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Into the Mystic with Jim James

Sami Promisloff | December 08, 2016

"Magic Hour" is quickly approaching in Los Angeles. It’s one of the best assets of the SoCal fall. The sun spreads its warmth all over the sky and, then, at just the right time before it sets for the evening, for a precious few minutes, the myriad textures of the city’s expanse, from downtown skyscrapers to the inland canyons, become enveloped by a well-saturated rainbow band. For some reason, the effect is always a bit more vivid this time of year. Both scientifically (a little local phenomenon called smog) and mystically, it’s probably due to something in the air.

The sky is moving into its nightly, hazy shift over the main drag of Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock neighborhood—the pocket of LA that Jim James now calls home in addition to his (and his band My Morning Jacket’s) birthplace of Louisville, Ky. He’s lively and content to enjoy a few minutes of another picture-perfect afternoon in this city rife with “so many worlds.”

“I feel like LA is one of our greatest illustrations of the United States, or the world at large,” James says. “Right when I came out here, I got zapped by a new wave of energy and activity in this melting pot with everybody from every walk of life, every nationality, every religion, every sexual preference— everybody’s here. People come here with a dream—to make things happen, to try.”

He’s wearing a pair of sunglasses—clearly a year-round requisite for citizens of the Golden State—but, strangely, he has an additional pair nestled in the nook of his button-down shirt. Though it’s been over a decade since he started trimming the long mane of hair that concealed his face during My Morning Jacket’s early days, James is undoubtedly a mystic that walks among us—a masterful alchemist of energy, time, space and sentiment—from the stage to the studio. The tangible output of his explorations is channeled into a catalog of songs, which continues to grow and diversify as My Morning Jacket continuously evolves. His efforts also include collaborative projects like Monsters of Folk and The New Basement Tapes, and, most recently, serving behind the boards as producer for Ray LaMontagne and Jonny Fritz.

The latest chapter in James’ flourishing canon is a provocative, groove-ridden and soul-inflected solo effort, Eternally Even, the follow-up to 2013’s Regions of Light and Sound of God. The history books will characterize 2016 as a surreal blur between fantasy and reality, accompanied by a bewildering acceleration of divisiveness—eerily similar to shifts in the past, yet somehow more overwhelming and inescapable than ever at the same time. Eternally Even is James’ cohesive, yet contained, statement of hope and determination in the face of a world gone mad, which would never have come to light if not for the perfect recipe of circumstance. From its personnel to its physical recording location and the political infighting that’s colored the past year, the record only exists because all the right elements became evident, stepping into the ether to meet their magical meld.

“I tried to score two films with [composer and music supervisor] Brian Reitzell about five or six years ago. We made a lot of beautiful music, but we got fired from both the films for being too weird. We did 30 or 40 minutes of just improv with me playing ‘that’ organ,” James says with profound reverence for the instrument that serves as a common thread throughout the songs on Eternally Even, “and [Brian] playing drums. I’ve always liked it and never known what to do with it.”

That is, until a fateful afternoon during My Morning Jacket’s last run through Europe while supporting The Waterfall. “I remember it being Antwerp or somewhere—it popped up on shuffle one day when I was taking a walk and I just got totally into it,” James says. “Words started popping out and vocal melodies, so I took those improv pieces and chopped them up—it was kind of a cool little surprise because I hadn’t even planned on doing that. Everything with this record that happened—even the improv piece we played— we didn’t sit down that day to do that. We weren’t like, ‘Let’s do a jam that feels this way!’ We just played. That’s the great thing about improv—you don’t put any rules or restrictions. It’s like all the music you listen to is coming back out through you, hopefully in your own way. It’s so weird. It’s such a cool thing.”

The solo experimentation exemplified by the film score sessions quickly extended to James scavenging for other pieces of the Eternally Even puzzle. “I was like, ‘If I do this right, I can turn this into an album.’ There’s a couple other things that are loops or samples [of ] things I was already listening to,” like the gospel R&B rarity “It’ll All Be Over” by The Supreme Jubilees, heard on the Eternally Even track “The World’s Smiling Now,” and “Minor Miracles” by Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, from his 2014 solo release, EDJ, where a brief moment of minor lilt serves as the backbone for Eternally Even’s second single and call for collective honor, “Here in Spirit.”
“I love ‘Minor Miracles’ so much and I’m excited for more people to hear that song, too—the little riff in the middle triggered my brain, and I would ride around in my car just listening to the loop we created because I was transfixed by that 30 seconds. Then one day”—he pauses and snaps his fingers similar to a magician acing his trick—“all the words and melodies just popped out.”

James’ creative process soon became a matter of “snowballing” urgency combined with the fresh perspective of moving to Los Angeles. “I was renting a place that felt really inspiring and lots of stuff started,” he says. “It was this really weird place in Montecito Heights. There are two tortoises that live there, like way out in the middle of nowhere down this old dirt road. It felt like you were living on Mars, kind of in a spaceship—it’s all abandoned and kind of scary—and things just happened.”

