“You can talk about it all you want, but what you gonna do? Time’s your oyster, the grave is always getting closer,” sings Jim James on “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Pt. 2,” one of many calmly distressing tracks from his new solo effort, Eternally Even. Released just four days before this year’s historic election, the album carries itself with a reluctant confidence, like a sage who has always known the impending doom was there the whole time.
In a lot of ways a Jim James solo album is something of an odd product. As frontman and primary songwriter for beloved indie rockers My Morning Jacket, he already has a respectable platform from which to deliver the music that is his message. Yet something about Eternally Even—as well his only other solo release, 2013’s Regions of Light and Sound of God—seems decidedly distinct from his band’s output. The lyrics on the newest record, in particular, feel like they were written with today’s news cycle in mind, even as the music that buoys them digs many decades into the past for inspiration.
Considering the album’s topical nature, the timing of its release appears very deliberate. It also heralds the coming of James’ latest solo tour, which is set to reach New Orleans’ Civic Theatre on Saturday, December 17. I caught up with the enigmatic rock icon less than a week after the release of Eternally Even—and just two days after the fateful 2016 election—to discuss his latest project, working with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and much more.
You just released your second solo album, Eternally Even. The record is a little haunting. There’s a sense of foreboding throughout much of it that, frankly, feels almost prescient considering the events of the past few days. Was that the vibe you were going for?
Yeah, I’ve just been thinking about it a lot and worrying about it a lot and wanting to try and do my part to be a part of the discussion and, hopefully, be a force of good. Obviously, I’m very sad that things turned out the way they did, but I think that’s what music is here for, to kind of give us hope through dark times and help us work on things together. I feel like that’s how I work on things, through music. I feel like that’s how most people feel when listening to music. It’s one of the most useful things we have in our lives, one of the greatest gifts.
Your solo tour kicks off next week [November 15]. Do you think these songs will take on a new meaning, or perhaps a new urgency, in the live setting?
I feel with a record like this, I’m trying to speak to a lot of what’s going on. Yeah, we’re going through some dark shit right now. I feel like your mind, all of our minds, always adapt to what has happened around us. You hear things differently, and you see things differently based on what has happened. So yeah, everything has taken on a new weight. I feel like there’s so many of us that are worried about the future and worried about everything. Yeah, I feel like it’s all gonna take on a new weight.
Despite the album’s lyrical weight, the music is actually pretty laid back. It’s sonically pleasing music that you can kind of chill to. Was there an intention to create a dichotomy between the lyrical and musical aspects of the album?
Not really. I don’t really see it that way, but that was kind of a cool thing about the music. It wasn’t written with any goal in mind. It was written as improv pieces or it was taken from samples of songs that I really liked, so it was a cool way to make a record. I had never done that before. All the music kind of existed, and then lyrics and melodies and stuff started popping out of my head over this existing music, which I then cut and edited and messed with and added things to make it fit these songs that the pieces were turning into. It was a strange experience for me.
How do you approach a solo album differently from a My Morning Jacket album? At what point do you decide the songs you’re working on are going to be pieces for Jim James and not My Morning Jacket?
The songs just kind of tell me. I have a real love for working in the studio and playing music alone, and I feel like I’m kind of always just doing that. When I’m not on tour that’s kind of my job or whatever, just making music. I love doing it. So solo records for me are these fun ways for me to keep creating because, I love to play in the band and I love doing side projects and stuff, but I also love just being alone in the studio as well.
You touched on this a little bit earlier, but a lot of this record does feel like it was born out of these jam sessions or improv sessions. Is that how you often go into the recording process?
No, really not ever. Normally I have an idea for a song or I have the chords for a song and I start building a song from scratch. There is no pre-existing thing. Whereas in this case, all this music was pre-existing instrumental music that had never been written with the intention of any vocals or any, ‘song structure.’ So it was a really different thing for me.
