Jim James: From Distortion To Clarity

Jim James
Dylan King // ZANA INC. ©2018
– Jim James
cover of Pollstar’s Nov. 5, 2018 issue

Jim James wants us all to wake up – to how social media is negatively impacting our lives, the importance of voting and resisting apathy, and how good life can be on both a global scale and personal level.  

“One of the biggest themes of Uniform Distortion is that I wish we could close our computers and open our hearts more,” the My Morning Jacket frontman told Pollstar about his third full-length solo album, the follow-up to 2016’s Eternally Even and his second collection of covers, 2017’s Tribute To 2.  
“Everybody is so busy yelling at each other online or expressing their opinion … The internet is dividing us more than ever. It’s classic divide and conquer techniques that people use to rule over society and that’s working too well. We need to get people together and see that we’re all more alike than we think we are.”
Spend half an hour speaking with the musician, who is both earnestly spiritual and quick to laugh, and you’ll leave the conversation inspired to deal with your Instagram addiction, meditate more and read James Baldwin.
“I think it’s important for us to start thinking about technology in a new way, as a tool that you use. You pick up the hammer and you hammer in the nail and then you put the hammer away. You don’t keep hammering into your walls or else your whole house will fall down. I feel like we’re using our phones and our computers [so much] reality is falling apart.
“I’m like everybody else, I get sucked in to the technology and then I’ll try to step back,” James said, adding that he recently went on a silent retreat without access to the internet.
James recorded Uniform Distortion with longtime producer Kevin Ratterman. 
“I just wanted the record to be fun and raw and quick,” the singer/songwriter said.
He’s described the LP as “intentional chaos [and] dirt … meant to echo and hopefully shed some light on the twisted times and distortion of the truth in which we now live.” 
While some of the subject matter is serious, including “Over And Over” lamenting how humanity keeps making the same mistakes, the album is a damn fun rock ’n’ roll romp, highlighted by the singer/songwriter chuckling to himself on several tracks.
James, whose voice – combined with signature reverb – has been hailed as otherworldly, has led MMJ’s exploration of different genres since the beginning, expanding from the alt-country roots of its 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire, to playing with psychedelic rock, prog-rock, funk, R&B and reggae on experimental releases such as 2005’s Z and 2008’s Evil Urges – and the same goes for his solo catalog, from 2013’s dreamy, electronic-tinged Regions of Light and Sounds of God to the gloriously scuzzy, guitar-driven Uniform Distortion.
“I’ve been really fortunate to work with people who let me do exactly what I want to do,” James said. “I’m sure sometimes they wish they would have made more money off me (laughs) because maybe I didn’t do the most commercial thing or whatever was most in tune with the times, that might have made everybody wildly rich, but I feel lucky that they’ve allowed me to just succeed or fail with my own vision.”
Jeff Hahne/Getty Images
My Morning Jacket performs at Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre on July 8, 2017, in Charlotte, N.C.
MMJ and James have been working with booking agent Scott Clayton for more than 15 years, following him from CAA to WME last year.  
“Scott is one of those people that I’ve just loved from the moment we met,” James said. “You can start working with people and if you don’t like them as people or you don’t vibe with them as friends, then the work doesn’t usually go as well. Scott and his family have always been so gracious and kind to myself and the Jacket guys. We’ve had dinner at their house so many times; we’ve gone to the lake with them and hung out. It’s a wonderful friendship.”
He added, “It was tough when Scott moved agencies because there are so many people at CAA that I just loved so much, like Brian Greenbaum and Brian Loucks. But at the end of the day, we just feel like it all started with Scott so we chose to go with Scott. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
He also had high praise for his team at Red Light Management. 
 “I’ve talked to many friends over the years who are artists who are like, ‘Ugh, I can’t find a manager that cares’ or ‘I’m always at the bottom of my manager’s list.’ I just have always felt so lucky [because] I feel like they really care about me.”
James added, “Usually artists are terrible planners or business people. I just feel like Mark Scribner, who takes care of my financial side, and Ted Harris, who is my attorney, and all of my managers really help hold my life together. Because I can barely keep it together as far as where I’m supposed to be or where I’m going tomorrow. I can’t thank them enough.”
With MMJ taking a break from the road in 2018, James had a chance to concentrate on his solo efforts, including recording the Uniform Distortion companion piece, Uniform Clarity. Produced by Shawn Everett, the Oct. 5 release features acoustic versions of the Distortion tracks, along with two bonus songs. 
“We originally were approaching this as some real needed time off after the band has been touring so hard for 20 years,” Red Light’s Eric Mayers said. “Jim, as a testament to his incredible creativity and need to be making music, ended up releasing two records this year where we didn’t even really have a grip that we were going to be releasing any.” 
James recently wrapped “The Future Is Voting” tour, an excursion underwritten by voter-engagement nonprofit HeadCount that was made up of shows in college towns in electoral wing districts, with appearances by candidates and admission free to students at most stops.
The singer/songwriter reached out to HeadCount about the idea for the tour and the organization worked with his team to route it, “where the races are the closest and where people just really need to be reminded that their vote is important.”
Although James’ views lean left, it was important to him that the tour be non-partisan.   
“I definitely am more liberal and progressive, for sure, but I’m tired of even those words because the word ‘liberal’ and the word ‘conservative’ are so toxic to somebody. It’s like, really, it’s 2018 and we’re behaving like this? It’s ridiculous and a lot of it is the fault of our current president. But even with him, I don’t want to broadcast any hate toward him.
“How do we deal with him with love? How do we get past that toxicity that he spews out into the world every day? Let’s not fight over him anymore. Let’s get on with our lives and stop the anger.”
James still had strong words to share about the importance of staying informed.
“We better wake up before it’s too late and we’re living in a dictatorship. … If [Trump’s] unchecked power keeps growing, there’s nothing to stop him.”
He added, “They want you to check out and just watch more TV shows and say, ‘Oh, this is all too much for me.’ But you can’t. That’s the whole point of the tour – you gotta wake up. If one of us is not free, none of us are free. That statement is so true.”
Andy Bernstein of HeadCount, which has worked with James for several years, said, “Jim’s performances and words were really powerful. There was a congresswoman, Gwen Moore from Milwaukee, who came out and actually did a spoken word performance of a MMJ song. It was a really, really cool tour and a great experience.” 

