Jim James has been spending time at the beach. He leaves his house in Highland Park after the first grip of morning traffic dissolves and drives down the 110 and freeways beyond until he reaches the ocean.
Which expanse of sand he arrives at is a mystery. It could be Zuma. Maybe El Matador. He may prefer the seedy bustle of Venice. There’s no way of knowing, because he won’t tell me.
On this unseasonably hot Tuesday afternoon, the multihyphenate musician and My Morning Jacket frontman is sitting at a homespun organic cafe in Highland Park (his pick), eating a salad. He wears jeans and a black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing a black ink tattoo of indecipherable design on his right shoulder. Two pairs of sunglasses dangle from his V-neck. His shock of honey-brown hair is combed back neatly. James could easily pass for just another local if you didn’t know that he’s also one of the most revered rock stars of a generation.
With his recent move to Los Angeles and the Nov. 4 release of his second solo LP, Eternally Even, James is embodying both roles, however reluctantly. He’s quick to dismiss notions of himself as a musical icon, saying he doesn’t feel he fits the archetype. While millions would disagree, in L.A. he has found a place that fosters both his ambitions and his mission to stay mysterious.
“The world of playing onstage or whatever and then my personal life, those things are very separate,” James, 38, says between bites of kale and prosciutto. “If I’m here at home, I don’t think about playing onstage. And if I’m playing onstage I’m not thinking about being at home.”
Lately, James has been simultaneously prepping for the album’s release and nesting in his new spot. (“Every time you move it’s just that stupid shit, like, ‘I want to eat some yogurt. Fuck, I don’t have any spoons.’ ‘I think I’ll sit down on the couch. Oh shit, there’s no couch.’”) Los Angeles might seem like an unlikely home for the Louisville native, as he and My Morning Jacket have cultivated a Mason-Dixon line persona since the release of their 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire.
James had “a whole ‘nother Jacket record pop out in my head” while working on his solo album
In the 17 years since, the group have established themselves as one of the most forceful and enduring live acts in the game, carrying the rock & roll torch forward alongside a dwindling peer group that includes Jack White and Wilco. The five-man band have headlined festivals around the world (and created their own) with a take-no-prisoners guitar-rock fury that is equal parts jam band, funk act and psychedelic freakout. A slipstream of legendary sets (including multiple Bonnaroos and an Oregon Trail–themed New Year's Eve show in San Francisco) define their history, with fans who were there still getting looks of religious fanaticism in their eyes when describing the experiences.
Through the years, James has delved into side projects including the 2009-era indie rock super-group Monsters of Folk and the recently released Dylan-inspired album The New Basement Tapes, on which he collaborated with T Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello, among others. His 2013 debut solo LP, Regions of Light and Sound of God, was inspired by a 1929 graphic novel and extenuated the search-for-the-meaning-of-life themes laid out in much of the MMJ catalog.
My Morning Jacket’s seventh studio album, The Waterfall, was released in 2015. James had “a whole ‘nother Jacket record pop out in my head” while working on Eternally Even. The band will record it this April. It will be their first album made entirely in Los Angeles.
James, who looks younger in person, is acclimating well to a city he loves for its limitlessness. He's been exploring neighborhoods by foot and taking road trips to the mystic California triumvirate of Joshua Tree, Yosemite (“talk about mind-blowing”) and San Francisco. He estimates that before moving here, he spent two accumulated years in Los Angeles working on music. When he decided to leave Louisville in search of some fresh energy, L.A. was thus a natural choice. (His already established friend network includes MMJ keyboardist Bo Koster, who has called L.A. home for nearly two decades and lives nearby in Highland Park.)
Upon arrival, James first rented a place on the edge of a mountain in Montecito Heights. (“Over there,” he says, pointing out the restaurant window during lunch.) Here he had a view of downtown and neighbors in the two tortoises that lived on the premises. It was in a makeshift studio erected in the landlord’s storage trailer that James picked up work on the solo album he started back in Kentucky.
“It was just like wahhh,” he says, waving his hands around his head, of the inspiration driving these storage trailer sessions. “There was all this stuff coming out, all of these words and thoughts and ideas. … I finished the record in a couple weeks. I thought it would take longer.”
Elements of Eternally Even were rooted in L.A. even before James became a resident. The LP’s initial inspiration came when bits of a movie soundtrack he had worked on came on his iPod Shuffle while he was out taking a walk. (“I really love walking. That’s a big part of my life and one of my favorite things to do, and the walking around here is so great.”) The studio had rejected the soundtrack — he declines to name the movie but describes it as “medium budget” — and it thus became the springboard for the new album.
A Western film vibe is indeed woven into tracks like “Same Old Lie,” which preaches ideas of personal efficacy (“If you don't vote it's on you not me”) before building to a Morricone-inspired crescendo. Lyrics across the album explore ideas of aging, intimacy, love and the loss of it, with these themes steeped in smoldering bass lines, drone-y ambient effects, orchestral flourishes and saxophone. James gets nostalgic talking about the days when he used to mow lawns to make money to buy cassette tapes, and his predilection for analog is programmed right into the vinyl scratches on the slow-burn bedroom jam “The World’s Smiling Now.”
Backed by a group of Louisville musicians, James is touring the album in the United States through mid-December. He admits he feels like another person completely while onstage. Who that person might be is less clear.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s me. It’s another side of me. I have to put a very real wall up between day-to-day me and stage me, for so many reasons.”
So not being disciplined about this differentiation between one's personal self and famous self can make life confusing and painful?
“It can. Take it from me. It’s weird being a performer,” he says. “By the very nature of what I do, I have to go in public to play songs, which is such a weird thing to think about, but it also feels so good. I also love going to see shows, obviously, and when I’m seeing a show I realize that what I’m trying to do onstage is just trying to be a part of that beautiful circle. I try to not let it be about my ego or …”
He pauses, doing the delicate conversational dance of trying not to reveal too much.
“I just don’t like to think of me as separate from the crowd. I don’t like to think that they’re here for this person; it’s the music. But a weird side product of all that is that people know me or whatever. That’s why I try to keep that heavy line, because I want my friends and the love in my life — whether it’s family or romantic or friendship — I want people to love me because they love me, not because I play music or shows.”
As one of the last bands to slip into public consciousness before the rise of the internet, My Morning Jacket owes less to social media than more modern groups, and James himself uses Twitter and Instagram only to release info about his projects and to post artsy photos in which he rarely appears. But if you want to know what’s really on his mind, it’s all right there on the album. With Eternally Even, James builds a bridge between his interior life and the state of the culture, voicing frustrations about climate change, Trump’s “terrible spell on humanity” and how love and speaking up for what you believe in are antidotes to our current cultural shitstorm.
“In the past maybe I would be more focused on my loneliness or my physical dilemmas, or love or whatever,” he says of these themes. “I feel like the world has gone to such a fever pitch, that gets into what I’m thinking and it comes out in the music.”
He continues: “I feel like we as humans have a responsibility to speak up for fairness, because there’s so much hate and negativity. We have a duty to broadcast as much love and peace as we can. And I feel like that’s a big part of this record. I’m not saying I have the answers; I’m not saying that I know how to solve anything, but I’m trying to be a force of good.”
If you really want to understand Jim James, that’s probably all you need to know.
Jim James plays at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday, Dec. 9. More info.