Jim James: Build It Up Strong

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cos jimjames fiche e1359856237417 Jim James: Build It Up Strong

Flatiron Management is housed in such a nondescript building on West 26th Street that I’m not sure I have the right address. Across from a church with no signs and next to a shop window so lined with t-shirts no natural light could possibly make its way in, the building is certainly the tallest on the block — but I’m not convinced. Leaning against the white siding, I start searching my e-mail for the proper address when the glass door swings open. Jim James walks out and looks at me, checking to see whether or not he should hold the door and before I say anything, he lets it close and starts walking down the street. Well, at least this must be the right place.

When I’m eventually buzzed in, I make my way to the elevator and hit “12”. As the doors begin to close, the hurried clacking of heels on tile echo through the small lobby. I press the “door open” button and smile as the short, frazzled-haired owner of the heels walks in. “Thanks!” she says as she presses “14”. “No one ever holds elevators.” I have no idea where she’s heading.

Later on, after Jim James has returned and placed his lunch in the mini-fridge behind me, we’re sitting on a plush couch. Throughout our conversation, he talks of contributing something positive to the world at large, about years of support from friends and family, about the benevolent power of feminine energy and Kermit the Frog. He comes off as the type of man who would not only hold the elevator, but wish you the best of luck at whatever waited for you on the other side of the doors.

With a wide-angled portrait of his mainstay outfit, My Morning Jacket, hung on the wall behind me, he tells me how he wants his first solo album to feel “useful.”

“I’m not sure if I even knew what I wanted to accomplish with any record anytime,” he says about the goals he had for his band’s earlier albums. “I really was just making the music I felt was right or deep in my soul at any given time. I guess I have always wanted it all to feel useful. I guess now I mean I want it to be useful in a way that brings positive motion to one’s life when listening, a feeling of wanting to move forward in a positive way.”

Regions of Light and Sound of God is James’ first solo outing under his own name away from his frontman duties. In 2009, he released an EP under his Yim Yames moniker titled Tribute To, featuring George Harrison covers he had recorded in 2001 following the late Beatles’ passing. That album was never intended for sale, but was eventually released as a benefit for the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.

Both albums have altruistic ambitions and find James coping with a rough spot in his life. While Tribute To was his way of dealing with the death of a man he had never met, the genesis of Regions of Light… is much more tangible.

gods man Jim James: Build It Up StrongSo tangible, in fact, you can actually read it. Or as James more accurately puts it, “absorb” it. Much of the album is based on Lynd Ward’s 1929 novel in woodcuts, Gods’ Man, a wordless precursor to the modern graphic novel. James came into possession of the novel thanks to Gary Burden, who has done the artwork for My Morning Jacket’s last two albums. Burden gifted it to him while designing art for 2008’s Evil Urges.

“When I first got the book,” James recalls with genuine wonder, “I had crazy déjà vu, like I had known the book before or something in my last lifetime.”

Gods’ Man tells the story of a struggling artist’s battle with dark decisions and corruption. He enters a Faustian contract with a masked stranger and receives a unique paintbrush. The work he creates with the tool brings him fame and fortune in the big city, but it’s not long before misery finds him. He’s chased from town, and after taking a fall off a cliff, he’s nursed back to health by a beautiful girl. The two fall in love and begin a life together, eventually birthing a child. It’s then that the stranger, the “Devil”, returns to make good on his contract.

James became enraptured with the beauty of the book. “I feel you could just take every page and blow it up and hang it in a gallery,” he says. Soon after reading, he began to consider writing material for it. “Quite a bit of it I was doing as like score for the book. I was scoring the book in hopes that it would maybe become a film someday, which it might become, because Gary owns the film rights to the book.”

Part of his desire to score Gods’ Man comes from a history of stalled attempts to enter Hollywood. “I’ve tried to score two movies and got fired from both of them. But when I was doing it, I felt very connected to it and I really liked it. So it’s something I want to do.”

Always looking to move forward, he’s not so much crestfallen at missing out on those opportunities as he’s irked with Hollywood’s standards. “I feel like most of the stuff I do is just too weird and, ya know, they just feel like it. . .” He fights with his words, starting and stopping twice. He says he’s not bitter, but he is disenfranchised. “Like, nowadays it’s just so sad. Everybody feels like for something to be successful you have to beat someone over the head with it. It’s like everything’s gotta be dumbed down.”

