Anyone who is familiar with My Morning Jacket, whether catching on more recently or following since the band's debut in 1999, knows just how expansive the group's musical reach is. While early material was a reverb-drenched exercise in soulful country and southern rock, the band continued to evolve, stepping into more atmospheric, rock with Z and going in a more experimental direction with Evil Urges, touching on everything from funk to garage rock before settling into an almost psychedelic direction with Circuital.
When front man Jim James emerged with a solo album earlier this year, it proved to be something of a curiosity for some. As a principal songwriter for My Morning Jacket, it seemed almost odd that he should need another outlet. After all, he not only is the guiding force of My Morning Jacket, but he has also taken part in the indie folk-rock all-star outfit Monsters of Folk with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis (of Bright Eyes) and M. Ward (of She & Him), as well as producing an EP under the pseudonym Yim Yames in tribute to George Harrison in 2009.
So the question at hand seemed to be what could James need to express himself and how would it differ that much from My Morning Jacket? That question was answered in a single listen to his debut disc, Regions of Light and Sound of God, which displayed a more intimate, introspective tone.
It came as something of a surprise then, when witnessing Jim James' live set at SXSW, that the entire experience was magnified, as if it were packed into a cannon and blasted out in a shower of light and sound over the audience, for an experience that held a gospel intensity on one hand and burst into full on psychedelia on the other.
After spending the summer bouncing between solo shows and dates with My Morning Jacket on the Americanarama tour with Wilco and Bob Dylan, James is winding down the cycle for Regions... with one more round of dates with his solo band, which comes to Tulsa for a show at Cain's Ballroom this Thursday night before wrapping up at Telluride Blues and Brews Festival this weekend.
With a little luck, I was able to catch up with James by phone last week, just before he launched into this last round of solo dates to get his perspective on the album and the status of My Morning Jacket.
When asked how Regions of Sound and Light and God came about, James shared that "During the process of making Evil Urges, our producer, Joe Chiccarelli, gave me some great advice. He said, 'Jim, don't make any more demos...'"
"Basically, I made these really detailed demos for songs that I brought to the band," James explained. "I was trying to start stuff that I wanted to do with the band, but it all evolved and changed anyway, once everyone did their thing. So basically, instead of doing that, I took the stuff that I wanted to do, that maybe didn't fit the band, and started recording it myself.
"I really love playing every instrument I can get my hands on," he continued. "I love the studio. I love playing and expression and everything about the whole process." In essence, James went in and created something from his own singular vision, playing everything except the drums. The result is what you hear on the album: layered, intimate and introspective -- and touching on influences as far reaching as Stax soul to The Beatles to California rock and psychedelia.
But how does James go about translating that live and how did it become such an explosive experience?
"When you play live, things just come more unhinged," James said with a sly chuckle as he tried to explain it. "Live, the music is not necessarily bigger, but there's no comparison. When you see a band live, it's just bigger and louder and more overwhelming. I think when most people listen to music nowadays, they listen to it through their laptop or while at work or driving. So when you see and hear it live, it gets bigger and more intense as that devotes more attention to it."
"Plus, whether I'm playing with My Morning Jacket or doing the live solo thing, it just takes you over more. There's just a different energy to it," he added.
When discussing the differences between My Morning Jacket and his solo material and how the two feed each other, James shared that "It's been great because My Morning Jacket really encourages all of us to branch out and follow whatever we want to do, so all of us get to be really free. For me, the solo record and tour really opened up my love for My Morning Jacket that much more.
"We went on the Dylan tour right from my solo tour to My Morning Jacket and I kept jumping back and forth for different shows this summer," he said. "It was cool because it showed me just how different both projects were. The solo band is made up of a bunch of really good friends. We've all known each other for a long time and we're really tight, but both bands are a completely different thing."
In turn, I also got to speak briefly with Basia Bulat, the Canadian folk singer who will be opening the show at Cain's Ballroom on Thursday night. With her third album, Tall Tall Shadow, due to be released on October 1, early reviews have praised Bulat for her evolution as a songwriter.
When asked about here perspective on the new album, she admitted that her writing style shifted some with this album as she found herself composing more at the piano than on guitar, as she has in the past.
"I guess that changes the way I write, because when playing a guitar, even if you change tunings, you find your hands constantly going to the same place, so that opens things up a bit," she said, "but I really didn't think that much about it."
Beyond that, however, Bulat stated that it has all come naturally so far and although much has been made of it by the press, she doesn't really focus on how her writing has progressed, saying "It's hard to say where it all fits, especially when you're in the midst of it."
Bulat does readily admit, however, to being excited to be a part of this string of dates with Jim James. Not only does it give her an opportunity to start laying some groundwork in new markets before her album release, it also affords her the opportunity to see James' live show for the week of dates that she is included in.
"I'm a huge fan, and I remember playing ACL (Austin City Limits) a few years ago when I told him I really liked his work with My Morning Jacket and that he's been very inspirational," she said. And although Bulat doubts he remembers that conversation, she's definitely grateful for the opportunity to make a pass across the U.S., including a stop at Cain's Ballroom this week.
Tickets are still available for $29 at the door as Jim James wraps up his solo tour at Cain's Ballroom and prepares to enter this studio this fall to begin work on the next My Morning Jacket album. In the meantime, this is your chance to experience James in a different sound and light.
Send all comments and feedback regarding Music to email@example.com.
Share this article: