aw, man, I could’ve done this better.’ I get all critical on myself but, with this one, I was really surprised.
“I liked the songs when we recorded them and we planned to release them someday, but since we finished The Waterfall, I’ve always had new music at the forefront of my brain. That includes working on a new Jacket record, which we’ve all been excited to do. So it’s possible that if the pandemic hadn’t have happened, then I might not have thought about these songs again. But it was just so much fun sequencing and mastering this one. That brought it all to life in this really beautiful way.”
Spinning My Wheels
JIM JAMES: I remember the moment I wrote this song, which doesn’t happen with a lot of songs. Most songs start as a demo or as an idea and gradually blossoms.
I was feeling really defeated one night and I tried to cheer myself up by going to a concert. It was one of those times when you’re feeling sad or hopeless and you’re trying to force yourself to feel better instead of just sitting with the sadness.
I remember trying to force myself to go out and have fun, but I couldn’t and, on my way home, I started coming up with the melody in my head. Then, I came home, sat down at the piano and the whole thing poured out in a matter of 10-15 minutes. I made a voice memo of it so I wouldn’t forget it. I was feeling so stuck. Another relationship had failed and I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I felt like I couldn’t get out of the mud. But within that, I made a resolve to myself to keep pushing, to stop spinning my wheels and to just move on and enjoy my life. I was just trying to keep some hope alive.
BO KOSTER: One of Jim’s greatest gifts is conveying emotion so perfectly in song form. As soon as I heard it, I could picture him alone in his house late at night writing this song. As a close friend, I knew where this emotion was coming from. The keyboard Wurly part at the top of the song is played by Jim straight from the demo. I tried to match it, but his honesty, and the way that he moved with his own vocal, couldn’t be replicated.
PATRICK HALLAHAN: Jim and I were supposed to go out one evening and catch up but, for reasons I can’t remember, I had to end up staying home. He went out anyway and didn’t have the best time, and “Spinning My Wheels” was born. We joked not long ago that—if I has been a good friend and kept the plan in place—then this song wouldn’t exist. It is now my civic duty to make plans with him and cancel them as much as possible.
BK: I don’t remember much about this one, except that we recorded it fast, and the end part was just an improvised jam on one of the takes. I love the lyric, “A lone soul hanging off the corner of the edge of the world.” There are so many lyrics on this record that feel like they were meant for this moment in time. That’s a testament to the timelessness and universality of Jim’s writing. I also love that the guitar line in “Feel You” gets hinted at here.
JJ: It’s funny because, though I didn’t think about it too much at the time, a lot of this record is tied up in this breakup that I went through. So while I didn’t originally think of this album as a breakup record, a lot of these songs are about that feeling a lot of us have had as a relationship is deteriorating, where you keep thinking you can make it work. You keep thinking, “Maybe if I try this” or “Maybe if we just do this.” Even though, in the back of your mind, you’re pretty sure that it’s not going to work and that it’s not ultimately the right thing, you still keep trying to save it.
And then, once it ended, I had this feeling that I was going to fall off the edge of the world. I’ve had that feeling at times because, really, we’re on a ball floating in space. And when you’re standing up, you’re sticking off the earth into space. We don’t usually think about it that way, but there are moments when I start feeling so lonely, it’s like I’m going to fall off into space.
Climbing the Ladder
PH: This was the first song we recorded during The Waterfall sessions, and I believe it might have taken the longest of any song we’ve ever recorded.
JJ: There are all these different ways you can move in life. Your career is one and love is one, and your hobbies and interests are another. And there’s this feeling that a lot of us in our work are climbing the ladder and trying to make great art or make a living through our art. So I was feeling this sadness in myself, as if I was almost split in two—like half of me was still able to work and tour but the other half only really cared about trying to save this relationship. But I couldn’t.