His biggest Hollywood blow came when an opportunity to write two songs for The Muppets slipped away. “I ran into my buddy Andrew Bird at Newport Folk Fest maybe a year before the Muppet movie came out. And we were just hanging out and he’s like, ‘Oh my God, dude! Muppet Movie contacted me to score two songs for the movie!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s. . . that’s cool. What two songs did they ask you to try?’ And it was the same two songs they’d asked me to try.”

Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords ended up winning an Oscar for one of those songs. James tells the story genially, though he’s rather despondent about it. He has a well-documented love-affair with the Muppets, calling Kermit “a beautiful spirit” and remarking how Jim Henson being Kermit was “such a magical thing.” At one point, My Morning Jacket was hired to write songs for The Muppets’ band Electric Mayhem, and even had hopes of touring the music in early-2000s Gorillaz-esque fashion. Versions of these songs – “Wonderful” and “Outta My System” – ended up on 2011’s Circuital.

Even though he says he likes McKenzie’s songs and calls it “a fair loss,” the chance to contribute to the Muppets’ canon was not one James lost lightly. It was an important factor in galvanizing him to start writing music for God’s Man.

“So I was really deep into the book, and just looking at it and thinking about, like, music for it. And music just started to come out of the book.” He says this like he’s talking about oil coming up from the ground – completely natural, but incredibly valuable. “Like the song “All is Forgiven” on this record I kinda wrote as the Devil’s theme musically.”

The track moves on a slithery horn section that sneaks down a dark alley, with a jazzy bass line providing the swagger you’d expect a guileful-yet-devilish businessman to carry. Keys haunt the background, and the drums progress from foreboding to downright threatening. Absorbing the novel while listening to the track, each of the Devil’s footsteps or the flutter of his cloak can be heard in those sax notes.

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“Then the lyrics came later,” he continues. “Kinda from the artist’s point of view of hoping maybe in the next life that he could be forgiven in someway for making this choice.” He later explains via e-mail that “the lyrics blossomed out of my own life, but were still reflected back as themes for scenes I was working on.”

He adds that the folksy-cum-big band “A New Life” is about when the artist and his wife have their child and begin their life together, and the slow burning fire of “Dear One” is “kinda about their love and their falling in love together and feeling all that.” “Know Till Now” provides the bewildered bed of soul for the artist’s rise through the city’s ranks, while “Actress” is a pensive reflection on the mistress the artist meets in the second act.

Not all of Regions of Light and Sound of God is based directly on God’s Man. “State of the Art”’s ruminations on modern technology’s effect on society and the seraphic “Of the Mother Again” weren’t conceived as score pieces, though James says he thinks they “could fit.”

On the same token, not all of the material based on the book is entirely disconnected from James personally – including the darker beats. One night in October of 2008, the story of God’s Man and James’ own life intersected in ways he could never have hoped to envision.

Continued on page two…

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“So around the time I was reading the book, I got injured when I fell off the stage.”

James is talking about a show that took place October 7th, 2008 in Iowa City. While performing “Off the Record” at the University of Iowa Recreation Building, he went to step on a subwoofer to get closer to the crowd. Just as he lifted his foot, the lights cut out and James missed his mark. He stumbled off the stage and suffered severe injuries to his torso. Despite being taken to a local hospital and released, the recovery wasn’t so easy.

“It was a very deep injury for me. And there was a point in time when I thought it might be the end of my life, and I was in a very horrible place,” he states quickly in a low, matter-of-fact voice.

“And [I] met a wonderful person and fell in love.” He pauses slightly before “wonderful person.” Something about the memory of this woman still sits with him, and he moves on from it quickly. “And went through this kinda rebirth. And it was a very similar thing in [God’s Man], where the artist is chased out of town, falls off a cliff and is injured, and brought back to life and all of this stuff.”

The accident had occurred four months to the day after Evil Urges’ release. Burden had given him God’s Man just a few months prior. Here he was engrossed in this graphic novel with which he had initially felt some sort of “shared past life experience,” and now his life was tragically mirroring the art.