It’s this working awareness of cosmic embrace that greatly aids James in distinguishing what material gets solo treatment and what becomes a full-band excursion. “Songs usually just tell me metaphysically—I don’t even know why really—that they’re something I want to work on by myself,” he says. Audiences view James as a frontman whose visible diversity onstage is limited to vocal range and difference in guitars, but in the studio, and on this record specifically, he plays every instrument. “It’ll be something I write on a keyboard or on a bass or on a drum, something that I’m just going to explore on my own—and then with the Jacket, it’s so cool that we all play the roles that we play. I feel like a song will say it wants to be played in the Jacket world [because we’ll be] together.”

The same approach also applies to how songs rotate in and out of his setlists, individually honoring and considering “the things going on in your life, the things going on in the world, the energy of the time, the energy of the place—always letting it speak.” The ultimate mandate, however, is creating the proper mix to satisfy the anchoring question: “How do you best get to be a part of the vibrations of that world?” James continues, “Live music, hopefully, is all about good vibrations or trying to get things to a positive place. We’re always trying to find a way to engage people, and challenge them, but also give them some comfort, too.”

The songs on Eternally Even are characterized by a frustrated hopefulness and patient determination, “because I feel like we can figure it out,” James reveals. “We should want to take care of everybody.”

Its nine songs are stylistically interconnected by an underlying pulse that resembles a drive or a heartbeat, awakening the listener to life and rhythmically imploring them to march and seek justice. When combined with rallying cry lyrics that meditate on the impasses and misgivings that have surfaced “at the edge of the world,” you’ve got another capsule of work that expertly lays out James’ ongoing ability to be both timely and timeless.

Even within My Morning Jacket, his songwriting purview is consistently fluid and universal, lacking specific emphasis on pronouns, names or dates “so that, hopefully, [the music] can be applicable to anybody”—a welcome approach in our collective, continuous search for equality and limited celebration of progress thus far.

“I feel that a lot of it is inspired by all the terrible stuff that’s going on, and just wanting to be a counter to that, wanting to be, hopefully, emitting positivity, and just trying to be part of the discussion,” James says. “I definitely don’t proclaim to have any of the answers. I feel just as fucked up as everybody—but I want to encourage people to talk, to vote, to speak out.”

He speaks passionately about Donald Trump’s threat to where we are on the precipice of progress and the grace exhibited by First Lady Michelle Obama in her counter to “racism, intolerance, greed and fear. It’s all just old fear.” He respectfully admires her “brilliant and amazing” harnessing of rhetoric. “She kept referring to him as ‘Hillary’s opponent,’ like, ‘I’m not even going to say his name.’ That was such a great move, to not give him any energy. That’s the way he should have been treated this whole time—like a bully third grader [relegated to] the corner—we’re not going to give you any energy at all until you straighten up.”

Instead, James earnestly hopes to chip away at the conversation and transform the story from a “broadcast for hate and violence and terror” to “[broadcasting] as much peace and love as we can—to give more power to the things you want to change, and talk about it in a way that can help heal the wound psychically.”
The record’s title track, which closes the album, touches on healing society’s collective wounds and the celebration of being liberated from an almost romantic form of pain. It feels like a continuation of the sexy lament James channels on the 2015 Waterfall cut “Only Memories Remain,” a rambling and patiently realized blessing in recognition of “washing those hard feelings away”: “Sun’s out/ not a thought about the rain/ no trace of tears or pain/ I hope you’re having a wonderful life.”

My Morning Jacket’s other nuanced emotional phases have traces that extend into Eternally Even, too—like the feeling of bittersweet peace (“Hide In Plain Sight”) or the evaluation of a fling versus believing in permanence (“The World’s Smiling Now”). Throughout the record, he considers “[things] that should be done without question, with nothing owed—feeling that way about each other and taking care of each other,” James says. From friends that split a check at dinner without incident, to “picking up people with mental health problems on the street and taking them somewhere, taking care of them—getting them psychological and physical help. I wish humanity could have that spirit with each other.”

The album also waxes on the idea of commanding the present, while simultaneously raising anxiety-ridden questions that diminish that sense of presence. Imagine any of these questions being posited to a crystal ball: “Is there any peace to be found in a lifetime? Is this love, or are we just having fun? Will future generations ever understand? What if the world became sweet again, do you think we could handle it?”

James asks these questions throughout the body of Eternally Even, but he already has some of the answers, too. In fact, he’s a true believer that there’s a mystic inside all of us, so long as “you get a gut feeling [pursuant to] these attractions we have. You feel like you should apply for this job or like you’re going to fall in love with this person—you have to be inspired. If you don’t act on that feeling, if you don’t do the work, then nothing comes of the inspiration.”

It’s everywhere, ready to be summoned from perception and plain sight. “There’s not really any intention behind it. You’re exploring, but it’s all about trying to live now. The world is smiling on us now,” he affirms. “I start to question, ‘How can I have fun? How can I be good to my friends and family? How can I be healthy? How can I be a productive member of society?’ It’s been fun to shake things up and give new energy. It’s fun to go back home and feel that old, time-tested energy and know that I have that to count on. I think it’s all meant to be.”