We’ve Got A File On You: Jim James

Austin Nelson

We’ve Got A File On You: Jim James

Austin Nelson

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

For a while there, it seemed as if one of our most reliable contemporary rock institutions had quietly fallen apart. After touring their 2015 album The Waterfall, things started to get quiet around My Morning Jacket — except for rumblings or rumors that the band was going on a very, very long hiatus. But after getting back together for a handful of 2019 shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album The Tennessee Fire, the band was rejuvenated. They found themselves back in the studio, unsure of what the next chapter of My Morning Jacket might hold but nevertheless on their way towards My Morning Jacket — their first full-fledged new album in six years, arriving this Friday.

In many ways, the release feels like a line in the sand, an obvious new beginning. Over 20 years in, My Morning Jacket have chosen to make their self-titled moment, a rechristening after some time in the wilderness. Musically, they honed in on core elements of their identity. Jim James produced it himself, and the band played everything together in a room with no expectations of what might happen. Back in 2011, the story about Circuital was that it was the closest the band had gotten to approximating their legendary live sound. My Morning Jacket gets far closer — there’s a raw, rollicking quality to the album, with several songs you could easily imagine deriving from various eras of MMJ’s career. It’s also got several songs you can already imagine being absolute killers once they’ve been folded into MMJ’s live repertoire.

While the album marks MMJ’s real-deal return after half a decade, it’s not like the band has been quiet. Various members embarked on other endeavors along the way, especially James — a constant clip of solo albums intertwined with collaborations and production gigs and odds and ends. It’s been that way for a while, really. Ever since MMJ’s buzzy early days and their indie crossover moment, the band has popped up all over the place. James has had a lot of extracurricular gigs through the years, everything from surprise Moby collabs to enchanting movie cameos like in I’m Not There. Ahead of My Morning Jacket‘s arrival this week, we called up James to talk about the new album, as well as all kinds of other moments from across the last 25 years.

Austin Nelson

My Morning Jacket (2021)

Obviously it’s been a long time, and you’re returning with a self-titled album a little over 20 years into My Morning Jacket’s existence. That feels like a statement moment to me.

JIM JAMES: For a while there we weren’t really sure if we’d ever make another record again, or ever play any shows. It all kind of came back together really naturally, in that we had had a nice long break and played a couple shows that felt very powerful and magical to us. The same thing happened in the studio. It had been so long, and we just got together organically and got in the studio with no pressure. We didn’t even know if we would make a record or not. I think in many ways that lack of conscious intention took us back to what it felt like to have band practice, to just be the five of us playing music in a really free and vulnerable way and not really worried about the outcome or making mistakes or anything like that.

I think that set a nice space for us to end up making a lot of music we really like, vs. like deliberately trying to make an amazing record or whatever. So many times in the past, you go into the studio with so much pressure and expectation and you want to fucking blow everyone’s minds. There’s so many things going through your head. This one, there was no goal and there was no expectation. It was like, if we go in the studio and it sucks or we don’t come up with anything then, whatever, maybe we just won’t keep going. That was really freeing.

In that interim, it’s not like you all were silent. You were quite prolific with solo albums. Was there something else you were getting out of that at the time? When you say you weren’t sure if My Morning Jacket were going to make another album, did you really think the band had hit an endpoint, or it just wasn’t working for you creatively?

JAMES: Well, it’s interesting: We’ve always been fortunate that we all get along really well, and there wasn’t any interpersonal drama. There wasn’t really any controversial things. It was more like, the energy of touring with My Morning Jacket has several times put me in the hospital. Like, almost killed me. The amount of energy it takes to put on a My Morning Jacket show, and to summon all of the energy of all of the past and all these different versions of myself throughout the years. Sometimes it’s really difficult to summon that energy, especially when you’re not being responsible with your scheduling and you’re taking on too many shows. And I wasn’t taking care of myself. You mix all that stuff together, and it can be deadly.

I didn’t know how to handle that anymore. The longevity of the band is so amazing, and I’m so grateful for that, but sometimes it’s also really hard singing a really emotional song you wrote when you were 25 or whatever. You’re not coming from that place anymore. The thing I discovered recently is if you listen to yourself more and try to do things more at your own pace rather than the pace of what people expect or demand of you, it actually can work out. That’s something we’ve been trying to really draw a hard line in the sand about. What we’re gonna do and how we’re gonna do it and do it on our own terms. I think that’s freed up a lot of energy for me to find more joy in performing older music or whatever that we have, and not let it be so taxing.

