“You can’t make a living now, as a musician, without touring,” says Jim James, bleakly. It’s a reality that’s almost killed the My Morning Jacket frontman on three separate occasions throughout the band’s 20 year (and live show-heavy) tenure. Most recently, James spent the majority of the sessions for his outfit’s excellent 2015 LP, The Waterfall, flat on his back, bedridden with a herniated disc.
“It’s been a real challenge for me,” he continues. “I didn’t know how to say no for too long. It put me in the hospital. You just feel this pressure. It was really illustrated profoundly in the Grateful Dead documentary, watching Jerry Garcia having to carry that whole production, turning to heroin to numb the pain. In hindsight, anybody would say, ‘Gee, I wish we would have talked to him more and gotten more of a balance.’ I try to remember that, because you get so deep into it and you feel like you can’t walk away because if you do, everybody loses their life.”
The only option, he finally felt, was to take the first extended break of MMJ’s career. And while the singer still released collections under his own name—2017’s Eternally Even and 2019’s The Order of Nature—the Jacket’s hiatus was nearing the five-year mark when they finally all got together for four shows in 2019. “[They] were so transcendental for us all,” James says. “We loved it and realized what we had been missing. It’s this feeling of joy and communion that you have with your fellow musicians and the audience.”
A big return in 2020 became to take shape in the form of a new album as well as a full fall calendar of concerts, though both of those are now on hold as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, shuttering venues across the country. An alternative arrived, as it were, by accident this spring as James set out for a stroll. “I like to walk with my iTunes on shuffle quite a bit and ‘Spinning My Wheels’ came on,” he explains, referencing a song the group recorded during The Waterfall sessions. James has often referenced leftover fare from that time period, teasing the potential release of a companion LP.
“I was feeling sad because My Morning Jacket had just ramped back up,” he continues, “and then, obviously, the pandemic came and crushed that for everybody. But when the song popped up I was like, ‘Okay, this is a way we can be not helpless and do something cool and release the second half of [The Waterfall].’” In July, The Waterfall II debuted on streaming platforms to positive reviews; a physical release follows this month.
Esquire caught up with the frontman between the two releases for a wide-ranging conversation about the tragedy of Breonna Taylor’s murder in James’s hometown, the need for mercy in our world—and what it will take to get them back on stage.
Esquire: As you look at your empty tour calendar, what’s the number one question mark staring back at you: Will people come back to concerts? Will venues survive? What will happen to festivals?
Jim James: All of those questions are legitimate. I wish there was more mercy in this world. So few people control all of the money and everyone else is left hung out to dry. For me personally, I am not going to play shows unless there is some measure in place for people who don’t have any money, who have lost their jobs, to get into these shows. If people can’t afford to pay rent, they don’t have any health insurance…it’s like, how can we expect people to come pay normal ticket price for a show?
How would that work?
We’re going to have to get creative. Maybe half the room is $5 tickets, or half the room is free, for people who need. Or we can give the option, for those who are doing fine, financially, to buy and donate a ticket for somebody else when they buy their own.
The other side of that is, what’s going to be left when we start touring again in terms of clubs? What venues are going to be lost? Again, I just wish there was more mercy from our government, or people like Jeff Bezos. Our lives don’t revolve around his decisions, but he’s the perfect metaphor for our ruthless capitalist system that has gone totally awry. I feel like we’re on a pivot, there’s come to be some mercy that comes back to life.
Do you feel like we are in a moment of change? Are you optimistic that all the conversations we are having on a national level are actually going to change the way we operate and who we put in power?
I do feel optimistic. The spirit of the people is strong, and there’s this really beautiful new swell of education of people—people saying, ‘We need to talk seriously about the history of this country. This country was built by slave labor on stolen land, how do we make that right?’ I just pray that people couple all of that action that’s been happening with all of the protests and couple it with voting in November. If you don’t vote, you don’t get the power back, and then a lot of this stuff isn’t going to go anywhere.
2020 has made us all ask ourselves what our own responsibilities are in this moment, from educating ourselves to using our platforms more wisely. It seems like you feel that as someone with a fanbase and a metaphorical microphone, that you think you should be a part of this conversation, loudly.
Oh, absolutely. When people ask me about [what they should do], I just try to tell them to follow their heart, see what feels right, but to just do something. The most important thing that any of us can do is to educate ourselves. There is this illusion with social media that just because you’re posting, you’re “doing something,” and if you’re not posting, you’re not doing enough. But it’s really just a matter of all of us looking into our own hearts and showing up as much as we can. But there is no excuse from anybody to not be doing anything.
You’ve been vocal in the calls for arrests in the wake of the Breonna Taylor murder, which happened in your home state of Kentucky.
It is heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. Justice has not been served. Each day, I hope I am going to wake up and read the headlines that the officers are finally charged. And every day, it’s just another ball of mystery. It’s all wrapped up in Daniel Cameron’s office and everybody passes the buck. It makes you want to scream, because at the end of the discussion, it’s a woman who was murdered in her home while she slept. How much simpler can it get? Who, from any walk of life or background or place in the world, is okay with somebody being murdered in their own home while they sleep? In Louisville, the city cannot rest. There is just this sustained sense of agony.
The sustained sense of agony makes me think, actually, of a song on this album: “Magic Bullet.” It’s obviously about a school shooting and, terribly, in the five years since you actually recorded it, it’s remained relevant.
It’s so sad. If America does not sit down and recognize its mistakes and its arrogance, it’s doomed to fail. We’re all tied up in this sense of pride at being able to carry machine guns or not wear masks when it’s the safe thing to do and all of these things that people consider “their freedoms,” but they’re totally irresponsible. That’s the sickness of capitalism, not caring for your fellow man, and the sickness of this “rugged individualism.”
Of course, with the gun violence, if these people were truly responsible gun owners, they would see the importance of really responsible gun legislation. The thing that really blows my mind is when you see all this stuff, is that the black men who are registered gun owners, like Kenneth Walker, Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend, you don’t hear the NRA coming to their defense. When they’re murdered by police or their partners are murdered and they’re a registered gun owner who was actually trying to protect themselves, you don’t hear a peep out of those guys.
So when there’s a tragedy, like a mass shooting, and you distill it into song, like you did here, is that a cathartic experience for you? Or does it just fuel more anger?
It really breaks my heart, actually. I keep hoping one of these days, it’s going to change things. I can’t even remember what fucking shooting inspired “Magic Bullet.” That’s sad! That’s how many shootings there are. Do people have no heart?
You’ve been sitting on another batch of My Morning Jacket music, outside of The Waterfall II. But with everything going on in the world, I wonder if it’s inspiring you to write something different or head in an alternative direction?
I am writing new stuff that I haven’t [recorded] yet. But the other weird thing is, at least for me, is that during this pandemic, I’ve been too fucking depressed to want to even work on anything. At a certain point, I feel like I fell off a cliff and hit a wall of despair and desperation where I just couldn’t do anything. There were weeks where I just didn’t care anymore. I couldn’t even function. I think a lot of artists are the same. It’s a day by day thing. One day you feel hopeful and you feel like, ‘We’re going to turn the ship around!’ and you get to work, and then the next day you feel crushed. That’s why I think it’s all of our jobs to keep hope alive for each other.
Are you relying on the community of other artists in those times for people who know what you’re going through?
Totally. Being a musician, it’s almost like the future worked in reverse for us. I think everyone feels like that future means advancements in technology and medicine, but for us, the future fucked us. Our album sales have been taken away. You’ll never make money from your albums now. And I used to always joke that they can take our record sales but they can’t take away the live experience—well, here, nature has. And people are trying to get creative with the live streams and we’ve been having a good time re-releasing old shows and having viewing parties for those, but there is just no substitute for the real thing. That’s true whether its online dating or online concerts. There is no comparison to touching another human being and getting a hug or getting blasted by loud, beautiful music when you’re packed in with thousands of other people having this beautiful, sweaty, communal experience. Nothing will ever come close.
In a dream scenario, the world is back in perfect shape, what’s the first show you would run to as a fan to go see?
We joke about this all the time. I would honestly be front row at open mic night at the coffee house. I’d go for somebody with their acoustic guitar playing cover songs at a restaurant. How many times have you been to a dinner and there’s some random person back there playing guitar and you’re just eating and not even realizing how much that brings to your life. So if tonight they waved a magic wand and the coronavirus was gone, I would go to every bar I could to see every band I could until I found one that I loved.
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