“Alexa, play Jim James.” The resulting catalog is so varied that in the age of streaming, absent of context about the My Morning Jacket (MMJ) singer’s diverse solo career, a new listener might wonder if the algorithm was misfiring.
James’ first independent project, 2009’s Tribute To, is a reverb-heavy, relaxed, and straightforward tribute to George Harrison. In 2013, Regions of Light and Sound of God melded James’ skill for crafting acoustic songs with his growing interest in production — it’s an album with both banjos and beats. Eternally Even, in 2016 (the year after MMJ’s last release, The Waterfall), built an entire album around a thematic bass riff and sound — polished and smooth, songs like “Here in Spirit” and “Hide in Plain Sight” amassed stream numbers to rival MMJ.
The song “The World’s Smiling Now” sounds like an immediate classic, or a silky remake of a ’60s soul tune, but it’s pure James. It’s at that point that fans may have started to wonder which project commanded James’ priorities. He’s now released four full-length solo albums since The Waterfall, including 2017’s Tribute to 2, a lounge singer-style take on tunes like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
James’ latest is a set of songs recorded independently in two vastly different styles. Uniform Distortion is pure rock ‘n’ roll on songs like “You Get to Rome,” with James fronting a power trio with Seth Kauffman (bass) and Dave Givan (drums). It’s loud and crunchy, garnering comparisons to T. Rex, the Replacements, and the Smithereens. He followed that release with Uniform Clarity, a stripped-down solo acoustic take on the same songs.
In between touring Europe as a solo act and kicking off a U.S. run with his power trio plus one (guitarist/producer Kevin Ratterman), City Paper caught up with James on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.
CP: Your tour kicks off in Charleston. I imagine there’s no reason for that other than the logistics of booking, but it’s cool to get to see you come in with fresh legs.
JJ: The spirit of this tour is going to be really fun, I think. I did Europe just me and an acoustic. This is going to be pretty much the polar opposite. This is going to be super rock and roll.
CP: When you recorded Uniform Distortion, did you do Uniform Clarity at the same time, or is that something you came back to after it had been out awhile?
JJ: I had already recorded Uniform Distortion. The album cover is a distorted version of a picture, and we were talking about that and one of my managers had an idea that it would be cool if we released something called Uniform Clarity where the cover was a clear picture of the original image, and the album wasn’t distorted like Uniform Distortion. I wanted to do a more document-style of recording where it’s just a person and a guitar in a room that was like, flawed in a certain way but clear in a certain way, just like in the old days of recording when you couldn’t do anything to fix the recording, where you literally went in and just sang into the horn and it captured it on a cylinder or a wire recording and that was it.
CP: There are moments where I can hear you chuckling mid-song, or you sing a loud note that distorts the mic a little bit. You obviously left those in there for a reason.
JJ: You know, it just feels fun, and that’s part of it. A lot of times, people tend to suck all the fun out of albums because they feel like they need to be professional or they feel certain things are acceptable or not acceptable. That was kind of the spirit of it, you know: let’s not fuck with this too much. Let’s have fun and play the thing two or three times and let’s move on. Things like the laughing, I really just enjoy hearing that because we had so much fun doing it, so I thought it would make the listener laugh or smile.
CP: You’ve also made sure that nobody will ever say that all Jim James songs sound the same.
JJ: Music is so vast. There’s so much music in the world, and I just love it so much. I’m so inspired by so many different kinds of music. I try to remind myself of that all the time when I’m feeling stressed out or bogged down. The whole reason I got into music is to have fun, because school wasn’t fun for me and the world wasn’t fun for me and life was really difficult for me, and the only relief I could find as a kid was through music. So that’s always been goal No. 1 for me, above everything, is that it’s fun.
CP: During an interview after Eternally Even, you said that your goal for the album was “to reach a prolonged period of contented satisfaction.” Have you achieved that in the last few years?
JJ: No. Nope. I mean, I’ve had periods of momentary satisfaction. I just feel like life is always changing. I used to have this illusion that I would one day reach a place where I was satisfied and content and happy, but I think it’s more of a day-to-day thing. Every day is a battle, not in a negative way. We wake up and walk out onto the battlefield, and some days are great, some days are beautiful, and some days are horrific. I try to be grateful for the good days and just make it through the bad ones.
CP: You’ve been public about meditation and promoted it at events. Is it still a daily part of your life?
JJ: I’ve struggled with meditation for the last year or so. I was really good with it for years and years, but then I got to a point where I struggled, because I’m a very inward person, and I felt like meditation was taking me too far inward. I’ve tried messing around with other types of meditation that take you more out of your head and focus on your body and breathing more, so I guess I’m in a new era of experimenting. I’ve taken silent retreats and done different ceremonies. I feel like I’m searching again, but I do encourage meditation practice for everyone. When you find the meditation that’s right for you, it does create more space in your life. I think it improves your relationships and your creativity. It really improves everything in your life.
CP: As a writer to a songwriter, I imagine that when you have a clear mind, you are listening more for the ideas that come to you, whether it’s a melody or a lyric. But part of the idea of the meditation is to literally think about nothing.
JJ: Yeah, that part’s funny. Sometimes I’ll be meditating and a song will pop into my mind and I’ll want to stop and go record or whatever. There are really no rules. Songs come to me in the middle of chaos and when I’ve been sober for months and really clean and when I’m super fucked up and depressed. There are no rules, but I do feel like meditating, overall, zooms you out from it all and creates more space with everything, so it’s an overall positive.
CP: Two quick questions to wrap up. You produced the new album for your opening band, Amo Amo. How did you first hear them?
JJ: I met them several years ago when I moved to L.A., and I was awestruck by their ability to play and improv. They’re a really unique band that are all individually creatve and supremely artistic, and when they get together, they do this thing that blows people’s minds.
CP: Finally, is Yim Yames in retirement, or could he make a comeback?
JJ: That whole Yim Yames thing. I was trying to be funny and it just created more of a headache for me. It’s stupid and that was kind of the goal, but I realized I kinda fucked myself because I didn’t think people would want to talk about it as much as they did. So I don’t think you’ll ever see that again.
CP: I imagine that with multiple names, it’s difficult to consolidate your catalog in places like Spotify.
JJ: That was a bitch, exactly. I was like, ‘Can we get this fucking Yim Yames thing moved over to Jim James so people can find it?’ It was so stupid. I kind of kick myself for that but I don’t regret it. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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