“It’s a classic theme that you see in a lot of literature, but it was all just happening in such a weird fashion in my real life and in this book that I was so absorbed in, that it just took over for me.”

He’s more focused on the striking parallels than his injury itself. Though he told Rolling Stone that the fall was “meant to happen” in a way due to “too much activity and not listening to myself,” James balks when asked to speak more about the relationship between the book and this troubling period in his life.

“I’d rather not think about most of that stuff or talk about it in-depth too much,” he writes me later. “I don’t consider the book an omen, because I see it as a very positive thing. It was a horrible point in my life in every way. Now, I feel lucky to have moved past it. . . It is strange having to think about it again, but at least I can look at it from a grateful vantage point.”

God’s Man turned out to be more than just a novel he felt strangely acquainted with. It became a helping hand after his accident, something to pull himself out of the dark hole he had fallen into previously. It was, in a word, useful.

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Though it would be almost two years before he would start recording the album, the themes of Regions of Light and Sound of God began gestating here. James knew that he wanted to score God’s Man, but now he had impulse beyond fitting sound to image. He wanted to make an album that could provide forward motion for someone else, to be as useful as the novel had been to him.

When asked what a “useful” album is to him, James has one answer: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

“I kinda look to that album as just like what I feel like, to date, what I feel like is the greatest human accomplishment of music and lyrics, spirituality and love. I feel like that’s the greatest statement humans have made to this point of music. Obviously, there are millions of other fantastic, great statements. But, for me, that’s the one.”

One of those other “fantastic statements” James holds in high regard is Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir’s 1971 release, Like a Ship… (Without a Sail). “It’s just an unbelievably powerful statement. It just feels useful. And I don’t know even if I can describe why it feels useful. I guess maybe even a better word might be. . .” he uncharacteristically breaks eye-contact, focusing on finding that better word. “Constructive.”

Without hesitation, he launches into an impassioned explanation. James tends to be more energetic when he’s off on an existential line. For most of our time together, he leans back with open arms stretched along the corner of the couch, very welcoming and relaxed; when he starts talking like this, his hands gesture actively and his cadence starts to bounce.

“I feel like our generation was sold such a crock of shit with the whole grunge movement,” he explains, “and the whole notion that in order to be an artist you have to be this suffering, miserable fuck who’s addicted to drugs and all strung out. And like it’s that whole notion of a tortured genius, ya know, that whole myth.”

Granted, he knows this myth isn’t something only his generation has dealt with, but he feels they were dealt an especially raw hand. “I feel like we really got fucked with Kurt Cobain and with all these motherfuckers who were so miserable and so. . .” He stops and quickly clarifies: “I feel like when I look back to Nirvana records, or I look back to like, Smashing Pumpkins records, whatever, they don’t feel useful to me. They feel destructive. They feel sad and gross.”

crockofshit 01 e1359936676594 Jim James: Build It Up StrongThat’s not to say James feels these records are entirely useless. After all, he recently told Stereogum that Nirvana was one of the first bands he started following. Instead, he acknowledges that there’s a certain release to be had from that type of music — one that deals with anger and being “fucking pissed.” These days, however, he sees a greater benefit in music that focuses on a more harmonious vision of the universe.

“But then like, later on after that, I started discovering Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and discovering soul music more and Stevie Wonder, and hearing people, hearing like the light of life, and the mysteries of the universe being explored in these broad, beautiful themes,” he beams, his eyes shining above the gently lifted corners of his mustache. “[Themes] that sometimes were very. . . very dark, or sad sounding, but they were still explorative and they weren’t miserable.”

“When I hear What’s Going On, I hear more of like a release, more of a real kind of connection with God and the Universe and it feels ‘useful’ or ‘open.’ Or when I hear Curtis Mayfield, I feel like I’m hearing the Buddha speak, ya know? It feels more universally open and more useful to all of humanity, as opposed to some fucking like, hardcore, horrible hip-hop record that’s glorifying violence or glorifying demeaning women. Or some hardcore metal record that’s doing the same thing.”