On the other side of those changes, the solo albums, etc. — does this self-titled return feel like a sort of reboot? Or still in some kind of continuity with everything that happened before the hiatus?

JAMES: Kind of both. It definitely does feel like a new chapter, for sure. There’s this new communication between us as a band, a renewed positive energy. But it’s also part of the story.

My favorite on the album is “Penny For Your Thoughts.” Tell me about that song.

JAMES: That’s a strange one, because I had the idea and the riff for a long, long time. For 15 years or something. It never really went anywhere. When we were in the studio this time, I would just toss out an idea and we’d play it. That one, every just stepped into it really quickly and it worked out in a cool way. It’s just basically about trying to live in the moment and be generous and be grateful.

That’s interesting to find out it’s been around so long, because it did give me this kind of core MMJ sound. I know you’ve talked about writing for the solo albums vs. Jacket. But for the songs on this album, had you been accumulating material in those five or so years thinking, some day I’m going to get these back to the band? Or was there a lot of new stuff simmering once you were back in the room together?

JAMES: It was kind of a combo of both. There was a lot of new ideas simmering. Over the course of the last couple My Morning Jacket albums, I’ve realized it’s better if I bring in just a simple demo of the idea to show the guys so we can kind of explore it more vs. me doing real complex demos like I used to. I kind of realized along the way that instead of us making demos at all I just started doing solo records and learned how to use the recording studio and have a home studio and stuff. I’ll either just start making a song on my own if I know it’s going to be a solo song or I’ll make a real simple demo of it if I know it’s going to be a My Morning Jacket song and let us flesh it out in the studio more.

I feel like the new album grapples with a lot of current events and themes, which you were doing a lot on the last couple solo albums as well. Do you feel like that’s where you want your writing to gravitate overall?

JAMES: I think it’s a pretty constant theme for me, just feeling like “What the fuck is going on in the world?” I don’t understand why the world is the way it is, and I’m trying to make sense of it through the music. I don’t understand why the world is so hateful and so greedy. We have all these opportunities for peace and for love. This life could be heaven on earth for everybody. But because of a greedy few, we’re all trapped in this crazy maze.

Yeah, I feel like I’m constantly wondering and thinking about that and trying to be a source of love and positivity and hope that something I can create can bring someone some joy or comfort or relief. I really believe in humanity still. I believe if our leaders, or the people that run the corporations or the government, could find some window into their own souls and their own pain, we could get past a lot of these things that are holding us back and destroying the environment and destroying people’s lives. The fact that it just keeps going around and around, I feel like that’s one of the biggest things I write about.

My Morning Jacket Playing “Freebird” In Elizabethtown (2005), Jim James Appearing In Roadies (2016)

It seems like sort of a crazy scene to have to film, playing onstage with a giant burning bird flying through the air.

JAMES: That was a really amazing experience. We were all such fans of Almost Famous, and [Cameron Crowe] took an interest in the band and came to our studio in Shelbyville, Kentucky where we made the first three records. He really spent a lot of time with us and hung out. His story was based around Kentucky, and his father’s story. The whole thing was so beautiful, getting to spend time with him.

Once it went to being on set, obviously it was crazy for us. We had never been on set or been in a Hollywood movie or whatever. All the sudden we’re in LA sitting in our trailers waiting to be called to our set. It really gave me such an insight into what it’s like being on set and how hard all those people work, what a massive crew is behind every production you see. That’s something I don’t think people are even conscious of. Doing endless takes of that scene, endless versions. It was truly unforgettable.

Oh yeah I didn’t really think about all the different takes.

JAMES: Oh, God, yeah, so many times. That’s the funny thing, too, when you see a film or TV show. Any scene you see has been done so many times.

That seems like kind of a nerve-wracking first experience on set to be honest, multiple takes with fire.

JAMES: [Laughs] Well Cameron and all his team, they were so nice and helpful, they made it not stressful.

You teamed up with him again about 10 years later, singing a song in Roadies.

JAMES: It was really cool. He’s just such a joy to work with. He’s such a kind soul. His knowledge and passion for music, it’s such a joy to be around. I always just felt so honored that he wanted to include me in those things he’s doing, because he’s got such a vast knowledge of music and rock ’n’ roll. It’s really a treat getting into an environment like that. You form a little family for a while with those people, in any production you’re doing. People who have been in plays, or a film. For that time, you form a family and get to know each other. It was just so cool being brought onto that set. Again seeing the illusions of film, when you think you’re seeing an arena but you’re on some soundstage. You think you’re seeing a tour bus, but it’s a set. That kind of stuff blows my mind.

