The most tactile memory I have of meeting Jim James is that when we shook hands, his was slightly damp. He had just come out of the bathroom, where he had presumably washed the same paws he uses to play guitar with a power and fury largely unmatched by most analog musicians who have risen in his wake. As this feels like a kind of perverted specific, I’ll add that we had lunch on a 90-degree Tuesday afternoon in mid-October, a few weeks before the LA fall finally turned cold and the looming fever dream of the Trump regime became reality.
I drove to a café in Highland Park to interview James for LA Weekly ahead of his second solo album, Eternally Even, and the early December LA set that would follow. He had just relocated to Los Angeles from his native Louisville, a city that helped define the hammer of the Mason-Dixon line sound and mystique of his band, My Morning Jacket. The intention was to discuss the move and how James, arguably one of last archetypal rockstars, was orienting himself and his music in Southern California. Mostly he seemed sincerely dazzled by the city, perhaps finding it soothing to no longer be a famous person in Kentucky, but now two thousand miles away from home in a city populated by many famous people.
James was professional and contemplative, easy to laugh if not overtly funny. He didn’t give anything away about his personal life, beyond the fact that it’s important for him not to reveal anything about his personal life. He ate a salad. He made direct eye contact. His handlers cut us off after thirty minutes and we talked about sports as we walked out the door and back into the fading afternoon heat. —Katie Bain
So, you live in LA Now.
What’s the story? When did it happen? Why did it happen?
Jim James:I’ve spent so much time here over the last 10-15 years making and working on records. I’ve just always really enjoyed it. I’ve got a lot of friends here, and I feel like most people who come here come here to try and make their dreams come true. It’s so beautiful and obviously it’s also a huge struggle. There’s a dark side. It’s so expensive, but I just love the potential here. I love the energy. The potential is so great.
What does that mean to you, the potential, given that you’ve already achieved so much?
Jim James:I feel that at this moment in time there just seems to be a really great new rebirth going on. A lot of people are making great art, and there are a lot of new restaurants like this one. This feels like such an exciting place to be. I’m from Louisville, Kentucky and I live there some of the time too. I kind of go back and forth because I’ve got a lot of friends and family, and there’s a similar thing going on there where there’s a lot of this new growth happening. But I feel like, I don’t know, I’m just ready for some fresh energy because I’ve lived in Louisville all my life, and I’ve had a lot of time here. If I had to add up all the time I’ve spent here in the last ten years, I’ve probably lived here for like, two years.
How have you made LA yours? Where are your places?
Jim James:I live in Highland Park. Our keyboard player from My Morning Jacket, Bo, has lived in LA for like 18 years. He’s very well-versed. He used to live over in Hollywood, and he moved over here six or seven years ago. I had been thinking about moving here for five or six years. He was like, “Dude, you’ve got to come over to Highland Park.” I didn’t really understand until I came here, but I feel like it’s so cool that if you live on this side of town you get Eagle Rock. You get Pasadena. You get Highland Park.
You get this cool nucleus without that much traffic, and then if you have to go into the belly of the beast…There’s just such a good vibe over here. I’m struck every day like, Amara Kitchen or a place called Café Birdy over on Figueroa. There’s that really cool bowling alley where I just did a photo shoot. It’s like the oldest bowling alley in LA. There’s Mount Analog, the record store over there. And just the natural beauty.
Obviously the south has it’s own mythology. Are you finding that the spirit inherent in SoCal within the landscape and the people and the history and cultural atmosphere is affecting your output in a different way?
Jim James:It’s been amazing. It’s funny. I don’t consider myself from the South. Kentucky is funny; southerners consider it the north and northerners consider it the south. It’s not west. But it’s also not in the middle. It’s kind of this weird little place. I’ve always really identified with that because I don’t really identify with anything.