This is the sage coming through: He comments that despite differences in genre, the ugly version of any music is forceful, negative, and destructive. That’s the exact antithesis of his goals for Regions of Light and Sound of God, as the title itself plainly illustrates. Like Gaye and Mayfield to him, he wants this album to be a bright spot in someone’s life, providing value in hope and not despair.

“Of course, I want it and need it to be useful for myself, as well, because it starts as a meditation, and turns into another form of meditation in live performances,” James explains. “These mantras you have to repeat again and again, and you want them to be positive or have some forward momentum to them.”

He’s a deeply spiritual individual who holds close to affirming ideas of universal consciousness and beauty, the kind he finds in What’s Going On and Like a Ship… But a man doesn’t build that kind of foundation of positivity with just a few records and a woodcut novel.

A man builds it from the beginning, guided by the support of family and friends in his hometown tucked comfortably between the North and the South.

________________

Jim James was born James Edward Olliges Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky. At the end of the first grade, his father, an electrician by trade, was presented with a business opportunity that brought the family to Atlanta, Georgia. Two years later, that business opportunity “fell through,” and the Olliges family returned to Louisville. Upon returning to his Kentucky home, James entered the fourth grade at St. Martha Catholic School.

“It was just a really mean place. Kids were really mean, teachers were really mean. It just wasn’t a fun environment.” This, of course, is the typical elementary school experience. “But ya know, I mean, grade school’s tough for everybody, though. It’s tough to be a kid.”

For James, though, that “hellish time” bore some divine fruit. It was during his tenure at St. Martha and later at St. Xavier High School that he began life-long friendships with people like his cousin Johnny Quaid, Tom Blankenship, and Patrick Hallahan – individuals who would go on to become current and former members of My Morning Jacket.

“We all sought refuge in each other and luckily we were there for each other. We were really great friends.”

Before these young Kentuckians came together as My Morning Jacket, though, James was in a band with some other childhood friends: Dave Givan, Ben Blandford, and Aaron Todovich (whose suicide in 2003 would become the heartbreaking inspiration for “Dondante” on My Morning Jacket’s Z). Calling themselves Month of Sundays, the band played in pizza parlors and friends’ houses as they tried to find footing in the local scene. In an article he wrote for Louisville.com prior to the My Morning Jacket-curated Forecastle X last year, James called the band, “WAY too loud and abrasive for anyone into most mainstream music, but we were way too uncool for Louisville’s booming post-hardcore/indie rock scene at the time.”

The band were outsiders in their own town’s musical landscape, so they created their own, with aims akin to the ones he has for Regions of Light. “We tried to make our ‘freakscene’ a polar opposite of the post-hardcore scene,” he writes. “We wanted people to feel welcome at our shows. We wanted it to feel like a place you could come and get wild and have fun and be yourself and not worry. We wanted music to bring happiness, or at least some release, for everyone involved.”

Even after they broke up, James held onto the ideals of that “freakscene”. Eventually, years following the split, they would release an album as Mont de Sundua.

“Around the time I started doing My Morning Jacket and Month of Sundays kinda broke up, this other band stole our name,” he says, a beat of indignant disbelief between those three final words. He’s protective of his former outfit, but tickled that anyone might even try to mess with it. “But changed the spelling of it to “D-A-Z-E”, like “Month of Sun-daze”, or something like that. And they started to play around town just a little bit, and they were fucking horrible.”

Later on, after My Morning Jacket had established itself, James and his original outfit decided to release an album they had recorded years earlier. Not wanting to be confused with the name thieves, they figured a rebranding was in order. “So we remixed it and released it, but we released it under Mont de Sundua because we used to joke about that being, like, the French name. And that’s probably not even actually the way you’d say it in French.”

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Regardless, Month of Sundays was James first real foray into music. Even though his musical proclivities have altered over the years, his heart has remained largely in the same place. At his base, James is just a guy in love with music, wanting to bring some good into a toilsome world.

Following a brief term with an indie-rock leaning outfit called Hotel Roy – a group he cites as having helped him to “calm down and focus on the beauty” – James and his cousin, Johnny Quaid, began work on My Morning Jacket in Quaid’s grandparents’ garage.