One of the coolest things about playing together with no time limits is we’ll have these improv moments. “Climbing the Ladder” started off as a slower song, and we were playing it that way, but then, for whatever reason, we started speeding things up. That’s when I came up with the little intro riff that happens a couple of times in the song. Then we got to this place where we were like, “Whoa, this feels fun pretty fast.” But then working through it, I was like, “I still want to give it some of the energy of what it was originally.” So we decided to slow it down.
The best thing about music, to me, is the unpredictability of it. Music can speak to you like it’s alive and has a mind of its own, if you’re open to listening to it. With improv, music comes through you in this way that’s totally unplanned. BK: The guitar line fully encapsulates the feeling of excitement we had up in Stinson recording together. Our mantra throughout the sessions was “No stone left unturned.” We tried this song in a bunch of different ways. That was good and bad.
BK: “Feel You” is the heart and soul of the sessions in my mind, along with a couple of other songs. It really encompasses the feeling of it all and is one of everyone’s favorites. We did some cool floor writing as a band on this one. I remember coming up with some alternative chord changes, and Jim free-flowing a secondary melody while we were all jamming on it. That’s the section that ended up starting the song.
JJ: I feel like a broken record talking about this, but this is another song where I was just missing this person. I was trying to figure out what went wrong, and I had that visceral feeling of wanting to feel them and hold them.
The song was pretty simple. It was just the main piano riff, some lyrics and the main melody. Shortly after we started playing it, I was walking through Muir Woods, and that’s where a lot of the guitar riffs and other parts, including the whole B section, were born. I would walk through Muir Woods, and then I would take those ideas back and we would jam on them and improv on them. So this song kind of blossomed out of one part into a sprawling thing that has a lot of different parts.
Beautiful Love (Wasn’t Enough)
BK: We recorded this one in Louisville, Ky., at La La Land, along with “Believe” from The Waterfall. Those were the only two songs that weren’t recorded in Stinson. It’s funny—I love both songs, but you can almost tell they were recorded with a different energy. Every now and again, I find myself singing the melody, “Why is my bitter heart so demanding?” to myself while I am just walking around the house.
JJ: Here’s another one where I was struggling to figure out what had happened to the most major relationship of my life. I didn’t want it to end but it had to, and I was deeply in grief. On paper, this relationship was so perfect and the person was so wonderful. There are no words for why it wasn’t enough or why it didn’t work. I was trying to question myself about why this thing wasn’t working.
Sometimes you’ll hear someone say, “Oh, this is a breakup record.” I don’t know if I realized it at the time or really even until now but, with the exception of a few songs, this truly is a breakup record. I get hypnotized by the songs and, a lot of the time, I don’t even realize what I’m singing about. But when I hear it now, I’m like, “Jesus, this is a breakup record.”
And maybe a breakup record is good for right now. I think a lot of us feel like we’ve been dumped by the world. A lot of us feel like we’re breaking up with life because life feels so disjointed and we can’t do any of the things that we used to love to do because of COVID. And then on top of COVID, there’s this catastrophically terrible administration and president, problems with police brutality and all these different things that we’re trying to figure out right now. In a lot of ways, those feelings are parallel to the feelings that someone has when they experience a breakup with a partner.
BK: Jim had this demo kicking around for a while. It’s another song that feels so right for this moment in time. Everyone is looking for power, money, a bullet, a gun, a pill, a place or a person that’s going to be some magic fix for their spiritual ills.
JJ: “Magic Bullet” is a protest song about gun violence, just exploring gun violence. What’s sad is that I can’t remember which shooting inspired the song. There have been so many terrible, tragic shootings, and the mind just reels. I do not get why people won’t stand together for sensible gun reform. Even gun owners and gun fans should be in favor of legislation and regulation because they should be proud to own their gun. They should be proud that they are mentally fit and that they can keep their guns safe and locked away. All these things seem like common sense, yet we can’t get to this place because politicians are bought and sold by the NRA. So “Magic Bullet” is just trying to deal with that frustration.
