Sitting pensively and half-hidden in shadows at the bar of the artfully shabby McKittrick Hotel performance space on Manhattan's far west side, Jim James resembled one of his own inspirations. In 2008, a friend gave the My Morning Jacket frontman a copy of Lynd Ward's 1929 proto-graphic novel Gods' Man. The haunting story of an artist's dark temptation — told entirely through black-and-woodcuts — shook loose a suite of songs hidden deep inside James, 34. Those songs became the bulk of the spiritually searching, synth-stitched Regions of Light and Sound of God, his debut solo album, due February 5 on ATO.
Sipping a sugar-free Red Bull, James spoke passionately about an album he calls his "most up-to-date evolution," the band that's made him famous, and how he had to travel through darkness to find the regions of light.
You've talked about Marvin Gaye's What's Going On as being a key influence on Regions of Light and Sound of God. And a couple years ago you put out an EP of George Harrison covers. Both those artists had success with songs that were suffused with a spirituality that's now rare for rock and pop. Do you feel apprehensive about putting out music in a vein that so few people are mining?
Religion and spirituality are such strange topics. There are so many ways to look at them. I just think about that stuff a lot and it's really important to me, and I feel like it's something that should be important to everybody. But it's different to everybody in different ways. There's a danger there because there's this lure to go one extreme or the other. Either people are lured into organized religion where it's like, "Believe everything we say and other religions are stupid," or people think, "I hate all religion, I'm totally going to deny all religion."
Where do you fall?
Somewhere in the middle. I feel it's each of our jobs to learn what spirituality is and to explore religion and take what you like from it all and blend them into your own tapestry of faith. It's something I can't help putting into music because I think about it all the time. I'm just trying to figure out why. I'm trying to be a better person. I'm trying to avoid making the same mistakes I've already made in my life. I'm trying to figure out the answers to questions a lot of people want to figure out. What happens when they die? Is there a God? What is God? Is God love?
This conversation turned serious very quickly.
We're in the zone! I like to think about the zone. I like to think God is that point where you are gone, like when you're making love or listening to a great record or reading a great book. These things suck us into this space where you're not thinking about your taxes or your job or all this chatter that goes on in your mind. When you escape, that's what I think makes us connected to God. But I'm always thinking about moving forward with this stuff.
How's that going?
I'm constantly winning and losing. Every time I make some progress I'll do something stupid and think, "Man, have I learned nothing at all?" Life is so challenging as it is that we find some sort of comfort in making the same mistakes again. It's like, I feel we're all given a compass. Each of us has a heart that says "This is wrong for you" or "This is right for you." But we never listen to it. Why is it so hard to listen to your heart? It's just so weird. I always wonder what life would be like if I always only did what my heart said. It would be very different. I think that's kind of the goal of spirituality, at least for me: Trying to get to a state where I feel more calm and readily follow my heart.
Do you feel like you did that for Regions of Light and Sound of God? It sounds much more production-driven than what you've done in the past. It doesn't sound like a band playing in a room.
I wasn't looking at [making the album] as accomplishing one thing over other things. I have a collection of studio gear and a studio at my house and whenever I'm not on the road I'm always working and these songs would pop in my head. And they would just tell me that they wanted me to work on them by myself and be part of the album.
How much did the equipment you had at home dictate the compositions? It seems to me that the freedom of having a bunch of equipment and no one to tell you what to do and no clock to watch might make it hard to focus on a particular destination.
I look at gear as paint. If you're a painter you want a certain brand of paint because you like how it sticks to the page better than another brand. Obviously you need to have songs that you like, because without songs it's pointless. But without the right soundscape it's also pointless. I hear records all the time that were produced in a real boring kind of normal way. You might hear a song that's a pretty good song but god the recording's just horrible. A lot of people joke about that whole era of '80s and '90s records. People are like, "Oh, I love that Bob Dylan record but it sounds like shit." Hilariously, I feel like the early '90s era of horribly shitty Celine Dion production is like the new indie rock cool, like you're not hip unless you sound like Celine Dion.