Performing “Goin’ To Acapulco” In I’m Not There (2007)

JAMES: I can’t remember how it came about. I think that was Randall Poster, the music supervisor, it’s been cool doing various things with him over the years. He’s definitely one of my musical inspirations and heroes, he’s done all the stuff for the Wes Anderson movies. He’s responsible for so much of the music that shaped my life. He was helping Todd Haynes as the music supervisor for that film. I can’t remember who it was originally. They had someone else who was supposed to do that scene with Calexico, and for whatever reason that person couldn’t do it or it didn’t work out. So Randy called me and asked if I wanted to do it and I said yeah. I was living in New York at the time, and Calexico had already cut the track, so Randy and I went to some studio and I cut the vocal. They liked it and sent it to Todd.

Couple months later we flew out somewhere in the country in Canada. It was such an amazing experience. We were staying at this wild hotel on a lake somewhere and all the power went out and there was this crazy thunderstorm. The filming of the scene was nuts. There’s all these different animals. There had to be an ostrich handler who had to put a bag over its head and it would freeze and then he’d take the bag off and it would start walking again. All the people around that scene, again, how many times you do it. You do it 800 times from all these different angles. Also there was a lot of pressure like, “God, if Dylan ever sees this I hope he likes it.” [Laughs] Doesn’t think it’s total garbage. That’s one of my favorite songs, and that Rolling Thunder Revue era is some of my favorite music of all time too. I felt a lot of pressure on that.

An American Dad Episode Revolving Around My Morning Jacket (2009)

It’s one thing to have a Simpsons cameo — but there’s a whole American Dad episode about My Morning Jacket.

JAMES: The guy behind it all, Mike Barker, was very sweet and really brought the whole thing to life. We were so honored and had such a great time going to their studios to record our lines etc. Although I will say, we were terrified to see the final thing because sometimes they can be so brutal in their humor. [Laughs] But we were really stoked and honored, and so many people have heard of the band from that episode, so we are grateful for that as well.

We went back and forth on it a bit, and I know Mike Barker went back and forth with it a lot with the team at the show, so we knew some stuff, but it was still mysterious as to how it would be — I mean we really didn’t know until we saw it on live TV. [Laughs]

Covering Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” With Brittany Howard For A Chipotle Commercial (2016)

This sort of seems like a bit of Mad Libs assortment of details. Did they ask you to cover the song specifically?

JAMES: They wanted us to cover that song. I love Brittany so much. She’s one of the great talents, of this generation or any generation. Any time I get a chance to do anything with her, I always say yes. That was also a really a funny and interesting experience.

Right, I mean, I know you’ve covered a lot of songs but — was it a bit more of a process figuring out how you were going to make the Backstreet Boys your own?

JAMES: Blake Mills was producing it and had arranged it. He had a lot of ideas of how he wanted it to go. Brittany and I came in, they had already written strings for it and had their vision for it. I think it’s fun covering things like that. Music is so universal and so eternal. Any song is like a sea. Some songs have massive popularity, or whatever, like the Backstreet Boys. When you break that song down it’s such a cool song, such a catchy song. I’ve always loved doing a wide variety of covers and often times the more unexpected ones are the most fun.

The Roots Sampling Monsters Of Folk’s “Dear God” On How I Got Over (2010)

I did one of these interviews with Black Thought last year and at some point you two were talking about making an album together, is that right?

JAMES: Yeah, I don’t know why that never happened. We were talking about it, and it’s just one of those things that faded off into the distance. When they sent me that “Dear God 2.0,” I was so honored and my mind was blown. I love Black Thought and I love the Roots. In that period of time, for whatever reason, I was doing Fallon so much. I was doing Fallon and the Roots were there, so I’d gotten to play with them so much. It’s always a thrill to play with those guys. And then to have them actually sample something I was involved with was one of the great thrills.

When I was talking to him, he was referencing, I think, a much later Fallon performance that had resurfaced the idea in his head and that he’d still like to pursue that collaboration. What was the nature of the ideas you two were working on?