“We could just like, never find a place to practice and there was never a place to do anything. And they gave us this great space to kinda take over and do whatever we wanted with.” Offering space to perform and record wasn’t all the support the elder Quaids provided. “They always came to all our early shows and were super big cheerleaders of the band. Because, I don’t know, you just meet so many people that are naysayers.” He adopts a clownish voice as he mocks the cynics, “[People] that are like, ‘you’ can’t do this. . .’ Or if you are doing it they’re like, ‘you’re not doing that right. It’s never gonna work.’” Now he switches to a kindly old southern lady’s voice, “But they were just like, ‘Oh, I’m so proud of you boys. You’re just working so hard, and you’re doing so good. Any way we can help?’ They were just so helpful.”

In terms of encouraging family members, James hit a genetic jackpot. His Uncle Tom gave him his first guitar, his cousin joined the band, and their grandparents offered them a practice space. It was James’ mother, however, that proved to be his true musical guide.

“She was just always very open to music, and very encouraging of me to try things and experiment with things. I mean, the first record we ever bought together was Leader of the Band by Dan Fogleberg.” James can’t help but chuckle at this, whether it’s the name “Fogleberg” or the peculiar incongruity in the fact that the first record a three-year-old bought with his mother is about the death of a father.

“And then she was really into encouraging me to watch The Muppet Show and all the music on The Muppet Show.”

James reminisces without a change in breath. His mother introducing him to Fogleberg and then The Muppets register as equally important landmarks in his musical experience. In the Louisville.com piece, he named The Muppet Show as, “the first place I learned about the deeper qualities of music and how far-reaching and powerful it was.”

“I feel like that was such an important show because it spoke to the kids and the adults,” he tells me. “Yeah, and Thriller came out when I was really young. [My mother and I] got that together at the library.” With a cheeky smile, he repeats himself. “You know, we rented Thriller from the library.” He shakes a chuckle from his head.

James sums up his mother’s guidance into the world of music. “I don’t know, she was just always very open and encouraging and just into lots of different stuff. She was never, never a music collector, or she doesn’t have like, a record collection, but she just is a fan of music and is a fan of every kind of music.”

Of course this includes James’ mainstay band and side projects like New Multitudes, and even this latest endeavor. He’s shared all of it with his family, and they’ve been there for him through each new pursuit.

“Both of my parents have been super supportive. Once they found out that I wasn’t gonna, like, die homeless in the street, which I think every parent thinks their kid is gonna do once they start playing music, then they were kinda calmed down, and stopped saying I should go to college and all that kinda stuff. They were like, ‘Okay, he’s really serious. He’s not. . .’”

He trails off as we laugh at all the clichés. All the same, we’re also laughing at how unfounded his parents’ worries seem in retrospect. James has ended up pretty far from the gutter. In truth, he hasn’t gone far from home at all. He still resides in Louisville and still plays with many of the same guys he started out in bands with — longtime friends that went buckling with him back in grade school.

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(Buckling, by the way, is a sport James invented that involves running at top speed and launching yourself into some bushes. “Yeah, that’s what we used to do when we were bored. We’d just go into the park and just jump into huge bushes,” he explains, grinning wide at the deep memory and assuring me, “It’s really fun, until you hit a stump or a big branch or something.”)

The only difference now (besides eschewing bushes) is that he’s a rock star. He didn’t achieve that status alone, though, having been blessed with a core group of individuals who have been supporting him since his youth. Not only has he prevented time and renown from separating them, he’s brought many along for the ride, from the members of My Morning Jacket, to having Givan play drums on Regions of Light.

“It’s great, man,” James declares of working with Givan again. “We’ve got such a cool connection, such a spiritual connection, that we play together really easily. Music for us is very easy: listening to music, and talking music, and playing music.”

Whether it’s the personal company or the immaterial foundation they provided, there’s very little from his Louisville roots that James doesn’t keep very near to his heart, and all of those roots are on display in Regions of Light and Sound of God.

All except perhaps Catholicism.

Continued on page three…

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“I joke and call myself a recovering Catholic,” he says with a grin.

Years in Catholic school didn’t stick with James the way those nuns had probably hoped. He doesn’t “bash” the religion, acknowledging, as is the wont of many “recovering Catholics”, that there are plenty of sound teachings in the good book. Still, around the time he was with classmates like Givan, Quaid, and the others, he came to a realization.

