“I was just trying to be funny, but a lot of people don’t like it when you’re trying to be funny.” Jim James released his first solo record, Regions of Light and Sound of God, earlier this week, and I enquire as to why he chose to bring it out under his own name, rather than the Yim Yames moniker he’d used for past individual endeavours. “I got tired of people taking it the wrong way. I thought it was hilarious, though.”
It might well be that there really is nothing more to the reversion to being plain old Jim James, but the reasons for his decision to add ‘solo artist’ to ‘failed comedian’ on his CV are less straightforward. The new record is the culmination of a four-year period of what has effectively amounted to rebirth for the My Morning Jacket frontman; in his own words, he’s moved “out of the darkness and into the light.”
Regions of Light was heavily inspired by God’s Man, a graphic novel by Lynd Ward – although James doesn’t see it that way. “It’s not really like a graphic novel to me,” he says, after asking me if I’d ‘seen’ the book, as opposed to having read it. “it’s wordless, but it sucks you in the way a book would. It’s like looking at a series of paintings that have this central narrative linking them together; I approached the record if I was trying to score a film, except that I was trying to ‘score’ God’s Man. I thought a lot about what it would be like to make it into a film.”
The book’s themes struck a profound chord with James, who can trace a series of events in his own life along similar lines to those followed by the story’s protagonist. He was seriously injured back in 2008, when he fell off stage between songs in Iowa City: “It was just a very dark time in my life; I spent a while not really wanting to look to the future,” he recalls. “It was pretty horrible, but I found that a lot of the darkness in God’s Man resonated with me; the main character in the book falls off a cliff and is badly injured, like I was, but eventually goes on to be rescued from this dark place when he falls in love. The same thing happened to me, so I guess the fact that that story has shaped the record makes the songs really personal.”
God’s Man also deals with markedly Faustian themes, with the central figure selling his soul for short-term gain, but while James concedes that there are obvious parallels to be drawn between such ideas and the modern day music industry, he didn’t find them personally relevant. “I think any artist from any time period is going to come up against that kind of struggle, and you see it so often these days that you can’t really not think about it. I couldn’t relate to that myself, because I don’t feel like I’ve ever sold my soul or done anything fucked up to try to further my career.”
Lyrically speaking, it’s not difficult to see how notions of spirituality have made their mark on Regions of Light; listening to the record left me wondering if James was in any way religious. “I’m certainly very spiritual,” he says, “but I’ve never subscribed to any one religion. I feel like I’ve always been searching for something in that regard; I definitely think there’s some power in the universe I can’t understand.”
Even if James’ interest in spirituality is something that predates the personal awakening that his stage accident led to, the more sedate, settled way of life he’s embraced more recently is something that’s clearly rubbed off on the record. He’s previously cited long walks as being responsible for bringing forth some of the album’s ideas: “It’s so simple, but it’s amazing how things can blossom out of just getting outside. Just the motion in itself seems to be enough to stir up ideas in me.” The abundance of creative concepts that seemed to stem from James’ period of post-fall recuperation inspired him to think about turning his previously demo-based home recordings into something more ambitious.
“I’ve always recorded at home on and off, usually on breaks from the road with the band,” he says, “but I decided that after we finished touring the last record [Circuital] that I wanted to get down to actually approaching the work I was doing at home in a more focused manner; I wanted to be writing songs right off the bat, rather than just demos that would eventually become My Morning Jacket songs. I got a bunch of recording equipment that I liked and felt comfortable with, and started turning the ideas I’d come up with from reading the book into something that I knew I wanted to release.”
There’s an obvious disconnect between the idea of James working on simple recordings alone at home and the enormously diverse, complex sound that My Morning Jacket have pioneered over more than a decade; making Regions of Light, I suggest, must have made for a very different experience. “Definitely. You know, with My Morning Jacket, it’s always been about celebrating the live experience, we’ve always gone with that when we’ve been writing and recording. The way we write songs for that band is pretty unpredictable; an eight-minute epic can come out of a thirty second demo clip I’ve recorded onto my cellphone. Doing everything by myself probably seems a little strange compared to the band, but I’ve been doing it for so long - it’s only now that I finally felt ready to actually come up with my own body of work.” I spoke to James ahead of his first live show in support of the album, in Nashville, Tennessee – are the solo gigs going to be a more laidback experience than the full band performances he’s used to? “I don’t know,” he laughs, “I’m not sure I know how to dial down that intensity onstage.”
James is looking to the future with more optimism than ever before at this point, and he spoke with considerable enthusiasm on the topic of new material from both My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk, the supergroup he formed with Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and M. Ward. “I’ve already got some stuff for My Morning Jacket a lot of ideas. I’m gonna meet up with those guys in the fall, and we’ll go right into working on the next record. We’ve actually already started making another album for Monsters of Folk, but it’s so difficult to make the timing work with those guys; we’ll definitely get something finished, but it’s probably a while off at this point. I mean, at some stage I’m gonna want some time off from music full stop, too – I’m trying to keep everything in balance.”
I couldn’t let James off the line without asking about the much-fabled songs he’d allegedly written for the recent Muppets film. “Oh man,” he laughs, “Muppet heartbreak. We were supposed to do something for The Muppet Show first, for the Electric Mayhem band, and it didn’t come together, so it ended up on Circuital instead. Then I was gonna write some stuff for the movie that came out, but the guy at Disney who had the idea got fired. I’ve had my heart broken by the Muppets twice.” He pauses. “But I guess life goes on, right?”
Regions Of Light And Sound Of God is avaiabe now through V2.