He is one of the most important voices in music in the 21st century so far.
On Sept. 4, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and conductor Teddy Abrams will team up for the NSO Pops’ “The Order of Nature: A Song Cycle” at the Kennedy Center.
“We always wanted to do something together,” James told WTOP. “About two years ago, we started working on this thing. I wrote some new songs for it, I picked a couple cover songs I thought went with it, then included a couple of my existing songs to create this nine-song piece. … Then Teddy orchestrated and arranged them. … Teddy is the conductor of the Louisville Orchestra. … This with you guys is the first performance outside of Louisville that we’re doing the piece.”
All nine songs, including “Here in Spirit,” speak to a common human theme.
“The theme of the whole piece is trying to understand why human beings have this thing called hatred,” James said. “Hatred isn’t something you find in nature. You might find a tiger kill its prey, but there’s not this aspect of hatred. Hatred amongst humans is such a terrible thing that we’re all constantly trying to figure out how to deal with. How do we live in a more peaceful world, not only with humans but the planet? It feels like we’re destroying the planet and each other, so this is basically a meditation on that and trying to figure out how to change it.”
Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1978, James was always fascinated by music.
“I have just always loved music,” James said. “I remember being a little kid and seeing ‘The Muppet Show’ or watching cartoons and just being really moved by the music aspect. Ever since I can remember I was interested in music, then I started on the guitar and just played anything that I could get my hands on.”
Which bands did he dig in his formative years?
“I came up when grunge was hitting the airwaves pretty big,” James said. “All those bands were really good at turning people onto the music that inspired them, so I learned about Neil Young and Bob Dylan and artists like that. But also through radio, I really loved Motown as a kid. That music has always been a big part of what inspires me. I was lucky to grow up in a period where most of the music that just happened to be on the radio was actually really great music.”
Finally in 1998, he formed My Morning Jacket alongside his cousin Johnny Quaid (guitar), Tom Blankenship (bass) and J. Glenn (drums).
“My Morning Jacket started out with me just doing open-mic-night acoustic by myself,” James said. “Then my cousin John dug what I was doing and would play with me occasionally. He had a small studio set up on his grandparents’ farm that he’d let me come record there. We just had so much fun playing and recording together that it just grew into a band. It was really just a natural thing.”
This early riffing became their debut album “The Tennessee Fire” (1999).
“It’s the 20th anniversary of ‘The Tennessee Fire,’ so we just played a show at the Capitol Theatre in New York where we played that album in its entirety,” James said. “That was the first record that came out and it’s crazy that it’s just hitting the 20th anniversary of it. That’s a really wild mile marker to think of. It’s just crazy.”
They followed with their second album “At Dawn” (2001).
“We were still out in Shelbyville, Kentucky on the farm recording,” James said. “It’s still a very homemade record, just us enjoying the studio and learning how things work. We had a very simple studio that was all tape and not much gear or anything, but we loved using the space. Being out in the middle of nowhere was really great because we could play as loud as we wanted and use different spaces for different sounds like grain silos and garages and different things.”
Their third album, “It Still Moves” (2003), marked a turning point.
“That’s the last record we did on our own out on the farm,” James said. “That was a really pivotal record because my cousin John and our keyboard player Danny [Cash] left the band after we toured some for that record. We were just killing ourselves touring and they decided that wasn’t the lifestyle they wanted. So, Carl [Broemel] and Bo [Koster] came in, who have been in the band touring for about 15 years now. That kind of cemented what the band really is in my mind because that’s been the most consistent and reliable band that we were trying to find.”
Complete with a new lineup, the band delivered their fourth album “Z” (2005).
“‘Z’ was really cool because that was the first record we got to make with Carl and Bo,” James said. “We went out to this place called The Lair, which was a studio in upstate New York. It was like being in ‘The Shining.’ … You’re on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. You’re trapped there, but it was really fun and really great times enjoying that new adventure together.”
Their fifth album “Evil Urges” (2008) was their biggest yet with the hit single “I’m Amazed,” which the band performed on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
“That one we wanted to take a little different approach, so we recorded it in the middle of Manhattan in Hell’s Kitchen in the studio Avatar,” James said. “That was a really cool and completely new way of working for us. We were living in the city, working in the city and just feeling that energy. That’s one of the things I like about recording, just trying to go to different environments, go to different places and seeing how that environment affects the music.”
You could hear the juxtaposition of rural and urban environments on their next two albums, “Circuital” (2011) and “The Waterfall” (2015).
“‘Circuital’ we recorded in an old church gymnasium in Louisville, [while] ‘The Waterfall’ we went to a studio in Stinson Beach, California, a really cool place that sits on a cliff by the ocean,” James said. “There’s a certain peace you get from going out in the middle of nowhere, but then you have to counter that by going into the city. I have to flip-flop between records. You’re like, ‘I don’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere anymore, I want to be amongst people,’ then you make a record amongst people and you’re like, ‘I gotta get away from people!'”
Eventually, James ventured out on his own with a string of solo albums, including “Tribute To” (2009), “New Multitudes” (2012), “Regions of Light and Sound of God” (2013), “Eternally Even” (2016), “Tribute To 2” (2017), “Uniform Distortion” (2018) and “Uniform Clarity” (2018).
“I just love making music at home by myself,” James said. “The solo records are just an extension of me always being in the studio by myself. Also, enjoying making records with other people. I have so many friends I enjoy making records with and collaborating with, so I never want to limit myself in my collaborations. I enjoy the band and playing with those guys, but it’s so fun to collaborate with a wide range of people, so that’s what I enjoy doing through the solo albums.”
Which brings us to his latest project, “The Order of Nature: A Song Cycle,” which will become a live album in October after the concert hits the Kennedy Center.
“This concert is the launch of the album,” James said. “It’s really great and thrilling for me to get to sing with the orchestra and it’s really cool just to be a singer. I’m not playing guitar or any other instrument; I’m just trying to channel my inner Edith Piaf and just be a singer in front of an orchestra.”
Still, more than branching out creatively, he is trying to be a healing force.
“We’re trying to spend a message of peace, love, acceptance and equality,” James said. “We’re trying discuss the nature of the world right now, which feels so troubling for so many people. We’re trying to be a uniting force and a healing force in the world. That’s the most important thing to us about the whole thing.”
Hear our full conversation with James James below:
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