Creative evolution, experimentation and change have always been at the heart of Kentucky radicals My Morning Jacket. Deliberatively choosing the US West coast as the base for the recording of their seventh studio album, ‘The Waterfall’ they found inspiration in the air and the ocean, their own reunion and learning how to nurture songs. Big-thinking and introspective, ‘The Waterfall’ is a summary of the band’s life experiences, reflected in a musical kaleidoscope brimming with ideas.
Going from bluegrass and indie-rooted hometown of Louisville to the “psychedelic and focussed” Stinson Beach in Northern California is a big cultural shift. From the country-tinged ‘Get to the Point’ to the mesmerisingly beautiful ‘Like a River’ and the synth attack of ‘Compound Structure’, ‘The Waterfall’ resonates easy Californian vibe and almost zen-like quality. The band’s frontman and chief architect, Jim James, speaks of songs as children that can be educated and given the best advice but “in the end they must decide for themselves”. Personal and universal, his writing touches on his own experiences “but in a way that is hopefully more out of focus, so that anyone could grab it and then refocus it in their mind’s eye”, to make it their own. He had some ‘interesting’ things to say, especially about a potential sequel to ‘The Waterfall’.
The album appears to have a certain narrative arch, with ‘Believe’ standing as a clear lead into a story and ‘Only Memories Remain’ a final chapter. Who or what is it about?
Jim James: It is about life. There is a beginning and an end to everything, but also nothing ever begins and nothing ever ends. That is the spirit of the album: Believe whatever want because nobody really knows what waits beyond this world, so life should be fun. We should let everyone feel free and equal, to go where they want to go, to believe what they want to believe and to love how they want to love.
You’ve previously mentioned that recording of ‘The Waterfall’ was a very happy experience. Do you personally feel like it sounds happy?
JJ: There is some sadness there but the air of the place and our experience were so positive. I hear that in the record and it feels happy to me.
Bo (Koster) said that out of all the places you’ve recorded, Stinson Beach “might have informed the record on a spiritual level more than any other”. What resonated with you so much?
JJ: Everything at Stinson is enhanced, like it’s all in 3D and you’re on the third moon of Jupiter. It feels like home but the illusion of home. We were isolated but we had each other, so it was like a summer camp dream. At night when we walked home from the studio to our house it was like we were walking in the world of the stars. Our minds were stars projected into the planetarium dome and we could hear the stars singing songs you can only hear from Stinson Beach. Walking down the beach to the studio up the mountain was beautiful. You see the studio far away as a tiny dot. Then you hike up there the ocean looks like a tiny half-moon. And for a minute you know what it feels like to be the moon because you have this intimate relationship with the ocean. There are plenty of places for the spirits to hide and this makes them feel safe enough to whisper secrets into the wind. The wind and fog protect you from danger, then throw you back in again. When you drive you can see the most epic vistas, but if you make one wrong move you could career off a cliff into the ocean far below. On top of mount Tam you’re up in the sky and you can see the forest, and you can see San Francisco, and the Golden Gate bridge wishing you well. The bridge yelling out in big red capital letters: “GOOD LUCK WITH THE RECORD GUYS!” All the trees cheer and the ghost of muir smiles.
"Everything at Stinson is enhanced, like it’s all in 3D and you’re on the third moon of Jupiter."
Did your solo work inform the direction of ‘The Waterfall’ ?
JJ: I’ve been getting more into the realm of the computer in my solo album, and we dwell more in the realm of the tape in My Morning Jacket; so it was cool to start mixing those worlds in editing, shaping the songs, putting together things that aren’t normally supposed to go together. It was fun in songs like ‘Spring’ or ‘In Its Infancy’ to just record little snippets of a song, not knowing exactly how they would end up together. I would then go back into the computer and tinker with the parts to make them fit together in a new way. New things would pop up as a result: unexpected parts singing or clashing, things getting thrown off or finding new time. We would play with that and see where that would take us. I love playing in a band but I also love working alone, building and stacking, and knocking down, and building again in the crazy tetris rainbow block-world of the regions of light in a Pro Tools edit screen.
You recorded enough material for two albums - with the next one out in 2016, how did you choose tracks for ‘The Waterfall’?
JJ: I always feel like albums choose themselves, like two parents having a baby. The baby is part of both parents but it has an identity all its own. Two people can have several kids who are so different! When you make music you get together, you pour your heart into it, you have your wishes and your dreams, you have good intentions but the outcome may not be what you thought it would be, for better or worse. You try to steer the ship, but you also live with the fact that most things are out of your control.
Is the next album going to be a sequel to ‘The Waterfall’ or a whole new being?
JJ: It will be an entirely different beast, but perhaps the fur will look similar. Most of this next record was conceived during the same time period but, like children, who knows how it will turn out? You create time, or a moment in time, and then time eats it up and spits it back out somewhere else. Then some kid finds the files in a digital goodwill on the other side of the moon. She buys a dusty old Macbook to play the old files on. She sits and laughs with her friends about how retro it is, and that these old mp3s sound better than the direct light beam file placement of the future. Hopefully, one of our songs comes on random. She hears it and is moved. he writes music and is inspired by our song, just like music before it had inspired its own birth. She has her own new birth and creates her own new time, which instantly begins to eat itself from the moment it is born.
My Morning Jacket’s ‘The Waterfall’ is out now via ATO Records.