Are you saying you went looking back at previous things that you had recorded, maybe half thought out songs or instrumental segments, and then turned them into fleshed out songs?
No, I had these pieces of instrumental music that this composer, Brian Reitzell, and I had made trying to score a few films, and that didn’t end up getting used for the films. I had always loved these pieces of music and they just came back up on shuffle one day while I was walking. I really got into them and, you know, it was five or six years ago that we did these pieces of music. But for whatever reason, my brain reconnected with them because I had always loved them. I had thought of them, for a while, as a side thing or just an instrumental record of these improv pieces, but then lyrics and melodies started popping out so I followed that path.
I didn’t know you were involved in any film scoring work.
I’ve tried to be. I’ve always been fired for being too weird, so I’ve never successfully been involved in any film scoring work.
How important is improvisation to you as a component of your live show? Can we expect to see some of these songs tweaked with on stage?
Yeah, definitely. We’ve already been doing that. We did a little warm-up run a month ago and were really having fun with the songs, so there’s already improv changes and things that are happening to the songs. It feels really fresh and it feels really good to play these songs right now.
You’re performing in New Orleans on December 17. Considering the musical history, is there anything special to you about this city?
Oh God yes. I’ve spent so much time in New Orleans and I’ve produced a record with Preservation Hall Jazz Band that we recorded in the Hall. Those guys are really great friends so every time we come to town there’s some cause for celebration and we just hang out. I love the city so much and have spent countless hours walking around. There’s so much magic to be found there and I feel lucky to have some really good friends there. It’s always a high point.
Is there any particular place in town that you always make sure to visit while you’re down here?
The Hall is the most important to me. I’ll never forget walking in there for the first time and it kind of felt like where music was born, and I know that’s where a lot of really great jazz music was born. Being in there, having made a record in the Hall and having played in the Hall, I’ve really felt the power. It’s like a portal or something. You step in there and you’re stepping into another time. It’s one of the most powerful places I’ve ever been.
How did your relationship with the Preservation Hall guys develop?
I guess six or seven or eight years ago, I’m bad with time, they did a benefit record where they had different singers come to the Hall and sing with the guys. I was invited to do that so I came down and met everybody and just really hit it off with Ben Jaffe. It was an amazing time. Then we brought them out on tour with My Morning Jacket, and they would open the show and then play with us. We really enjoyed each other’s company and had a great time. Ever since then we’ve been really good friends.
I wanted to talk to you about another artist that you’ve developed a bit of a relationship with, and that’s Roger Waters. I saw you perform with him at Newport Folk and outside of New York for the Love For Levon [Helm] benefit, then I heard you recently performed with him at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit. How did that relationship first develop?
He was coming to do the Levon benefit and, I can’t remember why he didn’t have his band, but somebody said to him, ‘Hey have you heard My Morning Jacket? Would you be interested in them backing you up?’ And he was; so we did that Levon thing and had a great time. He reached back out to us about Newport and, obviously, we were excited to do that, and then he reached back out about Bridge School. It’s been this cool, amazing thing. Definitely something we never counted on, hearing from him again. It’s been such an honor and such a privilege to stand next to one of the true greats of music. He’s, indisputably, made some of the greatest records that humans have ever made. It’s wild, but he’s such a nice guy and he remembers everybody’s names. He doesn’t come in acting like an egomaniac or anything. He’s a very, very down to earth guy, but he’s also extremely intense and knows exactly what he wants. It’s always thrilling to work with him.
I saw that, in all the shows My Morning Jacket have played since Bridge School, you’ve managed to incorporate a different Pink Floyd song into your set.
It’s funny because we spent all this time learning all his songs and, of course, we love those songs. We know everybody loves those songs.
Are there any new projects on the horizon for you? I know you’ve got this tour coming up, but anything with Jacket after that?
We’re doing another Jacket record in the spring, which will hopefully be out sometime next year. I’m not quite sure yet. I’ve got songs written for that so yeah, that’s on the burner.