Finding and raising his voice: A life of Jim James
Jim James raises the roof with his own voice, one that comes from the soul of an artist who’s appreciative that he has been given a chance to show what he can do.
Alternating with a solo acoustic band and as the frontman of “My Morning Jacket,” James has spent sufficient time figuring out how and where his voice fits.
“I have to say that my first ever experience singing and or humming came from watching ‘The Muppet Show,’ ” said James Edward Olliges, Jr., better known as “Jim James.”
“I remember seeing the band and seeing how they worked music into the show so beautifully and I wanted to be part of the (Muppets’ Dr.Teeth and) Electric Mayhem band, and it got me jumping. I also loved Dan Fogelberg’s ‘Leader of the Band’ and my mom got the 45 (record), and I gravitated towards it. Come seventh grade, it all started to get more and more evident (as far as music). I wasn’t good at baseball and lots of the other things that other kids try. I was not good at it (making music), but I understood it.
“At first, my parents were scared, and they didn’t want to see me struggle and not make money. I tried getting the quote-unquote normal job and I even went to college for a few years. I started playing music all of the time and working 20 different jobs, and I believe they saw (my parents) that I could, in fact, support myself and it wasn’t the nightmare scenario they envisioned. But they were always super supportive.”
James, 38, experienced a series of unforgettable convergences and epiphanies along his route, which provided him not only with the sharpest insight into what was important, but clearly suggested to him that he needed to let his individuality shine through sound.
“I worked at a zoo in Louisville,” said James. “I was selling camel and elephant ride tickets and sweeping up cigarette butts. That was one of my fun first jobs. I worked at Subway and Rizzoli’s and coffee shops. The Heine Brothers are a great local chain and that job helped me go on tour, where I could be out for two weeks and still keep my job. I did landscaping, telemarketing and other kinds of jobs for a week. Dairy Queen. I think the zoo was the most fun, for the most part. When you look at art, you need to get as much time in and be as involved as you can. When you come home from Subway or Dairy Queen, you work on music.”
In 1998, James and four other musicians formed the alt-country-rock-jam band “My Morning Jacket”; the band’s seventh album, “The Waterfall,” was released in 2015. James is riding a substantial wave of energy off of his recently released solo LP “Eternally Even.”
“Both of the solo records are really just me experimenting rhythmically with different samples and electronic elements and it’s a different way of connecting to people. I love all aspects of music, and what’s beautiful about the long relations I have with ‘My Morning Jacket,’ the years and years of time, is that it is a gift. I feel like it is a gift to play with the solo acoustic band now as well. It is like being a child again. Music is a limitless gift and I want to go into it in every different way possible.”
“Eternally Even” is grounded at its dramatic center by the strength of James’ vocals, which throughout feel stirring and true. The result is James’ dedicated vision of music making itself.
“As far as albums, there are some that are easy and that just happen, and then there are others that are difficult and labor-intensive. When I’m listening to the song, it tells me when it’s done. I’ve got so many other projects I’d like to get to, so I’m excited to finish and to be done.
“But that doesn’t mean that the songs are done only because they are on an album. The songs grow and change and, with covers, they can grow and change in someone else’s hands. I look at albums as a snapshot of time, like the first picture of an infant. The picture freezes, but the baby grows, changes and turns into an adult. As we get older, our interpretation changes as we change, and you hear it, and you react differently over the course of your life. The song can be influenced by a divorce, the birth of a child, and these feelings can change it and shift it. I think you have to let it (recording an album) be done and move on and do as much as you can in the short time you have.”
James’ voice, wry and focused, occasionally weary, reflects the artist’s sense of adventure; in his intonation there is beauty and ruin, glitter and little-boy vulnerability, on the whole a carefully calibrated slice of life.
“I don’t know why or how or where it (the vocal reflexes) all comes from,” said James. “There are times when you can scream or use a falsetto voice, or you can sing as low as you possibly can, with no huge dramatic shifts or movements. On the new record, I felt urged to sing it low, and so there is not a lot of yelling or belting out. Reactions (to it) may be strange. But I think with repeated listening, like five years later, you end up loving those songs you hated five years ago. The vocals of music are limitless, too, so why would you not try to explore it with different records as much as you can?”
The crux of James’ success isn’t so much the deft wordplay of the lyrics or the fancy guitar work, but it is his reputation as a live performer, one who can energize his own material with uncommon urgency and verve.
“I look at live music as a gift,” said James. “We are in a state of constant information and I think the live venue satisfies the primal and true urge and the need for humans to be together. We want the live performance, and that’s even if you don’t necessarily talk to anyone. We want to experience something together. We are isolated and sectioned off in cubes, cars, houses and apartments, and that’s a mistake. Live music is a source of comfort and it brings us together, in good times and bad, whether to celebrate or to mourn, to feel them (these emotions) together, even if we don’t know how to talk about them.”
James said he assimilates the ancient art of meditation into his hectic contemporary life.
“I think meditation is so great and so important,” said James. “I think it is important that people who are curious go into it feeling no stress – and that’s the key. It’s important they don’t have pressure or the belief that they are going to start levitating or seeing visions, and not have stress on something happening. It could be as simple as turning off the phone and closing the door and turning off the distractions, and sitting for 20 minutes with your eyes closed. To stop and see what I’m most concerned about, and it’s given me the awareness of some of the mistakes I’m making. Am I blindly jealous or angry? Or whatever issues I have. I haven’t necessarily conquered them, but at least I’ve gained the awareness of them, and (through meditation) you catch yourself, and not get swept up in this river of emotion.”
Perhaps “Eternally Even” can be observed as James’ most deeply personal work, a collection done with such aplomb that we instinctively greet it as real. Indeed, the album’s strength is steeped in longing for the artist’s eternal struggle to break free and resolve his own conflicts with a hard-earned sentimentality.
“When you follow your dream, you go through a lot of self-doubt, where everything is reviewed, judged and given a number, and that can really start you to feel badly about yourself. You pour your heart and soul into it and you get a mediocre number and bad review – and you have to push that aside. You have to remember that it was done out of love, and out of heart and soul, and out of such things which called you to do it.”
Brian D’Ambrosio lives in and writes from Helena. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.