Jim James: Shadows & Light
James likens making the album to finishing a “giant jigsaw puzzle.” Some songs were built off of mostly live tracks and finished with a few overdubs, while others were meticulously constructed. “On those,” he says, “It was like, ‘how do I craft all these things, pull things out, put things in, fuck with things, flip the beat around.’ The whole [album] is about me loving the studio and loving the accidents that happen while recording.”
He cites the song “State of the Art” as a prime example. Givan was playing drums in the basement while James played piano and sang above in the living room. With both of them playing at high volume, the microphone James was singing into sporadically shorted out. “It sounded super cool [in the song], because I was singing about the power going out, as the microphone was literally being overloaded by power,” he marvels. “I love those kinds of mistakes, because they just add depth to the record.”
James says that he’s obsessed with studio and production techniques because it allows one to take a rather ordinary idea and transform it something entirely new through various mic’ing or recording techniques—that simple ideas or concepts can be reinvented countless ways.
“He’s like an architect,” says Givan of James’ penchant for sonic construction. “He has the blueprints in his mind. He knows what he wants and where he wants it.”
The comfort in and love for the studio that James demonstrates with the self-produced and self-engineered Regions is as much an indicator as anything of just how far he’s evolved as a musician since his teen years playing in Month of Sundays with Givan and the late Aaron Todovich.
After that band ran its course in 1999, James (born James Edward Olliges Jr.) spent about a year and a half at the University of Louisville before dropping out to concentrate on music full time. His electrician father and sculptor mother, while encouraging, were also concerned.
“While in college, I was sending out demos and trying to take it more seriously,” James says. “Once I dropped out and proved to them, like, ‘I’m gonna work at Subway forever if I have to. I’m not gonna ask you for any more money. I’m on my own and I’m doing fine.’ Once they saw that, they let go of the whole back up thing and were really supportive. I’m lucky in that regard.”
My Morning Jacket began more than a decade ago as only James and a four-track. He added his guitarist cousin Johnny Quaid, and in a relatively quick fashion, saw his ambitions and dreams begin to snowball. By 2004, he cemented the definitive (and current) lineup of MMJ with the arrival of keyboardist Bo Koster and guitarist Carl Broemel (Quaid’s replacement) joining drummer Patrick Hallahan and bassist Tom Blakenship.
What’s astonishing is that James and the previous incarnation of the group had already released three of their most treasured albums, The Tennessee Fire, At Dawn and It Still Moves, each containing some of the band’s best songs to date. With each subsequent record— Z, Evil Urges and Circuital—James has continued to evolve into one of the greatest singer/songwriters of his generation, a unique and emotive singer, adventurous and uninhibited writer, and enchanting and electrifying performer. And the group, as a whole, has become one of America’s greatest bands, able to produce hit records in the studio while continually delivering epic-filled roller coasters of emotion each night on tour.
“We’ve had various people come and go over the years, who’ve all been important to the growth of the band,” says James. “But as it is now, we’ve got this real power center that we all share. And I feel like this is the band, this is My Morning Jacket. If somebody leaves, I don’t think it would be the same—I don’t think it would recover.”
James has reaped many of the opportunities that come with such esteem and success. Recording and touring with Monsters of Folk—James, M. Ward and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis—gave him a chance to collaborate with some of his favorite peers. This year saw the release of New Multitudes, a collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by James, Jay Farrar (Son Volt/Uncle Tupelo), Anders Parker (Varnaline) and Will Johnson (Centro-matic). He’s appeared in the avant Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There and collaborated with fellow Kentucky musicians Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee, producing their 2010 Dear Companion album. He’s even stumped for President Obama, alongside Broemel.
Aside from maybe rubbing elbows with the President, it’s the sort of success that was somewhat “expected” of James from an early age, according to Givan, with whom the singer hosts the Louisville-based radio show Sir Microcosm on 91.9 WFPK. “It’s not surprising because I always knew he had a special gift, even when he was younger. I’ve never seen him do something that’s not good. Even the songs that he was writing as a kid were really good.”
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