“Ya know, when you’re still in grade school, but you’re kinda starting to wake up and become conscious and you’re discovering music and you’re discovering friends. And you’re discovering, just, ‘God, so much of this is so boring or just so stupid. Like, why can’t a woman be a priest?’ Like there’re all these flaws like, ‘Why do you hate gay people?’”

His eyes are narrowed, as if still examining Catholicism’s flaws. Besides these exclusions, James also finds issue in the general political background of religion.

“And you kinda start tracing the history and realizing that a lot of this is just bullshit that old, scared white dues cooked up to keep their power and their fucking money. You realize it’s ‘big business’. So many generations of people have been duped by this big business because they’ve got fear beaten into their heads, and they’ve got guilt beaten into their heads.

All this shit is just so sad, because religion is supposed to be the most uplifting thing in your life. I think about just how often religion has been bastardized, so that’s why for me, religion is more of a deeply personal thing that just involves searching and questioning and taking little bitty pieces from any other religion I read and try to make it my own.”

For a man so distressed by organized religion to include Sound of God in the title of his solo record may seem discordant. Then again, What’s Going On mentions God plenty, and Pastor T.L. is, well, a pastor, yet these are his top two albums. It’s not God he takes issue with, but how humanity has warped the deity and His/Her/Its religions into tools of suppression rather than inspiration. James isn’t an atheist, though his God doesn’t fit any Judeo-Christian image.

“I do believe in some kind of universal power thing. I believe that things happen for a reason, and that it’s not all just random bullshit. I don’t think it’s like, a guy sitting up in the clouds with a beard, or a woman sitting with a golden wand. I feel like it’s more like a force that’s so big you could never give it a body or a physical form. But, it is all of us at the same time.”

His description of this God is presented with sincere, peaceful credence.

“Ya know, God is us, and God is love, and God is ‘the force’ or ‘the zone’ or whatever when you’re playing a great game of basketball and you’re gone. You know, all your thoughts are gone and you’re just in the game. Or you’re making love and you’re gone, and you’re just making love. Or you’re playing music or you’re writing or whatever you fucking love to do. To me, that’s God.”

James directly examines this “zone” in Region of Light and Sound of God’s closing number, “God’s Love to Deliver”. The track builds on the most psychedelic waves of the record, like a haunted ohm growing louder and louder on top of heavy distortion. At once frightening and refreshing, it’s the lyrics that really tap into what James is saying about his idea of the Almighty: “Love has no equal, direct connection / straight to the source / faith had delivered a feeling so pure / negating all evil we had found the Lord / in our hearts reborn.”

He’s actually addressing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here, but the depiction of interconnectivity carries on beyond civil rights. In James’ sentiment, anyone can make a direct link to the divine through sheer force of love, and that power can revive any downtrodden soul.

There’s a simpler path to the root of James’ disillusionment and eventual distancing from Catholicism, and it cuts through the soils of feminism.

“A religion that doesn’t hold woman as equal to man to me is just flawed to begin with.”

Perhaps it was the influence of his mother, but somehow James has ended up with a heaping respect for women. This comes out when he’s discussing the album track “Of the Mother Again”. The naturalistic song opens with birds chirping and a twinkling sundrop of piano keys. It’s aurally a warm spring day and the most peaceful cut on the record.

“Well, I had just been thinking and talking a lot about. . .” Figuring out how to explain some of the more vast ideas in his brain isn’t always easy. “Well, how there’s the whole circle of humanity and at one point how woman was higher than man, ya know in the social ranking or whatever. Just how pretty much men in recent times, especially white men, have ruined the earth – totally bastardized it – enslaved everybody else, demeaned women, and have done so much destruction.”

He actually laughs when he starts saying this, like it’s a truth that’s so self-evident it’s comical. This is funny to him; his mother and him renting Thriller from a library is funny to him. The story he divulges next is delivered with straight-faced earnest.

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Walking the streets of the Village around the time he was writing “Of the Mother Again”, he came across a homeless woman selling hand-drawn mandalas. The drawings were so alluring that he had to stop and ask how much they were.