Coming out here, it’s kind of been a fresh blast. When I moved out here in December I was renting a place in Montecito Heights where two tortoises live that’s on the edge of this mountain that overlooks downtown. I had started working on my second solo record which is getting ready to come out, and when I got up there. The guy who owned it had a storage trailer and I set up a makeshift studio in there and it was just like wahhhh all this stuff coming out. I like, finished the record in a couple weeks. There were all of these words and thoughts and ideas.
Were you surprised by that?
Jim James:I was. It was crazy. I thought I’d be working on it for like—I mean I did work on it for a long time—but I thought it would take longer to all come out. It’s been really inspiring.
I read that parts of the record were already done before you really started working on it, that you recorded them a long time ago and stumbled upon them on your iPod. How much of the album was completed or in its early stages when you re-discovered it?
Jim James:A lot of it was a film score that I had done with Brian Reitzell, a film composer. I came out here, again this is one of the huge chunks of time I spent out here in the past. I came out here five or six years ago and spent two or three months with Brian trying to score these two films, and got fired from both of them. It was so weird.
Can I ask what the films were?
Jim James:I don’t want any beef with people.
But they were large scale?
Jim James:Not like huge budget, medium sized.
So there are rejected film scores that we’re hearing on the album.
Jim James:Yes. Not all of it.
That’s so Hollywood.
Jim James:Right. Well it was so cool because we made all of this music that we really loved and then we got fired from the project, which was a bummer but it actually turned out to be a good thing because I really love the music and I always really wanted something to happen with it. And then, I was taking a walk and one of the songs came on shuffle and I was like, “Oh fuck I want to do something with this.” And then all of a sudden it was like, all this stuff—words and vocal melodies started coming out. It was really cool. There was no intention to make—like I hadn’t set out to make another solo record yet. I wasn’t going into the studio like, “I’m going to make another record.” It just kind of came out.
Thematically, this album kinds of deals with—I don’t want to use the term protest music, but it seems like sort of soothing music for challenging times. How did those themes emerge? Is this just stuff that has been on your mind?
Jim James:Well, as everybody knows, there’s so much fucked up stuff going on right now. So many people aren’t being treated right. Just the notion of Donald Trump becoming our president, it’s so maddening. It’s sickening. It’s like, how have we gotten to this place? How are people not respected…it’s this crazy level of like, really it’s like insanity. It’s like, why can’t we treat each other with equality and fairness, and all this stuff that how can you not think about?
Also even like climate change. Soon we may not even have an earth to sit around and think on. If we destroy the fucking world then who cares what happens. In the past maybe I would be more focused on my loneliness or my physical dilemmas, or love or whatever. I feel like the world has gone to such a fever pitch, that gets in to what I’m thinking and it comes out in the music.
Do you think artists have a social responsibility to be, not necessarily political, but to address the kinds of bigger issues you’re talking about?
Jim James:I feel that artists have a responsibility to listen to their muse and do what their soul tells them, but I feel like we as humans have a responsibility to speak up for fairness and speak up for the world, because there’s so much hate and negativity. We have a duty to broadcast as much love and peace as we can. And I feel like that’s a big part of this record. I’m not saying that I have the answers; I’m not saying that I know how to solve anything, but I’m trying to be a force of good. I’m trying to say, ‘let’s love each other and let’s accept each other. Let’s stop killing each other.’
Who are your peers? Who are the people doing work on the same level as yours, with the same sort of force and velocity?
Jim James:Hmm, I don’t know. I mean there’s so much great music being made now. I don’t know. Anybody making music right now is a peer, ya know?
I mean, sure, but you’re very successful and My Morning Jacket is a hugely successful band. Maybe a better question is, when you think of the rock star archetype, do you feel like you fit into that?
Jim James:No. No. [laughs]
How do you see yourself as separate from it?
Jim James:I don’t know. I really don’t think about it. I just like to be a person. It’s very separate for me, those worlds. The world of playing onstage or whatever and then my personal life. Those things are very separate. If I’m here at home or whatever, I don’t think about playing onstage. And if I’m playing onstage I’m not thinking about being at home. I try to keep those worlds separate.