But let's get away from the technical aspects of the album. When you work with My Morning Jacket, there are built-in parameters: [drummer] Patrick [Hallahan] is going to bring a particular thing to the music; [guitarist] Carl [Broemel] is going to do his thing. How did knowing that those parameters were no longer in place change your approach to the album?
I feel like everything I've ever done as I've stepped away from My Morning Jacket has made me realize what a tight bond we have and what a tight connection we have. I think it's something that can only be had through time. So when we make a record we try to record as much of it as live as possible. We're getting the sound of us all playing at one time, whereas with me sitting there for the solo record, I'm building things more architecturally. So there are several songs where I was playing piano and singing and playing drums, then I'll go in and play bass or put strings on a track. I love playing bass, playing drums, and keyboards, but in My Morning Jacket I don't really have a need to do that. Which is fine. It's something I wanted to do.
Do you have any sense of how the album will register with My Morning Jacket fans? Do you care?
I've just realized that no matter what I do, I'm going to get both ends of the spectrum. Someone's going to call it a piece of shit, like, "Why the fuck did he step away from the band." And then someone'sgoing to go, "Oh it's so great! It's my favorite record! I'm so glad he stepped away from the band!" Someone will hate it because it's different and someone will love itbecause it's different. That's been kind of comforting to me over the years. I know somebody's going to like it.
Gods' Man is kind of a Faust-like story. What did that book unlock for you?
It's one of those things you can look at over and over because it's so beautiful. When I saw it I felt like I was electrocuted, that I knew it from a past life. I was like, "Woah, here it is again!" I read it and read it. The message of it is . . . I didn't feel like I was selling my soul to the devil or anything but there was a time a few years ago when I wasn't listening to my heart a lot and I was traveling a dark path and it resulted in a physical injury. I fell off the stage [at a 2008 MMJ show in Iowa City] and not following my heart led to me being physically injured, which was a very horrible experience and very psychologically traumatic. I thought that might be the end of me.
So you saw parallels in the book?
Well, I'm not going to tell you about what happens in the book because I think you should just experience it yourself, but there's a section where the main character is chased out of town and he goes down a dark path and he falls off a cliff. Then he's injured and laying in this field and this woman finds him and rescues him and nurses him back to health and they fall in love and all this kind of stuff. And that happened to me: I fell in love and I fell off a cliff. The book started to become this record. Music started pouring out of me. Like, the Devil's in the book — I like to call him "the dark man" because he don't look like the Devil — but the song "All Is Forgiven" on the record I wrote as his theme. I wrote that song for the end when the devil comes back to take his due. I wrote "Dear One" for when the guy meets the girl and they fall in love. "A New Life" is for when that love is consummated and they have a child together. "Know 'Til Now" I wrote for when the guy is progressing in the city.
I thought you weren't going to say what happens!
[Laughs] Sorry! You still should read it.
The album has a lot of loops and strings and horns. The music on it doesn't have the same audience cues that My Morning Jacket's music does. It's quieter, more insular. Have you figured out how you'll translate it live?
I'm really curious. I have no idea. I'm currently trying to put the band together. So far I've got three guys that are dear friends of mine from Louisville that I hang out with all the time. I'm trying to build it so I'm not walking into a total unknown, like if I hired a bunch of session musicians. I hope it works. I want to play the album from start to finish. I'm trying to wait at least two or three weeks after the album's release before I play shows so that people can connect with it more. All I've really done solo before is play guitar and sing. I want a different experience.
Has doing the solo album affected your feelings about My Morning Jacket?
It gives me this new reflection on what we have. We have something, as friends, that's been built through time and trust and performance. When I go away and do other things, my heart's like, "Man, this is really fun, but I also remember this powerful feeling I get when I play with My Morning Jacket."
So one enhances the other?
Hopefully. I think it's like this, mostly: If you’re free to run and explore, you'll always want to come back home.