PH: This is one of my favorite session memories. We were all set up in a circle. I used a cardboard box as a bass drum and the back of an acoustic guitar as makeshift bongos. Once we got all the sounds dialed in, we did one take all the way through and the power went out all over Stinson Beach. We drove down to the bar, had a round of drinks by candlelight—some mysterious sea captain was playing piano—and went back to the studio to continue recording. We couldn’t beat the “pre-power outage” take, so that’s the one on the album—truly lightning in a bottle.
JJ: “Run It” is about the desire to get back to the water. Pretty much every person knows that feeling of wanting to get back to the water—wherever that was for you and your family when you were a kid. That could be going to the beach or going to the lake or, here in Louisville, going to the Ohio River.
I’ve always sought the water when I’ve struggled. When I need to think, I want to sit near the river—the water comforts me and speaks to me. Sometimes I also think about that feeling of jumping into the lake or jumping into the ocean and swimming. It feels like you are washing it all away and starting anew.
When I wrote this song out in Stinson Beach—and just being near the water while we were creating this album in general—I kept thinking about how much sense that makes because we’re really made of water. You almost forget that because we seem so solid. But we’re made of water and we want to go to the water to kind of recharge ourselves.
BK: I remember the power went out right after we had recorded this take. I remember hating the piano and being super uncomfortable playing it because the action was shot. It was like driving a car with no power steering and shoddy brakes. We’re always searching for that magic take when the collective energy of the band and the surroundings soaks in just long enough for us to capture it. This was one of those moments. Again, another lyric that really hits me and feels right for the moment: “Stand up and be counted…”
JJ: This was just a rumination on wasting time. There are two different ways to waste time. One of them is a good way, where you make an effort not to do anything and just kind of lay there, be alive and let yourself be. But then there’s that feeling that you’re just stagnant and wasting too much time, which I felt was prevalent for me. This idea also came up in “Spinning My Wheels”—I’m wasting time and I need to break out of feeling that I’m stuck.
The song expresses this musically. There’s frustration in the beginning but then, after the middle section where it turns into more of a musical exploration, it feels like we’re breaking out of that stuck energy. Then at the end, we really bust out of it.
PH: Arranging the second half of this song was so incredibly enjoyable. We had this giant chunk of marble and just started chiseling away until it took the form that made the most sense to us. I look forward to seeing how this one progresses with time—more marble, more chisels.
BK: This was a fun one. I remember all of us just kind of cackling at how egregious the rock was—all the huge sounding epic guitars and slowing the groove down at the end for some extra, deep catharsis. It’s big on top of big— everyone solos. This was the maximum helping of rock-and-roll we had to offer for the session.
PH: We had already recorded this once—right outside of Amsterdam in a tiny studio—for a holiday EP. Jim thought it would be fun to get another version of it in Stinson with a new perspective, and it delivered the same warm hug.
JJ: This one captures a sweet feeling I experienced in the midst of all this sadness and loneliness. I came home and had a beautiful time with my family. I remembered the love that I still had with the people who always welcome me home. There’s this sense that most of us know when a major romantic partnership falls through—you almost forget everybody else in your life because you’re so devastated by the loss. Then I just had this beautiful moment of clarity where I was like, “Come on, man, you can’t forget all of your wonderful family and friends who are always there for you.
The First Time
PH: This is another one of my favorite session memories. I remember being in the moment while recording this one and feeling one with everyone. It was super dark by then—the lights were low and we were very much listening to one another.
BK: Some of these songs, when I listen to them, just sound like Stinson. It’s the same with “Like a River,” “Only Memories Remain,” “Still Thinkin” and “Feel You.”
JJ: “The First Time” is a meditation on hoping that I will find that love again— something that feels as amazing as the relationship that I just lost. There’s that feeling of magic that comes with the beginning of a new thing. So, I’m just hoping that I’ll be able to find that again and hoping that the energy will last and that I’ll be able to sustain it.