You know how Beyoncè says she has her Sasha Fierce persona, that when she’s onstage she’s this other person. Do you feel like you turn into someone else?
Jim James:Definitely. Oh yeah.
Who is that person?
Jim James:I don’t know. It’s me. It’s another side of me. I have to put a very real wall up between day-to-day me and stage me, for so many reasons. I believe in mystery. I don’t want to mix up those worlds.
I see how it could be a slippery slope.
Jim James:It is a very slippery slope.
And how it could get confusing and painful if you don’t have discipline around that.
Jim James:It can. Take it from me.
What’s a day like in the life of Jim James in Los Angeles?
Jim James:Well recently it has just been moving. Trying to find a place. Trying to find a couch. Trying to find spoons. When you move, you know it’s going to happen, but every time it’s just that stupid shit, like, “I want to eat some yogurt. Fuck I don’t have any spoons.” “I think I’ll sit down on the couch. Oh shit there’s no couch.” But it’s been so different because I rented a couple places and now I’m moved in to another place, just trying to furnish it, and I don’t have anything.
Jim James:But, I really love walking. That’s a big part of my life and one of my favorite things to do, and the walking around here is so great. Just walking in the woods. The place I first rented was way up on top of a mountain, like over there. [Points.] Not far from here. Five minutes away. I could walk around within that little world; it was kind of like being on Mars. But I like to walk the neighborhoods and down Figueroa to get coffee. I walk a lot. And play a lot of music. And hangout. It’s such a great community. So many great friends around here. Trying to be social and make new friends, you know. I do try to go to the beach once a week or once every two weeks. It’s obviously such a hassle, going from the eastside, but I try to be strategic going between ten and two. And then you wait until eight or nine.
Do you have a beach of choice?
Jim James:Um, yes.
Which one is it?
Jim James:I’ll leave it a mystery.
Mystery is clearly something you cherish.
Are you consciously cultivating your own mythology? When I think of you as a rock star, you seem like this sort of steeped-in-mystery spiritual person that I don’t necessarily know a whole lot about, which it seems is intentional.
Jim James:Yeah. [laughs] It’s weird being a performer and by the very nature of what I do I have to go in public to play songs, which is such a weird thing to think about, but it also feels so good. I also love going to see shows obviously, and when I’m seeing a show I realize that what I’m trying to do onstage is just trying to be a part of that beautiful circle, and I try to not let it be about my ego or—I don’t like to think of me as separate from the crowd. I don’t like to think that they’re here for this person; it’s the music. But a weird side product of all that is that people know me. That’s why I try to keep that heavy line, because I want my friends and the love in my life—whether it’s family or romantic or friendship—I want people to love me because they love me, not because I play music or shows.
It must get confusing, especially in the beginning. People love you because they love what you do and they love who they think you are, but they don’t know you at all.
I wonder if it’s more challenging now than it is when you started out because of social media and more pressure to give more of yourself away.
Jim James:I try to use social media very sparingly and also very mysteriously. I love posting photos because I love taking photos, but I don’t reveal anything about myself. I don’t want people to know me that way. I’m glad people can find out about shows on social media. It’s a useful tool obviously, but I don’t have a Facebook account. I do Instagram and Twitter, but only for like, “Hey the album’s coming out” or “The show is next Tuesday.”
Jim James:It’s so weird. It’s such an illusion. You think you have 522 friends on Facebook, but are they really your friends? Some of them are. I try to stay offline as much as possible. I’m so sick of the fucking phone; it’s like all the time you’re online constantly looking at this thing. I don’t need any more reason to be online.
Has it gotten easier to be offline as you’ve gotten more successful and other people can do it for you?
Jim James:Maybe a little bit yeah.
Do you feel like My Morning Jacket also came in as one of the last bands that existed before the advent of all this? You guys slipped in at kind of the last minute.
Jim James:That’s so funny; that’s exactly how I feel. The Internet garage door was coming down, and we slid right under it. Yeah it’s weird.