“We started talking and we got into this really deep, long conversation. Somehow the end of the world came up, the Mayan calendar thing, and she was talking about how the Mayans were in contact with her all the time and told her that the end of the world wasn’t really what we thought it would be. It wasn’t like fire would come and things would blow up and stuff.”

Well, she was right about that.

“She thought it was more like an end of the world as we know it now, and more of a rebirth of the feminine, a rebirth of woman returning to power. And she said to really pay attention to the animals and to nature, and recommended a book called Medicine Cards, which is like animal totem kind of stuff. And she’s like, ‘Pay attention to the animals around you because they’re trying to tell you, they bring messages when they come.’”

This is where your average person might snicker. James, on the other hand, was gripped by her words with no amount of derision or irony. He found matriarchal truth in what she told him. If women could “take control of things again,” he says, the world would be more peaceful and the people in it more respectful. Even the animals would have to agree that humanity could use a little more of that favorable feminine energy.

“Of the Mother Again” plays on all these ideas of religion and feminism. The chorus puts a twist on a part of the Catholic Mass which speaks of Christ ascending to Heaven to claim his seat at his father’s right hand. James sings, “Oh destiny / to be seated at the right hand / of the Mother again.” Lyrics here address the impermanence of everything, and how each person just does what they can to “make this Earth feel like home” before returning to whatever essence it is we came from — an essence James dresses in powerful womanhood.

Whether God or femininity, James sees productive value in both, making them perfect symbols for use on a debut solo album intended to provide others with a bit of forward momentum.

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The guiding forces behind Regions of Light and Sound of God can be traced deep into James’ childhood, his early bands, and right up to his accident in Iowa. Talk to the man himself, though, and he’ll continue to downplay the notion that he considered any of this. The way he tells it, the songs weren’t even his idea to begin with.

“Ya know, when a song pops into my head, it’s not like I told it to. It’s not like I said, ‘At 3:33 today, a song idea is gonna pop into my head!’ But they do.” He says songwriting is a two-part process where half is informed by a spiritual element he can’t quite explain. “It’s such a cool thing, because I truly believe it’s this way for every human on the planet. It’s half and half, or whatever that fucking stupid old cliché is. . . half inspiration, half perspiration. Because if the idea pops into my head and I don’t take the time to record it on my cellphone and then follow through and work on it and bring it into reality, then it doesn’t exist. It’s just a waste of an idea.”

Inspiration may come from “the cosmos,” but it’s his job to figure out how it manifests on the earthly plane.

“Does it need to be on guitar, or does it need to be on piano? Okay, maybe the melody’s gonna blah blah blah!” He sings a rising scale, marking the notes in the air with his hand, his delighted tone making apparent the joy and fascination he finds in his own process. “Ya know, that’s the part where I’m working, but it’s also its own thing. So I feel like it’s almost like creating a child with the universe and you send it out on its way. And it kinda takes on a life of its own.”

 Jim James: Build It Up Strong

He attributes these forces as the reason why these particular songs took on a life as a Jim James album and not another entry in My Morning Jacket’s catalogue. “They just kinda knew they wanted to be that way — and a couple jumped ship. There were a couple that were supposed to be on this record that I thought. . .” He catches himself. He didn’t think anything. “But then they felt like they were needed more on the last My Morning Jacket record.”

In particular, he mentions “The Day is Coming” and “Movin’ Away” from Circuital. Both tracks contain some of the more mellow material on that record, with lyrics about personal progression clearly stemming from a similar place as the work on Regions of Light. “Movin’ Away” even includes the words “a new life” in the refrain, a phrase that gets a whole song on this new effort.

James consistently personifies his art, saying that the songs “decide” or “tell” or “jump ship.” Even the musical style – everything from big bands to R&B filtered through the Jim James psychedelic prism – is something he attributes to the sound’s own desires.

And where the song happens doesn’t seem to be in his hands, either. Recording in his Louisville home studio was a matter of convenience, if anything. When Quaid left MMJ in 2003, they packed up their studio equipment and kept it in storage for three to five years (“I”m bad with time,” James concedes). James was looking for a new place to set up shop.

