The My Morning Jacket frontman embraces aging, continues to keep technology at arm's length
Jim James celebrated his 40th birthday in 2018 by spending seven days cut off from society during a silent retreat at Spirit Rock north of San Francisco.
The setting was ideally suited to the more reflective headspace the My Morning Jacket frontman found himself in as he prepared to exit his 30s.
“In a lot of ways my life is what I thought it would be, but also in a lot of ways it's not. … You have these goals. I thought I'd have a family by now, or a longtime partner,” said James, 41. “It definitely was a big taking-stock point. But in a lot of ways I feel better in my 40s than I did in my 20s, which kind of gave me hope for growing older. This doesn't have to be all bad.”
This acceptance of aging was new to James, who, in his younger years, used to believe that he might not live to be 40, owing to the flawed romantic notion that rock stars die young. “I think a lot of artists, musicians, whatever, have this sense of tragic foreboding that you're not going to live that long because of your lifestyle,” he said.
Departing Spirit Rock, James felt a renewed peace and connection to humankind, the isolation of the setting serving as a reminder that even his loneliest days were filled with numerous small interactions, whether greeting a coffee barista or trading pleasantries with a neighbor. “Or even those interactions with your family, or other people you see on an everyday basis, where you take them for granted because they're there all the time,” James said. “It was pretty profound, to me, how much it means to have your family and friends around and to be able to communicate with them.”
This joyousness spilled over into recording sessions for Uniform Distortion, the first of two solo albums James released in 2018, a relatively freewheeling affair where the guitars are nearly as shaggy as James' ever-bearded visage. At multiple points on the recording, the singer/guitarist can be heard breaking into laughter, and the songs maintain a loose, effortless, captured-in-a-room vibe. (The second album, Uniform Clarity, followed, composed of stripped-down takes of Distortion tracks.)
“I feel like shit just sounds too good nowadays,” James said, and laughed. “Everything I hear, even if it's a rock and roll record, sounds so polished. … Music has just gotten so microscopic, where anybody's able to take a song and make it perfect in this weird, computerized way to where everything is in tune and in time. … But whenever you hear a rock record and you can tell it's been chopped and manufactured, it loses something for me. So, yeah, I wanted to do something where we literally did two or three takes of each song and then moved on, and let it be flawed.”
Lyrically, the concept of time remains at the fore, whether James is lamenting the way social media can steal years by distracting us from living in the present — “Scroll back in time through your account/Watch our face grow younger as real time runs out,” he sings on “Throwback” — or struggling with his fit in the modern era. “I'm either behind the times or ahead of the times,” he laments on “Out of Time.”
These days, James occasionally finds himself living in two distinct eras as he tours behind his most recent solo recordings — the musician visits the Southern Theatre for a concert on Friday, June 14 — while prepping an expanded edition of My Morning Jacket's 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire, which turns 20 this year.
“When we first made the record, we didn't think anybody would care. We thought we'd put it out and then I'd go back to work at Subway, and my cousin would go back to work on the farm, and then someday we'd have a good laugh about the time we got to make a record,” James said.
Spending more time focused on the past, James was also reminded how long he's had a lyrical fascination with simpler days, a theme that surfaces time and again throughout his expansive discography.
“I keep noticing I write about that a lot,” James said. “We have some Monsters of Folk songs we did five or six years ago, and we're trying to get together a release at some point, and I was listening to this song I wrote seven or eight years ago, and it seems like I'm always writing about being eaten alive by technology, or how we keep trying to find our heart and hold onto our humanity in this tidal wave of bullshit.
“At the same time, I don't see any of us, me included, putting down our phones anytime soon. You're given this crazy device, and I keep wanting to throw mine down and crush it with my foot. Then you find yourself in a different town on tour and it's, ‘I'm sure glad I have this phone so I can Google the closest local coffee shop, or where the art museum is located, and here's a map to take me there.' So my foot's an inch above the thing, and I'm fucking ready to crush it into a million pieces, but I keep not doing it, because there are still these beautiful things about it.”