JAMES: We didn’t get very far off the ground. We emailed a couple times about it, and I sent him a couple ideas I had. We had a couple conversations. I’m not sure at that time that he was even sure what direction he wanted it to go in. Like so many things — I’ve been lucky that so many things have happened, but there’s also been so many things that haven’t happened yet. After a certain while, things just keep moving on so fast that you think, OK, if this is meant to happen it’ll happen at another time. That’s definitely one of those things that if it came back around, I’d always be into.

Playing “Tyrone” With Erykah Badu (2008)

“Tyrone” is a cover that goes way back in My Morning Jacket lore. Then, starting in 2008, you’ve actually been able to play it with Erykah Badu several times.

JAMES: Oh my God, it was insane. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more nervous in my life. Erykah’s one of my heroes. She’s always been huge inspiration for me. It was one of those things where you know you weren’t even fully conscious because of how nervous you were. [Laughs] I was so terrified because I loved her so much. It seemed like she had a good time, and we had a really good time, and then we did a couple other things around then. A couple other shows with her.

I don’t really get starstruck that often, but with some people who are just such heroes to you, it’s so hard to feel natural around them. You’re tripping so hard. “Oh my God, she’s right there. Is this some kind of dream?” In that sense, it’s really an interesting position to find yourself in. Those kind of moments where you’re trying so hard to just function and let it be a normal experience, but it’s so hyperreal, so surreal. I’ve always wanted to do something with her again.

Singing On Moby’s Rework Of “Porcelain” (2021)

JAMES: I recorded that, God, five years ago. I can’t remember even where we met. I think he sent me a really nice email when my first solo record came out, just saying that he enjoyed the record. We had a couple conversations, and went out to have some lunch. Shortly after that he said he was putting together this record of orchestral versions of his songs.

I always loved that song so much. I remember it from my earlier discoveries of music and learning about sampling and all that stuff. That record was so huge, it was everywhere. It was one of those things — I’ve got this term, “salvation music.” When something is actually popular and it’s actually good. It’s so rare that I like things that are also massive in a pop culture way. I remember that record being one of those things, where I was always glad to hear it come on, whereas so much popular music I don’t get or understand why people like it. I feel out of touch. But I remember hearing that record.

Performing With Adam Granduciel (2014/2015)

You’ve played with Adam Granduciel a couple times, once at a War On Drugs show and once when they played One Big Holiday. Was he someone you recognized as a kindred spirit?

JAMES: We’d always been in the same circles and running around the same things. That’s one of the fun things, to me at least, about touring and traveling. All the different crossovers, when you randomly find out you’re in town the same night and you’re like, “Oh shit, why don’t you pop over?” We had several of those random kind of things, “We’re here too.”

I know he’s around your age, but they’re a newer band. Are there some other newer groups you’ve gotten into?

JAMES: So many people. Tune-Yards, I’ve always loved what Merrill’s doing. I feel like I’ve been so lucky to play some of these shows with so many people we’re on the same wavelength with, whether we’re opening for them or they’re opening for us. God, Shabazz Palaces. I feel like they have made some of the most mind-blowing music of our generation — or any generation. Like I said, Brittany Howard — what she’s contributed, it’s been so massive for me and for so many other people. I can’t wait to see what else she does. I feel like I’m bad at pulling up names, but there’s a lot.

The Waterfall III (2015)

I remember years ago, when The Waterfall first came out, there was talk of some dancier material. Then The Waterfall II comes out last year. Is there a reason the remaining stuff has stayed in the vault? As of last year, it kind of seemed like the story had been closed.

JAMES: There are certain things that just don’t work, or whatever. And/or, there are certain things you don’t close the door on. For example, you brought up “Penny For Your Thoughts” earlier, that was one of those things that — for whatever reason, for so many years — I couldn’t find the key to it even though I always liked it. Then, so long later it pops back up and you find the key to it somehow. I think that’s a similar thing to some of the stuff that’s left over from The Waterfall or some of the ideas that didn’t take off. I feel like there’s always an open door there for what might pop back up in the future.

Failed Submissions For The Muppets Movie (2011), Performing With Kermit At Newport Folk Festival (2019)

Some of the Circuital songs, like “Outta My System” and “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” were originally submissions to the Muppets movie that eventually came out in 2011. That didn’t work out, but then you got to sing with Kermit some years later.

JAMES: To me, what Jim Henson and Frank Oz and the whole team did with the Muppets — people like Paul Williams, who wrote “Rainbow Connection” — that’s one of the artistic dreams I’ll always be chasing. They created something so profoundly useful to the world. They created this thing that was so mind-blowing and so emotional and so full of education and knowledge but it was so real. That’s something that, to me, is one of the highest things a human can do. Create something that’s helpful to that many people.