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Jim James plays “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass” at Golden Gate Park on Sept. 30, 2016, in San Francisco.
The theme of time is scattered throughout the lyrics of Uniform Distortion, from wasting time on social media to feeling like you’re “either behind the times or ahead of the times.” Pollstar asked James if turning 40 in April was a milestone for him.  
“Yeah, definitely. I mean, I feel every new year is a victory. It’s like, ‘I made it! Another year!’ I could have been hit by a bus or something. (laughs) Obviously there’s definitely things that suck about getting older that none of us want to face. But there’s also very beautiful things and knowledge that you gain. I really enjoyed my 30s a lot more than I did my 20s so I’m hoping I’ll feel the same way about my 40s.
“I’m just trying to value every day that I’m not in any excruciating pain,” James said, perhaps a reference to when he fell off a stage in 2008 and suffered serious injuries. “It’s like, just value the simple things – it’s a beautiful day; I’m not in agony. Can’t that be enough (laughs) for me to be happy?
“You really take it for granted, until you break your leg or you get injured in some way and you’re like, ‘Fuck, man. I’ve been taking my leg for granted this whole time.’ 
“I feel like that’s how we are as people, though. I feel like we’re taking this world for granted.
“I mean, it’s not a hippie dream – every single being on this planet could be living in peace and harmony. There’s room for everybody; there’s resources for everybody. We can harness the power of the sun and the wind … There are words written by James Baldwin and bell hooks that could erase hatred and create harmony. It’s like, everything is possible. … All the answers are here. Why can’t we put them into place?” 
While we wait for the world to get it together, James is set to embark on his first-ever solo acoustic tour in early November. The outing is his first solo run since 2016’s excursion, which grossed an average of $37,304 with 1,062 tickets sold per night. My Morning Jacket last toured in 2017, playing a short run of summer gigs that grossed an average of $173,032 with 4,197 tickets per show.
“It’s going to be such a special experience for everybody who’s lucky enough to get a ticket,” Clayton said. “We’re playing a bunch of iconic, very cool rooms. In Nashville we’re doing the Schermerhorn; New York’s at Town Hall. In his hometown of Louisville, we’re playing the Palace Theatre. I can’t wait for the tour to start.”
Clayton, who calls James “one of my favorite people in the world,” said that the tour is selling great and that he expects the entire outing will sell out. 
“It’s pretty interesting the way he decided to go about this whole project because we’re starting with the acoustic Uniform Clarity part of it. And then next year we’re working on another tour, which will be much more of the Uniform Distortion band and that will be a mix of festivals and rock shows. 
“I think it’s further proof that Jim’s very unpredictable. You never know what he’s going to do next. It makes it a lot of fun for all of his fans.” 
Red Light’s Mayers, who started working with MMJ in 2006 as their tour and production manager, said that creating the live show’s production is a collaborative process, whether it’s James’ solo dates or MMJ’s concerts, which are widely acknowledged as one of the best live shows out there. 
“We’ve got an incredibly ardent and long-standing core group of fans that totally get it,” Mayers said. “His solo shows still have almost as many channels as the Jacket do. … On the solo stuff we try to scale back a little on the production but still create a really beautiful, intentional show.”  
James said MMJ will return to the road in 2019 and release a deluxe edition of The Tennessee Fire, including an album of unreleased songs, to celebrate the LP’s 20th anniversary. Plus, the band plans to put out a collection of tunes that were recorded at the time of 2015’s The Waterfall.
“We always laugh about [how] we made our first several records as long as we could because we were like, ‘Surely, nobody will want to hear another record so let’s get as many songs out in the world before nobody gives a shit.’ It’s been 20 years now and I just feel so grateful that people wanted to listen and we’ve been able to keep going. It’s incredible.”