It also puts you in a different class of artists. You belong with the old guard that existed before the rise of technology had such a massive effect on the music industry.
Jim James:I guess so. I feel like we’re kind of right in the middle ground. It is so weird to think of the levels—obviously Bob Dylan was around long before the internet and then you go down the line to Pearl Jam or whatever, obviously around a super long time. Then you go down a bit further to like the Flaming Lips or whatever, and we were right at the tail end of that before the internet blew everything. It’s weird.
It adds to your mythology in a way, because you never had to use those tools to cultivate who you were as a band.
Jim James:That is so weird, I was talking about sending out demo tapes the other day, when we were first trying to get signed. We would send out demo tapes and we were trying to make them weird and put a demo tape in a giant cardboard box and spray paint it silver and have a stuffed animal hanging out of it or whatever.
The label gets this mountain of manila envelopes, and people would call me like, “We got a stack of manila envelope demos that have been here for years and we’ve never listened to any of them and your silver box came in the mail and we had to listen to it.” But it’s funny to think of now with the internet, nobody sends fucking tapes or CDs or anything. Somebody’s got an inbox with forty links in it to new bands and they try to listen for two seconds. It’s so weird how inconsequential the internet has made everything.
It’s easy to dismiss art that people are putting their heart and souls into.
Jim James:It’s weird too, it’s also funny the thought or concept of value and how the first records I ever bought I had to mow lawns when I was 16 or whatever. And you would buy a cassette for 15 bucks, and if you didn’t like it the first time, you would listen to it several more times because you spent fifteen bucks on it. Now it’s this ocean of music pouring out of your phone. A band is lucky if anyone listens to any one of those songs.
How does this new album fit into your overall trajectory? What does it say about where you are right now?
Jim James:It feels like where I am right now. I just want to be, I hope, a point of love and peace. A point of discussion. Hopefully contributing some positivity in to the world in the wave of all this crazy sickness. Did you watch Michelle Obama’s speech?
Yeah, she’s the best.
Jim James:I hope she runs for president. It’s so wild to watch her. She emits such wonderful vibrations of positivity and peace and love and acceptance. I knew how sickening watching Trump had been, but until I saw her I had kind of forgotten what it was like to see somebody who was so inspiring and so good. It’s like, god this whole Trump thing has been such a terrible spell on humanity and so sickening and so filled with hate and just disgusting. I feel like it’s all of our duty, like Michelle did, to put out as much peace and love as you can to just combat it. It’s terrible.
I read that there might be a second part of The Waterfall coming out.
Jim James:We released two songs. We released a song called “Magic Bullet” which is an anti gun violence protest song that’s out now, and then we released a song called “The First Time” on Cameron Crowe’s Roadies soundtrack, so those are two songs that were from that. The rest of the stuff will maybe be used somewhere, but I had a whole ‘nother Jacket record pop out in my head, but that’s another direction that we’re going to go record in April.
Jim James:Here in LA.
And the guys are cool with recording here?
Jim James:Well Bo lives here, and the rest of the guys are excited about it. We’ve never made a record in LA. We’ve mixed a few here, but we’ve never recorded here.
Is there anything that you would like the people to know?
Jim James:I just love the limitlessness. LA is limitless. You could never discover all the cool things. Every time somebody tells you about something new, or I go to a new part of town…discovering downtown. Downtown blows my mind every time I’m there. You’re on Mars, and it’s so beautiful. It’s like you’re in the 1920s and the year 4020. It’s really an exciting place to be right now.
Any favorites, among the mountains and the desert and the ocean?
Jim James:That’s the thing I love about it. There are so many bonus zones. Since I’ve been here I’ve been out to Joshua Tree several times. I’ve been to Yosemite, which I had never been to. Talk about mind-blowing. It’s insane. And going to the beach. There are just all these little bonus ways you can live out here. Or drive up to SF for the weekend. It’s just so fun.