“I found the house where I live now and it just felt like it needed to be the studio. So I just started making it the studio again. And I love being there so much, that I was kinda just like, ‘Well, I just love being here and I’ve got this gear and I’ve got these songs. I’m just gonna start making the record on my own terms whenever I want.’”

When he says “the place kind of chose me,” it’s surprisingly easy to take at face value. Listening to him discuss his influences, his youth, and the people in his life, there’s an impression that his hometown is the only place this album really could have come from. If the songs needed to be about positivity and moving forward, it would have to come out of the town that had been giving him that sort of perspective his whole life. And of course he’d have to go back to people like Givan to make it.

This isn’t James reconnecting with Givan by a long shot. The two have a weekly radio program, Sir Microcosm, on WFPK Radio Louisville where they discuss “the totality of the human musical experience” and craft an accompanying mixtape of songs. But bringing Givan on to play drums on five of Regions of Light’s tracks was a specific choice.

“I can play drums, but I play them more in like this really rigid style that I can turn into a loop or something. So if I want that kind of thing, I can play drums on ‘Dear One’ and ‘Actress’ and some of those songs where I didn’t want the drums really to change or do anything, I just wanted them to have this thing. But there were a couple of songs like ‘All is Forgiven’ and ‘A New Life’ and ‘State of the Art’ that I wanted to have a more organic like performance kind of feel.”

That’s where Givan comes in. While some songs began as looped beats, others were live takes with Givan playing drums and James singing at a piano. Though mostly everything else on the record, save the strings, is James himself, he tapped a few other close pals to fill out the touring band that will be appearing at Bonnaroo and his recently announced tour, which rather appropriately kicks off in Louisville.

jim james 2 600 Jim James: Build It Up Strong

Kevin Ratterman, whom James calls “the only game in town” and “the savior of Louisville,” lent his mixing studio to the project, and will contribute his keyboard and percussion skills to bring it on the road. Dan Dwarf played drums behind James and Ben Sollee during a 2010 tour to raise awareness for Appalachian mountaintop removal, and he’ll again join James to play piano.

“These people are my friends, and deep lifelong friends at that,” James writes. “But they are also badasses and amazing at what they do, so in that sense they are perfect for making music with. I’m just lucky to be surrounded by some really amazing musicians who are also friends, and when you are starting a new journey like this, it is super special to have some old pals along for the ride.”

People and experiences like that have been driving Jim James since the beginning. Whether it was the pillar of his family, finding music with his friends in Louisville, Kermit the Frog, or God’s Man, James has invariably had something that could connect to his heart and propel him ever forward.

“It’s all wrapped up in different ways. There are lots of useful things to me that have wrapped themselves into the fiber of my being and music I make.”

As our interview ends and I stand to leave, I notice the panoramic portrait of My Morning Jacket hung on the wall behind me. James had been facing it the entire time, and never once acted like he’d noticed. Nothing in him is about being that larger-than-life persona captured in a photograph. I wonder if he really would have held the elevator for that woman going to the 14th floor. It’s such a minor moment compared to the aspirations behind Regions of Light, but I believe he would just the same. I stop halfway out the door and turn over my shoulder just as he pulls his lunch from the fridge. I wish him the best of luck at MMJ’s upcoming three-night run in Port Chester.

thatsmydream 01 sm1 Jim James: Build It Up StrongLater that night, I listen to the album again on the bus back up to Boston, thinking about all the history behind it and all the hopes James has for it. In lyrics like “Just building up the nest / and you build it up strong / and you build it up with love / and you pray for good rain,” the running themes of progression and positivity now stand out starker than ever. As “God’s Love to Deliver” fades out, I picture James listening to Marvin Gaye.

“I just always go back to [What’s Going On],” James says with tempered reverence. “You know, like I always reach for it. It’s like water to me or something, I can’t get enough of it. I always reach for it in all these different circumstances.”

Regions of Light and Sound of Man is Jim James’ latest attempt at providing some other spirit with that sort of uplifting positivity. I stream the album on my phone, lean my head against the cold window, and listen.

“That’s my dream: To make an album that would feel that useful to somebody else.”

Photography by Shervin Lainez; artwork by Cap Blackard, Steven Fiche, and Drew Litowitz.

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