My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James recently released a solo album, Eternally Even, that shows off his ability to write captivating, politically astute soul music. Live, James presents these songs (and other solo tunes and covers) with an ace band that includes members of his opening act, Twin Limb, along with bassist Seth Kauffman and drummer Dave Givan. James checked in from a recent Omaha tour stop to discuss post-election concerts, meditation and performing with Roger Waters, plus the “psychedelic peacefulness” he’s found in Las Vegas.
Apple Music described Eternally Even as your What’s Going On moment, which I thought was rather flattering. Do you agree with that assessment? Why or why not? Yeah, that’s definitely flattering (laughs). I think it would be pretty egotistical of me to agree with that. [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On is one of the greatest albums ever made. I definitely wasn’t aiming to make my What’s Going On, you know what I mean? That album is definitely deep in my DNA. I’ve probably listened to that more than maybe any other album ever in my entire life. It’s definitely a part of how I think about music. I also love its social consciousness and the way it has of bringing people together, which is something I hoped I could try and do with this record.
What other things did you want to achieve with the record? What was your intent with the music and the lyrics? Well, it’s always two-fold, because I just love making music. It’s a joy, the process itself, even instrumentally, playing and constructing music. It’s just so beautiful to me.
Lyrically, stuff that was popping out was stuff that I was feeling about the world, mostly. There is some personal stuff on the record, too, but [I was] feeling really troubled at the way things are going, and really hoping that somehow I could be a small voice or part of the discussion that would encourage peace and love and equality, and discussion of things that I think are wrong—and that I know a lot of people think are wrong—and how do we fix them. I wanted to put the record out before the election. I always thought even if I just got one person to go vote who might not have voted, that would be a success for me. Hopefully that did happen.
I wish the [election] results would’ve gone in a different direction. Now that it has happened, part of me hopes that the music can be a good release or a good outlet and still a good discussion point. It felt that way on tour. It’s a good way to dance and sing and scream and get out some of the feelings that people are feeling. Things feel really dark and scary right now, but I keep hearing that cliché in my mind that it’s darkest before the dawn. Hopefully this can wake people up and show people that they need to vote and every person really does matter. This isn’t just some illusion.
I think people have really taken it for granted, myself included. For a lot of people, life’s been pretty good. There hasn’t been true terror right in your face. You haven’t walked to the grocery store and seen a bomb fall on it, or seen unbelievable terror that so many people have to live with. I think now that things have changed, we feel the possibility that stuff could get really terrible. Hopefully, that’s going to be a wake-up call for people that they do have to turn off the TV and go vote, and try and speak up for other people, attend rallies or donate to causes they believe in, or find some way to keep humanity together.
Apart from the material, in what ways have you been approaching your solo shows differently from a My Morning Jacket show? It’s just a real different experience [energetically]. I’ve got a really great group of people out here playing the songs with me. [It’s] just so different for me. I like to sing more, just focus on singing. I still do play some guitar, but it’s just such a different thing.
Because this record is so wrapped up in the times, it’s been this strange experience. I put the record out before the election, obviously not knowing what the result was going to be. And therefore the results, and the way the world feels now, has changed how I feel about the songs, and changed how they feel coming out of my mouth. There was potential for them to feel different, maybe feel a bit celebratory or whatever. Now they’re kind of cathartic.
I feel like, at least for me, it’s a good outlet for getting out some of the sadness or anger or frustration I feel. And hopefully that could be true for anybody that came to the show, to feel some sort of release or connection with people. There’s a lot of people that feel the same way.
You’ve been cycling through some covers on this tour, by artists like Leonard Cohen and George Harrison. How have you picked those in particular? I’ve been thinking about some of the people that we’ve lost this year. And also, I’ve been thinking about trying to play some songs from where I am that night. Last night we were in St. Louis, and I played a couple of Chuck Berry songs.
I’ve just had this idea pop in my head of trying to learn a new song every day, and try and play it that night. That’s been fun for me, because it’s a little bit of a scary adventure, playing a song for the first time in front of people, and letting it just be what it is. I’ve been trying to do some of the songs a capella. It feels really fun and interesting to sing them that way.
Have you had any thoughts yet of who you might cover for Las Vegas, maybe Elvis or the Rat Pack? I’m not sure. I haven’t gotten that far yet. I’m kind of taking it day by day.
You’ve performed with Roger Waters a few times in recent years. As a musician, what’s been the most gratifying thing about that? I mean, never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen. To be around somebody like that, it’s really cool to really see that they’re just a human, but then also see their brilliance shine through in moments where you’re like, “Holy sh*t, this is Roger Waters.” This man has made so much of the music that not only myself but the entire world loves. What an honor to play with him.
And it’s cool, because we’ve played with him in these sweet acoustic ways that are pretty raw, and we haven’t had a ton of time to rehearse or anything like that. I think for him too, it’s been this really fun, loose thing. Normally, his shows are such epic, orchestrated events where every cannon blast, every light cue and every video monitor in the Wall coming down is so rehearsed and over the top and precise, and amazingly so. And I think it’s been really fun for him too to just rehearse once, put on an acoustic guitar and try and play these songs. I feel like it’s giving the songs a child-like quality, where you realize even he and his songs are just human, too. There’s a certain beautiful frailty to what we’ve done with him.
You’ve spoken a lot in recent interviews about the role meditation plays in your life. How has that affected your writing in recent years? I feel meditation really affects everything. I think when you take the time to sit in quiet every day, you have more space to live your life in. I feel like it really shows you what’s going on in your mind. You have the chattering minds that we all have, that’s saying a million things to us. It goes 100 miles an hour, and it’s talking to you about your fears, hopes and dreams, and going to the grocery store, and the car wreck you got in last week, or the bills that are late. All these chattering thoughts that are going on.
When you sit down to meditate, you really do give yourself a break from all that stuff. You try to get back to the “being alive” part of being alive. I think our minds divide us. I feel like we as a people now are so divided. And I feel like meditation is a way that you really do remember that we’re all the same, and we’re all alive in this really same way that a plant is alive or a deer’s alive or any human being is alive. We all have our differences that are beautiful and should be celebrated as well, but you realize that it really is, at the end of the day, all the same.
I can’t say enough about the benefits of meditation. I always encourage people to just start investigating it, because there are some different ways to meditate. I don’t advocate for any certain one. I do TM [transcendental meditation] myself, but I feel insight meditation is really great. I tell people, even if all you did was sit down for 20 minutes every day—or even just five minutes with no cell phone and no distractions—and just have your eyes closed and breathe, just sit there. Even that alone, we would see the world become a much better place.
You have a very long history with Las Vegas. Do any memorable moments come to mind? Oh my God, what an insane place. It’s one of the craziest places on Earth. I have enjoyed some of the wildness, but I feel like there’s also this quiet beauty that you can find in really remarkable ways. My favorite thing in Las Vegas is [the Brahma] shrine over at Caesars Palace. I think it’s a Hindu shrine, hidden in the middle of Caesars Palace. As the years have gone by, they’ve changed it or remodeled or put in a new pool or whatever, and it always takes me, like, 30 minutes to find it again. But it’s almost like the center of peace in Las Vegas, like it’s the eye of a hurricane or something. I always try to find it when I go there and spend some time there.
Like the fountains of Bellagio, or just standing and watching the lights move on the Flamingo—there’s just all these amazing ways that you can get lost, and these really psychedelic ways. Or going to old Las Vegas and feeling like you’re back in that time. I feel like there’s a really psychedelic peacefulness within all the madness.
Jim James With Twin Limb. December 10, 7 p.m., $31-$56. Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.