That’s something I’ve always wanted to be a part of. In some way, not necessarily being a part of that Muppet world, because that was never able to happen. But, then, yeah, singing with Kermit at Newport Folk was such a beautiful moment. Being there with Kermit onstage, it was just one of those dream moments. It’s really hard to believe it’s happening. Just trying to put in words what Kermit The Frog or Jim Henson means to me — it’s beyond, trying to express the magic and joy and wonder that has been brought into my life because of the Muppets.

Collaborating With The Flaming Lips For Heady Fwends (2012) And With A Little Help From My Fwends (2014)

I remember the first time someone showed me My Morning Jacket, one of the people they compared you to was Wayne Coyne. Were they an important band for you?

JAMES: Oh, God, yeah. The Flaming Lips were so important — I mean, they always will be. Like so many people the first thing I heard by them was “She Don’t Use Jelly.” I went to see them open for Candlebox at the Palace in Louisville. It was also one of the first concerts I’d seen. When they fucking played, it was so powerful. The energy of their performance was so profoundly mind-blowing, and then to see Candlebox after that was so hilarious. After that, I was a diehard Flaming Lips fan. I saw them at Bogart’s in Cincinnati on the Soft Bulletin tour, how revolutionary that tour was when they were trying to give everyone headphones to wear and Steven’s drums were up on the screen.

I saw them at the Gorge and they played second to last at the festival before Coldplay and you just felt so sorry for Coldplay having to follow that shit. The entire universe is balloons and confetti and Wayne’s in his ball and, the most important thing, the music is fucking mind-blowing. It’s so original and emotional and innovative. Getting to meet Wayne and become pals with him and getting to record with them on those projects… For Heady Fwends, they wanted vials of my blood. I had to go secretly get my blood extracted and mail it inside a boxing glove. You’re not supposed to mail blood. [Laughs] They’re always doing the most fucked up shit. They’ve been such a huge influence on me.

A Month Of Sundays (Mid-‘90s)

You were a kid when you were in this band. Do you remember how you felt figuring out your songwriting here, vs. the moment you started writing for My Morning Jacket and knew you had to pursue that instead?

JAMES: That was what shaped a lot of my early experience. We all met in fourth grade. I met [My Morning Jacket drummer] Patrick Hallahan in fourth grade, and for a while he was kind of in the periphery of when we were trying to start Month Of Sundays, but he had other things going on and shifted out. Dave Gibbons, who still plays with me on my solo records and tours in my solo band, he was the drummer for Month Of Sundays. We’ve known each other since fourth grade too and have this super deep connection. Our guitarist Aaron Todovitch, he passed away and kind of became the inspiration for the song “Dondante.”

The world just wasn’t open to it. The world never said yes to Month Of Sundays, the world always said no. No matter which way we turned, the world was not desiring any Month Of Sundays music, you know? [Laughs] It was strange. At that time, that band was focused on more crazy almost math-y rock and the guys weren’t really into, for lack of a better word, acoustic or singer-songwriter stuff, and I was getting more into that. I was just sending out demo tapes back then, of Month Of Sundays and of My Morning Jacket stuff I was doing on my own. For whatever reason, the My Morning Jacket stuff just got picked up by Darla Records and that started the whole trajectory of My Morning Jacket. [Month Of Sundays] released the album Mont De Sundua on Spotify and stuff. I’m really proud of that record. I really love it. For a bunch of kids, it’s really cool.

”One Big Holiday” On Late Night With Conan O’Brien (2003)

This is a pretty iconic late night performance. And “One Big Holiday”… when you were talking earlier about having to get back into the space of older songs you wrote when you were younger, there are obviously a lot of signature songs from across the albums. But this one in particular, the festival is named after it, it’s often the closer of MMJ shows. What is your relationship to a song like that, where it’s a defining element that kinda takes on a life of its own?

JAMES: It’s such a fun song to play. It always feels good. That moment on Conan, that was the first time we had ever been on TV or done anything like that. We were so fucking out of our minds nervous and excited. Just to have a song like that… that’s the cool thing about a lot of those songs. I’m so grateful people still want to hear them. That’s what’s worthwhile, that you get this response from people when you’re playing. It makes you feel so grateful that you have this thing you created that’s still useful years later, that still brings people joy.

My Morning Jacket is out 10/22 on ATO.

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