I was privileged to interview My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James last week for the Santa Barbara Independent. Giddy from my brief convo with one of my heroes, I was inspired to write not one, but two variations for the weekly newspaper to choose from. HERE is the one they published, below is the other. I’m happy with both, but extra fond of the one posted here because after so many years toiling in VCReporter’s paragraph factory, to be inspired was a welcome change.
“If you could just watch the clock, I try not to jump in.”
I can’t help but wonder if the publicist is this strict to protect her client or the interviewer. Based on my gratuitous consumption of Jim James interviews I might guess the latter: James has a lot to say. Regardless, I must condense my encyclopedic curiosity (read: fan obsession) into 15 60-second increments. I give myself a list of admonitions: Don’t get too personal; don’t mention Kurt Cobain; try not to sound like the lead actress in Valley Girl; don’t propose marriage. I ask my friends if I should use my sexy voice.
I’ve been a fan of My Morning Jacket for about six years but only recently fell hard for its frontman James Edward Olliges, Jr. AKA Yim Yames. I’m not sure whether it’s his righteous pipes and his deep lyrical expositions, or the way he overemphasizes the last consonant of certain words in his songs and his subtle Southern accent that have me aflutter, but I need to switch on the A/C.
My fascination may have something to do with his extreme authenticity. For a rock star, he’s so not a rock star. He comes off as such an average and approachable guy, utterly unconcerned with image and so unapologetically human that as you delve into his catalog you begin to understand why you can’t find a cozy niche for his musical polygamy. Transcendental meditation and Pilates are his current drugs of choice. He enjoys solitude and plays a handful of instruments in addition to a mean guitar. He’s genuinely quirky and a spiritual seeker who often mentions God when discussing indefinable beauty. Both awkward and adorable, when he’s particularly moved, he glides to and fro across the stage like a child in socks on a polished wood floor, invoking Tom Cruise in Risky Business, and somehow it’s sexy.
Three years since his solo debut “Regions of Light and Sound of God” and after being invited to play the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco by his good friend and collaborator Conor Oberst, James is using the opportunity to introduce material from his latest record “Eternally Even” to audiences on the West Coast.
“Hello” he says softly. My palms sweating I can only hope he can’t hear me breathing. James receives my schoolgirl crushing as I would expect; with humor and grace. I may never know how many times his heart’s been broken, if he’s ever tried lucid dreaming or who “Actress” is about. Fifteen minutes are not enough to swim to the deep end, but together we make it work. And the publicist never has to jump in.
How is Jim James the solo artist different from the frontman for My Morning Jacket?
I don’t know. I don’t think about it too much. I just like to work on music by myself in studio and that’s where making solo records came from. It’s been a fun experience to put together a different band. I feel like when you try to do as many different projects as you can, it kind of really opens up your mind. For me, it opens up my mind to The Jacket and makes me kind of re-fall in love with those guys and what we do, just by doing something else cause it keeps it fresh. The solo band I have is really special and great friends of mine so it’s also great to spend time with them. It’s a thing that just kind of happens.
So it’s not necessarily that you’re expressing different identities?
In a way I am. I guess I feel like a different person on both of those stages. There’s definitely something different about me at a solo show then a Jacket show, for sure, but I don’t know if I could say what that is.
For KCRW’s Apogee performance you wore a brooch that a fan made you. You explained to the interviewer the symbolism of the piece and it was very touching. Do you share a special connection with your fans?
I feel like there’s a really beautiful thing that happens between fans of music and the people playing. I’ve been on both sides. It’s like you can’t have one without the other. That’s the beautiful thing about live music, that human connection you get. I feel like we live in an increasingly isolated world where we’re online or at our job or at our house and we don’t come into contact with people, and I think going to live music concerts is one of the best ways to connect with people. You can’t perform without the audience, and I love making music by myself and in the studio, too, but there’s something about that shared experience of the giving of the energy, [between] the audience and the performer.
As one of the more prolific artists around, do you ever feel creatively depleted? How do you replenish?
Oh, definitely. Yeah, I go through phases where I wonder if I’ll ever write another song again. I think most people feel that way. I think it’s part of the cycle of life. It’s like anything else. You fall in love and then you fall out of love or you love your job then you hate your job, you feel well, you feel sick. I feel like songwriting is just like that. You can’t control it, really. You can’t force yourself to fall in love and you can’t control when you fall out of love, sometimes. There are definitely times when I feel like I’ve fallen out of love with what I’m doing, and I don’t know what’s going on or there are no songs coming to me but then, knock on wood, I just hope that it will come back around again and it always has. I think that doing as many different things as I can kind of keeps stoking that fire. When I get to to do the solo stuff I really enjoy it and it makes me miss doing The Jacket stuff so it fuels the fire for The Jacket stuff and vice/versa. It’s like it kind of turns the mirror on the other things you do and inspires you.
You’re bringing Twin Limb from your hometown on tour with you. Do you think it’s important for people to support and nourish their local music scenes?
Oh my God yes, it’s one of the most important things cause we’re all part of some local music scene. There are bands that tour all over the world but they also come from a local scene. Here in Louisville there’s such an amazing local scene of musicians and I feel like Twin Limb is really a special and unique band. It’ll be really cool cause they’re going to open the show and then they are also in my band. We will combine forces.
The song State of the Art has an almost prophetic quality to it. Sort of like a warning. Did you mean it that way?
In a way, yeah. The heart of the song is talking about trying to be happy with the things that technology can’t affect, and trying to be happy with the love in your life and the family around you. We never know what’s gonna happen and if we keep disrespecting the earth and disrespecting each other we could see real chaos, we could see a loss of power and crazy things like the ocean swallowing up places it shouldn’t be swallowing up because of global warming. You have to try to be really good with yourself and good with your family and love the things that are the most important.
Jim James will perform at the Ventura Theater on Thursday, Sept. 29. For tickets, visit http://www.venturatheater.net.