Any fantasies of rock-star glamour are efficiently dispelled the moment Jim James materializes on a computer screen.
Hopping on Zoom from a neutral-looking North Carolina hotel room — gray wallpaper; functional, forgettable furniture — James, an actual rock star, patiently answers questions while oscillating between the room’s desk and a stuffed chair. Mellow and thoughtful, dressed in a black t-shirt with his long hair framing his face, he’s perhaps a bit worn-out-looking, after performing the night prior eight hours north at Queens’ Forest Hills Stadium.
James is in the midst of what must be the most pragmatic tour that his band, My Morning Jacket, has done during its more than 20-year tenure as one of the most righteous live acts on the road. Abiding by a litany of protocols in order to protect the band and crew — and ultimately to keep the 26-date tour in motion — James and his four fellow MMJ members aren’t seeing their friends in any city they play, with reunions and backstage revelry traded for the air conditioner hum of an anonymous Marriott.
“It’s been not the normal kind of fun, frolicking tour experience, you know?” James tells Billboard. “It’s just kind of a keep-it-real-tight COVID bubble, but the shows have been great.”
My Morning Jacket’s return to performing after a four-year hiatus — and 18 months where we’ve all been tucked away at home — has been like sonic manna for the group’s dedicated (bordering on devotional) fanbase. For the beloved Kentucky-bred band, touring during the lingering pandemic is just another variation of the many flavors of solitude that have defined the most recent era of the My Morning Jacket mythology.
But despite this isolation, and also because of it, the group has delivered its ninth studio album, an excellent, eponymous 11-song collection out today (October 22) via ATO Records.
The LP’s creation story started with the group — vocalist/guitarist/lead shaman James, bassist Tom Blankenship, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist/drummer Bo Koster — wondering if they even wanted to make another album together. In 2019, the band was deep into a hiatus, having last toured together behind their 2015 LP, The Waterfall. The album hit No. 11 on the Billboard 200, becoming their third-highest charting LP after 2008’s Evil Urges (which peaked at No. 9 in 2008) and Circuital, which hit No. 6 in 2011. (The Waterfall II, a collection of outtakes from The Waterfall sessions, was released in 2020.)
But the band — which roared out of Louisville at the turn of the millennium — is the first to say they’re not an act whose success lies in streaming numbers or album sales, with their heady, jammy live shows serving as their primary revenue driver. (According to Billboard Boxscore, 18 shows by MMJ in 2015-16 grossed $2.3 million and sold 52,600 tickets.)
Thus, not knowing if they’d ever make music or tour again put them in both a practical and existential pickle. “I think there was a period where we weren’t really sure of how it was going to work out and whether we would still do it or not,” says Blankenship, who considered shifting to creative writing when it wasn’t clear if the band would come back.
Meanwhile, James was physically and spiritually fried. “It’s not like there was like interpersonal drama [in the band] or anything,” he says, “but it takes a lot of energy to conjure up old versions of yourself, and My Morning Jacket’s, been going for so long now. When we perform, I’ve got to find the 20-year-old Jim and the 25-year-old Jim to do these songs. I think that combined with the nonstop touring and how we lived and just being unhealthy kind of burnt me out.”
So for a while, the mighty My Morning Jacket existed in relative silence. That shifted when the group had to decide whether or not to play a pair of shows scheduled at Red Rocks in August 2019. The performances weren’t tied to any release, instead just free-floating gigs on an otherwise vacant calendar. They decided to play them. About 15 minutes into the first night, it was clear My Morning Jacket wasn’t over.
“I mean, I felt it during the show,” says Blankenship. “Afterwards we were just looking at each other, and it was a reaffirmation of the dynamic and how well it works when the five of us are together, and just the love that we have for each other. A couple years can go by, but it’s still there.”
To step into the next phase, the band decided to go into seclusion in the studio, recording at 64 Sound in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, not far from where James lives. “I told the guys not don’t bring a ton of gear,” James says, “and to just bring like, one thing you like, and let’s just have fun and play.”
Unlike their typical recording sessions, this time there was no producer, no engineer, no complicated gear — just five guys who’d been making music together for two decades, playing around with the song ideas James brought to the sessions. “There was no there was no other set of eyes or more importantly ears,” say Broemel. “It was kind of up to us to figure it out.”
After four weeks total in the studio, My Morning Jacket had a plethora of songs to choose from for their next LP, a list they narrowed down to a tight 11. With song lengths ranging from the three-minute, kaleidoscopic Pet Sounds homage “Love Love Love” to the seven-minute jam “In Color,” the focus was attempting to capture more of the essence of the band’s triumphant live shows in the studio.
“There are moments on the album that sound just like us playing a show, and that’s been really difficult for us to capture at times,” says Broemel. “When we play live, we’re in flow state or whatever, and we’re just going and we don’t care. To bring that mindset into the studio, I think we needed to eliminate anyone else being there. We either need to have no one there, or a crowd.”
The band was ready to release the album by early 2020, and then greater forces took the seclusion they’d been cultivating and multiplied it to a global scale. With the onset of the pandemic, My Morning Jacket postponed the album’s release until they’d be able to tour behind it. And so, just like the rest of us, they went into lockdown… and waited.
“It was a nightmare for me,” James says of the days spent alone in his house during quarantine. “I mean, it was complete isolation. I felt like an astronaut at the end of the Earth.”
About six months into the pandemic, he realized spending 10 hours a day binging Netflix and Instagram were creating an existence he calls “profoundly depressing.” He went back to his native Kentucky and formed a bubble with his family, then eventually returned to L.A., where he formed a small bubble with some friends and took his first trip to see the state’s magnificent giant sequoias. It changed him.
“I was out in these woods and was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to break out of this way of life,’” he says. “So I canceled my Netflix, I canceled my HBO, and I got off social media. I swear, within a few days of doing that, my creativity started to come back. The more I walked, the more I went into nature, the more I just sat and didn’t look at social media and didn’t watch 18 hours of streaming television a day, the happier I got.”
For James, it was a real-time experience of some of the themes explored on My Morning Jacket, with songs like the solemn, lightly psychedelic “The Devil’s In The Details” exploring the vacancy of consumer culture and “going to Sephora to find a different face, with enough paint I’ll disappear without a trace.”
James’ stage ensembles are often accentuated by sequined jackets and hooded capes, but when Zooming in a t-shirt from a hotel room, he exudes the same introspective quality entrenched in the music the band has been making. He naturally shifts the conversation from the importance of self-love (“That’s one of the reasons I started playing music, because I thought maybe if I sing a cool song, then maybe people will love me and then I’ll love myself — but that’s not how it works”) to government (“Politics and religion are just big business, and until we can get past that aspect of deep seated human greed, we won’t be able to get to a place where we have a fair government”) to his own current outlook (“I mean, I’m fine, I’m definitely in a better place than I have been, but I’m searching”). All of these ideas function as themes that make My Morning Jacket’s music both current and durable.
Certainly the loneliness of modern existence is one of the focuses on the new album, as is the healing power of love, with both forces expressed through the music and necessary to the creation of it. Songs about isolation were made in isolation by a band now forced into isolation in order to share them with audiences. But while circumstances will necessitate at least six feet between My Morning Jacket and their fans for the foreseeable future, the power and spirit they exude from the stage is the same as ever — as is the satisfaction they get from playing there.
“I guess for me,’ Blankenship says, “this album is us saying ‘we’re still here’ to ourselves.”